The Pattisons Parrots are one of the most loved and cherished stories in the pantheon of Scotch whisky. And yet like so many others, its veracity is hard to establish. Of course, truthfulness was at something of a premium when it came to the business of Pattisons Limited. In 1900 brothers Robert and Walter Pattison were both imprisoned for their malfeasance in the management of their company, floated in 1896 on the last great wave of the speculative whisky tsunami, and which crashed in December 1898.
Lavish spending on buildings and a mad extravagance in advertising and promotion was deemed by many to be the root cause of their failure.
‘This expenditure’, wrote the Wine and Spirits Trade Record in January 1899, ‘was absorbed chiefly in unusual methods of advertising. Not only did the firm advertise extensively in all kinds of newspapers and magazines; Pattison placards were familiar on street hoardings and at railway stations all over the kingdom. It was, indeed, carried to extraordinary lengths; an advertisement even floats on top of the Himalayan mountains’. But did their profligacy really extend, as many writers have asserted, to paying for trained parrots to promote their whiskies, as ‘living advertisements’.
In Victorian and Edwardian Britain, parrots occupied a special place in the affections of the nation.
In metropolitan and provincial music halls, those barometers of popular culture where the assimilation of Scotch whisky into the lifestyles of the lower middle classes was complete, audiences were enthralled by acts such as Charles Judge’s ‘Performing Parrots’ where ‘hilarity reigned supreme during the progress of the show’. Judge’s parrots, said The Morning Post in August 1900, delivered ‘a performance which, to our recollection, has never before been rivalled’.
The parrots (and other birds) of Marzella, ‘Queen of the feathered world’, went through ‘marvellous evolutions’, to the delight of spectators. The speciality of Antonie Savaro, the ‘great mimic of animals and bids’ was ‘the poll parrot’.
Charles Mildare, otherwise known as ‘the human parrot’ performed a ‘remarkably close imitation’ of ‘that familiar household pet’.
Parrots nestled in the for-sale and wanted columns of newspapers, advertisers tempting would-be owners with tales of their prowess.
‘King Amazon Talking Parrot – handsomest bird living, lovely plumage, laughs, talks, sings, whistles; perfect lady’s pet’.
‘The best talking parrot in London. Speaks English, French and German very plainly, and does not swear. £50.’
‘Remarkably clever grey parrot for sale. Repeats a great number of long, amusing, sentences, such as “Three cheers for the Queen”, “Hip, hip, hurrah”, “England expects every man to do his duty” etc. etc; laughs, sings, whistles tunes; a great mimic and pet; in perfect health and plumage…’
Celebrities and influencers paraded their psittacine-loving credentials. The legendary singer Madame Patti, as newspapers reported, had a penchant for parrots and paid £1000 (equivalent to a night’s earnings) for ‘a parrot of lovely plumage she calls Jumbo’. Among Jumbo’s many accomplishments was the ability to demand ‘a whisky and soda, quick!’
Queen Victoria’s numerous parrots were painted by portraitist Sir Edwin Landseer and exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Paintings by Courbet, Manet and Renoir were, as one author has claimed, part of the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the parrot. These pictures also explored the ‘sexual analogies between women and birds’.
For Victorian audiences paintings of women, birds and cages oozed unspoken sexual meaning. In Treasure Island, published in 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson put a parrot on the shoulder of a one-legged buccaneer and created an enduring piratical (and parrotical) cliché. And of course, as every Scotch whisky lover knows, the felonious Pattison Brothers employed flocks of parrots to screech out the name of their whiskies in pubs and bars across the land.
The supply of parrots, valued as much dead for their plumage, as they were valued alive for their party tricks, was prodigious, although the demand for talking birds always exceeded availability.
One source estimated that between 1870 and 1920 twenty thousand tons of ornamental plumage was imported to the country each year, much of it destined for the workshops of drapers, dressmakers and milliners.
‘Of all the birds of the air which we delight to sacrifice at the moment to do us honour’ wrote The Gentlewoman in September 1896, ‘the parrot is the most in vogue’.
Three years earlier a Times leader wished ‘it were possible to make every woman feel that by wearing feathers she tars herself with the brush of cruelty’. A correspondent to that paper in 1897 described the ‘singularly unpleasant sensation, resembling guilt, to see these long dead but still shining bodies tossed around’ in London auction houses, including 70,000 to 80,000 parrots, which ‘spread out in Trafalgar Square would have covered a large portion of that space with a gay grass green carpet, decked with vivid purple, rose and scarlet’.
Elsewhere it was estimated that of every thousand live parrots consigned for Britain only two or three survived the passage, and ‘after passing through the ordeal of a sea voyage, they are not in a fit state to resist the climatic hardships to which they are frequently exposed in England’.
Every Victorian newspaper loved a parrot fraud story, and as this unsatisfied demand for live parrots opened the way for parrot fraud, it only fuelled the attraction that the birds held for broadsheets and magazines. In December 1896 Joseph M’Coy was sentenced to twelve months hard labour for obtaining money by false pretences, having sold mute parrots which he had advertised as talkers. During his trial in Bristol it became apparent that he had spent at least two years travelling from town to town, placing the same advertisement in local newspapers: ‘gentleman going abroad wished to dispose of his splendid Grey African. Excellent talker. Sacrifice £2’. Unsuspecting clients received parrots that M’Coy had purchased for ten shillings each from a dealer in Liverpool, ‘although the parrots were African, they did not talk, and in most instances died a day or two after delivery’.
Others were less fortunate. Serial strigopoidea swindler Henry Johnson, whose modus operandi was to sweet talk strangers into buying his talking parrot, which he claimed, would otherwise have its neck wrung when he left the country, simply took the money and ran.
There was an abundance of improbable tales of talking birds.
A parrot whose ownership was disputed in a West Ham court was unable to be called as a witness in the case as it could not ‘understand the nature of the oath’.
When a woman was charged with keeping a brothel in Plaistow in 1902 it was the parrot of the house that had provided the critical clues to the detectives investigating the case, by calling out ‘Pip Pip, do you want to go upstairs’ when they entered the property.
In 1894 William Judson’s parrot helped catch a thief who had stolen his silver watch by calling out after the robber and alerting the victim – ‘a parrot which Scotland Yard should strive to obtain as a feathered addition to its detective force’ concluded The Daily Telegraph.
A parrot in Chester was killed by a burglar as it tried to alert the owner of the house.
A court in London heard in 1891 that a plaintiff in divorce proceedings had perhaps unwisely taught her parrot to call out the name of her lover.
Parrots often found themselves, reported in the press among umbrellas, purses, artificial teeth, sewing machines and various musical instruments in London’s Lost Property Office. A London cabbie complained of a parrot left in his cab ‘with a complete mastery of the language of those who go down to the sea in ships…that even shocked the susceptibilities of the metropolitan Police’.
Among the more improbable tales of talking birds were the apocryphal anecdotes of anthropomorphic parrots promoting goods or services which appeared in the press with striking regularity. In 1893, for example, it was reported that a Parisian milliner had trained a parrot to say ‘Oh isn’t she pretty’ whenever a customer entered the shop. Business, said the article, soon doubled.
Three years later the South Wales Echo wrote that ‘a shrewd confectioner has taught his parrot to say “pretty creatures” to every lady who enters his shop’. ‘His business’ it continued, ‘is rapidly increasing’.
Birmingham pram manufacturers Dunkley’s advertised in numerous London titles in 1893 for ‘parrots that repeat Dunkley’s baby car ball bearings’.
In the same year a story circulated widely that parrots and starlings had been used as railway porters on the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh, calling out the name of each station as the train arrived. Someone, suggested the writer, was probably being hoaxed. The story re-emerged in 1896 as parrots being employed in German railway stations to call out the destination of trains, allowing ‘the whole space on the station walls may thus be given up to advertisements without the risk of obscuring the name of one’s destination’.
In the same year The Gentlewoman noted that an unnamed dairyman in an unnamed town had taught his parrot to answer the telephone and talk to customers. A few months later Cycling reported sceptically that parrots were being trained to say ‘Scott’s Standard Tyres are the best’. ‘The birds’, said the magazine ‘are to be sent as presents to the various cycling agents in the kingdom as living advertisements’.
For all the fascination of newspaper editors, journalists, and their reading public with these living advertisements (and for that matter with the new ‘craze’ for blended Scotch whisky) there was no mention before the firm’s failure of Pattisons of their flocks of whisky promoting parrots in any of the numerous publications that usually ran these stories.
Nor did Alfred Barnard spot, or mention, amongst the showcards, ledgers, labels and capsules that he viewed in Pattisons warehouses and offices in Leith in the mid 1890s a single parrot. Not even a dead one.
Pattisons Limited had used an image of a parrot in one of the first of a series of extravagantly illustrated advertisements that appeared in the press between its massively successful floatation in 1896, and abject stoppage only two years later. ‘Pattisons whisky speaks for itself’ featured a beautifully drawn, and very knowing parrot on a perch, holding in one claw a small glass of whisky. But the advert only ran for two months, December 1896 and January 1897, before being replaced by a series of highly bellicose and jingoistic executions such as ‘The booming of the cannon’, ‘In general use’, and ‘Forging ahead’. In addition to these quite sophisticated pictorial advertisements Pattisons also used old-fashioned highly repetitive typography-led announcements. The adverts, with short, simple phrases like ‘Pattisons’ Whisky‘ were parroted down a single column. And occasionally, at the foot of a column, in very small print, one might have read in a paper like The Pall Mall Gazette:
‘Speaks for itself.
What does, a parrot?
Yes, and so does PATTISONS’ WHISKY. Scotland’s best.’
On Monday 5 December 1898 Pattisons’ Limited suspended payments, resulting in ‘intense excitement’ in Edinburgh and Leith. The company’s preference shares, which had been traded for as much as £12, were changing hands for as little as £2 by the end of the day.
A number of other Leith firms were feared (correctly) to be fatally linked to the failure. Despite the excitement in Edinburgh there was little surprise in financial circles ‘acquainted with the lavish expenditure’ of the business. The Pattisons had spent, it was said, £20,000 on advertising in 1897, and £60,000 in 1898. In August they had entertained ‘friends’ from the trade on their newly built houseboat, ‘Glenfarclas’, ‘furnished and decorated … in Moorish style’ at Henley. The firm’s 150 or more salesmen had been encouraged to indulge in what Alexander Walker described later as ‘riotous – for there is no other word – in riotous extravagance in treating customers and friends’. Somewhere between £200,000 and £300,000 was claimed to have been given as credit or loans to licensed premises ‘between John o’ Groats and Land’s End’ in order to secure business (at great cost). The Foot of the Walk in Leith, where Pattisons offices ‘were being done up in palatial style by London tradesmen’ was ‘almost deserted’, the contractors having recalled their workmen to the metropolis on the afternoon of the announcement.
The game was over, and what would follow was bankruptcy, a court case and imprisonment for the two brothers.
On 13 December 1898, in the ‘Here, there and everywhere’ column of The Westminster Gazette, a familiar newspaper trope appeared ‘apropos the Pattison crisis’. It was an apocryphal story, told apparently by a ‘well known ship-owner in Leith’, about an unwanted cargo of parrots that arrived there ‘some years ago’. A representative of an unnamed whisky firm bought the birds, on condition they were trained to say ‘Buy …’s whisky’. When he returned a few days later he was greeted with ‘a deafening scream of “Buy …’s whisky”’. Satisfied of his purchase the fifty birds were shipped to Liverpool where they were distributed to public houses to push their owners’ whiskies.
Over the next few weeks, as the Pattisons’ business continued to unravel, the story was copied in newspapers in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. ‘The parrot as an advertising medium’, that most enduringly popular subject, was the story’s headline in The Manchester Evening News. But although the Pattisons saga in all its depressing detail continued to feature heavily in the press for three years or more the parrot story was short-lived.
After a flurry of feathers between December 1898 and February 1899 Pattisons parrots flew the nest, not to reappear for almost sixty years.
It was Ross Wilson who resurrected Pattisons by now forgotten talking parrots in Scotch Made Easy, published in 1959. Wilson was an old school public relations man who at one point had worked for the Scotch Whisky Association, before turning to freelance drinks writing for the trade press. Wilson, who did not repeat the parrot story in his masterful Scotch Whisky The Formative Years (1970), was close to the industry, very well informed, but reticent about his sources. His papers, deposited in the Business Archives at the University of Glasgow, give no indication of where he turned up the parrot story, but by this time there were five hundred (not fifty) grey parrots who were sent to licensed grocers in Scotland to call out ‘Buy Pattison’s whisky’.
Ten years later David Daiches described ‘hundreds of grey parrots’ in Scotch Whisky Its Past And Present. Wilson’s words found their way into the Aberdeen Press and Journal in 1974, while Daiches was copied in a Press and Journal article about a bottle of Pattison’s Royal Gordon whisky that was sold at Christies for £3300 in 1989.
By this time Pattisons parrots had become undisputed history.
One much consulted Scotch whisky website writes that the Pattisons ‘best-known ploy was to have 500 African Grey parrots trained to repeat phrases such as “Buy Pattisons’ Whisky!”, before giving the birds away to publicans all over the country.’
Had the story published in The Westminster Gazette in 1898 been true it’s impossible to believe that the 50 (or 500) talking parrots wouldn’t have made it into print at the time they were sent to pubs in Liverpool, Scotland, or ‘all over the country’, given the fascination the media and their readers had for the birds.
The lack of any contemporary reportage of Pattisons parrots in a parrot obsessed press, and their absence from the many detailed accounts of the Pattisons marketing escapades in the Leith, Edinburgh and drinks-trade papers, strikes a dagger through the heart of this particular whisky canard. It is an imagined story borrowed, bowdlerised and bastardised – another illusory truth in the happy fiction of the history of Scotch whisky. Pattisons’ African Greys, have ceased to be. They never were, and they are no more.