Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
The Scots have had an unquenchable thirst for tea for two centuries. Maybe it’s the defense they need to stave off the cold North Sea wind that can chill the body to the core in coastal cities such as Aberdeen and Dundee. On a cloudy, gray afternoon in Edinburgh, a hot cup of tea fortifies you and lifts your spirits as you head out to explore the castle or survey the glorious Georgian architecture along the streets of New Town.
Our modern thirst for tea is due, in no small way, to the efforts of two 19th-century Scottish entrepreneurs. Edinburgh botanist Robert Fortune helped the British East India Company introduce tea plants to Darjeeling in 1848 and created the tea industries of India and Ceylon, ending China’s monopoly on tea. Scotsmen established tea estates with names like Bannockburn in Darjeeling or Glenburn, Craigmore, Dunsandale, and Burnside in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. (This leads James Norwood Pratt to note, “Is it any wonder, back home in Scotland, one of the most popular songs was ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, My Bonnie Lies Over the Sea’?”)
Forty years later, Glasgow grocer Thomas J. Lipton bought several coffee plantations in Ceylon and converted them to tea gardens that supplied “brisk” Orange Pekoe tea to the working classes through his 500 stores located all over the United Kingdom.
Taking Tea with Mackintosh
The advent of the tearoom came about in 1875 when Glasgow tea retailer Stuart Cranston hit upon a simple idea for encouraging customers to sample his tea: He provided tables and seating for 16 people at his Queen Street store and advertised a cup of China tea “with milk and sugar for two pence—bread and cakes extra.” He had invented a popular new place of public refreshment.
Stuart’s sister Kate quickly spotted the potential for growth and set about establishing her own tearoom empire that included both tasteful tea salons for women and billiard and smoking rooms for men. She called upon young artist and architect Rennie Mackintosh to design her tearooms. No one was more suited to set the pace for a new century than the forward-thinking Mackintosh, who championed the art nouveau movement in Glasgow. In the same manner of America’s Frank Lloyd Wright, Mackintosh designed not only the building but also the windows, lights, furniture, wall coverings, and floors. No detail was too small; he even designed the typeset and art for the menus.
Although Kate was known for her outdated Victorian dress and flamboyant hats, her art nouveau tearooms were considered to be the latest fashion in Glasgow society. She opened the first in 1897, and then in 1903, Mackintosh began work on four more—the Kate Cranston Willow Tea Rooms. Of all the interiors he created for these, the grand Room de Luxe, with its silver furniture and leaded-glass windows, was the jewel in the crown of their 20-year partnership. It was so exclusive that customers willingly paid a penny more for their cup of tea.
One Mackintosh tearoom still carries out its intended function. In December 1983, Anne Mulhern re-created the Room de Luxe in the original location, and the Willow Tea Rooms were reborn. Eager guests from around the world queue for as long as an hour to experience the restored tearoom and the spirit of its internationally famous architect.
The Willow Tea Rooms sit above a jeweler’s shop on Sauchiehall (Gaelic for “alley of the willows”), Glasgow’s bustling shopping street. The willow theme is featured throughout the building. The simple bowed façade, art nouveau windows, and ironwork signage immediately signal that this is the scheme of an out-of-the-ordinary designer.
To enter the tearoom, guests go through the jeweler’s shop, past irresistible Mackintosh-inspired jewelry, and up a flight of stairs to the restored mezzanine gallery. One more flight leads to the Room de Luxe and its coveted twelve tables. The furnishings, all Mackintosh reproductions, include the distinctive tall-back chairs which create a “room within a room” to protect diners’ privacy. The barreled ceiling and bright windows make the cozy room appear much larger than it is. The timeless appeal of the Room de Luxe is beloved by arts and crafts pilgrims.
The Willow offers meals throughout the day, highlighted by a tea menu comprising a selection of sandwiches, including smoked salmon, cucumber, or roast beef; scones with butter, jam, and clotted cream; and pastries from the dessert trolley. A complete list of twenty-six black, green, and herbal teas is also offered.
More pristine and better preserved than its rival Glasgow, Edinburgh often becomes a favorite haunt for frequent travelers to Scotland. It is two cities in one. Old Town is known for its Royal Mile, a medieval thoroughfare just over a mile long that starts at Edinburgh Castle and runs to the Palace of Holyrood House. In New Town, you’ll discover Robert Louis Stevenson’s home, elegant avenues, and a premier botanical garden that thrives in this moist, moderate climate.
If it is formal afternoon tea you fancy, make a reservation at the Caledonian Hotel, where you may enjoy your silver tray of scones and delicate tea sandwiches in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. This grand old hotel has lovely public areas and an accommodating staff.
Kind Kyttock’s Kitchen
The discovery of an unforgettable town tucked away in the Scottish countryside is sometimes the serendipitous result of becoming lost . . . or the result of courageously leaving the highway to search the town that rests under a church spire you spy in the distance. Winding your way east toward St. Andrews, you happen upon the wee village of Falkland.
Here stands the magnificent Palace of Falkland, hunting lodge and retreat of the Stuart kings and queens. This medieval palace fell into ruin with the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, but was eventually restored by James V in the renaissance style. The first tennis court in Britain, built here in 1535, is still used today, though the tennis the Stuarts played was quite different from that played today 400 miles south at Wimbledon.
A short stroll up High Street, past antique shops and 17th-century buildings adorned with fascinating marriage lintels, brings you to the “town cross,” complete with a Church of Scotland and ancient village fountain. The street to the left, Cross Wynd, leads to a delicious discovery, Kind Kyttock’s Kitchen.
Most visitors are intrigued by the name on the handsome red sign beside the doorway. Why “Kind Kyttock’s”?
Owner Bert Dalrymple will tell you that Miss Kyttock was the local heroine of a poem by William Dunbar, an early Scottish poet. One of her virtues was serving good food and liquid refreshment to weary travelers. Bert and his wife, Liz, moved here from Glasgow in 1970 to continue that tradition of hospitality in their tearoom.
The aroma of freshly baked bread greets you as you pass the kitchen door on the way to one of two dining rooms. Sketches by local artists, prints of famous artwork, and china plates—all for sale—line the whitewashed walls. A collection of Wemyss teapots fills the pine cupboards. The soft ticking of an antique wall clock adds to this relaxed atmosphere, where community folk and tourists gather for refreshment and pleasant conversation. In the winter, a crackling fire welcomes you out of the chilling North Sea breeze.
The Dalrymples’ homemade fare is traditionally Scottish and includes a specialty of the Scots, shortbread. In this region, the pie-shaped wedges are called petticoat tails because they resemble the shape of petticoat hoops worn in the 19th century. Other sweet treats include pancakes (dropped scones) with apricot preserves, Isle of Rhum gingerbread, traditional Cloutie Dumpling, Rob Roy Sweet, and cream-filled Braw wee meringues. A variety of hearty sandwiches are available on homemade bread in this “workingman’s tearoom.”
“The Scottish tea has always been a meal of great importance, a time when family gathers together around a table groaning with sweet breads and biscuits, cakes and freshly baked scones, dishes of jams and jellies, and perhaps eggs and cold meats too—a splendid, old-fashioned high tea,” wrote Jane Warren in A Feast of Scotland. You find the ritual carried on in myriad ways, from fashionable hotels and urban tearooms to quaint village shops and centuries-old inns. Scottish teatime—plain or fancy, high or low—is the quintessential “comfort meal” for the body and soul.
To view a slide show of images, click here.
Bruce Richardson's latest book is The Book of Tea (Benjamin Press 2011). Read his blog at theteamaestro.blogspot.com
Editor's Note: At time of publication, the information listed above was correct. However, please be sure to verify this information to ensure it is correct before making any plans.