The thread about the Youngers and the McEwans, a Scottish brewing dynasty that would combine to totally dominate the Scottish industry. And just what it has to do with “Alice in Wonderland”

Younger is a famous name in Scottish brewing, but there is not one but three, and it can sometimes get confusing; William Younger of the Abbey Brewery in Edinburgh’s Canongate is not to be confused with Robert Younger who brewed across the way at St. Ann’s Yards, or with George Younger who brewed at Alloa. They were all related through bloodlines and marriage, as was another well known name in Edinburgh brewing, William McEwan.

William Younger & Company can trace its roots back to William Younger of West Linton, born in 1733, where the family had long been farmers and minor gentry.

William Younger by Alan Ramsay
William Younger by Alan Ramsay
Grizel Syme
Grizel Syme

Younger moved to Leith in 1749, aged 16, to make his way in the world. He met his future wife, Grizel Syme – she too was from West Linton – and through her family, William got a job in the Excise as a Watchman (overseer) at the Leith Glassworks, collecting the duty payable on each bottle manufactured. On the death of his father in 1755, William’s inheritance and salary with the Excise (in particular his commission) was sufficient to allow him to marry, and he was soon promoted to an “Excise Surveyor of Edinburgh and Precincts” which more than doubled his income. William and Grizel made a series of good investments; a share in a ship on the Leith to London and Low Countries routes (the William of Leith); a brewery in the Kirkgate; in Edinburgh – Leith stage coach company and in cellars and property around Leith. William died aged just 36, apparently from illness brought about by overwork. But Grizel kept up the businesses. She remarried the Leith brewer Alexander Anderson and continued to brew under the name Grizel Younger Anderson.

William and Grizel’s son – Archibald Younger – served his apprenticeship with his stepfather Alexander Anderson, and with his inheritance started to brew in his own right in the Abbey Sanctuary of Holyroodhouse at Croft-an-Righ in 1778. Archibald was obviously a shrewd businessman – by brewing in the Sanctuary, he evaded having to pay the local tax of 2d Scots on every pint of beer brewed with the town ( a tax which also impacted upon the Leith brewers).

Ainslie's Town Plan of 1804, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Ainslie’s Town Plan of 1804, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Achibald’s ale was (in)famously strong – in Traditions of Edinburgh, Chambers says “Younger’s Edinburgh ale – a potent fluid which almost glued the lips of the drinker together, and of which few, therefore, could despatch more than a bottle“. Co-incidentally, the first known photograph of drinking beer was taken nearby at the Rock House studio of Hill & Adamson in 1844. The lighthearted photograph was taken by Robert Adamson, and shows (left to right) writer and stained glass artist James Ballantine; social reformer Dr. George Bell; and David Octavius Hill himself. They are all on the sauce and having a giggle. For obvious reasons it is titled “Edinburgh Ale“. It is a very impressive photograph considering just how long they would have to have sat perfectly still in their mirthsome poses to give the long exposure time necessary.

Edinburgh Ale by Hill & Adamson, 1844

Archibald’s brother – William Younger (junior) – also went into brewing at the Abbey, buying a brewery from James Blair in 1803, and concentrated on exporting beer to the London market. A contemporary newspaper described his ale as “surpass[ing] in strength and flavour any ever offered to sale in London“. William and Archibald brewed separately, but began to collaborate, introducing London porters to the Scottish market under the name “A. C. & W. Younger”. On Archibald’s death in 1819, William sold his brother’s business and used the return to invest in his own. This consolidation resulted in the building of William Younger’s Abbey Brewery. The business of William and his partner Alexander Smith – a brewer of Scotch ales for export – was inherited by William’s son, (William Younger IIIrd) and Alexander’s son Andrew.

The Abbey Brewery. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor
The Abbey Brewery. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor

The business went from strength to strength and the brewery relentlessly expanded, throughout the 19th century, staying in the hands of successive generations of the Younger and Smith families. Export to London and the US was a key part of the business. The other key market was the northeast of England. Youngers traded heavily on their Scottish roots and their pubs were known as “Scotch houses” in England. By the turn of the 20th century, Youngers totally dominated Scottish brewing, and were producing 25% of all beer in Scotland, and exporting 80,000 barrels a year to London, from Leith to the Low Countries and to the Imperial family of Russia who were a private customer.

Ye Olde London, a William Younger and Company Ltd. public house in London
Ye Olde London, a William Younger and Company Ltd. public house in London

World War 1 hit the Scottish brewers hard, their business was reduced by 2/3 between 1913 to 1918. Youngers business continued to modernise after the war, but the onset of the Great Depression, a renewed temperance movement and increasing duty that they were obliged not to pass onto the consumer saw them forced into a merger with one of their great rivals – William McEwan of Fountainbridge. Thus in 1931, Scottish Brewers came to be, with Youngers accounting for roughly two thirds of the new business and Mcewans the other third.

William McEwan, a caricature from Vanity Fair, 1902
William McEwan, a caricature from Vanity Fair, 1902

McEwans were a much younger business than Youngers, being founded in Fountainbridge in 1856 by William. Coincidentally, he hailed from that other centre of Younger brewing at Alloa, and was a relation through marriage to the George Younger brewing family. He was also the nephew of John and David Jeffrey who brewed at the Heriot Brewery in the Grassmarket, where he learned the craft of brewing and business. He had tried unsuccessfully to find a going concern to buy but after a number of years took the plunge and set out on his own, backed by loans from his family and banks. Fortunately, he had a good combination of self confidence, business and brewing skill and good fortune, and his business prospered. His brewery found particular success in “India” pale ales for the export market, with the British Army and with northeast England. McEwan’s prosperity allowed him to turn himself over to politics, and he was the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central from 1886 to 1900.

After the merger, Youngers and McEwans largely continued to do their own thing, however they did collaborate on their military and export markets and formed a new company , Younger-McEwan Ltd. to exclusively service this. They also experimented with the new fangled drink of Lager, and again this was a collaboration, called MY Lager (McEwans-Younger).

MY Lager. Clearly targeting the female market with this new (to the British market) drink. © Edinburgh City Libraries
MY Lager. Clearly targeting the female market with this new (to the British market) drink. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Another area of early collaboration was on advertising strategies. Scottish breweries had copied Bass in introducing trademarks for their beers to reduce counterfeiting and increase awareness of quality, as well as a brand recognition tool. This made it easy to tell the three different Scottish Younger breweries apart; Robert used the stag’s head and cross of the arms of the Burgh of Canongate where they were based; George used a stylised “Y”; and William used a series of three red and white triangles arranged into a Star of David – more than just a little bit influenced by Bass’ distinctive red triangle.

Robert Younger beer label.
George Younger beer labels.
William Younger beer labels.
William Younger beer labels.

Emphasising the importance of export and military markets, William McEwans used crossed flags; the Union flag and the Royal Standard, beneath a hand holding a globe. The below advert doubly plays up the military connection and you can see the company logo on the poster behind the barman.

1910 McEwan's poster. © Edinburgh City Libraries
1910 McEwan’s poster. © Edinburgh City Libraries

William Younger sought to modernise their advertising and had introduced the advertising figure of “Father William” in 1921; a long-bearded older gent enjoying a pint of Younger’s finest, the character’s advanced age a play on the brewer’s name. Slogans of such as “the art of getting YOUNGER by Father William“, “Oi be a hundred and one and getting YOUNGER every day“, “Old soldiers never die, they get YOUNGER every day” and “Get YOUNGER every day” were used. A light pale ale – Wee Willie – was later introduced in his honour, resulting in the awkward order at the bar of “I’ll have a Wee Willie please barman

Father William on the Artisan Bar in Abbeyhill. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor
Father William on the Artisan Bar in Abbeyhill. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor

Father William was more than a little plagiarised from a poem that appears in Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was itself a parody of Robert Southey’s “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” of 1799.

You are old, Father William, the young man did say,
All nonsense, my lad, I get Younger each day.

Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 5, “Advice from the Caterpillar”.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
⁠The few locks which are left you are grey;

The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them from Metrical Tales etc.

Father William was conceived by the English graphic artist Alfred Leete, whose best known work you are probably familiar with…


Leetes’ original Father William cartoon was introduced in 1927 in a specific campaign for Younger’s new Sparkling Holyrood Ale, as they attempted to introduce new beers to a more discerning market segment in response to rising beer duty. William Youngers bought the copyright from the estate of Leete on his death in 1933 for £175 (about £14,000 in 2022). Youngers spent what was an enormous sum at the time on advertising; in 1931 they spent £31,000 of which £17,000 alone was in London.

After the Scottish Brewers merger, the new company looked to emulate the success of Father William as an advertising figure for McEwan’s. They tried “The McEwan Man”, which never got beyond a concept, and then “The Wee McEwan”, a boy in a tartan bunnet. The latter was quickly cancelled when a letter was recievd from the lawyers of fellow Edinburgh brewers Murrays, who were using a boy in a tartan bunnet called “Wee Murray” to sell their beer.

“Wee Murray”

McEwan’s would eventually adopt a laughing cavalier, based on signage they had been using for their London pubs, as the corporate figure. This increasingly displaced their globe logos on branding over time.

A McEwan's Export cavalier ornament
A McEwan’s Export cavalier ornament

Scottish Brewers came to totally dominate the Scottish market, investing heavily in the latest technology. Brewing was consolidated at Fountainbridge and Holyrood, with the site of the Abbey Brewery becoming the company’s head office (now site of Scottish Parliament). In the 1960s, the industry heavily consolidated. Many small scale, out-dated Scottish breweries were snapped up by their English rivals to get access to their tied houses and market share; the breweries themselves generally being quickly shut down and replaced with production by the parent company.

Scottish Brewers got in on the consolidation scene. In 1959, they bought out their neighbour, familial relation and namesake at St. Ann’s Yards – Robert Younger – shutting them down 2 years later. In 1960 they bought Edinburgh rivals T. & J. Bernard at Gorgie and J. & J. Morrisons at Holyrood, closing both down almost immediately. This was on the watch of Stenhard Ernest Andrew Landale, better known as S. E. A. Landale, the company’s long serving Managing Director and a captain of Industry. This modernisation strategy of expansion and consolidation was crowned by a merger with the Tyne Brewery of Newcastle, where Scottish Brewers did a lot of business, to form Scottish & Newcastle.

Newcastle's famous Brown Ale. CC-BY-SA 4.0 Kuriostempel
Newcastle’s famous Brown Ale. CC-BY-SA 4.0 Kuriostempel

The McEwan’s Fountain Brewery in Fountainbridge was relocated over the road to the site of the former North British Rubber mills and totally rebuilt in 1971. The ultra modern, automated brewery became an Edinburgh landmark. In 1986 the old Holyrood Brewery was closed and in 1995, S&N bought the English brewer Courage, of Reading. The brewing operations of the company were reorganised into the subsidiary Scottish Courage.

The new Fountain Brewery. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The new Fountain Brewery. © Edinburgh City Libraries

From this point on, the company began to act like one that was actively disinterested in its core purpose as a UK regional brewer and tried to become an international BrewCo, with some initial success. It bought up popular brands, advertised them heavily and indulged in endless cost-cutting and selling off of its huge portfolio of licensed premises to “streamline” the business and raise capital. When the pubs were all sold, they turned on their breweries. The Fountain Brewery went in 2004; the Tyne Brewery the following year. This concentrated operations in Reading at the former Courage site and at John Smith’s Tadcaster brewery which had been acquired along with Courage.

To continue production of smaller scale, regional products, the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh and the Federation Brewery in Gateshead were acquired. This caused the scandal of shifting Newcastle Brown Ale production across the Tyne. After a sometimes acrimonious, takeover battle with its erstwhile industry partner Carlsberg and also Heineken, in 2008 S&N sold itself to the latter consortium in a £7.8bn deal, and is now known as Heineken UK. Heineken UK are still based out of S&N’s former John Courage House offices at South Gyle, a suitably bland and corporate setting for what had become a bland and corporate brewer.

John Courage House in South Gyle
John Courage House in South Gyle


  1. […] McEwan’s was one half of what became, Scottish Brewers in 1931, when they merged with biggest …. (The Younger and McEwans families, including Robert Younger of Abbeyhill and George Younger of Alloa, were all extended family relations of eachother through marriage, as were the Jeffreys of the Heriot Brewery). Scottish Brewers were the dominant brewing and public house force in both Edinburgh and Scotland. […]


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