Royal Warrant Holder Corney & Barrow is one of the oldest independent wine merchants in the UK.

But did you know that its fascinating heritage has roots in 18th century Ayrshire? And why does it choose to support the work of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland? Linda Robertson goes underground to find out.

Tucked away down a cobbled street in the seaside town of Ayr is a hidden gem that’s steeped in intrigue.

Burrowed deep beneath the town centre is a cluster of cellars, built by wine merchants Alexander Oliphant & Co in 1766 to store imported wines, ports and sherries shipped from around Europe. Now, these cellars belong to Corney & Barrow, one of the oldest independent wine merchants in the UK.

“When we investigated our history for our 250th anniversary, we discovered that the original business was a front for a smuggling operation,” reveals Corney & Barrow’s account manager Ian Matthews. “Alexander Oliphant & Co had two boats that they would sail to Spain and France for wine. The cellars are right next to Customs House so they were landing it right under the noses of officials!”

The partnership between the Royal Conservatoire and Corney & Barrow, first launched in 2017, is built on a sparkling blend of shared values and an appreciation of the arts. Corney & Barrow has supported a range of events throughout the performance calendar, the most recent being the gala production of Broadway opera Street Scene.

The partnership is a perfect fit as far as we’re concerned as both organisations share a commitment to excellence. It’s the passion for what we do — and for arts and culture in Scotland and beyond.

Ian Matthews

Corney & Barrow Account Manager

He recalls the first time he visited the campus … and felt the buzz of the building: “Friends had studied at RCS, and I was brought up in Glasgow, so I had always been aware of it but I had never been inside. I remember the first time I walked in to the Renfrew Street building – I was blown away! The energy of the place is incredible, it’s so vibrant.”

Ian leads the way through Corney & Barrow’s retail shop to a flight of steep stone steps which descend to the depths of the cellars. Overhead, lightbulbs illuminate the gloom.

“It’s so atmospheric,” he says. He’s not wrong. The cellars, with their low curved ceilings, haven’t been touched since the 1700s.

“It’s a classic Bordeaux-vaulted cellar, which is typical of that time. It’s very close to the river so the boats would dock and roll in the barrels for storage. There were probably ten men working here back in the day — bottling, labelling and corking.”

The cellars are now used for long-term customer reserve storage and are filled with row after row of wooden crates, around 12,000 of them. “We store the wine in perfect conditions until it’s ready. A lot of it is investment-level wine which is a big part of our business.”

It feels like taking a step back in time. Old dusty barrels are dotted along the tunnels, with empty bottles fashioned into candle holders. The 100-year-old conveyer system is in fine working order. It’s easy to imagine someone sitting at the original corking machine, sealing the bottles by hand.

Ian says it’s a special place to work: “We have regular events in the cellars where we chat about the history and taste a selection of wines. People love it down here. We’re a heritage brand, in the centre of Ayr, with a long history. There aren’t many places like it.”