1st November, Allan McLean: the history of brewing in Scotland 


Edinburgh, not Burton-on-Trent was the world capital of ale-brewing with its peak of dozens of breweries, and while today just the Caledonian Brewery survives from the 19th century, Heriot-Watt University is home to Britain's brewing school. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling at the Riccarton campus is world famous and continues to promote Edinburgh as a leading international centre of expertise in brewing.  Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, knighted in the last New Year Honours, is now professor-emeritus and has a long association with Heriot-Watt. Back in 1981, he and the late Professor Anna McLeod inaugurated the Scottish Brewing Archive from priceless historic records he found in a skip outside the Holyrood offices of Scottish & Newcastle.  At that time, the University was in Chambers Street, Edinburgh, and its brewing training included access to the Campbell, Hope & King brewery in the Cowgate behind the university, which was previously a college.  Neither Heriot-Watt University when it moved to its new Riccarton campus nor the City of Edinburgh felt able to find a permanent home for the Scottish Brewing Archive, which is now housed at the University of Glasgow where it is part of the university's archive services, together with many other Scottish business records.

The Scottish Brewing Archive Association (SBAA) helps promote the archive and publishes an annual Journal and regular newsletters. There are also arrangements for an open day, conferences, brewery and pub visits. Several people from the SBAA have set up a community interest company, Brewing Heritage Scotland, with the aim of developing an exhibition of Scotland’s brewing history.

Brewing was recorded in ancient Egypt and the Roman chronicler Tacitus wrote about the Germans brewing. In Scotland, monks from religious orders settled in places like Banff, Melrose and Newbattle and developed a tradition of brewing.  Monks were known to have brewed at sites that later became famed for commercial breweries, including Holyrood in Edinburgh, Belhaven at Dunbar and Wellpark on the East side of Glasgow.  In the modern era, the Williams family, who brew at Alloa, have revived Heather Ale, known by its Gaelic name Fraoch. This is said to have restored an old Pictish concept, using heather and other botanical products such as bog myrtle as flavouring and preserving agents in ale, dating back to the centuries before hops became widely available. Although the oldest item in the Scottish Brewing Archive is a petition against the malt tax signed by Edinburgh brewers in 1725, it is known that brewing in Scotland has a much longer history. Ale was brewed at Blackford in Perthshire specially for the Coronation of King James IV in 1488, in an area now famed for whisky and water.  The name of Tennent has been associated with brewing at Wellpark, Glasgow, since 1556. Although the Belhaven Brewery can trace its direct history to 1719, brewing was known at the site in East Lothian in the 1550s. In 1596 the Society of Brewers was founded in Edinburgh on what became the site of the National Museum at what is now the West end of Chambers Street. Before 1700 most brewing of ale was done by women in their kitchens, recalled in the expression "brewing tea" or sometimes “mashing tea”.

Beer is taxed twice, with VAT as well as Duty, prompting another petition, this time on a much wider scale, as recently as 2013, leading to more favourable beer taxation throughout the UK.  Allan McLean also recalled that in the 19th century, the “shilling” system graded the strength of Scottish beers, based on relative prices. At that time, beer strength ranged from 50/- ale, deemed suitable for farm workers, to 90/- -- worthy of a Wee Heavy -- and even higher “shilling” figures. In more recent times, 60/- was deemed to be “Light” around 3 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), 70/- was stronger and might be described as “Heavy” while Export or 80/- was more than 4 per cent ABV. Among brewing names that helped make Edinburgh famous for pale ale in the 19thcentury were Bernards, McEwans, Deuchars and Youngers. Strong “Scotch Ale” or “wee heavy” also  came from Gordon & Blair and McEwan in Edinburgh and Fowlers at Prestonpans.

These days most of the world drinks lager, following the pioneers of Pilsen who are reputed to have started the modern lager era in 1842. But in fact, lager was being brewed in Britain seven years earlier than that – in Edinburgh.  But that Edinburgh experiment in 1835 was not repeated and it was the 1880s that first saw the sustained commercial production in Scotland of lager – a beer with a cold maturation, fermented by yeast that sinks into the beer instead of frothing on top in the way that happens with the fermentation of ale. The William Younger company actually pioneered the regular brewing of modern Scottish lager in Edinburgh in 1879-80 but gave up, returning to their staple ale. Then Hugh Tennent of the J&R Tennent company started brewing lager at Wellpark in Glasgow in 1885, a tradition that continues there to this day.  At one time, incidentally, Wellpark exported more bottled beer from Glasgow than anywhere else in the world.  The debut of Tennents Lager in cans came in 1935, and they assumed their present flat-topped guise in 1955, later bearing the images of the Lager Lovelies who were selected with an eye to sectarian sensitivities in the Northern Ireland market. The brewery was rebuilt in 1963. It proudly uses Scottish barley and water from Loch Katrine.

Alloa once had several breweries including Calders, MacLays and George Younger which exported to British troops defending the Empire while Dundee had Ballingalls. Aitkens brewed in Falkirk where the company used a caged tiger motif for its slogan Strength Behind Bars.

Not all brewers were politically right of centre, having helped fund anti-slavery campaigns and often being socially on the left. But by the time of William McEwan in the second half of the nineteenth century, the tendency was to regard brewers as Tories. Nevertheless, McEwan, who became MP for Edinburgh Central, supported socially beneficial developments and funded the McEwan Hall where Edinburgh University holds graduation ceremonies today. The growth in commercial brewing in the 19th century paralleled that of the railways, and so to allow the quadrupling of tracks east of Waverley station, Drybrough's relocated their Craigend Brewery to a purpose-built complex which the North British Railway helped fund on the Edinburgh Suburban and South Side Railway at Craigmillar. Among six other breweries in the Duddingston/Craigmillar area was Pattisons, later Deuchars. Mackay – promoted as “the real Mackay” -- was another brewer in that area. McLachlan's functioned at the Castle Brewery, named after Craigmillar Castle. The Steel Coulson Croft-an-Righ Brewery and the Robert Younger St Ann’s Brewery at Holyrood closed down, reputedly after Prince Philip objected to the smell of brewing so close to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Historic names from closed Scottish breweries have survived, perpetuated in the names of pub groups like Bernards and MacLays, or sometimes still known from brewing far from Scotland, including Campbell’s Edinburgh Ale, which survived in Belgium more than 40 years after the closure of the Campbell, Hope & King brewery in Cowgate, Edinburgh. The name of Deuchars was revived by the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, Scottish & Newcastle having failed to protect their rights to the name.

Safer to drink than water historically because it was not conducive to pathogens, beer-drinking was encouraged by a fall during the 1880s in the price of grain which encouraged the use of local barley, slaking the thirst of the industrial workforce. Stout production stopped in many places during the Great War because of wartime restrictions on the use of raw materials. The temperance movement thereafter made inroads into demand but the 1950s saw an increase in beer consumption. Takeovers and closures in the 1960s and later, following the loss of colonial markets, paved the way for today's survival in Edinburgh of only the Caledonian Brewery on Slateford Road. This was saved in a management buyout led by Russell Sharp, the second senior person who had been sent in to shut it down. For years it had traded as Lorimer & Clark, with all its output going to Vaux pubs in NE England.

Britain's last-surviving directly-fired open coppers are used at Caledonian, matching exactly the originals from 1869. The “Caley” continues under the ownership of Heineken, who took over Scottish & Newcastle, whose Fountainbridge brewery associated with William McEwan has long gone, as have the breweries that once bore the William Younger name under S&N ownership at Holyrood. The rights to the trading names of William McEwan and William Younger are now held by a different company.

There has been a proliferation of new brewers in recent years, with 170 new breweries opening last year in the UK. Scotland is now thought to have 100 breweries, many more than have existed for decades. Among new ones are brewers proudly using the traditional Edinburgh association with beer, including breweries in Leith and Loanhead and one at Summerhall, recalling the one-time Summerhall Brewery that existed before the site became home to the former Royal Dick Veterinary School.

Although an Edinburgh company, Innes & Gunn produces beer brewed elsewhere under contract and matured in contact with whisky-aged oak. Thus the brewing and distilling industries maintain links with each other, although many visitors to Scotland know only of the whiskies with many not yet fully aware of the beers that also made Scotland famous.