Bill Jamieson: Let's hear it for our Scots tea heroes

Holyrood questions over the sale of English tea ahead of a Scottish brand are on to something, says Bill Jamieson

Scots helped to develop tea estates in Assam, northern India, and Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was).
Scots helped to develop tea estates in Assam, northern India, and Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was).

A storm in a teacup? That’s not the half of it. In the Scottish Parliament, the tea bags are flying over the discovery that the brew being served is supplied by the London-based Jacksons of Piccadilly.

Why no Scottish supplier such as Brodies, based in Musselburgh, East Lothian, critics ask? To make matters worse, the firm of Jackson is owned by Twinings, also founded in London. And among its best-selling brands is English Breakfast Tea. “It’s hard to have a favourite tea at Twinings,” trills the blurb on its website, “but if we had to pick, this would be it.” As if to add insult to injury, it is blended and packed in Hampshire.

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What a goad to Scottish sensibilities! Of Scottish Breakfast Tea, a stronger blend better suited to the soft waters of Scotland, there is no sign.

Little wonder that Miles Briggs, the Conservative MSP for Lothian, has written to the Parliament’s corporate body, calling for Holyrood’s catering contractors to contact Scottish tea suppliers. And I do hope this also goes for the tea suppliers to Bute House - lest the First Minister suffer a severe spluttering fit over her morning cuppa.

A small matter of no consequence, you may think. Why should the Scottish Parliament be much exercised? But this goes much further than sensitivities over “English Breakfast”. For Scots have made a major contribution to the development of what has grown to become one of the world’s most popular refreshments.

It is little short of a scandal that we do not pay more homage to Scottish endeavour in developing the wonderful tea estates in Assam, northern India, and Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was). And it is to two great Scots in particular we have to thank for this global comforter and pick-me-up.

It was Major Robert Bruce and his brother who developed tea growing in Assam. And it was a fellow Scot, James Taylor, who was instrumental in establishing the wonderful teas grown in Ceylon - Ceylon Dimbula Edinburgh prominent among them. And, of course, Lovers’ Leap.

Today, tea is a huge employer in Assam and a major contributor to the Sri Lankan economy. In the UK alone it is estimated that British tea drinkers consume the equivalent of two bathtubs of tea per year. And we spend £12,500 over our lifetimes purchasing tea.

Never mind the row over which tea blends are available (or not) at Holyrood. There should be a major campaign to have Scotland’s contribution to the global tea industry recognised in the Scottish Parliament, and indeed throughout Scottish tea retailers. It’s time we had a Great Exhibition to mark these outstanding examples of Scots enterprise and endeavour.

It is to Robert Bruce that the discovery of the Assam tea plant is attributed. He was one of the first Europeans to penetrate Assam as far up as Sadiya in the extreme north east of the State. He did this during a period of turbulence and strife, with tribal warfare, head hunting and factional feuds raging across the Assam valley.

On a trading mission visit in 1823 he noticed the plant growing wild in hills near Rangpur, then the capital of Assam. He arranged with the chief of the Singphow tribe to supply him with some tea plants. It was his brother C. A. Bruce, who took delivery following Robert’s death. These were planted in his garden, with a few leaves sent to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta where they were identified as belonging to the Camelia family.

C.A. Bruce was then appointed as the Superintendent of Government tea plantations. He raised nurseries of the indigenous tea plant and explored large parts of the Upper Assam. Eight chests of Assam tea were forwarded to London in 1838, duly auctioned on 10 January 1839 – thus did the future of mass tea drinking take root.

C. A. Bruce was awarded the English Society of Arts medal for his contribution in the development of the Assam tea plant. Others of course laid claims to this honour. The only person who did not receive any award was Robert Bruce, considered to be the real discoverer of the plant. Today Assam is one of the most prolific tea-growing regions in the world, producing some 1,500 million pounds of tea a year.

The development of Ceylon tea also owes much to Scots – Kincardineshire-born James Taylor in particular. He arrived to British Ceylon in 1852 and settled in the Loolecondera estate where he worked with fellow Scottish immigrant Thomas Lipton to develop the tea industry. In 1867 he cleared 19 acres of forest in the district of Hewaheta Lower to plant the first seedlings in what is now known as the No7 field of the Loolecondera Estate. In 1875 he managed to send the first shipment of Ceylon tea to the London Tea Auction. During his period on the estate the export of tea rose from just 23 pounds to 81 tonnes. By 1890 it hit 22,900 tonnes.

Thomas Lipton met Taylor on a visit to British Ceylon in the 1890s when they discussed tea exporting. Lipton’s company started buying Ceylon tea. But it did not work out well for James Taylor. The rapid growth of the Ceylonese tea industry allowed the large tea companies to take over, with the result that small farmers like Taylor were pushed out of the industry. He was also dismissed by the Loolecondera estate management and a year later, in 1892, at the age of 57, he died from severe gastroenteritis and dysentery.

The majority of the tea estates – more than 80 per cent - were owned by British companies until nationalisation in 1971. A museum was built in 1992 to commemorate Taylor in the place where he lived.

Today Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest tea producer. The industry contributes more than $1.5 billion to the economy and employs, directly or indirectly, more than one million people, with some 215,000 on tea plantations and estates.

For these reasons I do really bridle at the poor recognition of Scottish tea enterprise at Holyrood. I have a variety of Darjeeling, Assam and Ceylon loose leaf teas in my pantry - Ceylon Dimbula Edinburgh prominent among them - a large leaf Orange Pekoe grade tea noted for its body, strength and robust aroma.

The other week I was looking for a distinctive caddy and found an appealing primrose yellow patterned canister in Whittards in Princes Street.

Unfortunately it had “English breakfast tea” branded on it. I decanted the contents, replaced them with an Assam single estate tea, and spent an hour finding yellow-coloured paper and printing ‘FINEST LOOSE LEAF TEA – BILL’S BREAKFAST SELECT’ as a label. I carefully cut this out and glued it over the offending Whittards label.

‘English Breakfast’ has its place. But here in Scotland we should surely celebrate much more than we do the contribution of Scottish endeavour to a product enjoyed every day by millions. It’s not a ‘storm in a tea cup’ we need – but a proper recognition of this achievement.