"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, 10 November 2010

Campbeltown Sign-off

Apologies for that last essay folks.  I hadn’t expected to write so much about the years of decline but it is a fascinating story.  I couldn’t hope to cover it here in detail but if you would like more information then David Stirk’s book The Distilleries of Campbeltown (2005) will go some way towards your further enlightenment and it was invaluable to me in reseaching this part of my journey.

After my final distillery photos I headed out into the countryside around Campbeltown to see what this distant corner of Caledonia could offer me.  The road south passes through pleasant arable land with rolling hills before once again the sea comes into view near Southend, and what a view!  The Mull of Kintyre is an imposing stretch of coastline and from the western shore you can see across the twelve miles of open water to Northern Ireland.

Mull of Kintyre
The southern tip of Kintyre offers much for us archaeologists to explore.  The evidence of human occupation here dates back to the Mesolithic period, around 6000 BC, and the landscape provides clues to past human activity right through to the more recent connections with Ireland and the Scotia peoples who arrived from there.  The carving of St Columba’s ‘footsteps’ included in my post on Dalaruan distillery can be found near Southend, together with a ruined church and a well attributed to him.  Dunaverty Castle and hill fort are bound up in the medieval struggles for control of these lands.

If you are adventurous you may consider driving the long road out to The Mull where a lighthouse stands on the first point of mainland Scotland that travellers from the Americas would see.  This single track ‘road’ is very steep and runs along a precipitous cliff in places and is definitely not for the faint hearted or inexperienced driver.

I returned to Campbeltown as the tide was receding having planned to visit the island called Davaar which guards the entrance to Campbeltown Loch.  The island is accessible on foot at low tide by walking across the tidal causeway called the Doirlinn.  A timetable is produced each month by the Tourist Office in the harbour and there is a safe walking period of six hours each day, the causeway being fully submerged outside this.  Strong shoes are recommended as it is shingle most of the way and will be damp in places, and on the coast of the island the shore is very rocky and care is needed.
Davaar Island and the Doirlinn
The walk is worth it though, and not just for the views of the harbour.  After 30 minutes walking I reached a series of caves that line the south coast of the island.  In one of these there is a life-size rock painting of the Crucifixion which was painted in secret by the local art teacher, Archibald MacKinnon, in 1887.  It was discovered by accident later that year, two years after Barnard’s visit and otherwise I am sure it would be something that he would have ventured out to see.  My photo here does no justice to the original nor to the setting.

Davaar cave painting
This spiritual ending to my stay in Campbeltown sent me on my way home with feelings of wonder, and of joy at having visited this historic corner of whiskidom.  I had encountered many unexpected aspects to this part of my journey and met with some very enthusiastic residents who made me feel welcome at every turn.  The story to tell was only just forming in my head and the lack of evidence for the past whisky industry troubled me a little.
There is a ‘weel kent’ song about Campbeltown and whisky that I am sure many of you know:

Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky,
Campbeltown Loch och-aye!
Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky,
I would drink you dry.

Now Campbeltown Loch is a beautiful place,
But the price of the whisky is grim.
How nice it would be if the whisky was free
And the Loch was filled up to the brim.

I'd buy a big yacht with the money I've got
And I'd anchor it out in the bay.
If I wanted a sip I'd go in for a dip
I'd be swimmin' by night and by day.

The legendary Andy Stewart there, God bless his soul, giving song to thoughts that maybe once passed through many a head (who do we know in Campbeltown that owns a big yacht?).  Alas, the days when enough whisky was produced to fulfil Andy’s wish are long gone and the town now looks to a very different future, reinventing itself once more.

In Stirk’s introduction to his book he asks why not have a distillery walking tour taking in past and present?  Having seen the few walls that remain of the distilleries that are gone, with most other sites now fully redeveloped for housing or storage depots with nothing to see of the old ventures, I wonder if there is value in that suggestion?  As it stands I think the Springbank tour and the heritage centre provide enough for both the whisky enthusiast and the tourist and the rest would become repetitive, unless the Campbeltown story could be woven into the tour by a theatrical and knowledgeable guide.

However, if Glen Scotia was more tourist friendly and if a dedicated whisky heritage facility provided the whole whisky story, from illicit smuggling through the boom and bust to the modern day, then the town may be able to encourage more tourists to venture that bit further to find something unique.  And I think it would have to be unique and not just a replica of the Experiences in Edinburgh or Glenturret or some of the more tourist friendly visitor centres in more northerly parts.

For now, Campbeltown moves on and so must I.  On the ferry on my way to Islay I saw a headline in the Campbeltown Courier reporting that Tesco will be relocating from their store at Lochead and building a new superstore on the site where the Campbeltown Creamery now sits and where once Burnside and Meadowburn Distilleries called home.  The creamery will be relocating to a larger modern facility on the north side of town.  The combined moves are thought to be generating 200 jobs and helping to safeguard dairy farming in Kintyre, although opinion in town is split over the move as the new Tesco will have an impact on other retailers, particularly those who line Longrow.

If Tesco can twice build on old distillery ground in town then perhaps the old Tesco site should now be redeveloped into a new distillery (with an old name) and the old Lochead warehouses rebuilt?  I am sure the residents that I met in the new estate beside Lochead may have a few things to say about that though.  Maybe that location, central between the three remaining distilleries, would be the ideal site for a whisky heritage centre and cooperage for tourists to enjoy?  Hey, every little helps, no?

Before I go I must give thanks to Frank McHardy and the staff at Springbank and Cadenheads; to Clive Good at Hazelburn; to Joan and Tracey at the Dellwood Hotel and to the people of Campbeltown for all their hospitality and help during my stay in town.

I will leave the final word in this chapter of my journey to the Campbeltown Courier which printed a report in 1929 mentioning the welcome return to production at Rieclachan, Scotia and Springbank (Stirk, 2005).  The report signed off with words that are still appropriate to the distilleries of today - "May the lums of all three reek longer than they think at present".

Amen to that.