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

In 1961, the world looked bright for The Macallan distillery. Business was doing well. In fact, things were so well, that its owners decided to buy nearby Easter Elchies House and the surrounding land tenure that went with it. The same year, there were three sisters in Glasgow, who made a significant decision that should have far-reaching consequences for The Macallan Distillery more than three decades later.




Three sisters


In 1961, the whisky industry witnessed a glorious upturn, and many distilleries expanded and modernized. But inspite of this positive business mood, the whisky heiresses Agnes, Ethel and Elspeth Robertson had good reason to be concerned. They had inherited a considerable fortune, which included shares in the whisky companies Robertson & Baxter, Clyde Bonding Company and Highland Distilleries (now: Highland Distillers).  



Miss Robertson (Babs?) hands over the Championship Cup to the winners of the Berwickshire Darts League. With her is her sister (Agnes Heatley?) and Mrs Cameron. (Berwickshire News, 13 September 1949)

The ladies would not suffer financial hardship. After the challenging years of the post-war period, the economy was  recovering gradually, and the demand for Scottish whisky was stronger than ever in America and Canada. 

But hostile takeovers were lurking around and threatened many Scottish companies. Twice already, in 1947 and 1955, the Canadian Seagram Company had made an attempt to take over Highland Distilleries. It was only due to the strong support of their business partner Distillers Company Ltd. that the ladies were able to fend off the hostile bid. However, they felt that it was only a matter of time when Seagram would finally succeed.



Principals of the opening of the sale of work, in St. Aidan's Church Hall, Berwick: Miss J.E. Robertson, Cawderstandes, Berwick, who opened the sale, Rev. Bannister, Mr. Halley.  Berwick Advertiser, 6 December 1951




At the age of  64, 63 and 57 years, the sisters were no longer young in 1961, they had no children and inheritance tax amounted to 80%. Temptation might have been strong to simply sell their whisky empire to the Canadians, and lead a carefree life until the end of their days. But these ladies were of a different stock. A sale was out of the question.

"Scotland the Scots", was their credo, and they were desperately looking for a way out, so that their companies would continue to remain in Scottish possession, and jobs would not be lost. Finally, they sought advice from the best financial strategists of their time, Morgan Grenfell.  

And Morgan Grenfell found an ingenious solution. 


Edrington

Morgan Grenfell suggested  to set up a holding company to which the ladies could transfer their family fortune. This company was named after their favorite farm in Berwickshire: Edrington. The shares that they acquired from this holding were put into the charitable trust which they founded for this purpose: the Robertson Trust was born. The trust in turn controlled the holding company Edrington: to the present day, all Edrington shares with voting power are held by the Robertson Trust.

This unique business model still exists today. The sisters had secured the future of their businesses. Edrington was soon to become one of the most successful companies in the Scottish whisky industry. And yet, almost nothing is known about these three remarkable women who had founded the company.


Cawderstanes

When Elspeth, Agnes and Ethel Robertson took over their father's business in 1944, they were all in their forties. Financially, they never really needed to worry, but their life had not always been easy. 

Their mother had died when the three girls were still very young, and their father had always been away at his office. The girls, who grew up first at Towans, near Prestwick,  and later in Edinburgh, were left much to their own, with only a very stern housekeeper to take care of them. 

 
My special thanks to Charlie Maclean


They were born around the turn of the century, and their teenage life was disrupted by war, economic hardships and the death of their brother William. What excitement did life offer them when they were young women? Did the girls dream of passionate kisses at night during these long, difficult years between the wars? Did their heart suddenly jump at the sight of a young man? Did they wait for the  love of their live? Did they ever dream of tender baby hugs? Or was there no room for any romantic ideas? Who knows. None of them went down the ailse. 

If their father ever had hoped for them to marry, they found strong support in their grandmother's diary. In 1885 Agnes wrote down: „ ....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.“ Whatever reason they had for not to marry, they could be sure, that their grandmother would have approved.

Like their grandmother Agnes, they were devout Presbyterians with firm believes and principles of life. And like their grandmother, they always enjoyed living in the country-side. In 1945, they aquired Cawderstanes, an old manor house in Berwickshire, as well as the adjacent Edrington Estate.

Like their grandmother, they were always very considerate towards their staff and supported the local community. Miss Elspeth was engaged in many community projects and was a committee member of the Berwickshire Community Council, while Ethel (Babs) was engaged in their company's affairs. 

Like their grandmother, they cared for the needy around them and always donated money to charitable projects. And like their grandmother, they always tried to spread joy and happiness.



Glas Bowl at Cawderstanes

And like their grandmother, they always had a strong feeling of responsibily. When they founded the Robertson Trust and Edrington, the three Robertson Sisters made sure that their company would be Scottish forever.

Other distilleries were less fortunate: Ardbed, Scapa, Glenburgie and Miltonduff were eventually  purchased by the Canadian Hiram Walker Group, Laphroaig was bought by Schenley Industries in New York (through their subsidiary company Seager Evans), and Longmorn was aquired by Seagram in 1978.


Legacy



After a long period of recession in the late 70's and 80's, the whisky industry started to recover slowly in the 90's. Sir Ian Good, then Chairman of the Edrington Company, wanted to strengthen the position of the company in the market during the upswing. He had joined Edrington as a young man, and he had known the Robertson Sisters in person. He knew how important it had always been for the ladies to be independent - in private life and in business.

For him, there were only two options: be swallowed by a big fish or swallow yourself. And Sir Ian was a man with visions. He had a strong focus on the Scottish whisky brand Famous Grouse, which had been owned by Highland Distilleries since 1970, and the associated distilleries The Macallan, Glenrothes and Highland Park.  The latter two were in possession of Highland Distilleries, but The Macallan was not, very much to Sir Ians concern.

To forestall a hostile takeover by foreign investors, Sir Ian decided on a spectacular maneuver. First, Highland Distilleries, in which Edrington was involved, acquired a 26% stake in Macallan from Remy Cointreau. In July 1996, Highland Distilleries managed to take over Macallan with a 75% stake. The remaining 25% remained in the hands of the Japanese Suntory Group - until today. Then the second step of the bold plan followed: the acquisition of Highland Distilleries by Edrington.  

https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2604/3990769997_a7b22901bc_m.jpg
Two companies, one office: advert for Highland Distilleries and Robertson & Baxter in 1947


Edrington was only a small fish at this time. With Glengoyne, Edrington had a distillery in its portfolio, but it lacked the big brands. These were available at Highland Distilleries, of which Edrington held shares. But Highland Distilleries was a big chunk. Too big for Edrington to digest it alone and in one piece. Sir Ian needed a total of five years to prepare for the proposed acquisition and gradually increased Edrington's shareholding in Highland Distilleries until it reached 28%.  

Then, in 1999, he dared to take the decisive step and, in a concerted action, submitted an offer for all outstanding shares of the listed company. But Edrington couldn't stem this huge financial transaction all by itself, and the family-run company William Grant & Sons (Glenfiddich / The Balvenie) were brought on board. 

With Grant's support, the coup succeeded: Edrington received 70% of Highland Distilleries, William Grant 30%. Together they founded the 1887 Company. For both, this number has great significance: In 1887, Highland Distilleries was founded by William Robertson, grandfather of the Robertson Sisters, and on Christmas Day of the same year, whisky was distilled for the first time at Glenfiddich distillery.

Scottish Pride and Free Thinking

In 1999, with this move, the restructured Edrington Group took control over the distilleries The Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes, and Glenturret, and  the Whisky brand The Famous Grouse.  Chairman of the new giant company was Sir Ian Good. The price for this the transaction amounted to more than 601 million British pounds at that time.  

Edrington's accountants were having a lot of sleepless nights over this massive transaction. The company had to borrow well over £500 million. This mountain of debts had to be reduced as fast as possible in the upcoming years. Consequently, the distilleries Glengoyne, Tamdhu, Glenglassaugh, Bunnahabhain and the brand Black Bottle, which initially also belong to the group, were later sold to reduce the enormous debt burden. They were the pawn sacrifice in this game of whisky thrones.

Today, Edrington is still in Scottish hands, and has become one of the biggest Scottish Whisky Companies, while The Robertson Trust is the largest Scottish foundation. In 2016,  £14,726,797 were handed over to the Scottish people. The  ingenuity and dedication of the founding ladies, the Robertson Sisters, works well beyond their death. And I'm sure, their grandmother, Agnes Heatley Robertson of Alnwick, would have approved.


A Final Word
 
The History of Edrington and the Robertson Family is not as clear-cut as the history of Dewar, Haig or Bell, and it doesn’t offer a male line of heirs who can  easily be turned  into whisky heroes. Instead, it’s the real story of some remarkable men and women, whose determination, ingenuity and high personal principles are at the roots of Scotland’s most important trust and of Scotland’s most influential whisky company today. It’s the real story from Agnes to Edrington. But unlike the names of Johnnie Walker, Arthur Bell or Tommy Dewar, nobody knows the names of Agnes, Elspeth and Babs Robertson. But well, who cares about the women...
Acknowledgement: 

My special thanks to Charlie Maclean, whose book about the Robertson Trust helped me tremendously to find the line of thoughts from grand-mother to grand-daughters and write the last part of this story.

Main Sources:

- Maclean, Charles: The Robertson Trust, limited edition of 500 copies for the Trustees of the Robertson Trust, Edinburgh 2001

- British Newspaper Online Archive

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