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

At the turn of the century, William Alexander Robertson was one of the wealthiest whisky blenders in Scotland, and the future looked bright. It was due to his many children, why his company fell behind those of his friends and business partners: Walker, Dewar, and Buchanan would soon become the leading names. When the whisky bubble burst,  his sons Jim and Nander were struggling hard to keep the company alive. Their effords were finally rewarded with success, but it was left to the family's women to lay the foundation for future prosperity.

Buchanan Quarter, 104-126 West Nile Street, Glasgow. For many years, R&B's offices were just a few yards further down, at 48, W Nile Street. Later, they moved from 48 to 106 W Nile Street. With the exception  for the Category B listed façade of 106 West Nile, most of the original buildings were demolished in 2009. foto: MargareteMarie

The next generation

1885 was another important year for the company. In October, William Robertson and his wife Agnes spent a few days in Alnwick. Their eldest daughter Jeanie was going to perform in a concert, but William could not stay for long. On Thursday, October 22, he left Alnwick and went straight to Edinburgh.  

The very next day, 35 businessmen of the wholesale and spirit trade came together at Dowell's Auction Rooms, and William Robertson was one of them. The purpose of this meeting was of a very important nature: under the chairmanship of Andrew Usher, these 35 men decided about the construction of a new grain distillery, and in the course of the day, they founded the North British Distillery Company. 

From now on, William was not only shareholder of a malt distillery, he also had shares in a grain distillery, which made him independent from third-party-supplies and laid the foundation for his future success as a whisky blender.

Another wet day, no outing; the boys went back to school, and Jim began his work in Robertson & Baxter’s. God grant him grace to walk uprightly, truly, and honestly before God and man.”

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, January 4, 1883)

After the meeting in Edinburgh, William went to Kilmarnock  to meet with Alexander Walker, of John Walker & Company, who was not only one of his closest business partners, but also a very good friend. The two men had urgent business to talk. In the meantime, William's son Jim was taking care of the business in Glasgow.

Jim (James) had joined the company in 1883, and was a big help to his father. Due to William's health problems, business had been a bit low for some time. When Jim came, winds of change were blowing. Jim immediately added German Wines to their product range, and secured four agencies for Hock and Moselle wines. He also added German brandy to the list.

The young man was well-prepared for the job. In 1879, his parents had sent him to a boarding school in Berne, Switzerland, where he learned to speak German fluently. Agnes wrote letters to him regularly, so he wouldn't forget his family, but like most young men, Jim often forgot to reply. In August 1880, William and Agnes, who could speak German well, went down to visit him and traveled across Germany with their eldest son. At the beginning of 1881, Jim went on to France, and stayed in Cognac for several months, before he went to London to get his office training.

Jim is still in Alnwick… I hope he is gaining strength and vigour, for he was rather down when he left. He is so anxious when at work, and goes on like a thoroughbred, till he is quite done.”

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, Glasgow, June 8, 1884)

During his first year at his father's company, Jim worked harder than he ought to, and his well-being suffered. Agnes got worried about him and in 1884, she sent him for his summer vacation to her relatives in Alnwick. In September, he was back to work again. 
When Jim is in Berne, Agnes writes regularly to her son.

With Jim taking care of their wine agencies and the daily routine jobs at the office, William had more time to concentrate on whisky. In 1885, he was one of the founding members of North British Distillery. When Agnes  died in 1886, William burried himself in work again. In 1887, he co-founded   "Highland Distillery Company" through the merger of Bunnahabhain and Glenrothes distilleries, and became  chairman of the company (later renamed Highland Distillers).

In the evening, father, Jean, Jenny and I, went to the social meeting in the church hall… Father was very reluctant to go. He had had a lot of callers through the day, and being alone had all the talking to do – every one comes to him for advice. After going, however, I saw him drinking tea, eating cakes, and hobnobbing with Hubbard’s van-man!”

(Agnes Heatley Robertson about her husband, letter to her daughter Ellie, Glasgow, February 1886)

The same year, North British Distillery went into production, with a capacity of 40,000 gallons a week! The whisky boom was in full swing now, and in 1891, William acquired Glenglassaugh distillery in Speyside, together with his business partner J.C.R. Marshall, and they transferred it to Highland Distilleries, making a profit in this deal of £5,000. Four years later, Robertson & Baxter was turned into a limited company, with William holding 60% of the shares. 

Bunnahabhain. Robertson&Baxter's first distillery

By now, William was one of the largest whisky blenders in the industry. He was greatly respected by his business partners and they often sought his comprehensive advice. Altough he had made a fortune over the years, he remained  a very modest and down-to-earth person, and success never turned his head. When he died in 1897 at the age of 64, he left behind a fortune worth £188,200  - which today would equal over £10 million! In comparision, distiller William Jameson of Jameson & Co., Dublin, who died the same year, left only half as much: £95,164.

William left his children a lot of money. Agnes left them a different treasure: In 1895, nine years after her death, her children published part of their mother's collected writings as a book "for private circulation". Her  thoughts, ideas and principles were preserved beyond her death. Especially for the younger siblings, who hardly knew their mother, the book was surely an important companion.

My dear old man … went to Sandhills yesterday to his usual golf, and is spending to-day among his bairnies. Having them there around him is his supreme bliss. Long may he have them, and they him!"

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, Glasgow, June 8, 1884)

Decline, Struggle and Survival

Around William's death, Jim's younger brother Nander (Alexander) joined the company, and it's quite likely that Jim urgently needed his support. His older brothers had already chosen a different carreer, but Alexander was still at university. 

As a young boy, Nander (or Nannie, as Agnes sometimes called him) had played the violin and attended Glasgow Academy. Unlike Jim, the younger boys were not destined for a carreer in their father's company, but Agnes made sure that they got the best education that would suit them. 

In September 1884, when Nander was eleven, he was sent with his younger brother Phee (Philip) to Madras College in St. Andrews, where they stayed with a very close (female) friend of their mother's. Phil proved to be the better student, but seems to have become more adventurous in his later life. He supposedly left Scotland when he married in 1906, and went first to Sidney, then to Vancouver, and finally he ended up in Honolulu. 

As a young child,  Nander had always been a bit careless and over-eager, but when he got older, his mother grew very fond of him. After St. Andrews, Nander went to Loretto School in Edinburgh and Christ's College in Cambridge, which he left without a degree.

Slowly, the brothers and sisters parted after Williams death, and the family disintegrated piece after piece, person after person. Soon, it was only Jim and Nander who remained closely connected.

Poor Nander made another attempt at dining with us [in the dining room], which resulted in his half choking himself over a fish bone; so he is upstairs [in the nursery] again.”

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, letter to her son Jim,  Glasgow, February 1880)

When Jim and Nander took over business from their father, the Scottish Whisky Industry was booming. But before long, things would change for the worse, and the new century had an awful number of glooming years for them in store.

In 1895, life was still rosy for Jim. On May 2, he got married to Agnes Ethel Greig, and soon, his little family was growing: in 1896, Janet Elspeth was born, one year later Agnes Heatley jr. followed.

In 1899, Jim had his own villa built, Towans, near Prestwick. The house was huge, with plenty of space for many more kids to follow. One year later, his son William Alexander jr. was born. Those were probably the happiest years for Jim.

But in 1903, Jim's wife was less fortunate than her late mother-in-law, and she suffered a fate, that Agnes Heatley had always feared: she died in childbed, while giving birth to her third daughter Ethel Greig (Babs).

And things got worse. In 1919, William Alexander junior, Jim's only son, died during a flu epidemic while he was staying at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. He was only 19 years old.  Did Jim cry? Did he scream? Did he get drunk? Did the girls miss their brother?

How should the remaining small family ever recover from these losses... ?

Private calamity was escorted by economic disaster.

Only several weeks after William's death in 1897, the large Warehouses in Glasgow's York-Street, occupied by the Clyde Bonding Company, were entirely destroyed by fire. Thousands of casks of whisky and wine were lost, the damage was estimated at £60,000. Luckily, their insurance covered most of it.

I hope Nander is enjoying his extra violin lesson. My only fear is that his wee hands would be tired by an hour’s lesson, not that his mind and ear would be…”

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, letter to her son Phee (Philip),  Glasgow, November 1885)

One year later, in 1898,  Highland Distillery Co. acquired Tamdhu distillery. Around the same time, the so-called "Pattison crash" marked the end of the whisky boom. Home consumption fell, fuelled by the rise in Spirit duty in 1909. The reckless over-expansion and over-capitalisation of the 1890's resulted in excessive stocks, falling malt whisky prices and declining profits after the turn of the century. 

In 1906,  Glenglassaugh was closed down. Sales numbers had been falling for several years, while the Temperance movement was gaining support and duty was increasing. The situation improved slightly in 1910, and Jim managed to secure one good business deal or another(*), but the future of the industry still looked rather bleak.

The onset of war wiped out all burgeoning success.  Government restrictions during the Great War and Prohibition in the US further added to the economic down-turn for the whisky industry. 

But the hardest blow came from within the family.


The years between 1915 and 1920 turned the whisky trade almost up-side down.

In 1915, the "Central Control Board" was created by the government, which took over control of the whisky trade. The same year, the Immature Spirits Act was passed, which provided that whisky had to be stored in bond for three years at least, before it was sold. In 1916, whisky production was restricted, in 1917, no whisky distilling was allowed by the government.

Fred sent me a letter you had written to him, at least it was addressed to him – ‘Dear Fred,’ but signed ‘Your loving son, Alec’, so I suppose he thought it was partly meant for me, and he would follow out your train of thought by sending it on to me as the terminus.“

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, letter to her son Nander (Alexander), Alnwick, May 1885)

After the passing of the Immature Spirits Act in 1915, the whisky industry suffered a growing lack on young spirits, and prices went up tremendously. As a result, the government introduced the Spirits Prices and Description Order in May 1918, which controlled the retail price of spirits. It didn't help the trade much. After the hardships of war time, people desperately wanted to enjoy their lives again. 

Demand for spirits was huge, but the limited production during war and the legally required three years minimum for maturation resulted in a shortage of younger spirits, especially patent still whisky, which was urgently needed in blends. 

Was there a whisky famine in 1919?

By 1919, the number of stocks had fallen to 117,000,000 proof gallons. Predictions were that with sales going on at the same rate, all the whisky stocks in Scotland would be exhausted within four and a half years. Newspapers began to write about an impending "whisky famine". Many traders began conserving their stocks. 

The biggest deal in whisky history

In 1920, the Volstead Act prohibited the consumption of alcohol in the United States.  Illegal whisky consumption was sky-rocketing, while quality was no longer an asset. Now, things turned really wild, and for a short time, the price of New Make rose drastically

During these unpredictable times, many share-holders of Robertson & Baxter found it a perfect moment to sell the company and invest in more reliable ventures.

Advertising campaign by Haig&Haig. Until its liquidation in 1923, Haig & Haig had sourced their whiskies exclusively from Robertson & Baxter.

For Jim and Nander, the decision of their share-holding four brothers and seven sisters  to sell was an enormous challenge, and they had to place the company into voluntary liquidation. Subsequently, they were forced to sell their extremely precious, mature stocks of single malt whiskies, amounting to well over 2,000,000 gallons, to a syndicate of the big four: Walker, Dewar, Buchanan and DCL. According to the newspapers of the day, it was the "biggest deal in whisky ever recorded." We can only guess, what a heart-breaking transaction it must have been for Jim and his brother Nander.

In December 1922, one of their associated firms, Haig&Haig, also went into the hands of the liquidators. Haig&Haig Ltd. had been founded in Dublin in 1888, but in 1907, James had aquired the company. Consequently, Haig&Haig sourced their whiskies exclusively from Robertson & Baxter. When the latter went into liquidation, Haig&Haig were suddenly left without stocks of old whisky from which to fill their bottles.

Advertising campaign by Haig&Haig. Until its liquidation in 1923, Haig & Haig had sourced their whiskies exclusively from Robertson & Baxter.

Between 1916 and 1922, Haig&Haig tried hard to remain competitive during those crazy years and to survive the ups and downs of the spirits market. They ran a huge advertising campaign to tell consumers about their higher standards of quality. While other companies used rather young stocks, Robertson & Baxter had still substantial stocks of well-matured, older whisky, and Haig&Haig could rely on those stocks.

A closer look at some of those adverts reveals a strong reflection of the business conditions during those years, and they show all too clear Jim's frustration with these developments. But finally, all their efforts were in vain. When R&B sold out, Haig&Haig was left empty-handed, and they dropped out of business. 

Advertising campaign by Haig&Haig. Until its liquidation in 1923, Haig & Haig had sourced their whiskies exclusively from Robertson & Baxter.

In May 1925, John Haig Company, which by then had become part of DCL, snatched up the name rights, including the famous dimple bottle, and started a new firm with the name of this old, tradition-steeped company.

While Walker, Buchanan-Dewar and DCL grew even bigger with this spectacular whisky deal, Jim and Nander were now fighting for economic survival.

Strathnavar was a brand name for a Blended Highland Whisky by Jim and Nander under the companies "Robertson & Co, / Row & Co, London, for the Italian market. December 1928.

Immediately after the liquidation of Robertson & Baxter, the two brothers founded Robertson & Company and Row & Company. Two of the brands they developed during those years were Strathnavar for the Italian market and Glen Graeme. 

It took them more than fifteen years to recover economically: on June 4th, 1937, Robertson & Baxter came back to life again, and all their assets were finally transferred back to their original company. 

March 1937: James Robertson aquires Highland Park Distillery on Orkney through Highland Distilleries Co. Ltd.

The same year, Jim (who was the president of Highland Distilleries Co.) aquired Highland Park Distillery through Highland Distilleries Co. Jim had a great interest in the Orkadian distillery. One year earlier, in 1936, he had agreed to blend "Cutty Sark" whisky for Berry Bros. & Rudd, and Highland Park Whisky was an integral part of that blend. Purchasing the distillery for Highland Distilleries Co. secured Jim's urgently needed whisky supply from Orkney for future years.

In 1948, Highland Distilleries and Robertson & Baxter teamed up even more closely: both companies were now jointly managed from the same office and operated under one roof.

Pot Stills at Highland Park. Illustrated London News, June 19, 1926. Source: British online newspaper archive.

James and Alexander had to work hard during the interwar period to stay in business. But success ultimately proved them right: in 1941, Alexander Cockburn Robertson was not only a partner of Robertson & Baxter, but also one of the directors of North British Distillers Co. Ltd, as well as Clyde Co-operative Co. Ltd., and Highland Distilleries Ltd. 

When he died at Sandhills in February 1941, at the age of 67, he left a private fortune of £317,266. His sister Jeanie, who had sold her shares in R&B, died four years later. Her personal assets were "only" £27,592.

Nander, I think, is much improved – quieter, gentler, and more thoughtful. Dear laddie!”

(Agnes Heatley Robertson, Glasgow, January 3, 1886)

Three years later, in January 1944, Jim died at the age of 80. For more than 60 years, he had been working for his father's company. Besides being chairman of Robertson & Baxter, he was also chairman of Highland Distilleries Ltd. and the North British Distillery, Vice-President of the Scotch Whisky Association and a former president of the North of Scotland Malt Distiller's Association. His personal assets were valued at £187,130.

For the company, his death was a crucial moment. Who should follow in his steps? Jim was survived by daughters only, and Nander had no kids at all. In spite of all those many children of Agnes and William Robertson, in 1944, there was no male heir in line. Only three women were left, and they had never been involved in the business. Whisky was a men's world in those days. Should the sisters sell the company to a competitor? Or would they be strong enough to carry on their father's legacy? Janet Elspeth, Agnes Heatley and Ethel Greig (Babs) had to make a decision, that would not only effect their own lives, but also the fate of the company and all of its staff.

Read on - Part three: Three Sisters

Main Sources:

- Extracts from the Diary, Letters & Miscellaneous writings of Agnes Heatley Robertson, printed for private circulation, 1895, Glasgow University Press

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

- British Newspaper Online Archive

(*) A very interesting piece of information can be found at the recollections of Rudd Harvey of Bruichladdich Distillery: "In 1913 an offer was made for the unsold whisky by a firm (Macintyre & Train) not a good one but sufficient to pay off the Bank overdraft, and something to spare.  My father who had by now given up his town house and was living in Islay, went up to Glasgow to see a friend of his who was in the whisky business, a Mr. Robertson of Robertson & Baxter.  He advised him to accept the offer, and not until some months after, when the Bank was paid off, did he discover it was Mr. Robertson who had bought the whisky [at half price] under another name!"


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