"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

Friday, 20 August 2010

Tambowie Distillery Update – No Smoke without Fire

I reported last week on my visit to Tambowie Distillery and was left with a question mark over the date for a major fire that destroyed the distillery. The fire is commonly remembered as being during the First World War, possibly 1914, yet a poem first published in 1905 reflects a similar story being told. The poem is the earliest recorded mention of local characters arriving on the scene carrying various containers to fill with whisky, and then being found sleeping off the effects in the open air.

I first encountered the poem in an on-line copy of the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald (MBH). Tambowie Distillery was located about 2 miles north-west of Milngavie and MBH republished the poem in 2006 as part of a series looking back at life in the area during the last century. It was they who first raised the question about the dating of the fire:
“The fire is usually said to have happened during the years of the First World War, however the poem featured on this page describing the blaze appeared in the Herald long before that.”

Alas, no answer to this anomaly was presented and so, in humble service to you dear reader, I set to investigating. A few phone calls, hours of book research and many yards of microfilm later we are closer to the end, but not quite there. With the kind assistance of Sharon and her colleagues at the Brookwood Library in Bearsden I have unearthed further information, although a completely clear picture of the final years of the distillery does not yet develop.

The key to this mystery was tracing the inspiration for the poem which was published on Friday 10 Feb, 1905. That was the easy part and I found the answer on a microfilm copy of MBH from just one week earlier. If you can’t quite read the copy in the picture to the right (click to enlarge) it reports “One of the most serious outbreaks of fire which has ever taken place in this district was that which occurred on Wednesday [1 Feb] forenoon at the bonded warehouse…”.

The report goes on to describe that of the 2000 casks stored in the warehouse (some for “a very long period”) only 20 were saved, with the remainder and the building completely lost to the fire. The fire brigade were forced to abandon saving the fated warehouse in a bid to stop the fire spreading to another bonded store nearby “which the burning whisky was running up against”. Gulp!

What the report does not mention is the casks being broken open and poured into the burn to stop the fire spreading, nor does it mention people turning up to ‘save’ some of the whisky in pans and cans. Looking through copies of MBH during the weeks afterwards finds no evidence of widespread drunken behaviour. There was only one charge for being drunk and disorderly in another village, and fines for people having the audacity to ‘play football in the street’ and ‘leaving a horse and cart unattended’. Some people, eh?

So this leaves the possibility that the latter part of the poem contained poetic licence to create an amusing story. Or perhaps MBH didn’t initially want to report those events for fear of tarnishing the reputation of their good townsfolk? Ironically, the poem was published immediately below the minutes of a meeting of the nearby Maryhill Temperance Union (it really was!). Indeed it is noted that reports, minutes and many, many letters regarding the Temperance Movement formed a large part of MBH reporting that year!

A more humdrum possibility is that those good townsfolk were legging it up the road with cans, bottles and frying pans to use as water carriers to help extinguish the fire, and the unknown author of the poem (signed only as J.G.B.) used this to create a more light-hearted image. Then again, once you have toiled to help reduce the fire to embers, and you find yourself standing next to a burst whisky cask with an empty container in your hand…

Whether truth or otherwise, the story within the poem’s ending became part of local legend in 1905 rather than during WWI as reported elsewhere. This still leaves another strand of the investigation to complete though. It is necessary now to look for evidence of a separate fire in 1914, or later in WWI, to see exactly when the more commonly remembered incident took place and also to see how it was then reported.

Thankfully, MBH was a weekly publication printed on just 8 pages, the first page always being solely made up of adverts (including 3 regular weekly adverts for blended whiskies all claiming to be “the best” or “second to none”), plus one page each for sports results, book serialisation and school reports. So it only took me the one full hour of eye straining, back breaking scrolling through the entire microfilm for 1914 to establish that there was no fire reported at Tambowie in that year, unless it was during the last week of the year and therefore not reported until 1915, but I had to admit defeat for the day at that point.

It is possible that I missed the report as it was an eye straining exercise and headlines were often small and just in capitals at the beginning of a sentence, rather than a bold typeface floating above. However, I did notice reports of other fires in the area, often headed in a bold typeface and generally described as “Exciting” (sic). I am sure that a fire destroying an entire distillery would meet that criteria and that I would have spotted the report.

Now, as archaeologists will tell you, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The precise dating of a second major fire at the distillery is still under question as most reports only mention ‘during the First World War’. Alas, this means that the microfilm for 1915 to 1918 must also be searched. Sob! Do either of my readers happen to live in the Bearsden area and have too much spare time on their hands…?

Evidence of the fire in WWI would also help answer another question that is troubling me. If a report of this later fire does indeed mention local chancers characters collecting whisky from the burn in any container they could muster, were they acting on impulse, or was the notion first planted in their uisge addled brains by that evocative poem from ten years earlier? The Temperance Union may have written a letter or two about that!