The land of whisky, whisky city, whisky metropolis, whisky centre … all descriptions used by Barnard for Campbeltown to show the extent of distilling in the town when he visited. So what happened in Whiskyopolis to bring this vast industry to a near halt just forty years later, and leave us at one time with just two distilleries from a peak of twenty-eight?
The answer lies in a number of factors, each one compounding the problems the town faced, until most of the distilleries were no longer viable businesses. There were different stages to the decline culminating with the 1920s as the nadir of centuries of distilling history, and even since then both Glen Scotia and Springbank have seen short periods of closure.
The chart on my previous post will help to show the boom and bust years. The first gap, after Ballegreggan closed in 1797, marks an increase in duties payable on spirit and so the industry remained underground for a further twenty years until Campbeltown Distillery was founded in 1817. The Excise Act of 1823 sought to make licensed distilling a worthwhile venture and this helped fuel the first boom in town through the 1820s.
Most of the early licensed distilleries, those from 1817-25, survived and thrived for a century or so. Those licensed from 1826-30 experienced more mixed fortunes, with over half of them closing around the 1850s, Springbank the most notable exception. Whisky consumption in Scotland fell dramatically in the 1850s (Stirk, 2005) and some of these distilleries were small or attached to other larger ventures. By the 1820s the number of convictions for illegal distilling was also falling away, although the illicit trade was still present for years to come.
The 1830s licensees didn’t really fare too well, with most of them lasting only a few years. The notable exception here is Glen Scotia, although Dalintober and Lochruan also bucked that trend and all three of these were located close together on the north side of town away from the cramped locations behind Longrow. Perhaps the others from this time were jumping on a bandwagon too late, at a time when the earlier distilleries would have a good supply of stock available to meet market demand.
Some stability and growth followed the 1850s closures and the final wave of distilleries in the 1870s all held their own until the fateful 1920s. They were built on Glebe Street as the town expanded west and were built at a time when many advances in technology had been introduced, allowing them perhaps to operate more efficiently and with the space to produce at the higher end of the volume scale for the town.
The distillery owners, and their financial backers, were one of the keys to the longevity of certain operations. The Mitchell, Colville, Greenlees, Beith and MacCallum names were synonymous with distilling and their willingness to back or take over other ventures helped their survival. The ongoing success of Glen Scotia in particular is owed in no small part to Duncan MacCallum buying this back when West Highland Malt Distillers failed; but for this action there might now only be two distilleries left in town.
Production was increasing every year in the last decade of the 19th century until 1898 when this trend dramatically reversed and by 1912 the volume distilled was half what it was in 1891 (Stirk, 2005). This slump aligns with at least three significant factors. First, the blending trade that had been ushered in (sorry!) by Andrew Usher in the 1850s suddenly collapsed in the late 1890s and some large ventures went out of business. Second, by this time most of the original distillery owners had passed on and even second generation family members were giving up interest and moving away to the new opportunities in the cities (Stirk, 2005).
The third factor was perhaps the most significant. Campbeltown’s location had been ideal to meet the demand from the rapid growth in Glasgow’s population during the 1800s, and steam ships ploughed the Clyde long before the railways opened up the Highland and Speyside glens. The thirst of the labourers of Glasgow’s industrial revolution together with the number of blenders and bottlers based in the city fuelled the demand for production.
And then someone coined the phrase ‘stinking fish’ to describe Campbeltown whisky. One oft repeated story was that this came from the herring barrels that lined the docks, the suggestion being that they were reused for whisky! The stills were also being worked harder with obvious repercussions in the shortcuts taken in cleaning them or forcing the boundaries of the middle cut. However, it is just as likely that this phrase was an insinuation by the final factor, the Highland and Speyside distilleries, who by now had easier rail access to the central blending houses and whose lighter and fruitier spirits were preferred for their versatility in blending.
It didn’t stop there. The distilleries that had survived the turn of the century continued into the 1910s and 20s during which time four major factors came to bear. The onset of the Great War had an immediate effect on both demand and the availability of materials. It also saw the introduction of the Immature Spirits Act in 1915 which now required whisky to be bonded for a minimum of 2 years, extended to 3 years by amendments to the Act in 1916. This was partly done to ensure that better quality spirits were being obtained to reduce absenteeism during a time when national productivity was so important.
The impact of these two factors on the finances of all distilleries was further compounded, for Campbeltown particularly, by prohibition in the United States. The far southwest location and the harbour of Campbeltown provided the most convenient place to transport Scotch whisky casks to North America, which advantage ran until prohibition was introduced in 1920, not being repealed until 1933 long after the final wave of distillery closures. The final key factor was the running dry of the local coal seam which closed in 1923, adding to the distillery fuel costs.
Consolidation of parts of the industry in the 1920s, particularly through companies like DCL and West Highland Malt Distilleries, did nothing to stem the tide of closures, although some argue that these companies were trying to save the industry from the overproduction and increased costs that had developed. In the long term some of the closures may have been for the better good of the industry as a whole.
The last distillery to close in Campbeltown was Rieclachan in 1934 after an effort to recover production in town in 1933. Mitch asked a question on my post on this distillery about whether there was ever a time in the last century when no distilleries operated in Campbeltown, and the answer is yes but thankfully only for short periods. Both Glen Scotia and Spingbank stopped production for a few years at a time on a number of occasions, particularly during the late 1920s/early 1930s and again during the 1980s downturn in the industry. These periods only marked a stay in production though, and the equipment was maintained ready to start again when market conditions improved, while all along their stocks of maturing nectar were being watched and cared for.
One thing is for sure – the collapse of the industry in the early 1900s was not due to divine providence. The town motto, which Barnard records as seeing below a window in the town hall, is Ignavis precibus fortuna repugnant, which means “fortune spurns slothful prayers”. With the extent of church activity in town and with its close proximity to the distilleries one can imagine that the Divine was happy for the angels to enjoy their share, while it lasted. The reopening of Glengyle in recent years gives further hope to the heavenly throng, and to us lovers of Campbeltown drams.