Robert Gordon (1668–1731), a 17th century merchant and philanthropist, was born in Aberdeen. He was the only son of Arthur Gordon who married Isabella Menzies of Balgownie. When Arthur Gordon, a well-respected advocate in the Edinburgh courts, died in 1680, he left his twelve-year-old son the sum of 20,000 merks (about £1,100 then and considerably more in modern currency).
When Gordon reached the age of sixteen he became a Burgess of the City of Aberdeen. Among other benefits, this entitled him to follow a merchant's trade in the town. During the next few years he attended Marischal College, graduating in 1689. Soon afterwards, like many Scots at the time, he left Aberdeen, travelling far and wide around Northern Europe before finally settling in Gdańsk (also known as Danzig) where he established himself as a merchant trader. Over the next few decades he built a highly successful business and soon became wealthy. By 1692, he was rich enough to donate a large sum of money to his old college and by 1699, it appears that he was providing low interest loans to landowners in Aberdeenshire who needed working capital.
Little more is known about his time on the Baltic but by 1720 at the latest, he returned to Aberdeen a very wealthy man. However he had never married and had no heirs. Consequently he decided that his fortune would be used to found ‘a hospital for maintenance, aliment, entertainment and education of young boys’ and wrote his will to that effect. He started work on the project in 1730. He died shortly thereafter—of overeating it is said—but the project had started, funding was still there, owing to his foresightedness, and work continued on his dream.
Construction of the building was completed in 1743. However before it could be used for its intended purpose, it was taken over by the Duke of Cumberland to use as a barracks for the Hanoverian troops on his visit to Aberdeen in 1746 to put down the Jacobite rising, and so the hospital did not open until 1750. During the nineteenth century the hospital developed in two different directions. The first, aimed at secondary education led directly to the modern private school, Robert Gordon's College. The second, aimed at tertiary education, developed in combination with external technical institutes such as Gray's School of Science and Art, into an institution which achieved university status in the late twentieth century, the Robert Gordon University.
Gray's was founded in 1885 as Gray's School of Science and Art, in recognition of the generosity of its founding father, John Gray (1811–1891). A local businessman and philanthropist, Gray had risen from humble beginnings as a carpenter to become partner in McKinnon & Co., a firm of engineers and iron founders in Aberdeen. In 1859 he was appointed director of the Aberdeen Mechanics Institution, a forerunner of Robert Gordon University.
In the early 1880s, John Gray offered to finance and build a new school of science and art in Aberdeen, on the condition that the governors named it Gray's School of Science and Art. His offer stemmed partly from the difficulties he himself had experienced obtaining adequate training. The school opened in 1885 with 96 students enrolled for the day classes and 322 for the evening classes. The original building, sited at Schoolhill, gave architectural coherence to the neighbouring Aberdeen Art Gallery, as was Gray's wish.