The Usher family (the word “dynasty” is also apt) trace their origins to the Norman “Ussiers”, who arrived in Britain with William The Conqueror in 1066. The family quickly established itself as a part of the new aristocracy and set about building a network of estates and stately homes which still exists across the UK.
The Usher’s are first noted in Scotland during the C14th as a favourite of Kind David II of Scotland and taking up roles working for the crown – although there was also the odd black sheep in the family – Pitcairn’s “Criminal Trials” records that in 1624:
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”
“Reiving” was cross border raiding, anything from rustling a few sheep to full on Viking-style pillage, and reivers were rightly feared. Adie was hanged and Will got lucky, merely being banished on pain of death due to his age.
By the mid 18th Century the family was well established in Melrose,developing business interests across the world and establishing the family home with the purchase of Toftfield (now Huntlyburn), and later buying a large residential property in Edinburgh known as Nicolson House, locally known as “The Pear Tree House” due to the two large, fruiting trees growing up the front of the building. Pear Tree House is, of course, still standing and our pub takes up what would have been the beer and wine cellars when it was a centre of hospitality in the 1700s.
James Usher was an only child, but boy did he make up for it. He and his wife Margaret had twelve children, the third youngest of whom was named Andrew. Born on April Fool’s Day 1782, he maintained a reputation for being a joker throughout his life.
In 1813 Andrew established the Whisky Distilling and Blending Company of Andrew Usher & Co based on his experiments with blending grain and malt whiskies. With commercial distillation fairly recently legalised great leaps were being made, including the invention of the “continuous still”, also known as the Coffey Still for its inventor, Aeneas Coffey. The Coffey Still allowed whisky to be distilled around the clock, continuously, with no time consuming breaks to clean out the old pot stills. Technologically it was a work of genius, but there was one small flaw – the whisky was almost undrinkable. Andrew Usher experimented with adding a little expensive single malt whisky to the “grain whisky” produced by the Coffey Stills and hit on a new product which was both cheap and reasonably close to the old style – if not as good, at least drinkable.
Andrew had a son, also named Andrew, who along with another brother, John, was made a partner in the company in 1840. They continued to improve the product, and it was a hit – not just in Britain and Ireland, but worldwide. The company went from strength to strength and the Ushers made their fortune, enough to donate £100,000 to the City of Edinburgh for a public concert hall – The Usher Hall on Lothian Road. This iconic Edinburgh building has more modest architectural origins – if you visit The Counting House, the function suite on the upper floors of Pear Tree House you will find a glass dome over the main ballroom, which is the basis for the Usher Hall designs.
The story of Andrew II is fairly well known – he is recognised today as the Father of Scottish Whisky, but let us not forget that there were twelve siblings. The two eldest sons of the twelve, James and Thomas, did not enter the spirit trade but instead went for another Usher passion – beer and brewing. Using their father’s money they set up “Thomas Usher and Co, Brewers of Edinburgh” in Merchant street and soon became popular enough to demand offices in London, an exceptional feat considering the strength of English brewing at the time, dominated by the beer capital, Burton-on-Trent.
James and Thomas were at the forefront of beer marketing. It was only recently that the railways and new advances in biology had made it possible to trade beer over long distances, and if you had a popular brew it was important to distinguish it in some ways – the oldest trademark in the world is a simple red triangle, belonging to the Bass brewery, but the Ushers were close on their heels, producing a distinctive star logo which was both recognisable and suited itself to different coloured labels to identify individual beers, an image that we continue to use today.