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The Irn-Bru Fleet

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

January 1937 – a huge Clydesdale horse lies stricken on the frosty ground of the Cow Wynd in Falkirk, having slipped on the ice.

His massive bulk makes it impossible for anyone to lift him, although many locals have gathered - so many in fact that the police are involved to keep the traffic flowing. Someone has bought a mattress to try and make the horse more comfortable throughout the rescue operation, and people are offering him buns. But alas by the end of the day, in front of the large crowd and the devastated driver, the local vet has to shoot him to put him out of his misery.

The horse was the well-known and loved Clydesdale named “Carnera,” owned by Robert Barr’s soft drinks company. For the previous seven years he had been one of the “fleet” of heavy horses used to distribute the famous soft drinks, including Barr’s “iron brew,” to the surrounding area. At 19 hands 1.5 inches high (6ft6inches at the shoulder) and weighing a ton, Carnera was said to be the largest working horse in the world at the time - although that claim is likely to be part of the marketing that the Barr’s developed around the horse.

Spotting him at a farm in Perth in 1930, Robert Barr realised he would be a valuable addition to the fleet. He named him after a famous boxing champion of the time, and Carnera was given a board to wear above his harness, saying: “Carnera, reputed to be the biggest working horse in the world.” As a promotional asset for Barr's Carnera was a great success, well known and loved by the public. In common with other fine working horses, he was exhibited at agricultural shows and often won prizes.

Carnera, with his name board
Carnera, with his name board

Barr’s marketing was always about strength and performance; and fittingly, the role of heavy horses was central from the beginning. The convoys of horses were a well-known sight, leaving the drinks factories fully laden early in the morning. Falkirk Council was concerned about the effect the volume of traffic had on other road users and on the underground sewers. In Glasgow, it was not unusual to see a convoy of 50 “lorries,” as the carts were known, drawn by 130 horses and carrying 5000 boxes leaving Barr's Parkhead Works.

It took extra trace horses to pull the lorries up Glen Brae for Slamannan, Shieldhill and beyond to get their soft drinks. Wooden crates filled with glass bottles full of liquid was a heavy business, and the heavy horses pulled flat-bed lorries, upon which crates of bottles were stacked. Fully laden they took about 60 – 70 dozen bottles, a total weight of about three tons, which they could pull at 3 miles per hour when fully loaded (or slightly faster if the driver walked beside the lorry.) The larger works employed a joiner in-house to maintain the lorries.

While there were many soft drinks businesses in Scotland, the market for each limited by the area the horses could delivery to, so they weren’t initially in competition with each other in their geographic areas. Stirling, Kilsyth, Airdrie, Alloa and Linlithgow were the limits of where Barr’s of Falkirk could deliver to. All the companies were totally dependent on their horses; the West Lothian Aerated Water Works of Bo’ness was bankrupted by an epidemic amongst their horses in December 1905.

The concept of “aerated water,” as soft drinks were originally known, took off rapidly at the end of the 19th century. The market was ready for it; the product had been gradually improved by various companies since the concept of adding carbon dioxide to water was first alighted upon in the late 1700s, and by the time the Robert Barr, a cork-cutter in Falkirk, entered the aerated water market around 1875, the likes of Schweppes and others had been in business for a long time. From its conception as a health tonic, aerated water broadened its appeal into a general drink and was considered a healthy option, and it was safe compared with what could often be contaminated tap or well water supply at the time. Sugars and syrups added gave exciting taste and a dose of energy. In Falkirk, in common with many other places, the foundry workers, miners and brick workers loved it, and coupled with the temperance movement, it was rapidly successful.

Robert Barr’s sons opened a manufacturing facility at Parkhead in 1887 under their own initials. The recipe for “iron brew” was launched in April 1901 by jointly by Robert Barr Falkirk and AG Barr & Co Glasgow. Adam Brown, a famous highland athlete from Shotts, featured on the label design. It was not protected by patent and several companies in Scotland began producing iron brew. Barr’s were marketing savvy and they had a reputation for quality, and Barr’s own iron brew gained prominence. It was renamed Irn-Bru in 1946.

A typical day for a Barr’s driver in the early 20th century consisted of setting out around 6am, walking beside the horse for around four hours. They would arrive in, say, Kilsyth around 10am, where they had four hours delivering within the town. The return journey was slightly quicker, but was finished off by stabling the horse, checked the harness and lorry and lodging paperwork; all in all a 12 hour working day.

The horses were well looked after. AG Barr of Glasgow was reported in the Falkirk Herald in 1905 to have "comfortable, orderly stalls for the 200 horses [which] should make these animals grateful. Thousands of human beings might envy them their lot." Despite the introduction of motor transport (unsurprisingly AG Barr was an early adopter, and in 1904 the company had bought a motor wagon which carried 14 tons and could go at a rate of 8 miles per hour - much quicker than the heavy horses) it was slow in replacing the horses, as evidenced by their use even up until Carnera in 1937.

One of Carnera’s enormous hooves was kept by the Barrs as a reminder of his story, displayed in a glass cabinet at Parkhead until company headquarters moved from there to Cumbernauld in 1996.

Carnera wasn’t the first horse that Barr’s lost in an accident. Ten years previously in June 1927 the Falkirk Steeple was stuck by lightening. In a freak accident, one of Barr's delivery horses just below it, delivering to a grocer’s on the high street, and was killed by the falling masonry of the steeple tower. The driver ducked out of the way of the debris and escaped with only cuts and bruises, and a young family in the house opposite also had a miraculous escape although their home was destroyed.

With the limited edition “old and unimproved” 1901 Irn-Bru in the shops this month, and the drinks distributed all over the world, it’s interesting to look back at the time it was limited to the radius a heavy horse could pull, and the incredible contributions these animals made.


Published in Konect December 2019

Author: Helen-Jane Shearer


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