"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, 8 September 2010

Greenock Distillery

After visiting Gleniffer, Barnard’s next stop was at Greenock Distillery before leaving from the port, bound for Kintyre and Campbeltown. The timings of his journeys from Paisley to Greenock and on to Campbeltown suggest that he stayed for one night in Greenock but he doesn’t mention any hotel here. My own visit was rather hurried as I was trying to catch two ferries later that day to speed me towards Campbeltown.

Barnard describes the growth of Greenock from “ a small fishing village of some twenty cottages” in the early 1600s to its current position as “the sixth largest town in Scotland in point of population”. This growth had been driven by shipping trade, occupying as it does a prime location at the Clyde estuary, providing easy access both to the Atlantic shipping routes and into the growing city of Glasgow. The Clyde upstream from here was not properly dredged and widened until the mid 1800s so larger vessels unloaded at Greenock and Port Glasgow and goods were transported into the industrial heartlands by smaller ships and barges.

Barnard's appraisal of the port is one of his more ebullient outpourings. From his eyes the hills behind the town “command the finest views of mountain, loch and river in Scotland”. The views are indeed fine and this was early in Barnard’s voyage around Scotland, so we can allow him that. However, his implication that “If Greenock had been built in terraces on the slopes of the hills instead of on the shore, it would, from its position on the Clyde, have been the most beautiful seaport in the world, and even now it is unrivalled in the United Kingdom” is rather more subjective. He clearly enjoyed his travels and the scenery they offered, in respite from his city life in London, and this often boils over into elaborate descriptions not uncommon in Victorian era writing.

The distillery itself was converted from an old brewery in 1824, a practice reflected across Scotland in the early 1800s. It was situated on Tobago Street, one of a number of street names in the town that reflected the rich trade with the West Indies.

For no stated reason Barnard here quoted the opening verse from Robert Burns’ poem Scotch Drink:

Let other poets raise a fracas
Bout vines, and wines, and drunken Bacchus,
And crabbit Dames and stories wrack us,
And grate our lug.
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak' us
In glass or jug.

Greenock was the port from which Burns was due to depart for the West Indies in 1786 to escape the hardship of his life as a farmer in Ayrshire. He never made the voyage and he also cancelled a later option to sail from Leith. Whether this was a blessing to the nation or not is a moot point – the poetic works he produced while remaining in Scotland are now celebrated around the world and the many, many songs that he collected and edited while in Edinburgh might have been lost to the nation had he left as intended, yet the hardships and illnesses he endured in our climate undoubtedly contributed to his early passing at the age of 37.

I digress, and fear I may do so many more times on this journey, please forgive a devout fan of Scotland’s Bard. Back to the whisky…

The peat used in the kilns at the distillery was “dug from the hills at the back of the work” and this is still reflected in the name ‘Peat Road’ which rises at the back of the town not far from where the distillery was. The water for distilling was from Lochgryfe, now the Gryfe Reservoirs which supply the Greenock area.

The eight washbacks are of note as Barnard describes them as being made of iron, faced with timber and lined with felt for heat retention. This is certainly unusual and I will look for other examples in his later descriptions. It occurs to me here that Barnard has not been commenting on the type of timber used in the construction of the other washbacks he has seen, information that modern distillery tours are keen to share with visitors, be it Oregon Pine, Scandinavian Larch or in some cases stainless steel, the 20th century equivalent of the iron used at Greenock.

The whisky was triple distilled as was common then and Barnard describes the Wash Still as containing “the ancient chain arrangement for agitating the liquid”. I haven’t seen or heard of this anywhere else – does anyone know what this might have been or how it worked?

Surprisingly for its location the 130,000 gallons (590,000 l) of whisky produced was mainly sold in the main UK cities, while other Glasgow distilleries were known for exporting whisky to the colonies and the Indies.

Apartments by Tobago Street
In the few decades after Barnard’s visit the distillery went through a period of massive growth to provide whisky for blending (Townsend, 1993) and had one of the largest warehouses in Britain at the turn of the century, close by Albert Harbour. However, like so many others, the distillery closed during World War I and the site is now housing and local shops. Tobago Street has been shortened to make way for apartment blocks and no evidence of the distillery remains. Albert Harbour is now filled in for use as a container terminal and business park.

Barnard’s onward journey departed from Princes Pier at Greenock, I was heading for the ferry terminal at Gourock, and our respective and very different journeys to Campbeltown will be described in the next post.