"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

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Littlemill Distillery (and the end of part 1)

Still buoyed by my earlier visit to Yoker, I headed west from Auchentoshan towards the small town of Bowling, once home to Littlemill Distillery. I wondered what I would encounter at my final stop of the day? Would I find something to inspire me as at Yoker, or, like Provanmill and others before, would there be nothing left to remind us that once there stood a distillery that exported as far as India and the Colonies?

Littlemill distillery was established in 1772 (Udo, p317) so was one of the oldest recognised distilleries in Scotland. Alas, after closing as recently as 1994 there was nothing left aside the name, once more enshrined on a road sign. The site of the main distillery buildings is now a modern apartment block, although they have restored and included two old distillery towers as part of the building.

Across the road, where the warehouses once stood, is now waste ground being readied for building. The crumbling walls of an old house still stand here, perhaps once the homely environment for a distillery manager, or perhaps the functional formality of an excise office, but now just a shell to be renovated or demolished. Do we know, or care anymore?

Wharves and wreck at Bowling
Bowling town is as quiet as the stills are now. Barnard describes “charming landscapes not unlike Richmond on Thames…and the Bowling Bay, with its wharves and shipping, giving life to the scene”. The charming landscapes are still there in the view across the Clyde to Erskine Park and the Kilpatrick Braes on the north side of town. The lively wharves and shipping are gone though, Bowling Bay now home only to an old wreck, the wharves silent and decaying, the Clyde flowing serenely past, empty.

Littlemill Place and Erskine Bridge
The railway station was there in Barnard’s time; the long sweep of the Erskine Bridge, bringing goods by van and truck, was not. The Forth and Clyde Canal, completed in 1790, has its Clyde end at Bowling Harbour. This great waterway across central Scotland was once a major transport route for goods and people. Port Dundas and Dundashill distilleries were also connected to the canal at the end of a channel running through northwest Glasgow. There too Barnard had described a scene of “great commercial activity”.

All silent now. Where once the fires of kilns and boilers burned bright, fanned by the great winds of industrial change, now the last candles lit in memory flicker and die in the gentle breeze of a whispered ‘ah’, as the cork of an old favourite squeaks out from the neck of a bottle, memory of the contents flooding back to olfactory senses, knowing this can’t last forever.

Where has our great ‘water of life’ gone from this industrial heartland of Scotland? Eight distilleries into Barnard’s list and only one, Auchentoshan, remains in production to this day. A little despair creeps back into my heart. Where in the west of Scotland is the activity, the innovation, the noise of humanity, the support for communities, the wee drappie for four generations of skilled workers, from Coopers to Welders – what have we left to show for all this spirit, damn it!

Yes, there are high volume distilleries in the area - Strathclyde in the city and Loch Lomond in nearby Alexandria, neither there in Barnard’s time and all far larger outputs than even Port Dundas in the 1880s. Both, however, look soulless, producing mainly grain whisky for in-house blends and with no visitor facilities.

I will discuss these, and the more recently closed Dumbarton Distillery, in an upcoming post. For now my Glasgow tour has come to a close and I go on with heavy heart.

I will soon be visiting Campbeltown, once home to the highest concentration of distilleries on the planet, so that should cheer me up a bit, no?