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The First Tea in Scotland

Portrait of Mary of Modena Pietersz
Mary of Modena, Wife of James II

Tea was first served in the royal palaces of both Scotland and England by queens who grew up on The Continent where tea was already a fashionable beverage.

The Duchess of York, Italian born Mary of Modena, picked up her tea habit while living in the Netherlands. She poured the first tea in Scotland in 1680 when it was served at Holyrood Palace at Edinburgh. Her husband would become James II of England.

Catherine of Braganza, England’s first tea-drinking queen, had been drinking tea at Hampton Court since 1662 following her arrival from Portugal to marry Charles II.

Both imported queens were instrumental in sharing their tea ritual with nobility and the exotic – yet expensive – Chinese beverage was quickly infused into the wealthiest households. Everyone wanted to imitate the lifestyle of the royal family!

By 1705, George Smith, a Scottish goldsmith advertised green tea for 16 shillings per pound and Bohea black tea at 30 shillings per pound. He sold his expensive tea alongside his jewelry.

But, by the 1730s, tea-drinking fell out of favor for a few decades as it was denounced as being effeminate and a threat to the masculinity of the Scotsman. Some nationalists saw it as just another plot by the English to undermine the Scottish spirit. Dr. Thomas Short published a pamphlet in 1650 warning that tea drinking would “lead to an idle sedentary life…Green tea thins the humors and contract the body fiber; Bohea tea smooth and softens fibers.”

Alas, a cup of hot tea is often the body’s best defense against the cold damp breezes that sweep in from the North Sea, and tea became a common beverage in the early 1800s as it became more affordable. Scotland saw the rise of many tea advocates over the next two hundred years.

Andrew Melrose Company building in Edinburgh
Andrew Melrose & Company, in operation from 1812 – 2004 in Edinburgh

Andrew Melrose & Company began selling tea in Edinburgh in 1812 and eventually obtained a Royal Warrant as tea purveyor to Queen Victoria and the royal palaces Hollyrood and Balmoral. Melrose was the first British company to legally obtain tea independently of the East India Company. His leadership helped lead to the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on tea in 1833 and the break-up of the quasi-monopoly held by the old established London wholesale dealers. In January 1836 alone, 1000 cases of tea arrived in Leith for Melrose. The company closed in 2004 after supplying tea to the UK and beyond for nearly two centuries.

Old Lipton tea boxes on store shelves
Lipton Tea Packaging from 1930s

Glasgow witnessed the genesis of Thomas Lipton’s tea empire in 1871 when he returned from a sojourn in America and opened his first store selling meats, cheeses and grocery items. Soon his 300 stores were selling tea grown on his estates located on the island country of Ceylon. Lipton’s, now owned by Unilever, is the world’s largest tea company, controlling 14% of the global tea market.

By 1875, Stuart Cranston installed a few tables and chairs in his Glasgow tea store for the comfort of customers. He offered tea with milk and sugar along with optional bread and cakes. His was the first sit-down tearoom in Scotland. But, before long, his sister Mary became the grand dame of the Glasgow tearoom movement when she opened five tearooms, some designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, architect of the Glasgow School of Art. Her Willow Tearooms remains open to this day on Sauchiehall Street.

Bruce Richardson Profile Picture

Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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