From monks to modern times

The Vaults is where the Society was founded and continues to call home. But as SMWS founder Pip Hills writes, its history in the wine and spirits business dates back to medieval times

The land at The Vaults was held in feudal tenure by the de Lestalric barons, who got it from King David I in the early 13th century. It became known as Restalrig parish and there is an old church of that name not far away.

At some point in the medieval period the building passed into the ownership of the Cistercian monastery at Newbattle, near Dalkeith. The monks, who liked the good life, imported wine by the shipload from Bordeaux or thereabouts. The wine was paid for with coal, which had been mined by the monastery’s serfs in Midlothian. (There were lots of shallow coal seams near Newbattle, so even with the primitive technology of the time, mining it wasn’t difficult.) The coal was brought by horse-drawn sledges (for there were no wheeled vehicles in Scotland at that time) and dumped on the bank of the river just down from The Vaults. (The river was navigable up to that point.) The place was known as Coalhill Quay: the street is still called Coalhill, though few nowadays know why. The casks of wine were rolled up the hill and deposited in The Vaults.

ABOVE: The stucco panel over fireplace dates from 1632, seen in a picture from JG Thomson in 1959

ABOVE: Wine barges at Leith harbour

The monastic connection lasted until the Reformation in the mid-16th century, when the building passed into the ownership of the Vintners’ Guild of the Port of Leith. (All trade then was restricted to members of the trade guilds.) The ornate stucco in the Vintners’ Room downstairs probably dates from not long after that and is certainly 17th-century work. The alcove with the scallop shell above is probably the place where the Master of the Guild stood and auctioned the cargoes among the guild members. (Who, apparently, were few enough in number to fit into that little room.) The ground floor of the building dates from around that time: you can see that the whinstone of which it is built is darker than the stone of the upper part of the building.

The craft guild system was breaking up toward the end of the 17th century and in 1705 John Thomson, a wine merchant, bought the building. His business prospered and in 1795 his descendants, who then went by the name of JG Thomson & Co, raised it to its present size. This must have been a substantial enterprise, given the size of the building. The structural timbers for the interior spanned the entire width of the building and were the best part of a metre square in section.

Vaults cellar and fungus, 1950s

I know the fungus was alive about 1990, for after a dinner party I held there, it was found to have grown wherever wine had been spilt.

Of a hard pine timber, they probably couldn’t have been found in Scotland at that time. They came by sailing ship from Memel in Lithuania – probably as deck cargo, given that they were likely too long to fit in the hold of a ship. The roof tiles are Dutch. The business prospered in the 19th century and a great variety of wines were bottled. The bottles weren’t labelled, but identified by the impression on the wax seal which covered the cork. I found dozens of these seals in the building, with legends like ‘Frontignac 1864’ or ‘Claret 1875’. Then, with the decline in wine consumption which happened in the 20th century, that side of the business diminished. Some of the slack seems to have been taken up by whisky, for the firm appears to have begun to bottle whisky in the later 19th century, including Glenfarclas sold as a single malt. They were, though, still importing wine in the case as late as 1977.

It's unclear when the firm stopped using the subterranean vaults for cask storage, but I would guess by the 1920s or 30s. The arches of the vaults hang with a black fungus which was brought on the casks from the wine caves in Bordeaux. I know the fungus was alive about 1990, for after a dinner party I held there, it was found to have grown wherever wine had been spilt.

There was a tradition in JG Thomson that if anyone received an injury which caused an open wound, a boy would be sent down to the vaults to bring a handful of fungus, which would be applied to the wound, thus ensuring there would be no infection. I wondered about this and, in the later 1980s, took some of the fungus to a friend in the biology department of Edinburgh University and asked him if he could tell me about the stuff. He came back with a report which said that it was a symbiotic collection of moulds and fungi which probably lived on the alcohol and other compounds evaporating through the cask walls. One of the moulds was penicillin, and JG Thomson had discovered, purely empirically, an antibiotic.

JG Thomson was still in business when I walked up the stair one morning in 1983. The firm’s offices took up the whole of the first floor, with bottles in cases stored on the floors above and bottles in stone racks on the floor below. What is now the Members’ Room was a general office with desks and typewriters and telephones. By that time the business was only a shadow of its former self and had been taken over by another company which could, apparently, see no advantage in retaining the building. So when I expressed an interest, they offered to sell it to me. The rest, as they say, is history.

ABOVE: The ‘All roads lead to The Vaults’ map published by previous owners JG Thomson in 1959