Robert Harvey's Bag

A piece of history was returned to the distillery recently; the Gladstone-style leather holdall bearing the nameplate of one of our young Victorian founders. 120 or 130 years have passed since it could have been last brought over to Islay; who knows what plans or tools or samples it may have once conveyed?

Robert Harvey, who aged 24 was the youngest by 10 years of the three bright Harvey brothers who together built Bruichladdich in 1881, was a ‘distillery designer’ to trade. He had a degree in engineering, and it’s him we have to thank for many of the innovations in the construction of the distillery (cavity wall insulation, gravity-fed draff chutes, steam-heated stills) which made Bruichladdich a progressive place right from the start.  He personally had a 20% stake in the Bruichladdich Distillery Co Ltd when the shares were first issued, and was a director of the company. He became distillery manager by default after a family rupture saw his brother John leaving the business, along with the factions responsible for the family’s other distilling interests in Dundashill and Yoker.

At around the time of Robert Harvey’s birth in 1857, Dundashill and Port Dundas were centres of Victorian industry - textile mills, chemical works, granaries, distilleries, glassworks, iron foundries, power stations and engineering works. North of Glasgow’s city centre, the area was a hub of the canal network, and home to what was then the highest chimney in the world. The Dundashill distillery site is approximately 15 acres, and in the mid 1880s was one of the largest distilleries in Scotland, producing 2.7million litres of (mostly) grain whisky per year.

According to Dougie, of the whisky story blogspot, (which follows the route of Alfred Barnard’s 1880s journey around the distilleries of Britain), the other distillery site at Yoker was really the Harvey family’s heartlands. They’d had the farmland there since the 1740s and apparently set up the distillery originally to make use of excess grain. There was reportedly a dairy attached to the distillery - “The cattle were fed on the draff produced by the distillery and the butter produced in the dairy 'fetched the highest price in the market' ". There is nothing left of the buildings. Blitz bombing of Clydebank in 1941 saw to the last of the bonded warehouses (by then it was in the possession of Distillers’ Company Limited, the main Scotch whisky monopoly); “The Cooperage” is now an apartment block.

Yorker’s “large bowling green, kept up by Mr. Harvey for the use of the men in the Distillery and the village,” recorded by Alfred Barnard in 1887, is still “well kept and well used,” however. [Read the full story on the whisky story blogspot >> ]

For reasons that we don’t know - though Bruichladdich’s business had been very tough - Robert Harvey left his family, including a son, Douglas, who had been born in Islay in 1884, and set out for Australia in 1891. He died intestate in Melbourne 6 months later aged just 35. His son Captain Douglas Harvey was killed in action in 1917, also leaving behind a widow and a son.

Various lines of the Harvey family do still visit us on a regular basis. We were happy to have Faith Muir open The Harvey Hall in 2003, and in 2004 we had a valinch single cask bottle honouring John, grandson of William Harvey (Robert Harvey of the briefcase's eldest brother). Robin Harvey family, other descendents of William, try to come annually; we were proud to have him and his daughter and granddaughter as some of the first guests on our gin tour earlier this year.

We acquired the bag through the curiousity of Mr Barry Higgins, a collector and pioneer of the Shepton Mallet Emporium down in England's Glastonbury country. "It's never happened like this before," said Barry, who had googled Robert Harvey and discovered the connection with Bruichladdich. He'd got it from a dealer, who'd come by it locally from a relative of an elderly lady, recently deceased, in whose loft it had lain for 50 years.

"When I got the bag, I was sure it was someone with substance. The cost of the brass details, even, would have been a week's wages," commented Barry.

His emporium took over an empty shop in the town's highstreet earlier this year, offering cabinets and display spaces to the community so they can trade today's collectables, steampunk-type memorabilia, or things they have made. "There's an interest in old things in the emporium. You can't just have an inanimate thing - you can, but there's life within them. You think, 'who last carried this,' or 'where has this been', and you bring things back to life."

Head of the Laddieshop, Ailsa Hayes, said excitedly, “I’ve been in touch with the National Museum in Scotland as to how best to preserve the bag. As soon as possible it will be on display in the shop.” 

With many thanks to Barry Higgins and the Harvey family.

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