Delivering direct: end of an era

Delivering direct: end of an era

All things come to an end, apparently. 

When Rob started the brewery in 2004, he did everything by himself. Converting old cow sheds into brewing areas, building in the brewkit, brewing and selling the beer, and even delivering the beer directly to customers as far away as Newcastle.

First deliveries were done in a Land Rover Defender 90 and then in a Ford Transit. Thinking about it, we can’t fathom how getting on a ferry to drive 300 miles down the A9 to Edinburgh to deliver beer (leaving his wife to crop yeast on the beer he’d left behind!) could have made sense but that’s what Rob did. 

Perhaps Rob was using the trips to Edinburgh as an excuse to see son Lewis (who was studying there at the time). Regardless, the beers he lovingly drove down the A9 established the Swannay (then Highland) brand and some (a lot) of the accounts that Rob was delivering casks to back then are still stalwart customers today.

Seeing Dad on the sore side of a 200 mile drive but knowing he had another 300 to go to get home, and then the yeast to check, Lewis started helping out with deliveries in the university holidays.

Eventually, we think 2008/2009, the brewery van was doing weekly trips from Orkney to Edinburgh and Glasgow (every fortnight the route south took in Aberdeen and on the alternate week the van went further to Newcastle). 

Pentalina crossing Pentland Firth 2010

Crossing the Pentland Firth on Pentland Ferries Pentalina

Again, a lot (most) of the customers Lewis was delivering to then are still customers now (or were before C-19). There are so many stories from the "driving days”.

Sleeping in the van

Budgets did not extend to paying for accommodation, so the Vango sleeping bag that had been purchased for Glastonbury & T in the Park was utilised at least one night a week, across the front seats.

The help of others

It was back in the day that you could phone up Pentland Ferries and tell them you were running just a little bit late and they would literally hold the boat for the van to catch it.

One time, without a way to get back to Orkney, local haulier JBT kindly offered a seat in the front of an artic. The name of the driver is lost to the fog of time but Northlink also held the ferry to get the trailer on this night too.

Breakdowns & Accidents

The new van has suffered a few manufacturing faults, and we only ever had a single accident (touch wood) but it was a big one. Lewis survived but the van did not. If ever there was a reason to believe in a higher power this was it. Worth a blog in itself but let’s just say we did not pay the £20k invoice for a new wall.

Ford Transit crash
This was not a good night. Note the sleeping bag. The van did a good job



We learned that snow tyres are an investment not a cost! And frozen beer? Don’t mention that.

Frozen pallet of beer
Beer does not like a night a -18 deg C. Who'd have thought?!


Delivering beer directly to our customers down south became so regular that it got into a reasonable routine:

Monday - sell beer on the phone and build it onto pallets for JBT to take south. All orders between Orkney and Edinburgh were loaded onto the van.

Tuesday - first Pentland Ferries crossing. Deliveries all the way south: John O’Groats, Thurso, Brora, Fortrose, Inverness, Drumnadrochit, Dores. Depending on the week, sleep in the van north of Perth or get a room in Perth (thanks Cherrybank Inn).

Wednesday - collect pallets from JBT at 6am. Edinburgh deliveries (be on Rose Street for 08:15 and off Broughton Street by 09:30). If it wasn’t a Newcastle week, be out of the city by 12:00 in order to catch the last ferry home from Gills Bay (at 18:30) - aside for a fuel stop at Perth, no time for breaks!

Eventually, it became obvious that the enjoyable (hindsight), effective yet utterly gruelling weeks of journeying from Orkney to the Central Belt were not viable or scalable in the long term.

So in comes Kev, Swannay employee number 3 (Rob = 1; Lewis = 2; Kev = 3).

Previously known to the brewery as a pub manager and by proxy good customer, Kev had good relationships with other Edinburgh publicans so the pivot from keeper of beer to deliverer of beer was not a big one.

The ensuing 8-9 years saw our customer base mostly remain the same - testament to the good service (and beer) being offered. Despite changes at the brewery our delivery service to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Newcastle and all areas in between remained constant and strong.

Then Covid hit.

Kev’s work went from 5 days per week to zero days per week (we are grateful for the furlough scheme). When the flexibility was introduced we worked to get hours and days up again but it was inevitably tough.

With the ongoing reduced volumes and still unpredictable future we have had no choice - from the objective point of view of the business - but to change the way we operate.

From now on, our beers will be available in Edinburgh and all other markets (except rural Aberdeenshire and the Highlands) via wholesaler.

It’s very emotional to make this decision but we have to do so in the interests of the business.

We value the relationships and business our customer base has given us over the years so much, and hope we can continue them via our new distribution channels.

Some things come to an end - and it’s hard to see them ending - but we hope that Swannay beer will continue to be poured on the bars around Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Newcastle (and places in between and beyond).

Thank you again to Kev for his years of loyal service.

And to finish up, a video of a regular morning in Edinburgh, back in the day.

A Dray in the Life from SwannayBrewery on Vimeo.