Bovril: It's a drink, a spread, even a crisp flavouring, and it was created in Edinburgh

HE IS one of Scotland's least-known inventors, even though his unusual creation went on to become a household name.

• Bovril sales in the UK reach 3.5 million jars every year. Picture: TSPL

John Lawson Johnston made his fortune after creating Bovril, which he first started experimenting on in his butcher's shop in mid-19th century Edinburgh and famously sold to the French army after he had emigrated to Canada.

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Now, the creator of the beef drink that is still a staple of the football fan's diet is set to win due recognition for his creative ingenuity under plans for an exhibition of his life and work.

Archivists at City of Edinburgh Council have spent months researching Johnston's little-known roots in Scotland's capital where the man had set about trying to produce a nourishing beef drink for the poor people of the Royal Mile.

The virtual exhibition, being staged as part of the annual Old Town Festival later this month, will tell how he started experimenting with what he called a "fluid extract of beef" after starting as an apprentice in the family butcher shop at 180 Canon gate, now home to tenement flats.

Such was the demand for the product in the city that a second shop opened in West Preston Street, and Johnston set up a small factory in the Holyrood area before emigrating to Canada in 1871. According to Bovril's official history, it was there he won a contract to supply the French army with around a million tonnes of his beef product, in the wake of it losing the French-Prussian war that year.

The blend of meat extract with other raw materials was originally known as Johnston's Fluid Beef, which was manufactured for several years at a plant in Montreal.

When the factory burnt down, Johnston decided to return to the UK, settling in London in 1884. Two years later, he renamed his money-spinning product, which was now more concentrated, Bovril .

Its name came from bo – Latin for ox – and Vril, from vrilya, the name given to a powerful energy-giving fluid in the popular novel of the time, The Coming Race.

Johnston went on to sell his Bovril company for 2 million in 1896, four years before he died while on holiday in Cannes, in France.

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Almost from the day it was launched, Bovril enjoyed huge popularity. Some 3.5 million jars of Johnston's product are still sold every year in the UK.

Although many of the company's records were destroyed in the Second World War, the Johnston family's records are held by the local authority in Edinburgh. A spokeswoman for the city council's archives service said: "Though born in Midlothian in 1839, John Lawson Johnston spent his more youthful days working in a butcher's shop in the Canongate where his early experiments with 'fluid beef' began."

Deidre Brock, the city's culture leader, said:

"It's fascinating to discover that a product as celebrated as Bovril was invented here in the Old Town, on our doorstep."

• The exhibition will go live at from 14 June.

• Ten things you didn't know about Bovril