Coals to Newcastle

The Scottish media are delighted by the idea that tea is now grown, albeit in limited quantities, in the Highlands; and that it has ‘generated interest’ from China.

The tea plant is pretty hardy: as the representative of the Wee Tea Co. is keen to point out, some of the best tea-growing areas in the world are high in the mountains – Darjeeling, for instance, where the plant thrives at up to 1500m in the Himalayas. Scotland, therefore, should present no problem once the plants have hardened off.

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The news would have surprised Dr. Johnson, the great poet, critic, essayist and tea-drinker, who made a tour of the Highlands in 1773 with his friend, intellectual punchbag and fawning amanuensis James Boswell, and noted its economic shortcomings with his usual acerbic wit.

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they would choose it. Johnson: “Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.”  Boswell: “Come, come, he is flattering the English. you have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.”  Johnson: “Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.” Boswell, Life of Johnson

In truth, the Scottish tea revolution is in its early stages. All interviews I have seen, such as the one above, are with one or two men standing in a field of 2000 plants, their whole empire. In consequence, it is one of the most expensive teas you can buy.

I have seen Dr. Johnson’s teapot, held as an exhibit in the museum of his birthplace in Lichfield, and it could probably contain half of their annual output in a single brew – Dr. Johnson himself could down twenty-five cups at a sitting. No doubt Boswell would have had him snorting with derision at the idea of a plantation of Scottish tea. But then he might also have had something to say for the parallel Cornish tea explosion – it seems they too are doing very well in China – evidently the media litmus test of a successful tea enterprise.

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