Famous Cockburns of Leith customers: Sir Walter Scott

As Scotland’s oldest wine merchant, Cockburns of Leith is proud to have been supplying fine wines across the UK since 1796. We count Sir Walter Scott, King George IV and Charles Dickens as some of our customers during the 19th century. We recently came across a letter from ‘The Author of Waverley‘ to Robert Cockburn, founder of Cockburns of Leith, from December 1823 in the Special Collections of the University of Aberdeen.

Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Cockburns of Leith, received 13 December 1823
(Credit: University of Aberdeen Special Collections)
Scott Monument, Edinburgh
Scott Monument, next to Edinburgh Waverley station
(Credit: Saffron Blaze – CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scott’s a fascinating figure. It was none other than Robert Cockburn’s brother, the famous legal and literary figure Lord Cockburn, who said of Scott “To no other man does Scotland owe so great a debt of gratitude as to Walter Scott”. Yet, as Stuart Kelly explores in his brilliant book Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation, despite him having the largest statue to a writer anywhere in the world, just next to the railway station (Edinburgh Waverley) named after his most famous novel, and despite his role in shaping large parts of modern Scottish culture and identity, virtually noone reads his novels any more.

After a few hours of squinting at Sir Walter’s handwriting, plus some excellent historical and oenological teamwork from our team, we’ve arrived at the following transcription of the letter.

Mr dear Sir,

I should wish all the Madeira to go to the country except a dozen three dozen to be sent to Lockhart Northumberland Street which pray [ … ] the trouble to forward. The port could even be spring, I only wanted to keep my stock up being well supplied for immediate use. The carts will be here on Thursday night and will load on Friday I will send them down to Leith. I should like to have a few gallons of good Holland[?] in cask – double casked. Yours truly

W Scott

Saturday Night
Castle Stuart

It’s clear this is part of a larger and regular correspondence, with Robert Cockburn offering the high levels of personalised and extremely knowledgeable customer service that we continue to provide today. Sir Walter also clearly had a lot of Madeira! ‘Lockhart’ was his son-in-law and biographer John Gibson Lockhart, who lived on Northumberland Street in Edinburgh, where there is an inscription to him beside the front door. We highly recommend sending wine to your friends and family; about 20% of orders on our Cockburns of Leith website are delivered to someone other than the person who placed the order. If you’re looking to order Madeira, we would suggest our Madeira Reserva 5 Year Old, Blandy’s (50cl).

‘The country’ almost certainly refers to the beautiful Abbotsford House in the Borders. It’s located just a couple of miles from the end of the reopened railway – the Waverley line, also named after Sir Walter’s most famous novel – which terminates at Tweedbank near Melrose. Do go and visit once lockdown comes to an end and Scottish tourism comes back to its former strength.

We had a bit of a debate in the team about the end of the penultimate line, which is probably ‘Holland’, but could also say ‘Scotland’ (the initial downward stroke is very similar to the ‘S’ of ‘Northumberland Street’ earlier in the letter). If it does say ‘Holland’, Scott would have meant Jenever, or Dutch Gin. It was a popular drink in Britain throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and its use by soldiers to calm themselves before battle gave rise to the term ‘Dutch courage’. On the other hand, 1823 was also an important year for whisky, as the 1823 Excise Act changed the tax rules which had meant that half of Scotch whisky had previously been distilled illegally. Given his side-job as Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire, perhaps Scott was making use of the greater availablity of legal whisky to build up his stocks. It’s also more common to double cask whisky today than gin.

Cockburns of Leith had a strong reputation as an importer of both Madeira and whisky right through to the 20th century, as the labels below show. Our present-day focus is as a wine merchant, and we leave the flourishing field of Scotch whisky to fellow specialists. However, we do sell a range of spirits from the fantastic distillers at Edinburgh Gin, including their flagship Edinburgh Gin and the refreshing Edinburgh Seaside Gin.

Cockburns of Leith labels for Madeira and Scotch Whisky from the 20th century

The letter was sent from Castle Stuart near Inverness, which you can now stay in as a guest. It was one of the meeting places of the Bannatyne Club, a literary society formed earlier in 1823 to publish interesting Scottish works across history, poetry and general literature. We don’t have the records, but you can be pretty certain that wines and spirits provided by Cockburns of Leith will have contributed to the lively discussions at many meetings of the club.

1823 had been been a year in which Scott had made an ill-advised break with writing historical fiction, and published the literary flop St Ronan’s Well. Drinking is central to the novel, which satirises the fashionable types who arrive to take the waters at the eponymous well. The inn at St Ronan’s is also central to the action: “it was by far the best frequented public-house in that vicinity; and a thousand stories were told of the revels which had been held within its walls, and the gambols achieved under the influence of its liquors”. The young man who returns to St Ronans in Chapter 2 immediately asks the bad-humoured landlady Meg for “a bottle of the yellow seal … if there was any of that excellent claret still left.” Could it have been as good as our fantastic yellow-labelled Château Malartic La Graviere 2007?

By December, Scott was writing the more successful Redgauntlet, an imagining of what might have happened at the start of a third Jacobite rebellion. As we’ll explore in our future look at Charles Dickens’s purchases from Cockburns of Leith, wine and writing often go hand in hand: if you’re looking to write your hit novel during lockdown, do order a bottle or two and let us know what inspiration you find in them!

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