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Issue 2 - Right foot forward

Whisky Magazine Issue 2
March 1999


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Right foot forward

The original John Walker supplied tea and biscuits, wine and whisky to the sober bughers of Kilmarnock; his descendant Sir Alec Walker built a bath big enough for Churchill. Charles Maclean looks at a family that took a giant leep.

The striding Regency dandy with a twinkle in his eye, so familiar from the Johnnie Walker label, was first sketched on the back of a menu card over lunch in London in 1908. The artist was Tom Browne, a well-known cartoonist and poster designer of the day; his hosts were George Paterson Walker, chairman of John Walker & Sons, and James Stevenson, who had been appointed to the board earlier that year. It was Stevenson who promptly added the line ‘Born 1820, Still Going Strong'.

The character it purported to depict was George's grandfather, John Walker, and the date was the year he had opened a grocer's shop in Kilmarnock. In actual fact, Johnnie had been only 15 years old in 1820. His father had died the previous year, leaving £417. This sum was put into trust, and with it was established the grocery business, selling dry goods, teas and coffees, wines and spirits. Nor was the figure remotely like any resident of Kilmarnock in 1820. Johnnie's father had been a tenant dairy farmer just outside the town, on the estate of John Cunninghame, 15th Earl of Glencairn – today, this part of the Ayrshire is officially called Cunninghame District.

Kilmarnock more than tripled in size during the first half of the 19th century as people migrated from the land and sought jobs in the town's new industries of tanning and shoemaking, carpet-weaving and woollen manufacture and, later, heavy engineering. Not the kinds of occupation likely to breed the dashing man-about-town depicted by Tom...

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