"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

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Greenock to Campbeltown

Barnard’s visit to Greenock marked his thirteenth distillery visit and, unless he took some days out for other pursuits, he would seem to have been in the Glasgow area for eight or nine days before arriving at Greenock. His next stop would be Campbeltown where he stayed for a fortnight and visited the twenty-one distilleries operating there at that time.

The journey took his party a full day, first by steamer and then by horse drawn coach. Barnard repeats a line from his initial journey from London to Glasgow, stating his original intention “to enter the land of Whisky by way of the sea”. Campbeltown could at that time be considered the land of whisky within Scotland as it had the highest concentration of distilleries of any town. That distinction now falls to Dufftown in Speyside; the boom and ultimate collapse of Campbeltown’s whisky industry is the fascinating story to follow.

We now receive our first clue as to the timing of Barnard’s journey. He had originally intended to travel all the way ‘Doon the Water’ (pronounced watter) to Campbeltown by way of the steamer Davaar, named after the island that sits at the entrance to Campbeltown Loch. However, he had heard that “it would be crowded with Glasgow Fair holiday people, together with the prospect of a number of women and children tumbling about in all directions in the event of the voyage proving unfavourable” and so changed his plans.

Local Gossip on the Davaar
‘Glasgow Fair’ is always the last two weeks of July so we can now see that Barnard was in Glasgow during July and in Campbeltown around the end of July, perhaps into early August. While in Campbeltown I visited the library to research old newspapers for any evidence of Barnard’s visit. The library shares a modern building with the swimming pool, wonderfully named together as the aqualibrium. I didn’t find evidence of Barnard but did notice the article to the right here (click to enlarge) which was under the heading ‘Gossip of the week’ and mentions the Davaar and its occupants.

Instead of boarding the Davaar, Barnard joined the Columba at Greenock, bound for Tarbert on the shore of Loch Fyne after a stop at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. He seemed pleased to take to sea after much travel on the mainland by train, and by horse and cart, his party enjoying the freedom on board and mixing with other passengers. He describes the scene as the ship leaves the Firth of Clyde, with “ridges on ridges of mountain stretched far away to the horizon”; a stop at Rothesay on Bute then round the southern point into Loch Fyne; views of Arran with Goatfell clearly visible; Skipness Castle standing guard at the entrance to Loch Fyne, and finally arriving at Tarbert.
Arran from near Skipness

From the pier at Tarbert Barnard’s party “hastened to the coach and secured the box seat, much to the chagrin of two of our fellow travellers who were not quite so quick in their movements”. I’m sure he would have shared his flask again by way of recompense. The box seat in a coach is up front with the driver and so Barnard would enjoy the spectacular views on the journey to Campbeltown which he describes in detail in his report. Even the odd shower was welcome as it helped keep the dust on the road down.

The coach journey from Tarbert to Campbeltown, a distance of around 40 miles, took six hours so it was as well that the scenery offered much to distract his party. They arrived in Campbeltown just after 6pm and found quarters at the White Hart Hotel “after some difficulty, the town being full of visitors”. I am a little surprised that they didn’t book ahead, particularly knowing the Davaar was crowded. Telegraph had been fully developed in the mid 1800s but perhaps Campbeltown was not yet connected to the network, remote as it was? Alas I didn’t head the warning from Barnard and my own frantic phone calls just before my journey again found the whole town to be busy and I was lucky to secure a bed for three nights at short notice!

White Hart Hotel
The White Hart Hotel still stands today and retains much of the charm from when it was built in 1850. The building has recently been renovated by new owners, having previously fallen into disrepair when owned by a hotel chain and during times when closed. Unfortunately the old records haven’t found their way into the hands of the new owners so I am unable to find evidence of Barnard’s stay. From his reports he thoroughly enjoyed his time there and was well looked after by his hosts. The hotel was a little bit outside my budget but I did enjoy a beer in the cosy bar in memory of Barnard’s visit.

My own journey to Campbeltown commenced from Gourock where I took the ferry Jupiter to Dunoon, across the watter, sorry, water. I was keen to drive round the Cowal Peninsula as I had learned of some great driving roads and stunning views from reading Iain Banks whisky travelogue Raw Spirit. I was rather more hurried than Barnard as I was already on a later ferry than intended and had to reach a further one on the other side of Cowal to cross to Tarbert. I was not to be disappointed by the drive.

From Dunoon the road north passes along the shores of Holy Loch, once home to a US Polaris nuclear submarine base from 1961-92 but now tranquil. Before reaching the small settlement of Ardbeg (no, another one, and there are three Ardbegs in this area, the name means ‘little height or promontory’) you turn onto the fabulous B836 to head west. This route is one of a number around Scotland that Banks calls Great Wee Roads, GWR for short, a vernacular I may borrow from time to time. Single track for most of the way it is a fabulous swooping drive through pine forests and around lochs and reservoirs.

The B836 ends just south of Glendaruel which I sadly no longer have time to explore, so I turn south onto another GWR, the A8003 to Tighnabruaich. Single track in places, this was a fantastic drive to test the handling of my car, with plenty of corners to find out just how much understeer the Seat has (handfuls!) and is rewarded by the most stunning views over the Kyles of Bute. The first picture here shows the East Kyles with views towards Largs and the hills south of Greenock. The second picture is down the West Kyles with the distant hills of Arran on the right middle ground. Where the Kyles meet at the top of the Isle of Bute is the wonderfully named Buttock Point, appropriate given the ‘seat of my pants’ driving I had indulged in recently.

Kyles of Bute West
Kyles of Bute East

I made it to the ferry at Portavadie with a few minutes to spare and the Isle of Cumbrae delivered me into East Loch Tarbert in similar fashion to Barnard’s arrival there. Kintyre is almost an island, the East and West Loch Tarberts being only a mile apart and the respective rivers running into them being about 100m apart at closest. The sea level rise threatened by global warming may well complete the job at some distant time.

Jura from Kintyre - sleeping profile
My drive down the A83 to Campbeltown is as thrilling and spectacular as the earlier roads. Including stops for pictures of Jura, Islay and the Atlantic coastline my journey took about one hour. I feel slightly envious of Barnard with his box seat journey and endless time to appreciate the view, but I also reflect that this “fun loving Victorian waster” (Joynson, 2003) may have enjoyed the buzz of driving these roads as well.

I arrived in Campbeltown at 7.30pm and was warmly welcomed into the Dellwood Hotel at the upper end of town. After settling into a comfortable room I had time to wander around and “take stock of the town” as Barnard had done on his first evening. I was surprised at how compact the town is, curving around three sides of Campbeltown Loch, and within a couple of hours I had circumnavigated the bay twice and found my bearings for most of the old distillery sites. I knew that all the distilleries had been close to each other, with 34 in production at one point in time, but it’s not until you get to street corners that you realise just how close they were, literally wall to wall in some cases.

Before my distillery reports begin with a summary of the old Hazelburn Distillery I need to apprise you of an anomaly in Barnard. The order that the 21 Campbeltown distilleries are listed in the book is not the order he visited them in. The book form of his reports shows a few signs of editorial adjustment from the earlier reports serialised in Harpers and this may be one of them. With the exception of 3 distilleries, the book lists them in decreasing order of production volume, from Hazelburn with 192,000 gallons p.a. down to Springside with just 30,000. There are clues in some of his narratives as to when he visited them but not enough to piece together a full itinerary.

Nevertheless, I will report in the same order as they appear in the book, although my own journey around town took a very different route. I enjoyed entertaining and informative tours round Springbank and Glengyle and more detail will be included on them. Glen Scotia is the only other Campbeltown distillery still operating today, the other 18 are long gone and very few buildings remain, but I will try to paint a picture of how the town has changed since Barnard visited. The story of Campbeltown is more of a rollercoaster than my drive around Cowal.