It appears that our anti-cedents came over with William the Conqueror as the name is thought to have derived from the old French, presumably Norman, "Ussier" and developed into the present modern form of Usher.
In Scotland the first mention of the name was in connection with an Usher who was a favorite of King David II of Scotland in the fourteenth century. He married a daughter of Aymer de Macuswell. After that the Ushers inter-married with the Ramseys and Wardrops.
At the same time there was an Usher who was Provost of Peebles which is recorded in the "Exchange Rolls, Scot. 1330. Today there is a wynd bearing the name Usher in Peebles. This must have been named after Provost Usher or one of his descendants in Peebles.
In the Prefixes to the entries taken from the Parish Registers of Melrose there appears the following: 'in the last will and testament of Gilbert Hately, Gattonside, dated 1547, occurs the following : "to Laird Usher, my brither-in-law o' Faftenfield, a hunder merkis Scotis and my nobbler and the two auld pricklers which I took frae the lads of the Border when they came ae nicht to harrie me"'.
We have to take the "good" with the "bad". In Pitcairn's "Criminal Trials, III, 3, p.568" is the entry on the 21st July 1624 relating to "Adie Uscher, borne in Birkinhaugh in Liddesdale reived along with Robert Elliot of Redheugh and with his son Will Uscher (aet 16) so many sheep, oxen, cows and goats from Wm. Heron of Schewingscheill Castle". Poor Adie was hanged on the Burrowmuir of Edinburgh and his son Will "nocht being past saxtene yeiris" of age was banished under pain of death. It is believed that on the intercession of Scott of Buccleuch that Elliot was Pardoned.
By the early 17th century the family had proliferated in the parish of Melrose. The name Usher appears on the very first page of the Parish records. The first entry is "Georg b 14/12/1626 - m. Bessie Tait of Gallowshiels". The Ushers belonged to the villages of Darnick and Bridgend. In a letter from James Curle, Melrose, dated January 1855, he states "the family of Usher appear to have been large proprietors in Darnick for a period exceeding 250 years ------". This George Usher was nine generations back from myself.
In 1752 the lands of Toftfield (now Huntlyburn) were acquired by John Usher from Charles Wilkinson, a Writer in Melrose.
James Usher his only child had a large family. On April Fools Day in 1782 Andrew his third youngest of twelve children was born at Toftfield! They didn't play about in those days! This Andrew went on to found the world famous Whisky Distilling and Blending Company of Andrew Usher & Co in 1813 and the famous Usher Brewery in Edinburgh in 1831. He claimed that he "fully maintained the character of the April Fool" in a narrative of his life which he wrote shortly before his death in 1855. Obviously he was more than that!
In 1816 the current John Usher of Toftfield. eldest brother of the April Fool, Andrew, sold the greater part of Toftfield to his neighbour Sir Walter Scott who had by now built his famed Abbotsford House. At this time Toftfield included Harleyburn, now Chiefswood. Sir Walter Scott changed the name Toftfield to Huntlyburn which is what it is known as to this day. Also on Toftfield was Cauldshiels loch and Rhymer's glen where Thomas the Rhymer in ancient times used to meet the Queen of the Fairies (the Faerie Queen in Scottish). The following poem alludes to one such meeting:-
"True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
a ferlie he spied wi his e'e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon tree.
The Borders General Hospital is sited on Huntlyburn (Toftfield) now.
On purchasing Toftfield from John Usher, Sir Walter told his publisher and friend J Ballantine: "I have closed with Usher for his beautiful patrimony, which makes me a great Laird". John Usher and Sir Walter became fast and life-long friends. They shared a love of greyhound coursing with John being famed for his good greyhounds. Sir Walter often visited Toftfield to see John but usually had to wait until he was found. While he was waiting he would tell stories to John's children and thus won their hearts. He was much taken by the second youngest son of John's-also called John. This John was a precocious little fellow and Sir Walter encouraged him to repeat bits of poetry and to sing. This John Usher grew up and Poetry and Song became the ruling passion of his life. He finds his place as a poet in the tenth volume of Edwards of Brechin "Modern Scots Poets".
However the senior generation will always have its say. In this regard John Usher's Mother used to say of Sir Walter. "What a pity so clever a man did not write sermons instead of novels"!
Meanwhile young Andrew (the April Fool) had grown up. After trying his hand at his brother Hugh's Counting House in London and this not being a success he was sent to Leith in 1800 to supervise the selling of corn from his elder brother's John and Hugh's warehouse there. This also did not work out. He then had a shot at the Hosiery trade in Hawick but did not like Hawick. He opened his own hosiery business in Edinburgh specialising in the wholesale trade. In this he was successful at last. So much so that he decided that London was the place to be. He moved there, went into partnership with a Worcester manufacturer called Hardwick, and did very well for a while. However he was never entirely settled in the Hosiery and Glove trade. In about 1808 he was offered a share in Mr. Dunlop's Spirit business in Edinburgh. He decided he preferred the Spirit trade to the Hosiery trade and dissolved his London partnership which was then known as Usher, Hardwick and Perrin. After five years with Mr. Dunlop he got fed up with all the drinking he had to do in treating customers to drinks. In 1813 he therefore commenced on his own as a Spirit Merchant with his brother in law, James Fiarbairn, doing the travelling.
In the 1820's or early 30's Andrew was appointed by John Smith of the Glenlivet Distillery to sell his entire output. This arrangement was to last until the twentieth century and for many years the entire output of the world famous Glenlivet Distillery was controlled by Andrew Usher & Co.
By the 1840's Andrew was experimenting hard with the blending
of Highland Malts with the idea of producing a more uniform and palatable
Throughout this period he was constantly expanding his business. He had a constant succession of office staff and some changes of partners. His last two partners were Mr. George Home and Mr. Moubray who looked after the London office. When this did not work as he expected. Andrew dissolved the partnership and took on his two youngest sons, Andrew and John, as his partners in 1848.
Before this he had however set up his two eldest sons James and Thomas as Brewers in Merchant Street, Edinburgh in 1831. This business eventually became Thomas Usher and Co, Brewers of Edinburgh, with an office in London as well. So from 1831 onwards there were the Whisky Ushers and the Beer Ushers in addition to the ones who were still in farming and other business pursuits
For the present I shall continue with Andrew 1's line--the Whisky Ushers. I shall return to the Beer Ushers later.
Andrew 1 took on his second youngest son, Andrew II and his youngest son, John, as partners in 1848. They were his 11th and 12th children with this John being the youngest of the brood. As I said before people did not play in those days! This partnership proved to be a success from day one. This goes to prove the old adage that if you persevere long enough you get the rewards at the end of the day. These two young men were to turn Andrew 1's business into a huge family business which dealt in all the major countries of the world and which, more than any other firm, made whisky the world beater it eventually became in the 1880's. One of the main reasons for this was Andrew's experiments with the blending of whisky in the 1840's.
In 1853 the firm produced and marketed the very first blended whisky ever made in the form of Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet. Shortly before his death in 1855 Andrew 1 wrote: "By the united exertions of my two sons the business during the last seven years has far exceeded anything it ever did before". In 1859 Andrew Usher and Co purchased the Edinburgh Distillery and continued to expand.
Up until this time (the mid nineteenth century) virtually all the whisky being produced in Scotland was for the local market. This was because Whisky had hardly been heard of as a beverage in England, or elsewhere in the world. England could be described as living in the "Brandy and Sodaic era" so universal was the use of that drink. However with the introduction of blending by Andrew Usher & Co and the expert marketing of blended whisky the drink, slowly at first, and then with gathering momentum, spread into England. In the early 1880's it literally took England by storm thus ending the Brandy and Sodiac era. Thereafter Andrew Usher & Co appointed agents in all the principle countries of the world. Sales rocketed. By this time Distiller's Company had been formed. To combat it and also to secure their supplies of grain whisky Andrew II and John decided that another Distillery should be built in Edinburgh. This led to the founding of the North British Distillery Company in Edinburgh with Andrew II, William Sanderson (of Vat 69) and John Crabbie (of Crabbie,s Green Ginger) as the three founders. Andrew was the Chairman and John Crabbie was Vice Chairman. The first Managing Director of the firm was William Sanderson of Leith whose own firm produced the famous Vat 69 whisky. Other famous names in Scotch whisky were among the original shareholders and on the board of Directors: White Horse; Johnny Walker; MacKinley; MacDonald & Muir; Dewar; Crawford; Buchanan and Arthur Bell of Perth. This group were very powerful competitors to the Distiller's group. The North British was completed in 1885 and after 10 years or so, despite big Capital outlays for more warehouses, newer machinery and the like, the Company was embarrassingly well off in cash terms. By 1897 the North British was producing three million gallons of whisky a year and had sold the following years entire production in advance. It was now the largest and best equipped distillery in Scotland.
At this point I should point out that Andrew II had the greatest misfortune to lose his two eldest children, Andrew and George, in the very same year of 1858 when they were only 5 years and 3 years old respectively. Murphy's law being what it was (and unfortunately what it still is) thereafter he had three daughters in a row, with the last being born in 1884. At this time he was 58 years old. He obviously wanted a son and heir but fate decreed otherwise.
Andrew remained Chairman of the North British for thirteen years until 1898. He died shortly after retiring in that very year.
With the growth in demand for whisky Andrew Usher & Co had built what were then considered the largest warehouses in the world for the storage of whisky at St. Leonards. The railway ran right up to these warehouses.
In 1896 Andrew donated to the City of Edinburgh £100,000 with which he stipulated a "City Hall" should be built which should "seat three thousand people", at the same time expressing his wish that good music should be played and enjoyed in it as he wished the general public to have a greater appreciation of good music. After many years of squabbling by the City Council as to where the Hall should be built a site in Lothian Road was chosen -- long after Andrew's death.
In 1898 John Usher, the surviving Brother, had been approached by a Mr. Crole, who was a director of Younger's Brewery, and asked to build an Institute for the teaching of Public Health for Edinburgh University. He agreed to do so and the result was the Usher Health Institute opened by Sir John in 1902.
By now the firm of Andrew Usher & Co was exporting whisky to every major country in the world and had become a huge concern. Its Headquarters was still in Andrew 1's old house in West Nicholson Street, Edinburgh. This is now known as The Peartree House on account of the ancient pear trees which grows against its walls. It is very likely that these pear trees were planted by Andrew 1.
In 1899 John was created a Baronet. He eventually died in 1904 at the age of seventy six, in Cairo of all places, and was succeeded by his eldest son Robert who by now was a man of forty four. Curiously enough Sir Robert also died in Cairo 29 years later.
Sir Robert had already had five sons and two daughters at this stage. Amongst the properties he inherited from his father , Sir John, were the estates of Norton in Midlothian and Wells in Roxburghshire and a very large number of feus in Pulteney Town, Caithness and Perth, Perthshire. The feuing scheme in Pulteney town had been prepared by Thomas Telford, the great bridge builder. In 1906 Sir Robert decided that Wells House, which was a huge place, was too uncomfortable and inconvenient. He therefore razed it to the ground in that year and built another very grand house in its place. The new Wells House had all the very latest technology that the Edwardian age had to offer. For example it had a suction system whereby all the dirt which the carpet cleaners collected on the upper floors was suck down through hidden trapdoors concealed in the walls- with all the dirt ending up in the basement in a bag. The electricity was supplied by a Power Plant he built in the Grounds of Wells. I stayed there myself for sometime as a child, although my recollections of it are rather sketchy. I have always heard it described as such a beautiful house, full of happiness and warmth. Sir Robert used Wells oak for all the panelling at Wells, of which there was a great deal. He also put in 200 tons of Wells oak into the foundations of Wells
In 1911 King George V and Queen Mary visited Edinburgh and laid two Memorial stones in the Usher Hall, on which work had now, at long last commenced. This was done in the presence of members of the City Council and large gathering of representative citizens of Edinburgh. These stone can be seen at either side of the Cambridge Street entrance to the Hall.
In 1912 Andrew Usher & Co received the Royal Warrant appointing them as suppliers of whisky to the Sovereign.
In 1914 the Usher Hall was opened by Andrew II's widow. Since then up until the present time it has been the premier musical venue in Scotland. Since the Edinburgh Festival commenced after World War II it has been the flagship of the Festival. Near one of its main entrances stands a bust of its donor, Andrew II.