Barr’s Irn-Bru, made in Falkirk – or was it?

Barr's had an aerated water works at the bottom of Cockburn Street for much of the 20th century
Barr's had an aerated water works at the bottom of Cockburn Street for much of the 20th century

I was taken to task this week by a friend who complained that in two years of compiling these articles I had ignored Scotland’s ‘other national drink’.

I’ve done Rosebank Distillery and Aitken’s Brewery in the last year but not a word about Barr’s, one of the country’s best known companies which continues to prosper – though not, alas, in the town of its birth.

Their story began in the mid 19th century when the aerated waters business was in its infancy. Most towns had inadequate supplies of poor quality and often contaminated water which was a serious threat to health.

The alternative was to drink lots of ale and porter and for many a working man that was the road to a different kind of ruin. In Falkirk district the problem was especially acute with hundreds of thirsty ironworkers slaving all day in hot and dusty foundries before making their way to the Red Lion, the Cat Inn or the Pie Office.

A growing Temperance movement supported by the churches tried to steer folk away from temptation towards a more wholesome glass and the result was a huge upsurge in the production and consumption of carbonated or aerated waters. The first venture in Falkirk was the Garthall works of James Marshall, which began operations around 1870 in Cochrane Street and by 1900 it was in the hands of the Neilson family.

Robert Barr started work in 1830 as a cutter of corks for the local breweries and distilleries. Over the years he moved from Buchanan Court to Callendar Riggs and to Burnfoot at the bottom of Cockburn Street where in 1873 his son, also Robert, decided to enter the profitable aerated waters trade.

New machinery for cutting corks threatened to destroy the family business and he judged that the market was big enough to support a new supplier of fizzy fruit drinks. Two years later he obtained a connection to the municipal water supply and abandoned the cork cutting.

The firm was a success and opened up a large plant at Parkhead in Glasgow in 1887, employing 600 workers by 1905. In 1901 the famous ‘Iron Brew’ with its secret recipe appeared, though it’s not clear whether it was created in Falkirk or Glasgow first.

It was certainly made and distributed from both places and became a huge best seller with famous sportsmen of the day queuing up to endorse its powers! But Barr’s were not alone. As well as Neilson’s, the district had Scotts and Dalziel & Clark in Grahamston, Reid Brothers and the Star Company in Bainsford, Porteous Murray of Larbert and Thomson and Sons of Stenhousemuir.

The product range was amazing and included such delicacies as Shamrock Cup, champagne ginger, Yum Yum (“an oriental drink sold in Japan”), Ciderette and Phoscal.

But Iron Brew (renamed Irn-Bru in 1946) topped the lot and Barr’s steadily expanded taking over many of the other companies.

The firm’s horse-drawn delivery ‘lorries’ were a familiar sight and the works at Burnfoot continued in production until 1971 when the firm moved to Hopedale near Lock 16 in Camelon.

The 150-year link with the town was broken in the 1990s when modernisation and huge expansion led the firm to Cumbernauld.

Despite that we will, of course, still continue to claim them as our own.