From Agnes to Edrington. The true story of Robertson & Baxter (told from a female perspective). Part One.

With The Macallan and Highland Park at their portfolio, Edrington has become one of the most successful whisky companies in Scotland of our time. And yet, only little is known about it. Edrington has always been very secretive about itself. When I  began researching the history of the company some time ago,  I didn’t get very far for quite a while. But then, I suddenly struck gold: I discovered a forgotten diary, which not only took me to the unknown roots of Edrington, but also revealed an incredible story of a whisky family that went from rags to riches. Within only one lifetime, they had become millionaires.


The diary and writings of Agnes Heatley Robertson, wife of whisky tycoon W.A. Robertson.
foto:©margaretemarie


 
Preface

Researching the history of "whisky women" can be really difficult and tedious at times. My research about the female founders of Edrington was no exception from this rule. You can't imagine my joy, when I finally made an incredible discovery: at an American online antiquarian book store, I discovered the unknown diary, letters and writings of Agnes Heatley Robertson, wife of whisky tycoon William Alexander Robertson, and grandmother of the three founding ladies of Edrington. Nobody in the whisky world knew  that this book existed, not even the archives of Edrington or the Robertson Trust. For the price of a bottle of standard Macallan 12, I was able to obtain the book, which had been printed in Glasgow nine years after her death "for private circulation".

Reading the diary and letters I realised that William had started his whisky business with the most humble beginnings in Glasgow in 1857, and in the decades to follow he would become one of the most influential and wealthiest whisky magnates at the turn of the century. His wife’s diary took me to the very roots and soul of Edrington, and revealed the story of a life-time. It is a story of struggles and failure, of love and sorrow, of hard work and success. It’s the story of Agnes Heatley Robertson and her family.

If you want to find out about the true story of Edrington, take your time then. Sit down, pour yourself a good dram, and follow me right back into the year of 1857, when everything began.


Bucchleuch Street (left). Agnes' and William's first mutual home was a small flat in a long row of crowded residential buildings in Glasgow, 11 Bucchleuch Street. Agnes hated the place. Today only the corner building of this housing block, where they once lived, dates back to their time. foto:©margaretemarie


Early Beginnings

The second of January  1857 is a cold but clear winter day. Agnes Heatley and William Alexander Robertson are on their way to Hulne Park in the English coastal town of Alnwick. At a small spring, "Lady's Well", they take a rest and sit down on an old stone bench. It is a romantic place, and very suitable for kisses. William is 24, ambitious and full of plans. He wants to found his own company and open a wine and liquor agency in Glasgow. To start a family is out of the question, he has neither the time nor the money to do so. But he likes the blue-eyed girl at his side very much, and William is extremely skillful in negotiating. In the seclusion of the winter park, he manages to gain a considerable consession:  twenty-year old Agnes agrees to a three-year engagement.

Agnes will capture this moment later in her diary, as many other things in her life alongside the future whisky magnate. While William writes Whisky history by establishing his company, co-founds distilleries and becomes prosperous, Agnes brings 14 children into the world, gets involved in social projects, looks after her husband's guests, and writes the story of the family. It's the story of the fairytale rise from humble beginnings and hard times to the upper classes of Glasgow’s bourgeoisie, right into the heart of the Scottish whisky world and into the posh Glasgow millionaire district of Dowanhill. But it is also the story of a woman who, despite all the love for her husband and children, keeps shaking the bars of the social cage in which she sits. Because back then, the world is a man's world. And so is whisky business.


 
"Wm. Robertson offered me his love and I accepted it, for secretly my heart was his, yet I never knew till now that he loved me so much.“  (Agnes Heatley Robertson, Dec. 5, 1856)



But I’m jumping ahead. Let us stay for a moment with the young woman, who has to wait so hopefully and impatiently for three more years for her "Will". Agnes is the fifth child and the second daughter of a tea and tobacco trader from Alnwick. The family is not rich, but the parents attach importance to the fact that their eleven children receive a good education. They belong to the small congregation of  faithful Presbyterians in Alnwick, which is cared for by William's stepfather Reverend Donaldson. Two years earlier, William's sister Helen married the oldest brother of Agnes. A connection of William and Agnes would suit their families’ interests. Agnes has no big fortune. A bank scandal in 1847 almost ruined her father financially. Her family just barely  escaped disaster, but the beautiful big house had to be sold.

William is not rich either. Originally, he came from a Scottish seafaring family, his father was a ship captain from Leven in Fife, and William would probably have become a sailor, too. But on one of his trips, the father died somewhere in Quebec, and his mother married Reverend David Donaldson in 1847. The life of William changed drastically after her marriage: Helen Robertson moved with her 16-year-old daughter Helen Hay to her new husband at the English town of Alnwick. 14-year-old William was sent to relatives in Glasgow, where he got a job with the wine and liquor dealer David Lade. For William, this opened the door to a whole new world.



Some of the houses in Hope Street still date back to 1857, when William opened his first business in 162 Hope Street. The beginnings were humble. foto:©margaretemarie


William came to the right place at the right moment. At that time, Glasgow had become one of the most important cities in the British Empire, second only to London. The new economic development opened up entirely new possibilities for an aspiring bourgeoisie. The population grew rapidly, and there were plenty of customers for good booze, and in the second half of the 19th century, whisky became increasingly popular.

After the reformation of the Scottish whisky tax law in 1853, the whisky landscape in Scotland underwent a fundamental change. Within a few decades, distilleries expanded dramatically all over the country, and their production volume no longer targeted local markets. They needed a large clientele in the rapidly growing metropolitan areas of the country, which they could only reach via intermediaries, so-called agents.

At a very early stage, William recognized the economic potential of such wholesale agencies. Together with Robert Thomson and John Baxter he dared to take the road to economic independence in 1857. But the preparations for starting a business were more exhausting than expected. 

On April 17, 1857, Agnes writes:

"My W.A.R. has not been well lately. He, Mr. T., and J.B. commence business on the 1st Sep. He is very anxious. "
Glasgow was an unhealthy place, and over the next year and a half, William was repeatedly very ill. He spat blood, had high fevers and could hardly stand on his feet. The doctor prescribed bed rest and leeches. The future of William and Agnes was hanging by a thin silver thread. But William survived, and in 1859 he finally got better.

I’d rather be a mountain torrent than a stagnant pool, but, best of all, a clear rippling stream, spreading life around.“  (Agnes Heatley Robertson, Jan. 8, 1858)


For Agnes those years were tough, too. During her long engagement, she was doomed to idleness, and the days, weeks and months seemed endless. Agnes was inquisitive, sportive and full of energy. She was well educated, spoke several languages ​​and wanted to conquer the world. After school, she would have liked to go to France, but the parents didn’t approve. Visiting a university or a civilian career were largely denied to women at that time. Women should marry. But William was not ready for marriage and Agnes was struggling with her waiting status.

The only bright spots at that time were the moments she could spend with William. During one of his visits, she asked him how she should spend all these long days of nothingness. "Write," he told her. And Agnes began to write. 

On November 7, 1859, William and Agnes finally married. Now business was doing better, too. When Thomson left, the company was renamed “Robertson & Baxter”. 


In 1858, they moved their business to 3 Virginia Street, in close proximity to the former offices and auction halls of the once mighty Glaswegian Tobacco Lords. foto:©margaretemarie


Very soon, William acquired distribution rights for two more distilleries: Fettercain in Angus and the Dutch Geneva Distillers in Delftshaven.

Agnes got her first two children.

But she didn’t feel comfortable in her new apartment, her romantic girlish dreams evaporated all too soon into the sooty and dirty air of Glasgow's inner city. Agnes was extremely unhappy. After the birth of her first child, she almost died, and for weeks she was floating between life and death. When she got better, she jotted down in her diary: "....it must be for some wise end why I have been spared." (20 Oct. 1860). It is probably the sentence that characterizes her best. Agnes has always wanted to give meaning to her life.

„We have left our first home in the dark street, and have come out into the wide country, where trees and flowers grow and cornfields wave.“ (Agnes Heatley Robertson, 28 June 1863)



When a new residential area emerged just outside the city, the family moved to Shawlands. At Elgin Villas No 7, a semi-detached new house across the open fields, Agnes blossomed. William worked very hard, rarely did he allow himself a day off. 

Port, sherry, wine, cognac and champagne accounted for the largest share of sales in those years. At the time, whisky was first and foremost a drink of the working class. The wealthy bourgeoisie prefered brandy and cognac. But gradually, whisky became more important. When the Gladston Spirits Act of 1860 allowed the blending of Grain and Malt Whisky under bond, William began to act as a Whisky Broker and Blender.


William's offices were only a few steps away from Virginia Court, Glasgow. Tobacco and Tea from the American Colonies had laid the foundation for Glasgow's wealthy overseas traders.
foto:©margaretemarie



The long and winding road to success


In 1861, whisky consumption began to rise, and in 1864, it reached a first maximum with 14,969,564 gallons produced. William began to expand his trade in whisky, and tried to enter the blending business. But the following years, numbers began to plummet, and fell down to 10,813,926 gallons in 1867. William was alarmed, and the family moved to another house in the neighbourhood, at Carey-Place. Did they have to cut down their expenses? Agnes didn't complain, she knew how fast the tides could change, and as long as her family was safe and sound and the sky above her head was blue, she was content. 

Whisky Production in Scotland from 1824 to 1867. Source: British Newspaper Online Archive


But in the second half of September, 1867, William was away on a business trip to the Isle of Skye, while Agnes stayed at home. Agnes was worried, the equinoctial gales were raging outside, and William was scheduled to leave Skye the following morning. What kind of business did William pursue?

At around the same time, Talisker distillery was offered for sale. The distillery had obviously fell victim to the declining demand. Did William want to invest in Talisker? Did he order stocks from the distillery, because prices were low? It seems, that his interest in whisky was big. On the evening of September 22, he reached Glasgow again in safety, but he never discussed his business with his wife. Business was a man's world.

The same year, 1867, the family spent their Christmas Holidays with Agnes' family in Alnwick - for the first time since they were married. Agnes' father and brother were tobacco and tea traders, and  William considered to diversify and expand his business by entering the tobacco and tea trade. The men discussed the new Factory Act, which  banned all children under thirteen years from work in factories and they wondered about the effect on the trade. Agnes was worried about all these children who would be left jobless in the streets, with no one who took care of them.

In 1873, the Robertson's could afford to move to Huntley Gardens, Hillhead, Glasgow. foto:©margaretemarie

In 1869, William seems to have made up his mind. Tobacco and tea was not made for him, and William was determined to stick to whisky and wine. The same year, he acquired the agency of the Bordeaux wine merchants, Cruse et Fils, and business conditions improved again. In 1864, the company's import volume had been 27,000 gallons, by 1870, it had risen to 70,000.

In 1873 William had seven wine and brandy agencies. Agnes had seven children. 

With growing business volumes, the offices at Virginia Steet no longer served their purposes, and in 1873, the company moved to 48 West Nile Street, Glasgow. 

While William was busy with his business, Agnes was in charge of the household, hired servants, got involved in social clubs, decided on the pocket money for the children, ensured that they received an excellent education and that they became good people. This was important to her: that the children are always upright, true and honest before man and before God. That they always give the best they can. That they don't lose their faith in life when they suffer.

And suffer, they did. In 1868, Agnes’ little nephew died. He was only nine years old.  In 1873, Agnes  had two baby-boys: Nander and Franky. But one of the new-born twins, Franky, died shortly after his birth. Whenever Agnes looked at Nander, she remembered the second twin, too. There is no compensation for this kind of loss. Over the years, Agnes lost many good friends and close relatives to an untimely death. Life was erratical in those times.


Huntley Gardens, Hillhead, Glasgow. foto:©margaretemarie

In November 1873, William and Agnes went to Paris with William's business partner from Cognac, Mr. Huvet. For the first time, they were able to afford a holiday abroad. The same year, they changed house again and moved to 6 Huntley Gardens. William's profits had risen steadily over the past years, and in 1873, he was able to rent a newly errected terraced house in the posh area of Hillhead, Glasgow. Now, the family was closer to the city centre again, and on the other side of the road, there was a nice little park, very much to Agnes' delight. 

When the production of cognac almost collapsed due to the phylloxera catastrophe in France, the situation began to change fundamentally. Whisky entered the homes of the wealthy. The big times of the whisky blenders began, and William Robertson was one of them. He soon founded a trading subsidiary for whisky in Leith, and in 1879, he got involved in the Clyde Bonding Company.  

Glasgow was growing rapidly, and the number of inhabitants grew faster than the number of houses. In 1879, the family almost fell victim to the hasty erection of the houses at Huntley Gardens. A few days before their Christmas Holidays began, Agnes and her sons David and Nander were in the drawing room, when a large piece of the ceiling came suddenly down with a loud thud. It knocked Agnes on the head, and left her with a small cut, but thankfully, nothing happened to the boys. When the architect came, he noticed that the ceiling of the dining room wasn't safe either, and for several weeks, those two rooms could not be used. A few months later, the House was sold and William had to find a new home for them. Around June, 1880, he bought the "Dunard", a posh villa on Glasgow's Dowanhill (today Sydenham Road). Although the Dunard was much bigger than all her previous homes, Agnes was very sorry that she had to leave Huntley Gardens, because it had offered such a refreshing view into the nice little park on the other side of the road. 

All those years of hard work finally took their toll. At the end of 1879, William's health deteriorated, and Agnes began to worry. They spent their Christmas Holidays at Sandhills, near Troon, and William recovered again. When he came back to Glasgow in January 1880, he had learned his lesson. He reduced his work load drastically. In a letter to her son Jim, who was at a boarding school in Switzerland at that time, Agens writes: "Father is a good deal better: since coming back  here he has gone to [the office at ] '48' in a cab at half-past eleven, and come back to dinner at four o'clock. So you see he is taking things easy now, but not before he ought. He has been very poorly, and still requires care, but I trust with God's blessing he will soon be all right."

One year later, in 1881, William was better, and together with other business partners, he founded the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay. In 1883, they could sell their first whisky from Bunnahabhain. At the beginning of the same year, on January 4, their son Jim joined the company. With Jim's help, they managed to enlarge their business activities, and trade took off drastically again.



Entrance gate to the Dunard, Dowanhill, Glasgow.
foto:©margaretemarie

The years of financial constraints were finally over, the family owned a spacious villa in Glasgow's posh west end called “The Dunard” and a country residence on the coast near Troon, called “Sandhills”, where they spent the weekends and vacations. Agnes had six servants to help her with household duties and childcare. The Walkers from Kilmarnock were close friends, and together with some other business partners, they had founded the Royal Troon Golf Club  in 1878, where they often met on the links. 

William had become one of the most influential whisky blenders of his time.  As a businessman, he was in such a high esteem, that Alexander Walker and John Dewar both sent their sons to Robertson & Baxter to learn about the business. 

By now, Agnes had given birth to fourteen children. Every pregnancy was a God-given burden for her. And every time she was desperate and cried because she didn’t know if she would survive again. Because she did know what a difficult and challenging job it is to bring up a child well. 

 
„Have just had a romp with the boys; very undignified perhaps, but very enjoyable.“  (Agnes Heatley Robertson, 2. Aug. 1883)



In 1883, Agnes finally enjoyed her life. The years of hardships and worries were over. Agnes spent her days playing with her younger kids on the beach, reading newspapers, donating money to the needy, and she set up a committee to support Ada Leigh Homes for young women in need.

A new life - but all too short

Many activities which were available to William, Agnes was excluded from. Back then, Glasgow  offered a huge variety of taverns, bars, and private clubs. When William went out with his business partners from Porto, Cognac or London, Agnes had to stay at home. For women, public places of relaxed entertainment were a taboo. Only tea parlours were open to her. No wonder that the temperance movement in Scotland was receiving very strong support from well-to-do women at that time.

Time and again Agnes tried to fight against these social restrictions. When William became a founding member of the golf club in Troon, she was not content with carrying the balls for him, but she learned how to play golf. When William set up a billiard room in the house, he had to teach Agnes the game. But when William visited a coal pit in 1883, she had to stay at home - and was really sad about it. She would have loved to come along.



"There is so much hedging of women with etiquette, and why? Were it not that men need to be kept in place there would be no need for all those forms that cramp a woman. Why is it that etiquette does not allow a girl or a woman to walk alone after dark? Not from fear of her own sex, but of that sex which should respect and protect. But were men as they ought to be there would be no need for protection.“
(Agnes Heatley Robertson, 9. Aug. 1883)



Agnes had a restless mind and all those endless days of household duties bored her easily. Rescue came from her father-in-law: in numerous letters and for many years,  Agnes would discuss philosophical questions and matters of a higher importance with Reverend Donaldson. But when other women would sit down and pray, Agnes began to think. She asked questions. She found answers. And she was always able to give her children helpful advice.

In 1884, Queen Margaret College opened its doors in Glasgow. Finally, women were  allowed to study in Scotland. Agnes enroled the same year. At the age of 47, she began to study literature and philosophy. In her diary, she wrote down on October 1: "This is a memorable day, and seems always to mark a new era in my life. Berta and I went to Glasgow for the day".  In November 1884, her lessons began. She went to Professor Veitch's lectures in Mental Philosophy, which she liked very much, and to Professor Nicholl's lecture on English Literature.

The Dunard, Dowanhill, Glasgow. foto:©margaretemarie

For the first time in her life Agnes did something for herself. She was one of the very first women in Scotland to attend university. In the following months, Agnes seems to develop radical ideas. In February 1885, she writes into her diary:  

"I know what I lost by being kept at home; how I fretted and ate my very life out with the namby-pamby life I led.... A girl may not be kept at home for her parents' sakes if she feels that her abilities lie outside that home, and the sooner parents get over that idea the better for the parents and for the girl... every woman is not obliged to make marriage her ultimate good any more than a man is; she is as free to be single as he, and as able to provide for herself."

Agnes made sure that her girls could do what had been denied to herself, and they went to Colleges and Universities. She wanted them to have choices. But fate was cruel, and Agnes was not allowed to finish her own studies.

In February 1886, Agnes was in high spirits. William had taken a few days off, and Agnes wrote in a letter  to her daughter: “On Thursday, father and I are going to spend our ‘honeymoon’ at Sandhills till Monday, all alone! Won’t it be fine?” After all these years, they still were full of love and affection for each other. A few days later, life sucks.

On March 2, 1886 Agnes Heatley Robertson died suddenly. She was only 49 years old. Her oldest daughter was 25, her youngest daughter was just four years old.

Somehow, life went on. All her sons were successful in their later life. Jim (James) and Nander (Alexander) took over the company. David won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1900 and became a lawyer at the London Temple. Fred (Frederik) studied medicine in Glasgow and became a doctor. Phee (Philip) got an Honour Diploma from the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, and Lawrence joined the Indian Civil Service and had a nice bungalow in Nepean Sea Road in Bombay.  

And Jeanie, Ellie, Berta, Ethey, Gracie, Winnie and Dolly? Oh well my friends, who cares about the girls...

Sing on, sweet bird! the summer's past,
And dark the autumn cloud mists cling
On leaves now brown and trees grown bare;
Yet sing, O sing, sweet birdie, sing! “ 
 (Agnes Heatley Robertson, 1881)



The Coachhouse at the Dunard, Dowanhill, Glasgow. foto:©margaretemarie


Read on - Part Two: The next generation

The original story was published first in the German whisky magazine "Der Whisky-Botschafter", 2-2016, spring edition, 2016

Primary Sources:

- Extracts from the Manuscripts of Agnes Heatley Robertson, printed for private circulation, Glasgow University Press, 1895

- British Newspaper Online Archive

- Glasgow Trades Directory

Secondary Sources:

- Records of Robertson and Baxter Ltd, scotch whisky blenders and merchants, Glasgow, Scotland (https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/gb248-ugd231)

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