"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, 6 October 2010

Burnside Distillery, Campbeltown

Now, here I find another one of those wee puzzles that Barnard throws my way every so often.  In my post on Ardlussa distillery I mentioned that its founder also owned Jura Distillery, the name Ardlussa possibly being taken from the hamlet and bay of that name on the island.  Perhaps I hadn’t looked far enough around the Campbeltown area for inspiration for the name?

At the beginning of his report on Burnside distillery Barnard records a coach journey his party took to Glen Lussa which lies about 5 miles north of Campbeltown and through which, apparently, “runs the Ardlussa River”!!!  Ah-ha methinks, but not for long.

Looking at maps from 1865 to 1900 the river is always named as ‘Glen Lussa Water’.  Did Barnard confuse the name Ardlussa with this having already heard the name of the distillery, or perhaps it was just a hurried note that was later misreported, similar to his various spellings of the hill Beinn Ghuilean which he also records as Bengullien just a few lines later in this report?

Maybe Ardlussa was the name that Gaelic speaking locals used for the River or Glen?  Ard means ‘tall’ or ‘great’ in Gaelic, and I concede that it is also possible that the distillery was named for ‘Great Lussa’.  These are more local solutions to the name, but I still prefer my more romantic ‘idyllic Jura’ reasoning.  I will be visiting Jura soon and if I have time I will take pictures of this mystical place.

On his return from Glen Lussa Barnard was dropped at the Burnside Distillery which was south-west of the town, below the slopes leading to Crosshill Loch.  He describes it as the only distillery in Campbeltown actually in the country, although I will query this when I mention Meadowburn Distillery below.  It was situated off the Witchburn Road, opposite the Gallow Hill which gives you some idea of what used to go on round these here parts!

Burnside was one of the earliest distilleries in Campbeltown having been built in 1825.  It was named from the Witch Burn that ran alongside it, down under Burnside Street in the town and emptied into the old mussel ebb.  Barnard’s report is fairly short and there is not much to note from it.  He does mention that one of the malt barns was so spacious it was “used as a banqueting-hall and ball-room when the present Duke of Argyll came of age.”

In a departure from the peat only drying common in other distilleries, the kilns here were heated by both peat and ‘blind coal’, also known as anthracite.  It burns with a smokeless flame and has few impurities so ideal for drying barley for distilling.  Townsend (1993) suggests that Burnside whisky was milder than others in town as a result of this mix; Barnard refers to it as just Campbeltown Malt.

Creamery on site of Burnside Distillery
In 1888, not long after Barnard’s visit, there was a downturn in the fortunes of the distillery and it was offered for sale for £4,000 (Townsend, 1993).  Activity over the next few decades is unclear but letters from 1917 show that utensils and wood from Burnside were sold to rebuild the tuns and wash backs at Hazelburn (Stirk, 2005).  Burnside never reopened and in 1919 an application was made to turn the property into a creamery.  This finally opened in 1923 and Campbeltown Creamery is still going strong on the site today.

Across the road from the distillery was a Poorhouse.  The maps from 1865 to 1899 show this increasing in size quite considerably, this at a time when the distilling and fishing industries were booming in town.  The building is now used by the Regional Council and rather ironically includes their Financial Services offices for payment of Council Tax, rates and payroll.

Meadowburn Distillery
Meadowburn site beside creamery
This distillery was not mentioned by Barnard despite being right beside Burnside, lying between it and Witchburn Road.  It had opened in 1824, the year before Burnside, but was closed sometime in the 1880s.  It is shown on the 1865 map as a similar size to Burnside but by 1899 it is annotated as ‘disused’, by which time Burnside had considerably expanded its warehousing beside the distillery.

Stirk (2005) notes that it appears to have closed in 1882 or 1886 but very few records exist to confirm this.  It was a substantial enterprise, on a par with Burnside at one time, and Barnard not mentioning it at all suggests that his interest was only in those distilleries in current operation that he had access to.

Today the site is a car park at the front of the creamery and the only remains of the distillery are an outside wall on the east side.