"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Glasgow Part 1 - Arrival

Barnard’s journey began from Euston Station in London from where he took “the night mail…on the iron road to Glasgow.” His original plan was to commence his tour in Orkney but, almost inevitably, unfavourable weather forced him to change his plans to “entering the land of whisky” on the sleeper train to Glasgow Central Station.

His party was in high spirits when they left London, clearly looking forward to the adventure set before them and enjoying some “amusement out of our fellow travellers.” They both teased and shared their flask with a cleric who was on an altogether different spiritual journey but who was converted to offer assistance to their cause after partaking of a dram. Barnard writes with humour “the pious looking brother offered to join us in our excursions, that he might do the tasting, and we the writing. This generous offer we declined.”

Ah the joys, and rewards, of sharing a dram or passing round a hip flask. I shall return to the mysterious workings of the hip flask in a later post.

My own journey began less romantically, not on a steam train from London but a Scotrail Class 170 Turbostar (their italics!) from Edinburgh to Glasgow Queen Street. As you approach Glasgow QS on the line via Falkirk High you can see a chimney to the west that stands at Port Dundas, however it’s not for the distillery but for the Tarmac cement works next door. The etching of the Port Dundas Distillery that appears in Barnard shows no less that four chimney stacks, now there are none. The distillery chimneys of old are now a rarer sight as more stills are gas fired and far fewer distilleries run their own maltings on site with corresponding kilns; I feel a sub-project about chimneys coming on, let’s find out on the journey.

I too started in high spirits but also with some trepidation about the task before me. Barnard notes that he found his initial attempts at writing up his journal “beset with difficulties far exceeding what I had contemplated” but he grew to the task over the weeks and the end result was worth his initial trials and tribulations. I hope my own experiences take on the spirit of Barnard and I too “acquire quite a zest for these distillery studies.”

On arrival in Glasgow Barnard’s party took up quarters at the Victoria Hotel and were treated to a “substantial breakfast” before visiting their first distillery, Port Dundas. I wish to explore the hotels and inns that Barnard rested at and to stay in those that remain open today, so I had been looking for the Victoria Hotel hoping this would be a good start. After a few hours of searching an old map of Glasgow from the 1800s I eventually found it marked – right opposite Queen Street Station! A good omen perhaps? Not so lucky – the old hotel had long since gone and was replaced by a modern (1960/70s?) office block. Occupied by one of our national banks for many years it now reflects the recent havoc within our banking industry and the offices lie derelict and are up for sale.

Ah well, no hotel for me to enjoy a substantial breakfast in so I chose the nearest alternative – almost inevitably a JD Weatherspoon establishment on George Square called The Counting House. Yup, you’ve guessed it, another old banking hall, renovated and now serving liquid assets in return for brown, crinkly, 10 pound drinking vouchers. Barnard would have recognised the style of banking represented by the huge, vaulted and ornate interior to the hall. This was resonant of a time when banking was done face to face, with sincerity and austerity. Barnard would have felt at home here and may even have drawn cash in this building for his venture.

Barnard’s party were welcomed by “the cheery landlord, Angus Mackay, a stalwart young ‘Hielander’.” At ‘Spoons’ I was welcomed by the no less cheery Susan who gave me a card to receive a free coffee after it has been stamped five times. I feel this may be filled before long.

Spoons offers free wi-fi to its customers and so I can begin recording my thoughts here. Barnard very likely recorded his notes with a fountain pen and paper; Morrice, on his whisky tour in 1985, was writing pre-internet so may have used a biro or dictaphone; and so this blog reflects the common means of written communication of this day.

Barnard and I have both enjoyed our welcome in Glasgow and our breakfast (watch out for a future blog post on the subtle differences between the full Scottish and the full English breakfast) and so we both head to our first distillery, Port Dundas.