"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, 4 November 2010

Campbeltown Distillery

The establishment of this distillery preceded the beginning of the major boom in legal distilling in town.  Registered in 1815 and opened in 1817 it would be a further six years before the next two distilleries opened, Kinloch and Caledonian, yet the establishment of THE Campbeltown Distillery marked a turning point away from the illicit stills and smuggling of the past.

Perhaps anticipating this the Duke of Argyll ordered the building of the two water mains from Crosshill Loch, one for the town and one specifically for distilleries, and they opened in 1820 (Stirk, 2005).  When licensing was introduced in 1823 the new legislation was embraced by the town’s financiers and the next twelve years saw a further twenty-eight distilleries licensed, although some were short lived.

This was not the first Campbeltown Distillery though.  There is record of another one under this name from 1798, however the location is now unknown and it was closed in 1852 after a patchy history (Udo, 2005).  It may have been outside of town as it is unlikely for two with the same name to have operated simultaneously nearby.

The Campbeltown Distillery that Barnard visited was built at the north end of Longrow, at the junction with Lochend Street and Millknowe Road, and he describes it as old-fashioned and tumble-down despite some changes and new machinery since it was first built.  He was visiting seventy years after it was founded so the “old-world look” is understandable, although he does note that even when it was built “it was a great advance on the Smuggler’s Kettle”.

The mash tun was one of the smallest in town and the two Sma Pot Stills were only 1,400 and 960 gallons (6,400 and 4,400 litres) producing just 60,000 gallons (273,000 litres) p.a.  Peat only was used in the kilns and the whole place worked mainly on manual labour.

The distillery had various owners until 1852 when The Campbeltown Distillery Co Ltd was formed and held the distillery until 1924.  Production does seem to have permanently stopped by 1917 however, as there is record of most of the utensils being sold off that year (Stirk, 2005), so perhaps the latter years were just the final maturation and sale of stock.   If 1924 is the correct closure date then this was the second longest running of the closed distilleries in Campbeltown at 107 years, after Rieclachan at 109.

Site of Campbeltown Distillery
The immediate history of the closed buildings is unknown but by 1993 the site was a Ford dealership (Townsend, 1993) and it now houses a general goods store and motor company forecourt.

Once again Barnard includes a verse from Robert Burns in his report but this time I need to take him to task for it.  He says of the Campbeltown Distillery that “the quality of its brew is said to have inspired Burns to sing, when he visited his [Highland] Mary in Campbeltown,

“Oh! Willie brew'd a peck o' maut,
An Rob a’ Allan cam to pree;
Three blyther hearts, that lee long night,
Ye wad na find in Christendie.
We are na fou, we're nae that fou,
But just a drappie in our e'e!
The cock may craw, the day may daw,
And aye we'll taste the Whasky O.”

There are a few problems here and I get the feeling that Barnard may have been spun a yarn by someone at the distillery.  I will ignore his replacing the correct words ‘barley bree’ with ‘Whasky O’ (whit?) in the last line as otherwise the words are from the song Willie Brew’d A Peck O’ Maut.  First of all this song was written in 1789, three years after the death of his Highland Mary at Greenock.  Second, Mary may have lived in Campbeltown for a while but Burns never visited the town, meeting her and wooing her in Ayrshire.

Connecting this song to his love Mary is also strange as it is in fact a lively drinking song, written about a night spent getting ‘fou’ with two of his closest friends from Edinburgh, Willie Nicol and Allan Masterton.  The last four lines above are the chorus and basically translate as ‘we’re not really drunk, despite having been drinking all night’, and the last verse of the song shows that mock bravado that often exists amongst drinking buddies:

“Wha first shall rise to gang awa,
A cuckold, coward loun is he!
Wha first beside his chair shall fa',
He is the King amang us three.”

I’ve had a few nights like that in Edinburgh myself!