"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, 22 September 2010

Campbeltown Landscape

Time for a few thoughts on Campbeltown itself.  Distilling was a major industry in the town’s history and so inevitably had an impact on the local environment, both positively and negatively.  Barnard also commented on various aspects of the town and its landscape and I can follow a few of his observations through to my own recent visit.

Perhaps the most significant landscape change in the last few centuries, beyond the expansion of the town, was the creation of Kinloch Public Park between the north and south sides of the bay.  This area had previously been mussel ebb and it may at first seem strange for a fishing town to wish to remove such a valuable resource.  However, the growth of the town and associated industry led to heavy pollution of the ebb and so action was required.  The maps here are courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

Campbeltown bay c1865 before parkland reclaimed from sea

1900 map showing the Kinloch Public Park 

I mentioned in my post on Springbank that the Duke of Argyll had installed water mains for both the town and distilleries just before the distilling boom in the 1820s.  While this flow of fresh water contributed to improved sanitation in the town the Duke’s own agents wrote to the town council in 1871 to highlight the pollution problem.  They identified seven main causes, most of which I will spare you the unsavoury details of, but most significant was “the discharge of potale upon the beach” (Stirk, 2005).  Though not always a problem they did describe this as “extremely offensive in hot weather at low water”.

It appears from the letter that the use of potale as fertiliser or cattle feed was not yet common, at least in Campbeltown.  Barnard’s reports regularly mention the removal of draff for use as cattle or pig feed, but the process for draining and removing potale was fairly new and had to be forced upon most distilleries by the council.  Their reply to the Duke’s agents clearly noted the potale as the major pollutant of the ebb and cited this as a breach of the Public Health Act and the responsibility of the distilleries.

The pollution of the mussel ebb would have led to poisonous shell fish and so the council decided to reclaim the whole end of the loch for reasons of sanitation.  The Duke imposed conditions on this, including the requirement to build what is now the town esplanade and to provide a public park for the town’s inhabitants.  In-fill for the ebb was dredged from the bottom of the loch, including many tons of old ship ballast, and it was finished with rock quarried from the Dalintober side of the bay.  The works were completed over five years and the park opened in 1881.

Barnard, perhaps not knowing the history of the park, was rather scathing of it when he walked from the White Hart Hotel to Benmore Distillery one day.  His route took him across the park and he was perturbed at why land “without a shrub or flower thereon should be called a Park…left a wilderness by a parsimonious local board”.  He did, however, note that it was “sacred to the repairs of fishing nets and domestic washing”.  Photographs in the local Heritage Centre show the use of the wide open land for drying of fishing nets from what was then a substantial herring industry.

One of the other guests at the Dellwood Hotel was originally from Campbeltown and still returns for annual holidays with his wife, this year to celebrate his mother’s 90th birthday.  He recalls seeing the park covered in nets laid out to dry.  This was from a time when the herring industry was so important to the town that when boats were forced into harbour during a storm “you could run across the decks from one side of the bay to another” as the gentleman had done as a boy.  Sadly those days are gone, like so many other fishing towns around Scotland, and the fleet has now been reduced to just four vessels.

Barrels on the quay
I recalled another picture I had seen at the Heritage Centre, one which showed the entire harbour quayside stacked with casks.  I had assumed they were for whisky, either awaiting transport to distilleries, or to be loaded onto vessels bound for Glasgow warehouses or the colonies.  Frank McHardy at Springbank suggested they were more likely to be packed with herring which had been processed and cured on the shore, such was the extent of the industry in days past.

On the south side of Kinloch Park there is a building I mentioned in a previous post, the aqualibrium.  A delightful name suggested by a local school girl in a competition to name the combined swimming pool and library complex which opened in 2006.  I spoke to a few local people about the building and they were yet to fully accept its place in the town.  It was generally thought to be too modern, or built in the wrong place, as it seemed out of sorts with the older buildings and the wide open spaces.  However, since its construction, further new developments have started to modernise other parts of the town and perhaps, in time, a steady regeneration will help bring Campbeltown new prosperity with the aqualibrium at its heart.

aqualibrium and Kinloch Park
For me, well I love the name and I made good use of the resources and the helpful staff in the library to research old newspapers.  The Bistro on top of the building maintains a connection to the past having been named the Mussel Ebb, thus the old and the new sit side by side as has often been the case before. Distilleries came and helped to drive the growth of the Burgh from the small fishing villages that were there before; shipbuilding and the airbase at Machrihanish brought 20th century investment after the distilleries had gone; golf and tourism now staples of the economy alongside that most modern of industries the wind farm.  Forestry is important and where once the quay was stacked with barrels, today it is stacked with logs being loaded as cargo.  Perhaps farming has been the only constant here over the centuries and change is in the nature of the town.

Lying on the south side of the loch, Beinn Ghuilean, at 352m is the dominant land feature for miles around.  Crosshill Loch, which supplied the mains water to the town for many years, lies on its lower slopes.  Barnard says that “we grew quite fond of these hills” while berating the council for not providing enough trees in the park for him to shelter under while enjoying the view!  The slopes are thick with pine plantations that feed the logging industry here.  My aforementioned fellow guest at the Dellwood recalls that the slopes were once covered with heather in which the bold outline of a stag had been marked and could be seen as you approached the town from the high road.

Kinloch Park, war memorial and Beinn Ghuilean
Said guest also tried to wind me up with a story about how the US Air Force had demanded that the top of Beinn Ghuilean be lowered to allow for the approach path of their B52 bombers which were to be stationed at Machrihanish airbase to the west.  Hhhm - I can’t find reference to this anywhere so think it may be a local legend/fairy tale to test the gullibility of visitors.  Nice try, not buying it!

For someone who so admired the view of the hill Barnard didn’t half come up with some interesting spellings – Ben Ghoillan, Bengullion, Bengullien and Bengoillean in different reports.  The NLS maps, both old and new, record the spelling as Beinn Ghuilean, which is Gaelic for 'hill of the wind' (and they also record the height as unchanged from 145 years ago!).  Crosshills still provides water to Springbank and the hill slopes now include mountain biking trails, although sadly not in the outline of a stag that could again be a focal point for the town?