James Ballantyne Hannay

The Story of
James Ballantyne Hannay
(1855 – 1931) — Chemist & Scientist

by Mrs. Playfair-Hannay of Kingsmuir

A chance reading of the Glasgow Herald, a paper seldom seen, contained a paragraph about man-made diamonds produced by an eccentric Glasgow chemist named James Hannay in 1880. An investigation (one of many over the years) was being undertaken by a lecturer in physics at Plymouth Technical College at the request of the son of a life-long friend of Hannay. I wrote to the lecturer, Dr Angel, who referred me to Mr. Robert Robertson, a Consultant Mineralogist and the son of Hannay’s friend. He turned out to be a cousin of Robertsons I knew in Cupar, his father was born there in 1869 so he was interested and most helpful. He put me on to a most learned and technical paper by a Professor Travers concerning Hannay’s work, which an American, Dr Ftint, was discussing and who is now engaged on a biography of James Hannay. I then got in touch, through the SWRI with a lady who lived at Cove near Helensburgh who remembered the Hannays so I visited her and the Hannay graves, and found the following details:

On January lst 1855 James Ballantyne Hannay was born in Glasgow, his father was Alexander Hannay who owned the Grand Theatre in the Cowcaddens, Glasgow. He had a sister Margaret who married Dugald Clerk, the inventor of the Clerk Clyde Gas Engine in 1883. Margaret died in 1930 and so far I have found no trace of their four daughters. There was also a brother, William, and another sister. James was apparently a brilliant chemist and scientist and from 1879 onwards produced papers, which were read to the Royal Society on many scientific matters, and he also patented many inventions connected with industry. He had a dye works in Hamburg, which specialised in aniline dyes and a private laboratory in Sword Street, Glasgow. The Hamburg business is thought to have provided Hannay with a considerable fortune, which presumably enabled him to buy Cove Castle on the Clyde when he was 28 years old. He married Caroline Johnston and there were three daughters of the marriage; Edith, Ethel and Eva.

Mrs. Hannay and the girls, who were said to be very good-looking, lived at Cove, but James apparently spent most of his time in London. Edith married a Colonel in the Indian Army and had no children. Ethel died unmarried at the age of 35. Eva lived on certainly into the late 1930s. She inherited Cove Castle which she either gave or sold to the Scottish Youth Hostels Association and ended her days in a flat in Glasgow. Cove Castle did not prove suitable as a Youth Hostel and now belongs, I think to a Professor who has modernised and renovated it. It stands in a lonely situation above Cove village. Mrs Hannay is described as a charming, kindly person who walked about the castle grounds with a parrot perched on her shoulder! She died in 1941 and left the parrot to a local doctor and it only died a few years ago!

James Hannay had apparently many excellent and useful inventions and papers to his credit but it is the making of diamonds, which caused a considerable “stushie” which continues to this day.

In 1880 as a sort of sideline the Royal Society published Hannay’s paper on the synthesis of diamond. The minute particles he claimed to have produced were handed over to the Mineral Department of the British Museum where they still remain. At the time of his discovery it is said that Hannay was offered a very large sum if he would drop the whole thing and it is also said that the Stock Exchange and the Amsterdam Diamond Bourse were distinctly “het-up” by the report.

The local reputation Hannay has left behind him is of a well-educated, well-connected man who squandered most of his money. A brilliant man in many ways, a dogmatic atheist and somewhat difficult to get on with. He eventually came back to Cove mentally it[ and finally died in a mental hospital in Glasgow.

The Hannays are alt buried in the Barbour Cemetery at Cove. James died March 1931.

As well as all his scientific work he wrote the following books: Bible Folklore; Sex Symbolism in Religion; The Rise, Decline, and Fall of the Roman Religion; Kosmos, Eternal Universe Which was privately printed for the Religious Evolution Research Society in 1927 and has, I believe, been reprinted as a paper back.

In 1878 German scientists Ulrich and Von Rath named a mineral Hannaysite. James can then have been only 23 so it is interesting to note that he was already known; at this time he was working as a chemist at Manchester University. It will be interesting if some tie-up can be found with Sir Samuel Hannay of Mochrum, a known scientist and manufacturer of chemicals and drugs in London about the end of the 18th century. There was also Erskine Hannay who was interested in science who died in 1956.

The last coincidence, luck or what have you, occurred a short time ago when a telephone call came from Mr. Robertson. I had written to the Hannay family lawyer and got no reply. Dr Flint had written twice with the same result so appealed to Mr. Robertson. He went to see the lawyer who said as there seemed no further need to keep the papers as the family were all dead he was going to destroy them. Mr. Robertson has rescued them and when Dr Flint has written his biography they will be handed over to the Clan Hannay Society.

So ends Part I of the story of James of the Diamonds. There are many gaps, but I hope someday Part II may clear up many points.


[Note – This is the third Historical Paper I have been able to find and reproduce for Clan Hannay. If you have any others I would be grateful for the opportunity of republishing them for new Clan Members.

David Hannah – Constable of Sorbie Tower – January 2001]