A History of Brown's
The longest established non-agricultural family business in the Hebrides?
The premises of Archibald Brown & Son at what became known as Brown’s Land, 21 Main Street, Tobermory, was built in 1830 by a Mr Pender. This was a time of rapid expansion in Tobermory and there were several general merchants operating in the town. Mr Pender ran the business until he sold it to Archibald Brown in 1860.
Archibald Brown originated from Cowal, the ninth of eleven children. Archibald was a lighthouse keeper, serving in several island locations including the Calf of Man. He was appointed first Principal Keeper at Ardnamurchan Lighthouse when it was commissioned in 1849.
In June 1853 Archibald was given a month’s notice that he was to be moved to Barra Head lighthouse, situated at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Archibald pleaded with the Northern Lighthouse Board not to be posted to such a remote location, as, “I am without either a partner or relation to accompany me, as my brother’s health will not admit of going to such a climate as that of Barra Head, and I cannot make up my mind to leave him behind me”. There is much correspondence between Archibald and the Board of the NLB, which resulted in their eventual acceptance of his resignation. The Board, however, soon directed a General Order to all Light Keepers that, “in future, any similar act of disobedience will be visited with immediate dismissal”. It appears this was the first, and only, instance of a Keeper refusing a transfer order.
Archibald moved to Tobermory (with the invalid brother), where he had no doubt travelled previously to purchase supplies and had made contacts in the town. We can only assume he worked for Mr Pender until 1860 when he took over the business that would bear his name to this day. Archibald and his wife Marianne had six children and built their home in 1875, which is still in the family today.
As a general merchant, the shop sold all variety of basics, including essential groceries, clothing and footwear, as well as the wines, spirits and ironmongery still sold today. Nothing was pre-packed: sugar came in cwt sacks, meal and flour in bolls (140lbs) or sacks (280lbs). Salt was delivered loose from a smack which landed the salt at the breast wall opposite the shop and was barrowed into the store behind the shop. Whisky and beer came in barrels and were bottled on the premises. Whisky was also sold in one, two and five gallon stoneware jars. Customers who wanted syrup or treacle had to bring their own container to be filled.
The oldest existing ledger dates back to 1863, confirming most of Brown’s customers were either very local in Tobermory, or travelled by sea from the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the Small Isles, Coll and Tiree; very few were from across Mull itself. The accounts show a steady sale of candles to the banks and churches, lamp oil to the prison, cabbage plants to the Sheriff, and in 1876 Archibald Brown was awarded the contract to supply groceries to the town’s Poorhouse at Newdale.
Archibald died in 1898, with his son Robert John taking over the business. During the Great War, Robert served as a Quarter Master in the Scottish Horse regiment, and was badly injured at Gallipoli. Following the War, the sale of groceries ceased, and sales of Harris tweed and Fair Isle knitwear were added. By all accounts the business was very successful under Robert’s management. His obituary in the Scotsman referred to him as building up one of the most prosperous businesses on the West Coast, and having a regular clientele across the globe.
Robert and his wife Ada had four sons, three of whom moved abroad, to Iraq, South Africa and Canada, whilst his youngest, Alan, settled in Tobermory with wife Margaret, and took over the business following Robert’s death in 1936. Under Alan’s management the sale of Harris tweed ceased in 1970. With many customers on Tiree, the business expanded to open a branch in Balemartine in 1955. The shop was managed by Harry Rutter for the first 20 years, then by Ian and Fiona MacLeod. During their time, a second branch at Crossapol was opened in 1984.
Alan Brown’s nephew Alasdair, who had been living in Essex with his wife Olive and young family, joined the business in 1970, eventually taking over when Alan retired in 1984. Many people will remember Neillie MacKinnon, Willie Harley and Jean Campbell who worked at Brown’s for many decades during this time. Alasdair and Olive oversaw the consolidation of the Tiree branch of the business into the Crossapol shop, which managers Ian and Fiona MacLeod bought out in 1992, and ran successfully until their retirement in 2015.
All three of Alasdair and Olive’s children were roped into holiday jobs working behind the counter. In August 1988, the Brown family and staff played a part in the Tobermory 200 Day celebrations, winning best float, and most topical float, at the day’s parade.
Sadly Alasdair died in 1991, and Olive continued to run the business until her retirement in 2007. Ever moving with the times, during the 1990s and 2000s, Brown’s diversified into offering bike hire, haberdashery, pet supplies, camping gear and chargers in the earliest days of mobile phones. Brown’s was also a founding business of Tobermory’s now famous Christmas late Night Shopping event. Customers still travelled from Ardnamurchan and the Small Isles, and all over Mull, with deliveries often made via the bank van or bin lorry.
When Olive retired in 2007 none of her three children were in a position to join the business, so Jim and Margaret Fenoulhet took on the lease of the shop, again diversifying stock offering including antiques and guitars. Following Margaret’s passing in 2020, Jim decided to retire in September 2022.
Olive’s daughter Helen and her husband Colin MacDonald took over running Brown’s in October 2022, with Helen’s tenure marking the fifth generation of the family to serve behind the famous counter. Colin is also from a local family: his mother’s Henderson ancestors can be traced back to the 1750s in Ardnamurchan. The first written connection between the Hendersons and the Browns is a receipt for a bottle of whisky purchased by Colin’s great-aunt Katie Henderson from Helen’s great-uncle Alan Brown in July 1956.