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Wee Macgreegor and the mystery of the Three Nuns

I LIKE unexpected connections, and I think I might have unearthed one between journalist and author John Joy Bell (1871-1934) and the award-winning tobacco known as Three Nuns.

At Christmas I was given a copy of Wee Macgreegor, by John Bell (or J J Bell, as he was known professionally). The book was originally published in 1902, and while his writings may not be familiar today, he was one of the best-known and best-loved Scottish authors in the early years of the 20th century. Bell was born in Hillhead in 1871, when the Burgh of Hillhead still lay outwith the Glasgow city boundaries. In fact, it wasn’t until 1891 that Hillhead was finally subsumed into the ever-expanding City of Glasgow.

John Bell’s father, James Taylor Bell, was a wealthy tobacco manufacturer, who ran the family business, along with his brother Finlay. The company was based in impressive six-story warehouses in Brunswick Street. One of J & F Bell’s best known brands was called Three Nuns. A curious name for a brand of tobacco, I thought, but I couldn’t find anything to explain the origin of the name. Until, that is, I was looking through electoral registers for 1903 and discovered that opposite the Bells’ home in Victoria Circus was a convent, with three Sisters of Notre Dame listed as owners. Three Nuns. Could these three women, the Bell family’s neighbours, be the nuns who inspired a famous tobacco brand?

I like to think so, though obviously I can’t be certain.

Three Nuns tobacco (‘The Tobacco of curious cut’, ‘None nicer’) still exists today. It’s even listed in the Pipe Tobacco Hall of Fame. In the heyday of pipe smoking it was the tobacco of choice for many eminent pipe-smokers, including C S Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Both he and his friend J R R Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) were seldom seen without a pipe to hand, and believed their pipe-smoking helped them write some of their best works.

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The 52nd issue in the colossal series that is iScot The Mag! The magazine for folks who don’t do mags!