Hunters and Company of Ayr was established in October 1773, with a capital of £10,000, of which £5,000 was initially paid-up. The most prominent partner was James Hunter (1727-1776). The son of a Provost of Ayr, he belonged to one of the burgh's foremost merchant families. The Hunters had been heavily involved in the tobacco trade until the late 1760s, but had switched their business interests to sugar by 1772.
James Hunter had served as Cashier of both the Ayr Banking Company (John MacAdam & Co.) from 1763, and the Ayr Bank (Douglas, Heron & Company), following the amalgamation of the two in 1771. It was partly to fill the void left by the spectacular failure of Douglas, Heron & Company in 1772 that Hunters & Company was established.
The five founding partners included James' brother Robert, his son-in-law, William Wood and his cousin Major William Hunter of Brownhill. There was also a secret partner – another James Hunter.
This James Hunter was a cousin of James Hunter of Ayr and a partner in the highly-respected Edinburgh private bank, Sir William Forbes, James Hunter and Company. But when his involvement became public, he withdrew from the Ayr partnership, fearing that the association with a new Ayr bank would damage his other business interests. He did however provide valuable advice to the partners on the running of the company and the rules which they should follow in the operation of their business.
The cautious nature of these was a reflection of the lessons learned from the Ayr Bank failure. For example, he advised that no bills exceeding £300 were to be discounted and no agents were to be employed to circulate the company's notes.
The latter rule had been overturned in practice by 1775, when an agent was employed in Kilmarnock to circulate and exchange the company's notes, and to discount bills. Other agents were employed at Irvine (from 1786) and Maybole (where the agency was run by a later partner, Bailie Niven). By April 1777, the circulation of the company's notes had reached £42,000.
In August 1776, the principal founding partner, James Hunter, died. He was replaced by John Ballantine, his wife's cousin, and a friend and patron of Robert Burns. At this juncture, William Wood became Cashier and Manager of the bank. The partners of the company by 1790 were Colonel William Hunter of Brownhill, Robert Hunter of Thurston (both from the original partnership), John Ballantine, merchant in Ayr and Hugh Hamilton of Pinmore.
In 1821, Hunters & Co. took over the business of the Kilmarnock Banking Company. As a result, Hunters & Co established an agency there under Charles D. Gairdner. (Presumably their earlier Kilmarnock agency had closed by then). Management of the business at Kilmarnock did not always run smoothly, and a disagreement between Gairdner and one of the local partners, Quintin Kennedy, became so heated that, in 1830, Kennedy withdrew from the partnership and formed a rival company, the Ayrshire Bank.
The managing partner of Hunters and Co from 1821 until 1841, was William Cowan, father-in-law of Gairdner. Cowan also served several terms as Provost of Ayr. A new contract of partnership was drawn up in 1841, increasing their numbers to ten. The partners comprised William Cowan; Charles D. Gairdner; William Niven of Kirkbride; Andrew Hunter of Bonnytoun; W. Campbell of Netherplace; Alexander Hunter, W.S. (who was also a director of the British Linen Bank); Hugh Cowan (nephew of William); Cuthbert Cowan (son of William); Alexander Paterson, Irvine; and Patrick Charles, surgeon apothecary, Surrey.
By this time, however, the company was struggling to compete against the large joint-stock banks. In 1843, its business - which by then included branches at Girvan, Galston, Maybole, Stewarton and Troon, as well as Kilmarnock and Irvine - was acquired by the Glasgow-based Union Bank of Scotland.