"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, 25 August 2010

Clydesdale Distillery, Wishaw

Before my journey heads to Campbeltown (via Greenock, Cowal and some of the best driving roads in Scotland) I need to mirror Barnard’s visits to some other (lost) distilleries along the Clyde Valley, 2 smaller distilleries and one very large one.

The first of the smaller ones was Clydesdale Distillery at Wishaw.  Barnard does not describe how he travelled from Glasgow to Wishaw, although he does mention the town is “fourteen miles from Glasgow, on the Caledonian Railway”, Wishaw station a short distance from the distillery.  Had he travelled by horse and carriage he would likely have gone via the old ‘London Street’, now downgraded to the B7078 alongside which the M74 now connects Glasgow to the M6 (and London) at Gretna.

A valley in Clydesdale
Barnard describes the valley of the Clyde where “…woods, orchards and fruit gardens combine to give this district the well-known designation of the ‘Garden of Scotland’.”  This designation has actually been used for various agricultural areas of the country and is today more commonly associated with East Lothian (home to Glenkinchie Distillery), the Carse of Gowrie between Perth and Dundee and also the Howe of the Mearns on the east coast between Brechin and Stonehaven, home to Fettercairn distillery and also birthplace of Robert Burns father, William, who was a market gardener in the Mearns before moving to Ayrshire.

The Lanarkshire area around the Clyde still has a strong farming and specifically fruit growing presence, and as you head south-east out of Glasgow and pass between the old industrial towns of Hamilton, Motherwell and Wishaw you emerge into the open rural landscape of Clydesdale, full of tumbling streams, open meadows and soft rolling hills.  Very different to the stark cliffs and bold mountains of the familiar highland landscapes, but beautiful for being verdant and peaceful (in contrast to the industry downstream) - a garden within Eden.

New Lanark, World Heritage Site
Barnard only briefly mentions the celebrated Falls of Clyde which are upstream near the World Heritage Site of New Lanark.  These are not specifically marked as an attraction on the 19th century NLS maps but are recorded as a series of ‘linns’, an old Scottish word for waterfalls/pools.  I don’t know if he ever visited the falls himself, unlikely on this journey but maybe on one of his returns to the area in later years, but he missed a treat if he didn’t come here.

Corra Linn, Falls of Clyde
The Clydesdale distillery was on the south edge of the estate of Wishaw House.  The House was demolished in 1953 and the policies that once “came up almost to the very gateway” of the distillery are now a golf course and housing.  On the west side of the estate the famous Ravenscraig steel works were built in the mid 1950s, just after the house was demolished, and it became one of the largest steel works in Europe before it closed in 1992.  At the time of Barnard’s visit there were numerous other iron and steel works in an area that held a long tradition in these industries.

The distillery was established in 1825 by Robert Montgomery, the then Lord Belhaven who was a local businessman and owner of Wishaw House, and by the time of Barnard’s journey it was one of the largest pot still only distilleries in Scotland.  It had four granaries, eight malting floors and three large kilns which were heated by peat from the nearby Greenhead moss.  This moss has now been converted into a nature park with walkways, trees and small lochs; off the paths the ground is still spongy and likely still developing new moss layers below the dense vegetation.


The mash tun was one of the larger ones that Barnard witnessed at 24 feet wide by 6 deep and holding 69,000 litres.  There were two Morton’s refrigerators and four huge washbacks at 82,000 litres each.  The description of the stills is intriguing - Barnard records that the Wash goes “through the four Stills which are of the plain Pot kind with a capacity of 5,500, 3,500, 2,650 and 1,000 gallons respectively” (25,000 litres down to 4,500) … “and it may here be mentioned that the whisky in this establishment undergoes three distillations.”  Triple distillation was more common then, particularly in the Lowlands, but could the distillery also have been set up for possible quadruple distillation with those decreasing pot sizes?

Barnard separately notes that there is “an extensive apparatus on the premises for distilling water for reducing purposes.”  The distillery would not have been supplied by those Loch Katrine waters much celebrated by Glasgow distilleries, and the Clyde waters would not be considered clean enough being as they were downstream from various power plants and mills, including the extensive cotton mills at New Lanark.  The water used for distilling whisky was from the nearby Cambusnethan peat-moss, the burn from the moss diverted through the grounds of another nearby estate, that of Coltness.  Cambusnethan moss still exists, surrounded by housing, but Coltness House was demolished in the 1980s and the estate also now built over with housing.

Site of Clydesdale Distillery maltings and kilns
The distillery had ten large stone warehouses holding 3,500 casks and Barnard notes that the Cooperage had “upwards of 100 Sherry Butts just imported from Spain”.  The annual production at that time was 773,000 litres and the scale of industry here must have been an impressive sight as you arrived on the Caledonian Railway line from Glasgow that passed by at an elevation before reaching the station.  A separate siding ran into the grounds of the distillery to supply the extensive granaries with barley.  Further warehouses were added to the site in the 1890s.

Site of Clydesdale Distillery and warehouses
Clydesdale distillery was one of the five founding members of Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd (SMD) in 1914 but then closed in 1919.  At that time DCL began using their warehouses (Udo 2005) and SMD was ultimately absorbed into DCL in 1925.  The warehouses continued in use for a few decades but the last buildings were demolished in 1988.  The site of the granaries and kilns is now an Aldi supermarket and car park, the adjacent sites of the main distillery buildings and warehouses also now occupied by various retail stores and a McDonalds.  No reference to the old distillery remains in the area.