Putting the Tea in Britain: The Scots Who Made Our National Drink

Les Wilson

Birlinn £14.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THERE is an almost divine alchemy when pouring hot water on assorted leaves or mundane bag to produce an oddly restorative drink. It is an act of creation fittingly reproduced by Les Wilson in concocting a curiously intriguing brew out of the history of tea and its links to Scotsmen and, on occasion, Scotswomen.

In a book of delightful and grim revelations about the journey of tea to Britain, there is one that stands out. It is this: who knew I could be intoxicated by 250 pages about a non-alcoholic drink?

The answer is relatively simple. The strengths of Wilson’s work outweigh the minor flaws, mostly restricted to an unfocused editing. The rest is, frankly, gripping.

Wilson’s wanderings from Assam to Auchterarder contain elements of travelogue, reminiscence, profound historical research and personal passion.

HeraldScotland: A tea estate in the Western Ghats, on the border of KerelaA tea estate in the Western Ghats, on the border of Kerela

However, in a book that spans centuries it is his grasp of enduring themes and his ability to resurrect individual characters that raise this work far above any possibility of it being merely worthy or defiantly dry.

There may be quibbles about whether tea is the national drink as proposed in the title but there can be no doubt about Wilson’s central premise. There are more Scots in the history of tea than there are normally in Trafalgar Square on a match day against the Auld Enemy at Wembley.

This preponderance of Scots and the business of tea both point to elements of culture and finance that have remained largely unchanged over the centuries. Some of this is admirable. Much of it is appalling. The business of tea adheres closely to many of the dreadful truths about capitalism and colonialism.

Scots, of course, were highly capable of articulating these truths in words and actions. Wilson’s prose can be energetic, even chatty, but he does not fail to illuminate the dark passages.

The shroud of the Empire has been ripped apart by forensic, revisionist history of late and Wilson does not shrink from the topics of slavery, imperial drug dealing, unremitting avarice and awful cruelty to native workers.

However, he engages powerfully with other elements of the story. The preponderance of Scots in the tea narrative can be explained simply by the national aptitude for doing the work of Empire.

But there were other, more neglected reasons. The first is that these Scots were, in Wilson’s words, grandchildren of the Enlightenment that had taken place so powerfully in their homeland. One of the conspicuous results of this cultural revolution was that Scots were well-educated, particularly in the discipline of medicine.

Routinely in the age of Empire, up to 85% of British doctors were of Scottish origin, educated to the highest level in the country’s elite universities. These doctors travelled abroad as accessories to both commercial and military expeditions. Many had a side interest in botany, so drawing them to the intricacies of tea growing that were once the sole preserve of China.

The intellectual weight of these sons of Caledonia can be gauged by an individual story. Archibald Campbell, a son of Islay in the 19th century, was a Gaelic speaker who graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University and wrote a thesis on spasmodic laryngitis in Latin. His shining intellect was almost inevitably bonded with capitalism and imperialism of the darkest hue.

This is the second reason for the high involvement of Scots in the tea trade. The East India Company recruited heavily from generations of Scots seeking opportunity. This included hiring the estimable Archibald Campbell.

There was thus a bargain with the devil. The East India Company, coolly and relentlessly indicted by William Dalrymple in The Anarchy, was a machine constructed to make profits without scruple.

Its most egregious crime was to make drug-dealing an instrument of institutional commerce. The scale of its opium interest makes the Medellin cartel seem like petty street dealers.

Its link to the tea story is straightforward if brutal. Britain craved tea but did not want to pay in silver. They paid in drugs grown on Indian territories. This led inevitably to war and to the devastation of communities through addiction.

There was, of course, another factor. By some intangible but undeniable truth, Scots seemed bred to withstand the trials of working in desperate conditions and, indeed, revelled in the most challenging of circumstances.

This is not to excuse our forefathers (they were almost always men) of the crimes inflicted on their workers, the routine racism, or the indiscriminate grabbing of others’ land. This is all horrific. But this ruthless tenacity was not the whole story.

There were those who were enlightened far beyond the customs of their times. They shared the vigour and determination of those less noble but they brought about substantial and regularly beneficial change to the communities in which they sought to make their fortunes.

HeraldScotland: Robert Fortune, who travelled in disguise in China and brought back tea plants to the British EmpireRobert Fortune, who travelled in disguise in China and brought back tea plants to the British Empire

As individuals, these Scots shared much, good and bad. But Wilson has an ability to capture the singular story. This is, perhaps, best illustrated by the tale of John Fortune who is briefly summarised at the beginning of the book as “a Borders ‘lad of pairts’ who – disguised as a Chinese man – risked arrest, robbery and piracy and murder to bring tea plants to the British Empire”.

Later expansion of this thumbnail sketch is wonderfully thrilling in the manner of an exotic spy story, as if Ian Fleming had joined forces with Joseph Conrad.

HeraldScotland: Author Les Wilson with Angus-based tea-grower Susie Walker-Munro. Photo: Jenni MintoAuthor Les Wilson with Angus-based tea-grower Susie Walker-Munro. Photo: Jenni Minto

There is the odd, understandable stumble as Wilson roams the world, finally ending his journey in Scotland where tea-growing is now a minor industry. He can become mired in lists and distracted by allusions to forthcoming chapters.

But his book is overwhelmingly a delight, infused with unstinting research, bristling with huge themes and populated with characters who illustrate much about the oft times unholy alliance between high intellect and base motives.

It is a compelling story. It is to be enjoyed with the national drink of your choice.