"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

Monday, 2 August 2010

Glasgow Part 5 – Yoker Distillery

My trip to Yoker was one of those magical days that help to make a venture such as this a joy to be part of.

I was in an uncertain mood at first as I approached Yoker. Uncertain of what I would find there, if anything, and uncertain if visiting the sites of these long gone distilleries (almost half of Barnard’s list) was going to be of any real value at all. How unnecessary my worrying turned out to be!

Barnard describes his route “…through the prettiest suburb of Glasgow, and our journey was a pleasant one. Just before we reached our destination we noticed an all pervading odour of Whisky in the air, and were not surprised shortly afterwards to see the buildings of the Distillery…” Barnard later describes Glasgow as “only six miles off”. His journey was by train from Queen Street station, the line to Yoker having been opened just three years earlier and with a siding that extended into the grounds of the distillery.

Yoker has since been absorbed into Glasgow City, just as the Camlachie of my previous visit had been, and now stands on the boundary between Glasgow and Clydebank. My drive along Dumbarton Road no longer presented the prettiest of suburbs, and the all pervading odour coming through the ventilation of my car was a seaweed smell from the old docks along the Clyde. The buildings of the Distillery are, sadly, long since gone.

Yoker Parish Church
Yoker Parish Church
I soon found the site where the distillery had once stood, at the corner of what is now Hawick Street and Dumbarton Road. I parked beside Yoker Parish Church and am immediately curious about the church as it’s not recorded on the NLS map I had researched. I decided to enquire further about its history and the parishioner volunteers who were tending the grounds directed me inside to where a coffee morning was being held. I was soon introduced to the minister, Reverend Karen Hendry, who informs me that the church was founded in 1895 and there was no record of a church on the site before then.

On hearing the purpose of my visit the very engaging Rev. Hendry began to find ways to keep me on the premises. An offer of coffee was tempting after my long drive from Edinburgh but I had just arrived and was keen to explore the area first. I promised to return later for a coffee and then I was informed about a book that may help my research into the area. Both Sides of the Burn (BSotB) is a history of Yoker, written by the senior pupils of Yoker Secondary School and published in 1966. Intrigued, I consider looking in a local library to find it, make my excuses, and head out to find evidence of the distillery.

Yoker Distillery
The Burn mentioned in the book is the Yoker Burn which previously ran through the distillery grounds, the distillery being built at the point where it met the high water mark of the Clyde. This is marked on the NLS maps as “The highest point to which the ordinary spring tides flow”, however the burn is now directed to the Clyde via underground pipes. The distillery also had a large circular reservoir for filtering water from the Clyde, so large (90 feet in diameter) it is marked as a structure on the old NLS maps.

I recall the smell from the Clyde earlier and am glad to read that it was Loch Katrine water that was used for the actual distilling; yet another distillery celebrating this water source by Barnard’s time. Before then, the distillery being founded earlier than 1770, the Yoker Burn and local wells were the main water sources (BSotB, p30).

The distillery was owned by the Harvey family, in various legal forms, from 1770. Hawick Street was once known as Harvey Street and the family had been farmers here since 1740, the distillery being built to utilise the excess grain production in the region. The story of Yoker recounted in BSotB indicates that the distillery was the fundamental driver for the growth of the village. It quotes from an 1820 publication “the little village of Yoker remarkable only for its large distillery” (BSotB, p31). The NLS map from around 1850 shows few buildings other than the distillery and dairy. The village growth came later, joining with the outward growth of Glasgow as the ship building industry grew along the newly dredged Clyde.

The Harvey family also owned the Dundashill Distillery in Glasgow and Yoker received its malted barley from there. Yoker was one of the largest distilleries in Scotland in 1885, producing 600,000 gallons (2.7m litres) a year, mostly grain whisky but they also had “one of Stein’s Patent Stills for the manufacture of malt whisky”. Now I always assumed that Stein’s stills, like Coffey’s later ones, were only used for producing grain whisky, but it appears I may be wrong? The whisky produced was sent to Glasgow warehouses for blending or was sent to Ireland from the docks at Broomielaw (BSotB, p30).

Barnard also describes a rather murky business going on in one warehouse which:
“contains a Patent “Ageing Apparatus," where new Whisky is subjected to an immense pressure of heat. This process is said to have the power of destroying the aldehyde or fieriness of new Whisky and converting it into a mature spirit of three to five years old. This patent is at present in its infancy, but arrangements are being made to work it in this Distillery on a larger scale.”
I have been unable to trace any further mention of this rather dubious practice but arguments about accelerating the maturing process still continue to this day. A topic for another time though.

Once again recalling the earlier smell of seaweed as I had driven through Scotstoun I found an interesting reference in BSotB. Yoker became home to a substantial chemical industry in the late 19th century, at one time being home to a factory known to locals as “the seaweed” and producing “half of all the iodine used in Britain” (BSotB, p103) together with a range of other acids and chemicals. Interesting, because for some reason, for Yoker distillery alone, Barnard was moved to state that “no acids have ever been used in the distillery”. Peculiar.

The Cooperage
The distillery was closed in 1928, another victim of DCLs rationalisation after being sold to them in 1925. Modern apartment blocks now stand on a courtyard named ‘The Cooperage’, continuing a tradition of naming streets, where distilleries once stood, either with the distillery name or based on a particular function undertaken at a distillery.

Across the road from the main distillery site is now ‘Yoker Business Park’ which is basically just a Scottish Power depot. This is where Mr Harvey once had his home and where the dairy attached to the distillery may once have stood. The cattle were fed on the draff produced by the distillery and the butter produced in the dairy “fetched the highest price in the market”.

North of the depot is Yoker Bowling Club. Barnard describes “a large bowling green, kept up by Mr. Harvey for the use of the men in the Distillery and the village.” My enquiries at the clubhouse confirm that this green has been on the same site since 1850. It is well kept and well used to this day.

Spiritual enlightenment
Yoker Bowling Club
After taking some photographs I returned, as promised, to the church coffee morning in search of refreshment before my journey continues. As I am driving today my preferred refreshment of a large dram of something with a phenol count above 25ppm was not an option, and this being a venue where another kind of spirit is worshiped the chances of a dram were unlikely in any case. Rev. Hendry advises that they are having enough trouble trying to get a licence for a bingo night, never mind a drinks licence. She very kindly treats me to a much needed coffee (thanks again), my dram on ice for now (not literally my friends, don’t worry, I knows the rules!).

My day was about to get another lift. During my walkabout, Rev. Hendry had been busy searching the church bookshelf and had found a copy of Both Sides of the Burn for me. Inspired by this kind gesture I began flicking through the pages looking for details to take note of and am told to take the book with me and return it another time. As we drink our coffee I am introduced to some members of the congregation and am made to feel very welcome as I interrupt their soup and sandwiches. I now regretted turning down the Reverend’s earlier offer of some cake as we discuss Yoker, whisky trips and the church situation.

I ask if the Harvey family were still landowners or residents in the area. At this moment we are timeously joined by the Session Clerk, Jim Shaw. Jim has a wealth of knowledge on the area and advises that the family no longer live here however, at the church’s centenary fifteen years ago a gentleman named Harvey, a descendant of the distillery owners, arrived from Bristol to visit them.

Jim also recalls that it was the Harvey family who arranged for the stunning stained glass window, its bold, azure colouring glimmering brightly in the morning sun, to be installed in the north end of the church, the original windows having been blown out during the blitz which destroyed Clydebank in 1941.

Details of my journey spark some interest and a few other distilleries in the area are mentioned to me, Glengoyne and Auchentoshan included. Jim, I hope you can get the Rev to agree to that minibus trip for the parishioners (I may be responsible for started something here. Oops!).

At this point the Reverend advises that they do a wonderful sausage roll and would I like one? I am beginning to get the feeling that she is trying to ensure that my nourishment today goes beyond the ‘spiritual’ kind. I recall something from my Sunday School years about ‘being led astray’ but somehow forget if that was meant to be a good thing or a bad thing - I could get to like it here.

Regrettably I need to take my leave. I had planned to visit a total of four distillery sites that day and I hadn’t counted on any of them being quite as absorbing and pleasingly delaying as Yoker had been. I recall the final verse of a favourite poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Sadly, I say my goodbyes and promise to return with the book sometime soon.

The last elements of the old distillery, the bonded warehouses, which remained across the way from the church after production had ceased, also suffered during the blitz bombings and never recovered. It is said that in less than two hours, whisky worth more than £1m went up in flames (BSotB, p32). Now, nothing remains of the grand old venture the locals knew as Harvey’s Distillery.

The stills may be silent, the bricks may be gone, but the spirit lives on in memories and stories.

My very best wishes to Karen, Jim and the congregation at Yoker Parish Church. If you, my loyal reader, are passing through Yoker at any time then make sure it is on a Wednesday and drop in to the church for their weekly coffee morning. A warm welcome awaits you.