The year 1880 was a good one for James Noble Graham. A VERY good year indeed.
Perhaps it would be best to describe it as a ‘vintage year’, given that this man from humble beginnings built a huge fortune from importing to Britain a wine which was the favourite tipple of the middle and upper class Victorians - port.
Today, especially around Christmas, we browse in the wine aisle of the local supermarkets and off-licences here in Clydesdale for a bottle of Portugal’s most famous product to enjoy at the end of the annual festive feast, especially if there’s a nice nippy Stilton on the cheeseboard.
If you are feeling a wee bit flush, you might just select a bottle of one of the widely recognised best of the breed, a Graham’s Port.
Little do many of those local shoppers realise that the ‘Graham’ whose name is on the bottle had a near half-century connection to our area, turning a small corner of our Clyde Valley into a ‘Little Portugal’ in deference to the country which produced the source of his wealth.
That man, James Noble Graham, was not born locally in 1846 but hailed from the north of Scotland.
It is understood that his early career involved him performing fairly humble tasks of the clerking variety on the fringes of the increasingly lucrative drinks import trade of the 19th century.
It is often said that Portugal is “Britain’s oldest ally” and this was certainly true in satisfying the growing demand for its famous fortified wine, port.
Like many men who worked hard for a pittance in the front line of a business their bosses were making a fortune from, at some point James Noble Graham decided to work for himself.
It was a brave but wise decision and at a relatively early age James found himself a wealthy man.
At some point he decided that, instead of simply buying port from Portugal, he would take full quality control and acquire his own vinyard and winery in the Oporto area.
Still in his thirties, he had made enough money to start looking around for that ultimate Victorian status symbol of success, the big mansion house with a scenic country estate around it.
With his business now based in Glasgow, James Noble Graham obviously wanted to find his grand new home within easy travelling distance from the city but free from its then-notorious industrial smog.
Somehow, James found Carfin House (pictured) just outside Crossford, then one of the Clyde Valley’s very grandest ‘big hooses’ in what remains one of Lowland Scotland’s most scenic areas.
He purchased it in 1880, probably at the very height of his wealth and success and, expense being no object, set about a long project to convert the classic Georgian mansion into something more resembling a Portuguese palace through adding ornate balconing to the roof.
In fact, all the conversions he demanded meant that it was 1884, four years later, that he and his young wife moved in, raising there a family of six, four sons and two daughters.
This was probably Graham’s happiest days; later, his oldest son, and therefore his heir, was one of the thousands of such such young men to fall in World War One.
His survuiving sons, all officers in the then-termed Great War, all survived the conflict and one daughter went on to marry into a title, becoming Lady Dunnalley of Tipperary, Ireland.
Four years after his son and heir’s death, in 1920, the property rolls for the Clyde Valley still show James Noble Graham as the owner of Carfin House; the same rolls for five years later reveal the building now in the hands of a creditor.
What happened to James Noble Graham to bring about this humiliation?
We’ll never know exactly but he eventually sold out his business to another Scots drink magnate, Symington, but retained his Oporto estate and was travelling there when he died suddenly in 1928, still suffering a fresh heartbreak, this time from the recent death of his wife.
Although James Noble Graham’s life perhaps ended sadly, we can still raise a glass of cheer this Christmas to toast his memory.