"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, 12 October 2010

Lochruan Distillery, Campbeltown

Before visiting Lochruan Distillery Barnard’s party walked up the hill called Knock Scalbart which rises to the north of Campbeltown, directly opposite the loch from Beinn Ghuilean.  This hill walk has led to me being distracted with all kinds of research 125 years later - thanks Alfred!

Barnard describes one of the lochs on the hill as being where this distillery derives its name and he notes that Lochruan is Gaelic for ‘Red Loch’, the name coming from the heather that covers the slopes and which turns red in autumn.  He records it as a “weird, romantic place, and not easily accessible” so I didn’t trouble myself with walking up the hill for a look (okay, I didn’t fancy a 6am rise to climb a hill, although I’m sure that the Dellwood breakfast would have revived me afterwards).

This provides another case where local vernacular is derived from, but subtly different to recorded names and these nuances provide variety and stories to tell.  When researching Lochruan I found a post on the Kintyre Forum which is well worth a read on a rainy day when you have nothing better to do - very entertaining and some guid auld Scots language tae boot (stay with it past the Landrover and WD40 chat on page 1).

Someone asked on the forum about Loch ruin (sic) - “can you still see the old house when the water is low”.  This develops into an interesting and entertaining discussion on the name of the loch.  Local people admit to having always known it as either Loch Ruan or even Loch Ruin, and the submerged ruined house appears to have been at nearby Loch Lussa, which was created as a reservoir in the 1950s at the watershed of the Glen Lussa Water mentioned in my post on Burnside.  One poster also mentions an “eerie presence about the place” which hints at what Barnard may have experienced.

Knockruan Loch and north Campbeltown (Copyright O.S.)
The loch on Knock Scalbart is actually recorded on maps as Knockruan Loch, Knock being Gaelic for Hill so the name understandably translates to Redhill Loch.  On the map above the Lochruan Distillery was just above the 'l' of the word 'Meml' on grid line 72.  The stories that often go along with maps are so often more compelling than the facts that are recorded on them, and maps, like all of our history, often need to be interpreted along with the oral history and traditions recorded from those who live and work in the area.

After all that (thanks for staying with me) there is not too much to note about the distillery from Barnard’s report.  Built in 1835, a decade after the first wave of distilleries, it was then extended and improved by new owners from 1867.  There were three stills when Barnard visited and interestingly the 1865 map only shows two worm tubs outside.  The top of these can just be made out in the etching in Barnard and it shows two pipes leading into one of them.


Built on the edge of the mussel ebb, its later extension appears to be northwards.  This was followed by Dalintober Distillery relocating from the adjacent Queen Street to the new land south of Lochruan when the mussel ebb was filled in, a task completed in 1881.

Despite reporting on the loch in the hills Barnard doesn’t actually mention which water source supplied the distillery.  He does note that the whisky “owes its reputation to the peculiar excellence of the water, and the care exercised in manufacture”, so maybe it was one of the few not drawing water from Crosshill Loch.  The Kintyre Forum post includes some interesting comments about a burn that “from knock scalbert runs under ground and passes my house … into the loch at the wee Dalintober jetty” so this seems to confirm a supply that the distillery could use.  Maps from as far back as 1865 record ‘Campbeltown W.S.’ beside the loch for Water Supply.

Barnard doesn’t record Lochruan as having a cooperage which was a common function for each distillery to have in his time and applies for many others in Campbeltown.  However, the local Heritage Centre does have a reconstruction of a cooperage on display and the sign above it (possibly altered) is shown here.  This sign is curious as it mentions the proprietors as ‘Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd’, a company that was absorbed into DCL in 1925, the same year that Lochruan Distillery closed.  The date the distillery was transferred into SMD is not mentioned in any sources I have found.

One later point of interest is that Lochruan appears to have “dabbled briefly in 1910 with continuous distillation to cut costs” (Townsend, 1993) and Udo (2005) notes that a continuous still was installed in that year.  I can’t find any further information on this but it would appear to have been the only Campbeltown distillery ever recorded as having engaged in this practice.

A few alterations were made in 1921 but their use was short lived before the closure in 1925.  The distillery was then demolished and the land was used for more of the 1930s housing that was built around much of the north and west side of the loch, and in this case the tenements still stand today.  Nothing remains of the old distillery but the loch is still marked as W.S. on current ordnance survey maps.

This has become one of my favourite stories out of Campbeltown and it really helps to inform some of the other incongruities I find in Barnard’s naming conventions.  For a Londoner who, in the preface to his book, begs pardon for “the exuberance of one in ‘city pent’ who has been released to enjoy the pure air of heaven among the mountains, lakes [sic], and valleys of Scotland and Ireland”, he does no bad wie the Scots and Gaelic lingo, and without access to the on-line resources that I can (need to!) peruse at leisure.