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The destination of the Pattisons’ Challenge Cup will be decided this Saturday, June 6th. Seen as the “big one” in every Ross-shire’s club’s summer season, the cup returns to Tain for the first time in several decades, some 120 years after it first arrived in the hands of St Duthus FC.  Introduced in 1895, the Pattisons’ Challenge Cup was the product of pomp and the expanded chests of two extravagant, and in the end, very controversial brothers.

From humble beginnings as dairy wholesalers in Edinburgh to making a fortune as distillers, the Pattison brothers were unrivalled in their meteoric rise to the top of the whisky blending business. Robert Pattison broke into the whisky trade as the leaseholder of Teaninich Distillery (just a few miles south of Tain at Alness), before starting his own blending business in partnership with his brother, Walter. Such was the early success of their trading, the brothers made close to £100,000 when their company was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1896.

Based in Leith in Edinburgh, the brothers’ lavish lifestyles offered proof of great success, living in mansions at Clovenfords and Peebles and owning large properties on Leith Walk, while operating out of glamorous marbled offices on Constitution Street.

The Pattisons’ awareness of self-image and a keen eye for promotion was their greatest asset, reportedly spending over £20,000 in one year advertising their worldwide brand. Their advertisements could be seen on the front pages of newspapers up and down the country, boasting their superiority with a sly style of promotion, as shown in an “article” sent to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on December 1896:

A UNANIMOUS VERDICT – It was not at the Law Courts, but at a gathering of men, eminent in every rank of life, statesmen, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, authors, actors etc. met to discuss the merits of the various Scotch whiskies, that a unanimous verdict was recorded in favour of Pattisons for its purity, flavour and unrivalled quality generally. Sold everywhere. Sole proprietors: Pattisons (Ltd), Highland Distillers, Ballindalloch, Leigh and London.

Promotion on “a scale previously undreamt of” had seen the Pattisons catch the attention of consumers with the most bizarre publicity stunts. One performance the brothers were fond of was the “Missing of the Train”. Fully aware of train departure times, the brothers would purposefully turn up late in front of an assembly of reporters and onlookers, before parading their wealth by hiring a private train at the cost of five pounds and a shilling to transport them with urgency to their destination. But perhaps their most notable stunt involved a consignment of five hundred grey parrots, each expertly trained to recite the phrase “Buy Pattisons’ Whisky”, before being sent to vendors across the country to perform their trick.

The Pattisons were equally extravagant in their commercial development. The great phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s had devastated the French vineyards, bringing the region’s brandy production to a standstill and the Pattisons, quite the opportunists, took advantage of the resultant growth in the whisky market. In 1896, they quickly acquired a half share in the Glenfarclas distillery in Ballindalloch along with interests in the Oban and Aultmore-Glenlivet and Ardgowan Lowland Grain distilleries. As distillers and now brewers (they had acquired the Duddingston Brewery soon after), Robert and Walter Pattison had built a whisky empire.

Rather abruptly, their success was suddenly cut short. In December 1898, the veil was dramatically lifted from Pattison, Elder & Co Limited to reveal a company in crisis, laden in debt, corruption and fraud. They filed for bankruptcy while the company moved into liquidation in 1899 and by May 1901, Robert Paterson Pattison and Walter Gilchrist Gray Pattison had been arrested on several charges connected with their company. Worries of unsustainable financial outlay such as the building of new distilleries and overproduction of stock had previously been ignored amidst the industry’s greatest boom period – that was until the Clydesdale Bank refused to further cover the brothers for a bill of £9,000, thus beginning what became known as the “Pattison Crash”.

Nine other companies went under as a result of the crash and a number of small suppliers of Pattison Whisky were also forced to fold. In 1901, Walter Pattison was sentenced to nine months in Perth Penitentiary. Robert, following his declaration that his brother, Walter “is entirely innocent of charges two and four”, received a custodial term of eighteen months, to be served at the same prison. As was noted in the Western Gazette in July that year, “the crowd in court indicated that they considered the sentences very lenient”. All told, the Pattisons were believed to have owed £743,000 to their creditors at the end of the investigation, sending the whisky industry into a downturn for several years.

Among the customers of Pattison brothers during their short-lived success was Mr George Harvey, the proprietor of the Crown Hotel in Tain. Since the early 1890s, the small but busy watering hole on King Street had become a regular haunt for the now established footballers of Saint Duthus Football Club and “Pattison” was now on the menu, in more ways than one. At the height of the whisky distilling brothers’ extravagant climb to infamy in November of 1895, Pattison, Elder & Co made a donation of a solid silver trophy to Mr Harvey, which was duly presented to his beloved Saint Duthus Football Club.

The “handsome” cup was photographed for display in the window of wine merchant Donald Macleod’s shop on the High Street, resplendent in all its glory for the town to see, inscribed with the following text:


Presented by Pattisons Distillers, Leith

To The St Duthus Football Club

For Annual Competition

Between the Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland Association Football Clubs


To G Harvey, Crown Hotel, Tain

Under the auspices of the now defunct Ross-shire Junior Football Association, the trophy was contested every year until the advent of war in 1914, and featured as a prominent fixture in the football calendar from 1919 until the mid 1930s.  Each time the final was played at the home of Saint Duthus FC, at the Links.

The Ross-shire football landscape changed considerably after the Second World War, and along with many other trophies, the Pattisons’ Cup fell into abeyance.  It was resurrected for play a handful of times during the 1940s and 1950s until it disappeared again in 1957.  Thereafter, the trophy was not played for again until 1981, when the latest formation of the Ross-shire Welfare League brought it back into contention.

In recent times, the trophy had found a season by season home at Inver Football Club, where it would be played for on Inver’s pitch and sponsored by the hosts, The Inver Inn. Now, in 2015, Inver FC are no more, and the sponsorship has moved on to that of the Railway Hotel, former sponsors of the Bruce Cordiner Cup.

This year (2015), the finalists are Alness United and Fortrose & Rosemarkie Union. Both teams are still relatively new to the Ross-shire Welfare FA set up, so it may surprise a few to hear that both Alness United and Fortrose Union first captured the Pattisons’ Cup long before the Second World War.  In fact, both have had a long and storied history with the much sought after recreational trophy.

The “Alness Star” were the first team to compete in the Pattisons’ Cup, in 1897, and they continued to represent the Easter Ross town for several years thereafter.  Alness “United” had their first brush with the Pattisons’ Cup in 1919, immediately after the First World War, and in their first year they reached the final, losing 1-0 to St Duthus.

Alness waited just two years for their next final, and against Fortrose Union, they secured the cup for the first time, winning convincingly by 4 goals to 1 at the Links.  United followed that victory up by defending the trophy a year later, beating Victoria United (who just six years later would become Ross County) by 5 goals to 2.  Alness would win the trophy a further three times between then and 1957.

Over on the Black Isle, Fortrose & Rosemarkie Union had begun a relationship with the Pattisons’ Cup almost as long as that of St Duthus. They first played for the trophy at the turn of the century, and in 1906, a two year period of dominance by Brora Rangers had been broken, when Union beat Dornoch Rovers to win the cup.  Unlike 5 time winners Alness United, the name of Fortrose Union has been etched on the solid silver body of the Pattisons’ Cup just once.

Unlike Alness United, Fortrose have already had two cracks at the trophy under the Ross-shire Welfare banner. They had no Pattisons’ Cup luck in their first year as members of the Ross-shire Welfare FA in 2013, losing to another Alness combination, the “Athletic”, in the first round of the cup. It was so near yet so far for Fortrose just last year, as they lost out again to Athletic in semi final this time, having confidently beaten Contin 4-0 in the first round.  Maybe it’s a case of third time lucky, as they have now reached the final, and once again meet a team from Alness.

Written by Niall Harkiss.

Niall Harkiss is the author of the 2014 book Ross-shire Football’s Forgotten Pioneers. Synopsis – Long before the formation of Ross County, footballers in the Royal Burgh of Tain were rubbing shoulders with Dingwall’s Victoria United – playing on the same parks, sharing post-match stories over a drink and a meal, and more specifically, competing for the same cups, and vying for the same honours. But as one team was catapulted into the senior ranks, the other eventually faded into non existence.