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12 Aug 2021

Edinburgh’s Pantry: tea and coffee

Written by Lindsay Middleton, PhD student at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen; edited by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator
A tea cup sitting on a matching saucer is displayed against a plain grey background. It has a silver-gilt mount and is decorated with pink flowers and gold tendrils.
Milk or sugar? A coffee cup and saucer with silver-gilt mount and decorated with pink flowers and gold tendrils (c.1722–35) | Brodick Castle collection
This series of articles highlights the food and drink to be found in Edinburgh’s pantries of the past, written especially to mark the re-opening of Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. This time, Lindsay explores how tea and coffee became staple beverages in Scotland, integral to business, socialising and day-to-day life.

Popping the kettle on, putting a couple of tea bags in the pot or stirring up a mug of instant coffee (even a cafetière or cold press, if you’re serious) is so integral to our daily routine that most of us don’t think twice about having several cups a day. These hot drinks serve as our morning jolt, our breaks from work, or moments to share with friends and loved ones. Our cupboards or pantries hold a selection of mugs (we all have our favourites) and several varieties of tea and coffee to choose from: Italian espresso, dark roasted coffee beans from Colombia, green tea, Assam, Earl Grey, peppermint or Scottish Blend. Tea drinking has become so synonymous with British culture that it’s almost a stereotype, and ceremonies like afternoon tea, which stems from 18th- and 19th-century dining practices, are still observed today.

However, as the names on our tea and coffee packets suggest, neither tea nor coffee are products that are native to Scotland. Both have been imported to British shores for over 200 years. And despite our modern caffeine addictions and cuppa-driven stereotypes, both these drinks were once luxuries reserved for the wealthy. It took time for these hot beverages to percolate through the social classes and become accessible to all.

An extremely expensive-looking porcelain coffee set is displayed against a plain grey background. On a shaped tray sits a pair of two-handled cups with covers and saucers, a coffee pot, milk jug and a quatrefoil sugar bowl. The design features flowers and classical figures.
Italian porcelain coffee service comprising a pair of two-handled cups with covers and saucers, a coffee pot, milk jug, quatrefoil sugar bowl and a rectangular tray (c.1900) | Fyvie Castle collection

Coffee reached Scottish shores first, circulating fairly widely in Britain by the middle of the 17th century. As with most imported goods, the first people to enjoy it were the wealthiest. But coffee quickly spread into Scottish public life. One way people (men in particular) could purchase a cup was by visiting a coffee house. In 1652 the first coffee house appeared in London, and in 1673 the first coffee houses opened in Scotland. [1]

The first in Edinburgh was run by John Row in a tenement called ‘Robertson’s Land’, just a 3-minute walk from Gladstone’s Land, on the west side of what is now Parliament Square. [2] In the same year in Glasgow, Colonel Walter Whiteford opened a coffee house on the corner of Trongate and Saltmarket. [3] As coffee houses became more common in the late 17th century, records show that they often had female proprietors. Similar to the situation with taverns, it was likely that the woman’s husband or male relatives ordered from the merchants, whilst she served in and ran the shop.

A small, white embossed coffee cup is displayed against a plain grey background. It is decorated with a band of palmettes and foliage and has a reeded handle.
An embossed Queensware Wedgwood coffee cup, decorated with a band of palmettes and foliage with a reeded handle (1924) | Craigievar Castle collection

Coffee came to Edinburgh either via London or the port of Leith, where it was imported by merchants working for the British (and the Dutch) East India companies. Trade routes to Scotland tended to pass through ports in the Netherlands, but merchants would have initially sourced their coffee from Yemen and the city of Mocha, which often gave its name to the drink at that time. [4] From the early 18th century, coffee was also sourced from Java in Indonesia and then later from the West Indies. The fact we still use the terms ‘Mocha’ and ‘Java’ shows how significantly coffee’s international roots have been assimilated into British culture.

Coffee was taxed in the same way as tea, brandy, spices and other imported luxuries. This meant that it was often smuggled into Scotland, or adulterated so that the precious, expensive coffee went as far as possible. It was also a beverage that immediately became inextricably masculine, as it was strongly associated with the world of trade.

In her article on coffee in Edinburgh, Janet Starkey writes about how coffee houses became the sites of many kinds of businesses. As an example, auctions were often held in them, where everything from coffee, furniture and houses to ships, horses and bank shares could be bought. [5] Merchants conducted their business from coffee houses, trading their imported goods while sharing a cup of Mocha with their customers. [6] Coffee houses were effectively business hubs, in the same way that taverns were the place where lawyers and physicians would meet with clients. In these public places, men made deals and held appointments while enjoying coffee, ale, oysters or ‘parlies’ (ginger biscuits named after the members of parliament who enjoyed eating them in taverns).

For many, coffee became a preferable alternative to ale or spirits, as you could conduct business without the risk of intoxication. However, that didn’t necessarily mean that coffee houses were always places for respectable business transactions. Given that people traded money, goods and ideas over coffee, there was lots of potential for discussion to become heated. In fact, Edinburgh’s first coffee house was shut within four years of opening because the Scottish Privy Council (a body that advised the monarch) were suspicious that people were using it as a base to engage in subversive discussions. [7] Some coffee houses were constantly monitored, as they were known for brawling, prostitution or cockfighting. [8]

Coffee houses were typically all-male spaces; those women who could afford coffee would enjoy a cup in the confines of their home. Indeed, it was more socially acceptable for women to drink tea. Securing the tea was crucial, as it was an expensive product. Tea caddies often had locks and keys that were kept by the lady of the house.

Tea came to Scotland at a similar time to coffee but spread through the social classes and into rural communities far more quickly than coffee. At first, tea was an indulgence of the super-rich. There are several stories about its first appearance in the country, one of which can be traced to Edinburgh. In the 1680s, the Duke of York stayed in Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where he, the duchess and their daughter (who was later Queen Anne) supposedly gifted tea ‘for the first time heard of in Scotland’ to ladies of the Scottish gentry. [9]

In this period, like coffee, tea entered Scotland via the Netherlands. Dutch merchants were Scotland’s key trade partners for goods coming from Asia. Many Scottish merchants had trade rights with ports in Amsterdam, Veere and Rotterdam, which helped them secure the import of luxury goods. Scotland had its own East India Company for the trading of goods from Asia, but it was liquidated in 1707 as a condition of the Act of Union. [10] After this time, the British East India Company was run from London and held a monopoly on the trading of tea and other goods, meaning Scotland could not directly access the tea trade. However, rather than miss out on growing trade opportunities, Scottish traders looked to other, illicit, sources of tea. Beginning on a small scale prior to 1745, this trade grew over the following decades so that Scotland was once again trading with the Netherlands and with organisations like the Swedish East India Company (founded in 1731). [11]

Tea imported into Scotland via these companies challenged the British East India Company’s monopoly on such trade. In addition, Scotland’s use of more diverse continental sources allowed the Scottish tea trade to establish a more varied culture. Merchants would source their tea from organisations such as the Swedish East India Company and smuggle it into Scottish ports, from Cullen to Dumfries.

This regional variance, and the fact that tea was coming into ports large and small, demonstrates how prolific illicit tea trading was in 18th-century Scotland. And it was not just ports that were involved in tea smuggling; inland and coastal towns alike sold and distributed tea once it had arrived in Scotland. This meant that tea was available to more people than if the trade had been limited to cosmopolitan hubs. From the mid-18th century, ledgers show that shoemakers and masons were purchasing tea, not just the wealthy merchants and members of the aristocracy. [12]

An enamel beaker is displayed against a plain grey background. It has a gold rim, and a blue and pink floral design on the main body.
Canton enamelled beaker cup for tea (late 18th century) | House of Dun collection

It’s also clear that, by the mid-18th century, women made up more than half of the customer base for tea in Scotland. Unlike in the masculine world of coffee, women were actively involved in purchasing tea (due to smuggling making it more widely available) as well as shaping the trends and fashions of tea. [13] The gentry women of Edinburgh seemingly had no qualms in using smuggled tea as the preferred beverage for socialising. The appearance of female buyers on sales records supports this, and suggests tea was more likely to be consumed by women within the home (as it was deemed not acceptable for certain classes of women to be seen in coffee houses).

Women would invite their friends to their homes for tea. Female traders, like Elizabeth Pillans who ran a draper’s shop in Gladstone’s Land in the mid-18th century, would offer it to their customers. Conversations about politics, work and trade were had over the tea service. Tea helped to elevate the decorum of the moment, turning illicit gossip into polite and fashionable conversation. It was served by the lady of the house or by a trusted servant and only required a tea set, hot water and perhaps some cakes or biscuits sourced from one of Edinburgh’s many bakeries.

Tea was often served on tables brought into the centre of the room and folded out for the purpose. The example below from the Georgian House has a drawer fitted with three hinged tin compartments for green tea, black tea and sugar. It sits on canted tapering supports ending in brass castors.

There was a choice between various types of green or the cheaper black tea, which was more popular and usually taken with milk. Both types would be sweetened with sugar or honey – if the hostess could afford to lay sugar out for use – and sometimes spirits were added for an extra punch. However, as with coffee, customers would have to watch out for tea that had been adulterated with ash, other leaves, lead or even sheep dung! The key to avoiding this was to develop a good relationship with a trusted merchant.

Wealthier women made an occasion out of drinking tea, serving it in the afternoon with fine porcelain tea bowls imported from China. For the majority, though, tea was a morning drink consumed for breakfast or an evening beverage taken before bed. Regardless of when or with what it was drunk, tea was far more likely to be enjoyed at home, not in the bustling masculine world of the Edinburgh coffee house.

Tea and coffee are just two of the many products that illustrate the international reach of Scotland’s trading connections and its links to slavery. Jamaica was a key source of coffee. By the end of the 18th century, Scots owned 30% of the estates in Jamaica, which were operated by enslaved labourers. The increasing wealth that defined this period of Scotland’s history was inextricably linked to this exploitation of workers on Caribbean estates, fuelled by the growing demand for products like sugar, tobacco and tea in the houses of New Town Edinburgh.

Below is a portrait of Alexander Edgar (b1776) who married Anne Gordon in 1797 and lived with their 11 children in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. They had a sugar plantation – Wedderly – located in Trelawney, Jamaica. It was sold after Edgar’s death in 1821, with 221 acres and 117 enslaved people, for £13,991 18s 7d (well over £1 million today). His trustees included Henry Raeburn and Raeburn’s son.

An oil painting of the top half of a middle-aged Georgian man. He wears a dark coat with a high collar and a white cravat around his neck. He has short grey hair.
Alexander Edgar (1776–1820), of Auchingrammont, Lanarkshire and Wedderelie, Jamaica, by Henry Raeburn, c1795 | Fyvie Castle collection​

While we may take these beverages for granted in our daily lives today, tea and coffee were once an expensive luxury and a back-breaking crop, a mainstay of both international trade routes and enslaved plantations. Coffee houses became an all-male environment, whilst tea empowered women to socialise. When we share a cuppa with a friend later, it might be worth considering the international and historical implications of our favourite hot drink.

Give this traditional recipe a try, which was often served with tea or coffee:

“To make Dutch Ginger-bread

Mix four pounds of flour, two ounces of beaten [powdered] ginger; rub in the flour half a pound of butter, and add to it two ounces of carraway [sic] seeds, two of orange-peel dried and rubbed to powder, two pounds and a quarter of treacle; mix all together, and beat [roll] it with a rolling pin, and make it up in thirty cakes; prick them with a fork, and put them on double buttered papers. [Bake in a medium oven until golden and baked through.]”
Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery
Edinburgh, Printed for the Author, 1755

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About the author: Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen. Her work with the National Trust for Scotland is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Lindsay has written a research report on historical recipes, food and drink as part of an internship with the Trust. She has also been instrumental in creating a new Food Tour for Gladstone’s Land.

[1] Alexander Fenton, Scottish Life and Society: Food of the Scots, vol. 5 (John Donald: Edinburgh, 2007), p.108

[2] Janet Starkey, ‘Food for Thought: Coffee, Coffee-Houses and le bon gout in Edinburgh During the Scottish Enlightenment’ in Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, New Series, 14: 23-44, 2018, p. 29

[3] Clare Jackson, Restoration Scotland, 1660–1690: Royalist Politics, Religion and Ideas, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003), p. 41

[4] Starkey, ibid, p. 28

[5] Starkey, ibid, p. 29

[6] Starkey, ibid, p. 25

[7] Jackson, ibid, p. 41

[8] Jackson, ibid, p. 32

[9] Fenton, ibid, p. 110–111

[10] Andrew Mackillop, ‘A North Europe World of Tea: Scotland and the Tea Trade, c.1690–c.1790’ in Goods From the East, 1600–1800: Trading Eurasia, ed. by M Berg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 294–308

[11] Mackillop, ibid, pp. 299–300

[12] Mackillop, ibid, p. 299

[13] Mackillop, ibid p. 300

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