"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

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Dalaruan Distillery, Campbeltown

The name of this distillery has its origins deep in the history of Scotland.  Barnard states that it “takes it’s name from Dalruhadhain, the old royal name of the place”, a reference to the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada that was centred on Kintyre.

St Columba's 'footprints', carved to
commemorate his visit to Kintyre in 563AD
There is a long history of human settlement on this peninsula, back to the Neolithic farmers who first cleared the land over 5,000 years ago.  Kintyre’s first connection to the Gaelic speaking world can be traced back to around 300AD.  The origins of Dalriada lie in Ireland which is only 12 miles across the North Channel and a relatively easy crossing for the sea-fairing ‘Scotti’ people, who may have come here to claim land.  Later came St Ninian, celebrated as Scotland’s first Saint and who brought Christianity to Kintyre, and later still both St Kieran and St Columba visited the area.

Dalriada is one of those old names of place, like Alba and Caledonia, that inspire feelings of pride and independent spirit in many Scots.  However, the feelings they inspire are often based on selected elements of our history that are over-romanticised and glamorised.  Barnard almost falls into this trap in his introduction to Benmore Distillery - “Dalruadhain, the ancient capital of Scotland, where kings and nobles were wont to assemble, and whose streets and courtyards were thronged with gallant courtiers and armed hosts” – which hints more at the late medieval castles and palaces of England rather than the forts and farm huts more typical of ‘Scotland’ in the first millennium.

Although the exact origins of distilling in Scotland are still uncertain, it is possible that the practice was brought here by monks from Ireland, perhaps those accompanying the Saints mentioned earlier.  There were many illicit stills in the Campbeltown area before licensing was introduced in 1823, perhaps a legacy of these past visitors, and this influenced the early 19th century boom in the industry in the town.  Dalaruan Distillery was part of this boom and was founded in 1824.

Townsend (1993) tells a wonderful story of how the founder, Charles Colvill, “once had to share a hotel bed on Islay with a visiting excise officer who told him at length about the whisky industry on the island.  Charles gave up being an itinerant Cartwright and turned to distilling, with considerable success.”  The distillery was mainly funded by a local banker, David Colville (who also set up Dalintober with Peter Reid), and had a steady history for a century before production ceased in 1922 and the buildings and stock were put up for sale in 1925.

Barnard notes that the distillery had been expanded just a few years prior to his visit.  He provides a concise run through of the buildings and the distilling process, including the exact dimensions of each of the four malt barns.  I wonder now how he got all these measurements – did he carry a measuring tape or rely on the knowledge of the managers he spoke to?  It is common now to hear about the volumes of the mash/wash/still equipment but how often do we concern ourselves with the length and breadth of each room when on a tour?  Perhaps this was a product of the Victorian industrial era, when engineering was a major factor in the growth of the Empire?

However, one benefit of Barnard recording this level of detail is that it helps to show when distilleries may have been expanded.  In the 1925 sale document for the distillery the wash still is described as 4,027 gallons and the distillery capacity as 3,400 proof gallons per week.  This contrasts to a still size of 2,750 gallons and output of 2,150 per week when Barnard visited forty years earlier, showing further expansion of the distillery following that which occurred in the few years prior to his visit.

After closure and auction of the buildings the immediate use of the site is unknown but by 1938 a new housing scheme had been completed on the site.  This new scheme of terraced housing was known as Parliament Place, referencing the parliament buildings that King James IV had built to help arrange affairs and assert his authority in the area and which stood just south of where Dalaruan Distillery was later built.

New housing at Dalaruan
Parliament Place has now been demolished as the build quality was poor and within the last two years new housing has been built on the site.  When trying to find evidence of Dalaruan I spoke to some residents who thought I was perhaps looking for an old house where I had been born or had lived.  They were surprised to learn that their homes were on the site of an old distillery and I left a copy of one of the NLS maps with them to show their neighbours.

It seems that the history of distilling in Campbeltown is more and more being erased.  Where once there were five distilleries within a 200 yard radius of where these residents now sat enjoying the late summer sunshine, now there is almost nothing save another block of 1930s housing named after Glenside.  This was not what I had expected to find in a town once known as “the land of Whisky”.  Still, many more sites around town to visit…