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01 March 1999
The Day the Bubble Burst
By Gillian Strickland

The Pattison family started in business in Edinburgh as dairy wholesalers but were sharp enough to seize the chance of making a fortune in whisky.

One enterprising candidate in the 1996 Indian General Election trailed round his constituency with a cage-full of green parakeets trained to intone his eleciton slogan. Exactly a hundred years earlier, the Pattison brothers - a couple of flashy and, as it transpired, dodgy Edinburgh whisky entrepreneurs- were handing out to Scottish licensed grocers 500 grey parrots that recited: "Buy Pattisons' Whisky." It's a hard truth for Marketing Man: there really is nothing new under the sun.

Robert and Walter Pattison attributed the meteoric success of their whisky blending empire to some "judicious advertising". They were certainly masters of the art. In one year, 1897, they are said to have paid out over £20,000 on a world wide advertising campaign and three times that the following year. "...advertising was resorted to on a scale previously undreamt of, "stated a contemporary newspaper report. This in an age when it was already a fashionable medium.

Big brand names like Hovis, Beechams Pills, Nestle Swiss Milk and even Kodak daily wooed an eager public through the pages of the Scottish press. The Pattisons were ahead of the game, widely advertising their blends, "The Doctor" and "The Gordon". (Gordon of Khartoum in full dress uniform on the label - guaranteed to set Imperial hearts a-beating). The Pattison family started in business in Edinburgh as dairy wholesalers but were sharp enough to seize the chance of making a fortune in whisky. In 1887 they went into partnership in the blending business and two years later made some £100,000 when the company was floated on the Stock Exchange.

They were creatures of their time: quick to exploit fashion, to take advantage of boom conditions in the whisky industry. The banks extended lavish credit and there was no shortage of confident - euphoric - investors. Against a backdrop of imperial greatness, commercial Edinburgh and far beyond enjoyed a "feel good factor" that others might envy.

The brothers pushed the idea of conspicuous consumption to the very limits. Their lavish lifestyles seemed to offer proof of the great wealth and outstanding business performance. Not content with palatial Edinburgh properties such as a vast house in Leith Walk and their marbled offices in Constitution Street (even their warehouse cost £60,000), they branched out into the life of country gentlemen, with mansions and rolling acres in the Borders - at Clovenfords and Peebles.

Commuting from the country gave them the excuse for one of their favourite publicity stunts: the Missing of the Train. The idea was to turn up late on the platform at Peebles or Galashiels and make a great commotion. When the local press was in position they would hire a private train at five pounds and a shilling a mile to carry them to their pressing business engagements.

Their commercial expansion was no less astonishing. They acquired a half share in the Glenfarclas distillery, substantial interests in the Oban and Aultmore-Glenlivet distillery and the Ardgowan Lowland Grain distillery. The company also moved into brewing, with the acquisition of the Duddingston Brewery. And all this was largely done on borrowed money. It was an empire built on bank credit and considerable sleight of hand.

To raise money for their ventures, Walter and Robert sold stock then bought it back at inflated prices by obtaining bills of exchange which were later discounted. To keep their public image burning brightly, they resorted to over-valuing property and paying dividends out of capital. Nearly thirty years later, Walter Ross wrote that " large were their transactions and so wide their ramifications that they infused in to the Trade a reckless disregard of the most elementary rules of sound business."

The more questionable side of their dealing didn't go entirely unnoticed in contemporary commercial circles. There were rumours and some uneasy mutterings. But it was boom time. Everyone with the money to invest wanted to get richer - and these flamboyant brothers seemed to be showing them the way.

With bank credit readily obtainable (by the mid 1890s Dewars' bank overdraft was £300,000, twice the amount of their share capital), "investors and speculators of the worst kind were drawn into the vortex and vied with each other in their race of riches." (Ironically it was a bank - the Clydesdale- that pulled the plug on the Pattisons, refusing to pay a bill for £9,000).

New distilleries were built (thirty-three malt distilleries in the 1890s alone) and new companies formed to buy out existing ones. Many doubled or even trebled their output. There was overproduction on such a scale that years later its effects were still being felt; stocks had been built up to an absurd level. Just under two million gallons of malt whisky was warehoused annually in 1891-2. By 1898-9 this had risen to thirteen and half million gallons.

In December, 1898 the crash came. There had already been a downturn in the fortunes of the whisky industry and the Pattisons' tactics could only succeed in times of expansion. The immediate affect of their downfall, according to The Scotsman at the time, was probably gossip.

A story was running round Edinburgh that "the Company in the end of last week pressed one of their customers to take up a parcel of whisky. He, thinking this a most unusual thing, is said to have talked freely about it and the step in all probability reached the ears of the bank authorities."

However, that splendidly anecdotal writer on whisky, Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, thought the underlying cause was the Scot's passion for gambling... "The general assumption that the Scot is afraid to take risks in business is erroneous. No other race is more daring in speculation, and Scottish history is rich in examples of the disasters which overtook those get-rich-quick Scots who did not season speculation with caution."

By co-incidence, the most heartbreaking failure in Scottish history had happened exactly two hundred years before. By 1696, the ill-fated Darien Company had a subscribed capital of a "respectable" £400,000 - exactly the same amount as the capital of Pattisons (Ltd). Late The Scotsman was to write: "Not only was it Scottish money; it was the money of the Scottish people. Rich and poor, Highlander and Lowlander, master and servant, lord and loon - all were represented in the list of contributors which...took captive the whole Scottish heart."

The Darien project's failure was caused by tropical disease not incompetence or fraud and its subscribers were adventurous rather than adventurers. The affairs of the short-lived Pattisons may not have captured any hearts in its two years and nine months but it claimed a lot of people's wallets - many close to the heart of the Scotch whisky industry.

On December 7th, 1898, under a discreet headline "The Stoppage of Pattisons (Ltd)" followed a column of masterly understatement. "The affairs of Pattison (Ltd) was again the general subject of discussion in commercial circles in Edinburgh yesterday and, owing to the ramifications of the Company, there was keen interest, in districts wide apart and extending all over the kingdom, as to the outcome of the financial difficulties in which the Company is involved. These have been temporarily arranged and the crisis may be said to be over for the present."

These measured words heralded the collapse of their glittering empire after only two years and nine months. It was to vanish without trace. In 1896 they had floated their whisky blending company, Pattisons (Ltd), with capital of £40,000. Two years later, on 6th December 1898, they ceased payment.

They took down with them nine other companies and scores of small suppliers were forced out of existence. The amount claimed by creditors is believed to have totalled about £743,000. Three years later, Walter Gilchrist Gray Pattison and Robert Pattison appeared in the Criminal Courts in front of the Lord Justice General on charges of fraudulent flotation, fraud and embezzlement. They received eight months and 18 months imprisonment respectively and never recovered.

The judgement of the industry in retrospect was that it was a disaster waiting to happen; that it would have happened anyway. By the year of the Pattison's crash there were 13.5 million gallons of whisky in bond. Banks withdrew their credit and the market was flooded. Other business collapses followed in quick succession. But in the true tradition of the tortoise and the hare, a winner crept past the post. The DCL had weathered all these storms with comparative ease. Now the magnificent Pattison warehouses which had cost £60,000 came on the market. DCL picked them up for £25,000 and went quietly on their way from strength to strength, as the established leaders."

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