01 November 1996
A Christmas Tale by Peter and Gillian Clarke
By Peter Clarke
Charles Dickens visited Edinburgh's Canongate Churchyard in 1869. Exploring the graveyard in the diminishing evening light, he came across the headstone of a noted Edinburgh trader. The stone is still there. It does not read Scrooge. It reads Scroggie. "Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, Mealman" is what the memorial tablet says, "Mealman" being a trader in corn and other products.
Dickens commented how withering an inscription he took it to be. "How bleak to have one's shrivelled soul advertised forever. It made me shudder. It made me feel for the flesh corrupting beneath me." He had read "Mealman" as "Meanman." It is time to show how wildly wrong Dickens was. His simple and understandable error has obliterated a man who seems to have been more like Scrooge redeemed - the kindly and warm man, transformed by the ghosts who held up to him a mirror of his past life - than the curmudgeon we see on television screens every Christmas. Scroggie features in the history of Edinburgh and in the development of whisky.
We know he was born in Kirkcaldy in 1792. His mother was Annie Lennox Smith of Strathendry. She was a mece of the great Enlightenment sage Adam Smith. His father Hiram Scroggie, a ships' chandler and provisioner who traded out of the Fife burgh. He must have been an able businessman. It was Scroggie who provisioned Captain Cook's ship the Endeavour when it set out to chart the Pacific. We do not have the inventoriesbut we know Cook carried Scroggie's Rum.
Royal Naval vessels usually took on rum and marsala but Cook's father was a Scot and it is said that the great sailor enjoyed plying his English officers with a "barbaric Scottish spirit," teaching them the quality of whisky long before it became fashionable. Ebenezer Scroggie was the only son of Annie and Hiram. He too must have been accomplished in the counting house. He set up shop in Leith, Edinburgh's port district, in 1828. He established two further "factories". We would call them shops. One specialised on imported French wines.
During the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars French wines had not been traded into Britain and Scroggie was the first bulk importer. He also exported whisky. He called it Scotch Brandy Wine and shipped it to Antwerp. Sir Walter Scott who acted as the impresario for the royal visit of George IV specified that Scroggies of Leith was to have the contract for plenishings and victuals on the occasion of the CIVIC celebrations.
This was the visit that made tartan and all things Scottish not just respectable but also fashionable. The King returned south with a warm glow as. his reception had been so welcoming. He also had a warm glow as he carried two score of "Scroggie's of Leith Scotch Braw". It lays claim to being the first "brand" of whisky. All earlier records attribute no name. Scroggie was a member of the Edinburgh Town Council. He actually served as Lord Provost when Alexander Wedderburn was incapacitated through drink in the two years of 1832-34.
The joke in the council chamber was "Young Scroggie has pickled the Provost". Certainly his wines and whiskies were noted. The greatest accolade though came towards the end of Scroggie's career. Victoria, at the urging of Prince Albert, arranged for all the troops serving in the Crimea to be given "a pint of whisky spirit" to warm them through the bitter Russian Winter.
This served as a tremendous publicity coup for Scroggie. Whisky became celebrated as having the marshal virtues but also as a remedy to warm in the depth of winter. It was an act of patriotism to raise your glass in unison with the Scots Regiments at Balaclava. Scroggie retired from his partnership in 1870. His partner was not the Jacob Marley invented by Charles Dickens but William Younger who developed the business in such a way as it remains a potent force. Nor was his clerk the famous Bob Cratchit.
The real Scroggie's clerks included Alexander Pinkerton the young' Scot who was later to set up the famous detective agency. The books usually omit that Pinkerton had Scroggie's franchise to act as his agent "West of the Missouri". Scroggie had threeagents covering America and Canada. If Scroggie was a successful whisky blender and trader he was also a man of joviality. He was a fan of Robert Burns. He developed the early marketing tool of selling his whisky bottles with miniature prints of Burns' best loved poems. The normally sedate Scotsman teased him over a comical but well aimed misprint. "My Love is like a red, red nose" said his sonnet. Scroggie failed to make whisky a drink for respectable women though. It remained a man's drink. Scroggie sent his sons to The Edinburgh Academy. His benefactions were the greatest when it was established. He also donated the money to fund The Royal Scottish Geographical Institution. This did more than deliver lectures on map making. It was a primary agency for Victorian Scottish evangelism. We only catch a few glimpses of the personality. On his death in 1874 The Edinburgh Courant said "The Burgh and Guilds of Edinburgh rarely saw a man more in joy and fidelity in his vitae. This was a man who enriched those he met. His benevolence gave good cheer as did his wide-famed produce, Though not a Highlander he brought the finest wines of the North to Edinburgh-shire" . Scroggie left numerous charitable bequests and his silver rose bowl (cruely renamed the nose bowl, is still on display in the Council Chambers).
How extraordinary Charles Dickens should misconstrue a grave in the half light of an Edinburgh evening in the Canongate. Scrooge redeemed may have been more like the real man Scroggie. If he had read it correctly as Mealman perhaps his imagination would have created a figure of gluttony, an early Michelin man.
It is good to know that one of the earliest and most successful of whisky promoters was a jovial and warm man. Scroggie has a good paternity claim to the popularity. of whisky. He did not invent it but he had the flair and wit to take it beyond Scotland. His grave should be swept and tended, not left to crumble. If you can find it. ...