West Barns Brewery – Rise and Decline
West Barns Brewery weathered several changes in ownership in less than a century. It became the biggest brewing concern in Dunbar parish. Ultimately, changing circumstances in the 1870s led to its closure.
Origin of the Brewery
The brewery was first erected in 1788 by Mr Hamilton of Bangour (a local landowner) and leased by William Burnet, who petitioned the town council for a water supply from their Mills. It was soon subsumed into Andrew Taylor’s West Barns Distillery. The site was north of Edinburgh Road and west of ‘Sea Greens’. Taylor, who operated the East Linton Distillery, initiated his new distillery works in 1798. The following year he consolidated his distilling interests on the new premises at West Barns. Mrs Fall, who owned much of the property and land in the village and held the leases of the mills, advertised their sale in the Edinburgh Courant. Taylor bought many of the Fall lots during the first decade of the 19th century. Plans suggest that Taylor operated the existing brewery as part of his distilling complex, but details are scanty.
By 1818 the distillery was capable of an output of approaching 60,000 gallons. By the middle of the following decade this had increased tenfold! Changes in the company structure heralded the increasing involvement of Andrew Taylor junior in the business – and also more difficult trading conditions. After Andrew Taylor senior’s death in 1833 his creditors pressed young Andrew for settlement. And that was the end of the distillery!
The Heyday of the Brewery
West Barns Brewery, however, continued. A local farmer had bought the site and his sons took it on. Andrew and John Nelson built the brewery up, but on the death of their father the brewery was let. The new brew master was Alexander Lindsay, from Lanarkshire. Continuity was maintained through Andrew Burnside, who had started as a boy with the Nelsons and became Lindsay’s brewer: in 1861 Burnside was living in Bielside. The next change (1855) was that Lindsay bought out the former owners. But just three years later the lease was on the market again.
The new leaseholder was William Steel, scion of a Glasgow brewing dynasty. He entered into possession at the start of the summer of 1858, paying £150 annually for an agreed period of 10 years. During the lease, in 1860, title to the property passed to Lindsay’s son-in-law, James Orr. In 1863 Orr made over title to his wife, Lindsay’s daughter; this move had future implications. Meanwhile, Steel was able to profit form a lack of go-ahead competition locally – Dunbar’s Lamer Street Brewery was in decline and Dudgeon’s of Belhaven was more concerned with malting in these years.
The advent of the Haddingtonshire Courier in 1859 opened up a new avenue of advertising: Steel was quick to exploit this. The opening of the paperworks at West Barns in the 1860s brought a further boost to the local market – but it dawned on Steel that there were going to be problems with his new neighbour. Paper-making demands vast quantities of water and the new plant put stress on the village (and brewery) supplies. Nonetheless, Steel was able to expand the business both locally and further afield – he built a considerable trade in the Newcastle area.
In 1875 Alexander Lindsay, the former operator and owner died. His daughter Marion Orr resolved to sell. The new owner was Alexander Annandale, with whom Steel was already at odds over his water supplies. This marked the beginning of the end.
Illness (perhaps brought on by stress) forced Steel’s retirement. His son Thomas tried to maintain the business but with a host of bad debts he could not himself meet his due rent. Consequently, the Annandales advertised the brewery to let, an action which prompted other creditors to go to law and Thomas Steel was forced into bankruptcy. Alexander Annandale, who only received a fraction of the debt he claimed, then attempted to find a new leaseholder for the brewery. There were no takers. The Courier documented the end in November 1890 when the results of a sale of the remaining utensils and barrels was reported.
Some dates and details noted in this overview have been extracted from Jim Lawrie’s short publication West Barns Brewery, copies of which can be consulted at the John Gray Centre. Follow the in-page links for more about Brewing and Distilling in East Lothian.