"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, 13 August 2010

Tambowie Distillery

After visiting the west side of Glasgow, Barnard made just one stop to the north, at Tambowie distillery near Milngavie. For some reason he didn’t visit Glengoyne (then named Glenguin) until the following year when touring central Scotland. After Tambowie he heads south of Glasgow and then on to Campbeltown.

Sylvan scenes at Tambowie
I arrive at the road up to Tambowie Farm on a warm, sunny day, perfect for surveying the surrounding land for evidence of this long gone distillery. Barnard describes the scene from here as picturesque and sylvan and the same is true today, with the Strathblane Hills to the northeast, Mugdock Park and Lennox Forest stretching across the valley below.

What is not included in the view as Barnard claimed, and clearly subject to that bit of ‘poetic licence’ that is prevalent in much of his writing, is Loch Katrine, some 25 miles north and hidden beyond forests and the massive slopes of Ben Venue!

The NLS map shows a short side track leading to the distillery and today this leads to pleasant, landscaped grounds and the home of Murray and Sandra (and their bonkers pet dog) who all welcome me and provide me with more of those moments that make this trip a pleasure.

Murray describes some of the old foundations that they know are under the recently filled in hollow, where once the burn ran down through the distillery grounds from an artificial dam on the slopes above. The dam, marked on NLS maps from c1850, created a small reservoir to catch water from the Tambowie hills to provide a dependable supply for the farm and distillery. The burn is now piped through the ground but still spills out beside a small bridge near where it would have exited the distillery grounds.

Garden works have revealed a few small, concrete pedestal statues that have been pulled from the ground. They are rather worn and moss covered but two of these appear to be in the style of Roman or Greek Goddesses, perhaps representing Ceres, goddess of agriculture and grain; or the Romano-Celtic Arnemetia, a water goddess (‘aqua vitae’ from another time); or perhaps Egeria, an ancient Roman Goddess of springs, sacred knowledge and inspiration!

Sandra advises that local history records this place as a stop off for Monks on pilgrimage to Paisley Abbey, which was founded in the twelve century and raised to abbey status in 1245. Looking around the landscape you can understand why. Tambowie sits below the foothills of the highlands and beyond the end of old droving roads through the glens that would be well known to Rob Roy MacGregor, much celebrated in these parts. The stream from the Tambowie hills would be a blessing after a long walk and from nearby the view would be unbroken across the Clyde Valley to Paisley, and the object of their pilgrimage.

Rob Roy lived in the Trosachs area north of here 100 years before the distillery was founded in 1825. A significant character in Scotland’s history, in part due to Sir Walter Scott’s 1817 novel Rob Roy, he was a cattle herder and drover for much of his life. On his travels south to the major cattle markets he may also have made use of the old smugglers cave that Barnard describes as being used as one of the distillery warehouses. The same novel also introduced us to a character by the name of Bailie Nicol Jarvie, now the name of a blended whisky produced by Glenmorangie.

The distillery grounds today
The only visible remains of the distillery are now a small wall behind the cottage and a brick platform beside the burn. Some rubble appears in the burn and likely dates to the distillery time as well. The cave has been filled in, its location lost long ago. The Manager’s and Excise man’s cottages do still remain beside the grounds and are occupied to this day.

Sandra introduced me to Albert and Margaret who live in another cottage on the track and more history comes my way. Albert has a folder of notes on local history and very kindly copies some pages for me take away.

Within these pages, and in other records of the distillery, are details of a fire during the First World War. It is noted that the Manager and Excise Man broke open the casks of whisky and allowed it to pour into the burn downstream, presumably to reduce the fire hazard in the warehouses. Word of this reached nearby Milngavie and soon various characters were turning up with any container they could carry and filling them with Tambowie’s finest before it became too diluted. Many of them were apparently found in the two days that followed, sleeping off the effects in the woods.

When I visited the Gorbals and the Adelphi Distillery site I noted the many pubs recorded in that area on the old maps; Milngavie also appears to have had an excess of pubs per population in the past. Nigel Orr’s history Milngavie, The Village (2002) notes the more liberal licensing laws than in Glasgow and no less than ten pubs in the village in 1896. He also notes the opening price for a gallon of Tambowie Malt Whisky as 2s 10d. That equates to roughly £76 a gallon today, £11.70 a bottle or 42p for a measure.

There appears to be a historical anomaly regarding the fire. In 2006 the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald published a short report on the distillery as part of a series of reports looking back at the history of the area. Under the heading ‘The old spirit of Mulguy’ they included the following poem that was reportedly first published in the Herald in February 1905. Now this either means that there were two separate, major fire incidents at the distillery within 10 years, or that, as I will discuss below, sometimes history is not as it seems.

The tragic end of John Barleycorn
"Mulguy" enjoy'd her morning meal
With something like repose,
When forthwith came that frenzied peal —
''Fire! Come! Get tackle, hose!''
''Tambowie's Whisky'' swells fou' strong —
See yonder flames rear high;
Needless to sound the dinner-gong,
'”Fire! Fire!” each one did cry.

A thousand voices rent the air
As up the spirits went,
Whilst greater, grander grew the flare
Which none could circumvent.
As the boy stood 'midst ''the battle's wreck
Whence all but he had fled,''
So stood ''John Barley'' - (by the neck),
Held fast, with feverish dread.

Envelop'd thus with smoke and flame
He bravely met his death.
When out his life's-blood trickling came,
Each witness held his breath —
All, save a few, who carried cans,
And some with empty bottles,
Whilst not a few used frying-pans
To quench their thirsty throttles.

Thus perish'd ''John'' — his ebbing veins
Distill'd through ''Quaint Mulguy,''
But, reckless of his burning pains,
Were those who drain'd them dry.
The loss is great, his mourners weep,
And mingle with the crowd,
Still, those who drank his life's blood sleep
Outside without a ''shroud.''

A wonderfully evocative poem from an unknown poet, however, the published date of 1905 throws up a question about the common recollection of a fire in 1914. Udo (2005) doesn’t mention a fire but does give a closure date of 1914. Various books, web sites and online forums record the fire as 1914, and the distillery was finally closed in 1920, the walls then being cannibalised to provide material for new road building nearby.

Is this a case of ‘remembered’ history v ‘factual’ history? After the horrors of the Great War many people had memories to forget and so, over time, other memories are often placed out of context or out of sequence. It is said that we remember many more enjoyable and interesting experiences than we do those events that disturb or disappoint us. Could this be a case of facts being lost with time and memories of a local event propagating to fill a gap, a time for which people prefer not to recall their actual experiences, or was the earlier fire forgotten amidst the consequences of the later one?  History becomes legend, legend turns into myth (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings)…[Update - further investigation can be found on this link].

Tambowie in 1896
As well as historical notes, Albert also gave me a copy of a map of the farm area from 1896 which shows the distillery buildings as they then stood. This is a real bonus as the NLS map at this level of detail, from c1850, has been torn through where the buildings would be and the layout cannot be determined from it.

This presents another historical anomaly I may have to deal with on the tour. Maps, like the rest of our history, are subjective objects open to interpretation. It is known that in the past it was not uncommon practice for some maps and books to be defaced by those who found record of things that didn’t meet with their approval. Thus, record of certain churches would be erased by those of a different denomination, and record of distilleries, breweries and public houses removed by those of certain religious or temperance persuasions. Some buildings would not even be recorded by mapmakers if their own beliefs stood against the purpose of those establishments.

Has the NLS map been deliberately defaced or just damaged by accident? In this case the latter does seem more likely as the name Tambowie Distillery is still clear beside the tear, and vandalism would surely wish to remove the whole record. Perhaps the NLS don’t have a better copy from that period to scan into their digital resource.

Like most of my other ‘distillery’ visits so far, this one has also found only memories and stories of the past; the object of my own pilgrimage, unlike those monks of old, no longer visible to draw me forward. Yet compiling this tale has given me new insight into aspects of our past that will help shape my writing as my journey moves on round Scotland.

My thanks and best wishes to Sandra and Murray, Margaret and Albert, and to Drew at the farmhouse who granted me access to photograph the dam and reservoir. Margaret, I hope you do find a special occasion to open your bottle of Tambowie Malt (a recent ‘Pure’ malt bottling under the old name from the Vintage Malt Whisky Company). SlĂ inte, enjoy!