"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, 3 November 2010

Longrow Distillery, Campbeltown

This distillery took its name from the main street in Campbeltown, Longrow now being synonymous with distilling in the town.  This street has for a long time been the main thoroughfare and it connects the traffic routes that run down Kintyre with those to the south of the peninsula and until the mussel ebb was filled in it was the only route between the municipal centre around Main Street and Lochead and Dalintober to the north.

Once known as Longrow Street, now simply Longrow, it is purely a descriptive term for the rows of shops and houses that lined both sides.  A number of distilleries once stood on Longrow or were hidden behind the front buildings.  Springbank is the only one left and indeed it appears to have originally been known as Longrow Street Distillery (Stirk, 2005).

I have discussed Barnard’s Campbeltown itinerary on a previous occasion but we know from his Longrow report that he did visit it on a Monday as he says the visit was “the next morning” after a lengthy discussion about the piety and worshipping habits of the townsfolk on a Sunday.  Christianity was introduced to Kintyre from Ireland with both St Ciarin and St Columba establishing churches in the area and Barnard records that “it is said that there are nearly as many places of worship as distilleries in the town”.

Barnard’s opening description of Campbeltown that Sunday paints a picture in sharp contrast to his joyful visits to the distilleries and his enthusiasm for the other activities he engaged in:

“Sunday in Campbeltown is carried to its Jewish length, and is quite a day of gloom and penance.  The churches and chapels, which are scattered all over the town, are crowded with well dressed and staid looking people, and everybody carries a pious look on that day.  Neither music nor whistling is allowed in either the houses or streets, and the landlady of the hotel was quite shocked at our proposing to play some sacred music on the piano.”

Barnard was critical of the “parsimonious local board” on his visit to Kinloch Park and here he is unimpressed by the impact of religious worship on the town.  This may be a slight rebellion against piety and authority driven by his upbringing.  His Great Grandson, writing in 2004, notes that his family appear to have been Baptists yet Barnard married as CoE and he didn’t receive anything from his father’s will (Scotch Whisky Review, Ed. 20).

The contrast in Barnard’s outlook on his experiences also reflects an incongruity in the location of distilleries and places of worship in Campbeltown that continues to this day.  We saw at Lochead how the United Free Church became sandwiched between that distillery and their later built warehouses.  The Springbank Evangelical Church today congregates beside the distillery of that name, at the corner of Well Close and Longrow.

The bell tower of the Lorne and Lowland Church rises high beside where Longrow Distillery once stood, built as part of the United Presbyterian Church in 1872 and largely funded by John Ross, the then proprietor of the distillery.  Barnard suggested that “this spiritual watch tower seems benignly to look down on the great work being carried on below”.  The tower dominates the view beside Springbank and is also the central part of the emblem for Kilkerran whisky from Glengyle Distillery.  Burns said that “freedom an’ whisky gang thegither”; in Campbeltown the same could be said of church and whisky.

Longrow Distillery was established in 1824, one of the earliest licensed distilleries in town, by John Ross with backing from John Beith and John Colville.  Beith died in 1840 and John Ross then set up in partnership with John Beith Jr until 1876 when the firm became just John Ross & Co.

Barnard describes Ross as “the oldest living Distiller in Scotland” at the age of 85.  They had met at least twice before - in Barnard’s report on Glengyle he describes meeting “our old friend” on the way to that distillery and making an appointment to visit Longrow at that time.  He continues “we found him most hospitable and courteous, and were highly amused at his wit and racy anecdotes”.  Ross appears to have been one of the great characters and benefactors of the whisky world but he passed away not long after Barnard’s visit.

Longrow courtyard
The entrance to the distillery courtyard was through a covered archway under the houses on Longrow and this is still an access to the backyards of these houses today.  The distillery buildings were old fashioned, “the Still house is one of the quaintest buildings we have seen”, and were arranged around a courtyard.  Townsend (1993) records them as hemmed in and difficult to expand which may have contributed to the eventual closure of the venture.

Longrow was another distillery using some blind coal in the kilns as well as peat (the barley for the current Longrow whisky produced by Springbank endures 48 hours of peat smoke and only uses hot air to finish if required).  There were “two Pot Stills of the smuggler’s pattern" and we are now down to smaller scale production with only 40,000 gallons (180,000 litres) produced p.a.

After Ross “had joined the great majority” the distillery was taken over by the Greenlees brothers and continued for a further decade.  Longrow was the last distillery to close before the turn of the century, in 1896, and it would be more than 20 years before the next closure at the beginning of the fateful 1920s.  The exact reasons for its closure are now lost but it may just have been the enclosed location that did not permit development to match that going on elsewhere in town.

Springbank bottling hall, once a Longrow warehouse
The use of the buildings during the 1900s is uncertain but two warehouses remained and one was converted into a bottling hall by Springbank and is still used as such today.  The Longrow name lives on by way of the heavily peated whisky produced by Springbank and named in memory of the old distillery.  The new 18yo was my favourite dram at Whisky Fringe back in August and I hope to find it again at Glasgow’s Whisky Festival next weekend.  Long may that infamous name be associated with whisky!