"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

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Glasgow Part 2 - Port Dundas and Dundashill distilleries

Barnard travelled from the Victoria Hotel to Port Dundas in a horse and trap, then the main means for well-to-do people to get around town. According to Wikipedia, Karl Benz’ first ‘Motorwagen’ was built in 1885, the same year as Barnard started his journey, and in Britain the first petrol-powered car was produced in 1894. Large scale production didn’t commence until the early 1900s.

It’s not far from George Square to Port Dundas so I choose to walk on a bright summer morning. A short climb north of the city centre brings you to the basin at the western end of the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Port Dundas Distillery and canal basin
Barnard’s first impression of Port Dundas was a “scene of great commercial activity” and the port would be busy with grain, coal, peat, wood and other goods being unloaded to supply the distilleries, with casks being loaded for onward journeys to blenders and bottlers. He describes how the port is “…strange to say, at the top of a hill over-looking the city. The appearance of ships’ masts in such a position, over-topping the houses, presented to us a peculiar surprise.”

Port Dundas is now a more sedate environment although commercial activity still takes place at the distillery, the cement factory and other local businesses arranged in two business parks. To the west, alongside Spier’s Wharf, the granaries and warehouses of Dundashill distillery are now converted into flats and offices.

The M8 beyond the silent canal
The ship activity at Spier’s Wharf is now replaced by traffic on the M8 as it thunders by, like blood pounding through an artery. On the distant southern horizon the masts are those of the wind turbines at Whitelee wind farm on Eaglesham Moor, Europe’s largest onshore wind farm, striding high above the city skyline. I thought about how Barnard would view this stark contrast with the noisy, dirty, coal and steam used in huge quantities to power the great industrial complexes of his time. On his list of 129 distilleries in Scotland he only records 2 or 3 that are connected to electricity power, and that only used for lighting. Incandescent light bulbs were first invented in 1870s, the steam turbine for generation of electricity in 1884.

Port Dundas distillery was once one of the largest in the world and produced no less than 2,562,000 gallons of spirit (11.6m litres) per annum when Barnard visited. The Tun room contained 35 washbacks, some holding as much as 53,000 gallons (241,000 litres). The still room contained 3 Coffey’s Patent Stills, 70 feet high, and 5 pot stills “one of them having a capacity of 24,000 gallons [109,000 litres] and said to be the largest in the kingdom.” This was a huge venture and by far the largest production volume of any distillery in Scotland at that time.

The site is currently home to the Glasgow headquarters of Diageo. However, in 2009 Diageo announced that the distillery was to close this year, its 200th anniversary. Production of grain whisky for the drinks group is to be met at Cameronbridge distillery in Fife which is to be expanded, and the office staff are being moved to other locations.

Not unsurprisingly the announcement by Diageo was met with widespread media attention and political and union condemnation. It was announced as part of a restructuring package resulting in 900 job losses across Scotland, including 700 at its packaging plant in Kilmarnock, although to be offset by the creation of 400 new posts in Fife. Glasgow was home to six distilleries when Barnard visited – after this year it will host only one.

Glasgow skyline
To the west of Port Dundas distillery stood the Dundashill distillery which was Barnard’s second to visit. He describes buildings of great height on the side of a steep hill “one of them forming the highest point in Glasgow.” The view over Glasgow below is now scattered with high rise buildings, remnants of the 1960s social engineering that cleared the old tenements and broke down long standing community relationships to re-house the working class populations in new ‘vertical’ housing schemes.

Barnard describes the view from the top on a clear day, with distant mountains visible to the west and north. From the highest point I could scramble to I could indeed just make out the tops of Goat Fell on Arran and Ben Lomond, Scotland’s most southerly Munro (mountains over 3000 feet high) which rises majestically from the shores of Loch Lomond.

Converted Dundashill warehouses
The granaries, malt barns and kilns for the distillery are now converted into flats and offices on the bank of the canal. Further up the hill the other buildings of the distillery are long since demolished. The distillery was forced to close in 1902 and in 1903 was sold to The Distillers Company Ltd, owners of Port Dundas distillery and now part of Diageo. The site has been used by Diageo as a cooperage until this year and is now to close as part of the restructuring programme.

Diageo cooperage at Dundashill
As I climb the short road named Dundashill which leads to the gates of the cooperage I am approached by security staff. I was, foolishly, carrying my camera open in my palm and likely due to the sensitivity of the restructuring, and the emotional fall out from the announcement, they were clear that I could go no further. I am allowed to take photographs of the M8 motorway and the canal basin from this vantage point, but that’s it for part 1 of my journey.

At some time on this journey I hope that Diageo will grant me access to their archives which I understand are moving from Port Dundas. If I can trace any evidence of Barnard’s visit to these historical sites, perhaps a message recorded in a visitor’s book, then I will report back to you in due course.