Capital Brewing

Scotland is celebrated throughout the world for its whisky. The richness of the country’s brewing history is not so well known, but as John Martin from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association writes, it’s a tradition that stretches back to pre-Roman times – with Edinburgh at its heart


Whisky and beer have several things in common. Both use the abundance of good quality water and barley, and in some cases the ability to extract flavours when matured in wooden barrels. The art of brewing beer is reported to have originated in Mesopotamia (now mainly present-day Iraq) in about 4000BC and spread to Ancient Egypt and Europe before it arrived in Britain.

To begin with, Scotland made a crude form of ale from fermented grain with the addition of different flavours such as rowan berries, heather shoots, broom or bog myrtle. In fact, the Picts were noted brewers of spruce and heather beers. Robert Louis Stevenson did write a poem titled Heather Ale, which tells the story of how important that particular beer was.


Brewing began in Edinburgh in the 12th century, when the monks of Holyrood Abbey sank a well and used the water to brew their ale. By the 15th century brewers were recognised figures in society, considered as important as bakers and fleshers (butchers) in providing life’s necessities. At this time water was unsafe to drink and beer was drunk as an alternative.

Brewing was widely practised in private homes, of ale (brewed without hops) to begin with and later of beer (with hops). Hops were first imported to this country in the early 1500s from the Netherlands and gave beers their wholesome aromatic flavour. It is interesting to note that around 1500 almost all brewers in Edinburgh were female. These women, known as ‘browstaris’, paid four pennies for a licence, which gave them the privilege of hanging an ‘ale wand’ from their windows to signify they had ale to sell.

In 1596 the Society of Brewers was formed to regulate grain supply, water for brewing and pricing policies and by the early 1700s there was a move away from domestic brewing to public brewing. An early public brewery in Edinburgh was the Argyle Brewery, which was adjacent to Heriot-Watt College, where the first course in brewing was run.


In the latter half of the 1700s many public breweries were appearing and tended to be concentrated around the Palace of Holyrood and the Canongate. It was not entirely by accident that the Holyrood area had such an abundance of breweries. The hilly ground and subterranean rock layers that influence both the flow and nature of the water in the area also influenced the sites of breweries. There is a structural trough beneath the Royal Mile and beyond, which contains an aquifer, a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater.

In the latter half of the 19th century this geological phenomenon was discovered at Craigmillar, which led to breweries being established in this area too. The brewery water obtained from wells formed a pattern and became known as the ‘charmed circle’.


The underground water supply was ideal for brewing pale ale and in time Edinburgh became known as the brewing capital of Britain. At its peak, the city was home to more than 40 breweries.

Edinburgh was the ideal location for brewing, with its excellent underground water supply and barley grown in the Lothians. Coal was available from nearby collieries for heating and boiling. Transport was vital in establishing further expanding markets, with the introduction of the railways and exporting beer by ship, as Edinburgh had its own port, Leith. As a result, Edinburgh ales became famous the world over and the city was synonymous with quality. The decline in brewing started at the beginning of the First World War, and after the Second World War there was a process of rationalisation and amalgamation which saw a decline in the number of breweries.

Many of the better-known brewing companies were eventually bought over, including:

  • Campbell, Hope & King, closed by Whitbread in 1971
  • Ushers was operated by Lorimer’s from 1976 and acquired by Allied Breweries in 1980. In 1981 brewing ceased.
  • Drybrough was acquired by Watney Mann in 1965 and they in turn sold the company to Allied Lyons in 1987 for £40.5m and was closed shortly afterwards.
  • Wm. Younger and Wm. McEwan had previously joined forces to form Scottish Brewers in 1931. In 1960, Scottish Brewers amalgamated with Newcastle Breweries to form Scottish & Newcastle and grew to become the largest brewing company in the UK. Scottish & Newcastle were bought over by a combined bid from Heineken and Carlsberg in 2008.

In the last five-10 years the number of breweries in Scotland is again on the increase and provide a much wider range of beer styles and flavours than years gone by. Long may it continue.

John Martin is chair of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. For further information on the history of brewing in Scotland, visit

The Commercial Brewery on Edinburgh’s Canongate, owned by J&J Morison.