The Whisky Trail

The Whisky Trail

Annabel Meikle recounts her ancestors voyage to South Africa in 1869

Travel | 25 Apr 2014 | Issue 119 | By Annabel Meikle

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In 1869 my great great grandparents embarked from Scotland on an uncomfortable three month voyage from Lanarkshire to Port Natal (Durban) in South Africa.

My great grandfather, Stewart Meikle, was only a boy, aged three years old. The young family were swept up in the quest for adventure and the lure of the colonies. When they arrived in South Africa they then travelled North West to a rented farm in the Natal colony where my great grandfather, along with his brothers and sisters, made the family home.

When I was three, my father was keen for his young wife and children to see the land of his birth. My family and I visited Rhodesia and I can remember 'taking tea' at Meikles Hotel in Salisbury (now Harare). My great grandfather's portrait hung on the wall at the hotel. He was born 100 years before me and I have always been captivated by his entrepreneurial story. It was only when I started to work in the whisky industry that the significance and romance of the journey that Stewart and his brothers made really caught my attention. He was an early ambassador for whisky, just as I too would become.

The virgin land on which Stewart's father, John, chose to build their farm was cheap, perhaps because it was surrounded by warring Zulu warriors. The area of the Northern Natal was correctly reputed to be dangerous, until the demise of the fierce warrior chief, Chaka. John Meikle wasn't much of a farmer, and was lured by the sparkle of sourcing diamonds. Early successes were tempered by a recession in the value of diamonds so John returned to his trade of building. During this time my great grandfather along with his brothers and his mother looked after the farm. The young boys were tasked with driving the oxen led wagons to market.

In 1883, Stewarts elder brother, Tom was, like his father, tempted by the quest for gold. He made a sum of money from a lump of gold he had found whilst panning. The sale of this afforded him to be able to buy a wagon, driven by six oxen, and with his new partner, a Russian carpenter, they set off for new gold fields. The pair were soon to discover a huge nugget of pure gold which Tom hid in one of his boots and locked it in a metal box. The Russian carpenter forced the box that night and made off with the nugget only to find he was unable to sell it. He decided to amend his folly by burying it on the Meikle farm, under a tree and left a cryptic note for the family.

All that was written on the note was TREE/GOLD/DIG/FIND

The sale of this nugget raised £200 which was enough to satisfy Tom's interest in the the gold rush and he invested his money in setting up a freight business. The railway network in South Africa was extremely limited at that time, so goods were moved by ox - drawn wagons, by transport riders. In 1885, with the success of the business, Stewart and his brother Jack, joined their brother to become transport riders.

The brothers identified that the Rhodes settlers who had made their home in Mashonaland required provisions. Stewart and his brothers loaded up five wagons with clothes and food supplies and three with whisky. Each wagon was pulled by sixteen oxen along with additional beasts to replace

those who would fall through injury, illness or lion attack. On the 28th February 1892, the brothers set off on a 700 mile journey that took around three months though treacherous territory. Their circuitous route bypassed the Zoutpansberg mountains and the 'great grey greasy Limpopo'. There is no written record of their adventure but making slow progress of around twelve miles a day they reached their destination on the 7th May. The sight of over one hundred oxen yoked to heavy wagons, guided by three white men and a crowd of drivers, emerging through a trail of dust must have appeared like a mirage to the settlers.

The brothers had brought the first fresh supplies to Fort Victoria for over two years. The only flour available was Boer meal infested with maggots, and sugar being sold at a premium. They built their first 'store' from the empty crates of whisky with a tarpaulin roof. This was the primitive beginning of the Meikle empire in what was to become Southern Rhodesia. Jack and Tom continued to make this journey to bring more supplies back to the Fort, while Stewart remained at the store to trade with the locals. His second shop was larger and built of brick, located two miles closer to Salisbury and by 1893, a third was built in Fort Salisbury. Years later, Stewart's legacy was the vision of the first Meikle's hotel in Salisbury. Sadly he died before it was built.

There is a touching description of my great grandfather being the most 'dashing' of the brothers. I will never know if he opened one of those bottles that had rattled its way over the dust ridden tracks of the Lowveld. I can picture the walls of the first store panelled with wooden cases bearing the words 'Old Highland Whisky' from Scotland. Only in my imagination can I dream that Stewart and his brothers remembered the expedition those bottles had made as they raised a glass to each other.


My father has estimated that each wagon would have been loaded with 200 cases of whisky per wagon, which would total around 7,200 bottles. There were around 500 settlers which would account for 14 bottles per person. A case of whisky sold for £1 per case in Natal, but for £30 in Fort Victoria.

The Whisky

We know that Johnnie Walker was in South Africa at the time you are interested in. Our earliest evidence for Johnnie Walker in South Africa comes from the John Walker & Sons Letter Books and Minute Books dating back to 1887 and 1893 respectively. From these we know that by May 1887 South Africa was covered by three agents, but the arrangement was proving troublesome. By June of the same year Rolfes Nebel & Co were given exclusive rights and by 1889 there were selling 25,000-30,000 cases. South Africa soon took over from Australia was Walker's largest export market, and, Rolfes Nebel continued as agents until 1914. Walker's would have been selling 'Old Highland Whisky' at that time.

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