"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

Monday, 3 January 2011

Lochindaal Distillery, Islay

I had visited the site of Lochindaal Distillery earlier in my Islay journey as the old bonded warehouses have now been converted into the Port Charlotte Youth Hostel where I stayed at the beginning of the week.  Barnard travelled here from Bridgend by carriage and he describes more of the gardens he passed in the area around Islay House.
“The hawthorn, laburnums, and roses literally filled the air with their fragrance, and the lawn-like meadows, the fresh green foliage of the beautiful trees, and the dog-roses in the hedges all reminded us of old England.”
There is no sign of Barnard ever feeling homesick on his journey, but a wee touch of the ‘green and pleasant land’ about his thoughts there.

Loch Indaal view across Laggan Bay to The Oa
As his narration takes us around the top of Loch Indaal he mentions both the loch and the surrounding scenery.  Loch Indaal he describes as “really an arm of the sea, expanding into the Bay of Laggan”.  The name translates from Gaelic as either ‘loch of division’ or ‘loch of delay’.  The division refers to Loch Indaal and Loch Gruinart almost connecting to separate the Rinns of Islay from the main body of the island.  The narrow stretch of land between the two lochs is just two and half miles wide and only around 5-10 metres above sea level.

When I later visited Bruichladdich Distillery, Director Jim McEwan translated the name as ‘Loch of the long wait’.  This referred to herring boats from Scotland and Ireland which would shelter here from Atlantic storms, and which lashed together would stretch from Bruichladdich right across the loch to a point near Bowmore, often at anchor for days waiting for the storm to subside.  A similar story was told to me in Campbeltown where the loch there was also used in the same way, in days long since gone when once the herring fleet was part of a major industry.

Barnard also describes the land around the loch, particularly the promontory to the east which he calls the “Maol-na-Ho”, more commonly known as the Mull of Oa, or just ‘The Oa’.  Maol is the Gaelic word for a promontory, “Ho” I think must be from the pronunciation of Oa that Barnard heard.  This almost square headland, five miles across both ways, guards the eastern entrance to the loch.

The Oa is a rugged part of Islay with few roads but I understand it is worth taking a trek around it.  There are spectacular sea cliffs, rock stacks and waterfalls which are not often seen as the ferry turns in to Port Ellen at its eastern most point.  On its western most point stands the American Monument dedicated to those lost at sea near Islay in the tragic sinking of two separate vessels in 1918.  The Oa is covered with the ruins of old settlements, some dating back to Neolithic times, and evidence of a landscape populated by up to 800 people before the clearances.  Now a nature reserve, forests and fishing lochs are the main inland features.

There are a number of caves around the cliffs, most only accessible by boat, and Barnard mentions a large sea cave called Sloc Mhaol Doraidh which starts him on a rant about smuggling:
“The nefarious and immoral trade of illicit distillation used to be carried on all over the island to a very great extent… The steady and persistent discountenance which the illicit traffic received from the proprietors of the island in the early part of the present century, and the introduction of legal Distilleries, has well nigh put an end to smuggling”.
‘Moonlight’ not then carrying the same romanticised image as we sometimes now envisage from a distance in these more moral, tax paying times!  Perhaps he was under pressure from his London publisher to disapprove of the practice, having earlier at Lagavulin been rather gentle about the whole affair, noting “A century ago smuggling was the chief employment of the crofters and fishermen, … Up to the year 1821 smuggling was a lucrative trade in Islay, … large families were supported by it, … every smuggler could clear at least ten shillings a day, and keep a horse and cow” without a hint of disapproval.

Display at Museum of Islay Life, including an illicit still found on Islay
Eventually he arrives at Port Charlotte “a village of little importance and interest except for the large Distillery owned by Mr Sherriff”.  The distillery had been established in 1829 by Colin Campbell but was owned by J.B. Sherriff from 1855.  At times it was known as ‘Port Charlotte’ and also ‘Rhinns Distillery’, after its location on the east coast of the The Rinns of Islay.
Octomore Distillery, now a holiday cottage on Octomore farm
Barnard describes the water sources as “two beautiful lochs, the Garroch and Octomore…” and his use of the word beautiful might suggest that he saw them.  However, although Loch Gearach is marked on all the maps I have seen, Loch Octomore never appears.  Either it was a local name for another patch of water, often just very wet marsh land on these hills, or Barnard misunderstood the nature of the supply.  Nearby Octomore farm, where once another distillery stood from 1816 to 1852, maintains a spring which currently supplies Bruichladdich Distillery a couple of miles to the north of here, and perhaps that same spring supplied Lochindaal distillery in the past, rather than a loch?

Lochindaal granaries and malt barns at one time
The works are described as old fashioned but compact and conveniently arranged, the buildings all surrounding a courtyard with bonded warehouses opposite by the shore.  Barnard doesn’t provide too much detail but mentions the main buildings and vessels in operation.  He is interested in the German wire cloth that floors the kiln room as it is noted as being very expensive and the first he has seen on Islay.

The production capacity appeared substantial with 8 washbacks “with an average capacity of 10,000 gallons [45,000 litres] each” and this is a departure for Barnard not listing the actual capacities and using an average for the first time on his journey.  Despite that capacity the total annual production was a moderate 127,000 gallons (577,000 litres).  There were three old pot stills so the triple distillation would impact on the total output possible, but again no mention of the style of spirit produced.

The etching in Barnard shows four parallel and adjoining warehouses reaching right to the rocky shoreline and these held 5,000 casks at the time.  Some casks were shipped out from the pier at Bruichladdich but others were floated out to ships at anchor off Port Charlotte “ten casks being lashed together by iron pins and a chain called ‘dogs’, and towed out by boatmen”.

Old Lochindaal warehouses with Youth Hostel behind
Three new warehouses were later built beside the original four on ground that was previously a coal store for the distillery.  Later still the roofs on the original four were converted from apexed to a rounded style made from corrugated iron.  The older warehouses are now mostly ruined – the two nearest the shore have no roofs and the one nearest the main road is now parking for the Youth Hostel with only the outside wall remaining.  One does still remain and is currently used as a vehicle repair garage.  The newer three warehouses were converted into the Youth Hostel.

1883 layout of distillery?
There is a sequence of development at Lochindaal that can almost be pieced together from old plans and photographs.  In the Museum of Islay Life I found a file of old papers that included this plan of the layout of the distillery, but there is a conundrum here.  The plan is dated 1883, just two years before Barnard visited, yet the layout is very, very different to what he described and he doesn’t mention any recent rebuilding of the works.

The plan only shows two stills, strangely labelled ‘Spirit’ and ‘Low-wines’ but not 'Wash', and the washbacks are all smaller with six at around 8,000 gallons and two around 4,000.  The cask shed and spirit store on the front left are where Barnard describes the granaries and malt barns which actually appear on the far right in the plan.  I think it is possible that as the plan is titled “1883 – line drawing of original” that it may have been an 1883 drawing of an earlier layout, rather than of the 1883 layout?  The original plan is held by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) together with further old photographs so I hope to visit them soon and try to piece together the rest of the story.

Picture of distillery from later than Barnard's visit
I also found this photograph in the museum and it shows a later but undated stage of development and the distillery is named Port Charlotte.   The old warehouses on the right still have their apexed roofs here.  The new warehouses, now the Youth Hostel, can just be seen behind them on the right and a huge kiln has been built on higher ground towards the rear of the distillery.  The oast-house style vent on top of another kiln can still just be seen in the middle of the picture.

Sheriff & Co were taken over in 1920 by Benmore Distilleries, from the distillery of that name in Campbeltown, and Benmore were themselves sold to DCL in 1929 and their three distilleries closed down.  Lochindaal Distillery therefore operated for exactly a century but the warehouses continued to store whisky, for a blending subsidiary of DCL called MacLeay Duff (Distillers) Ltd, until 1980.  The other buildings were mostly demolished and the distilling equipment removed.

The malt barns were used by a creamery in two spells during the 1980s and 90s but some of them now stand empty or are used as stores and other buildings used by the creamery have been demolished.  Bruichladdich have warehouses at the back of the site where their Port Charlotte whisky is matured and in the grounds can be seen some of the distilling equipment that they cannibalised from the old Inverleven Distillery at Dumbarton, hopefully to be used again soon.

Site of old kiln house, now home to Inverleven distilling equipment
Port Charlotte is a more important town now than when Barnard visited.  The Youth Hostel, Islay Natural History Centre, hotels, a camp site and the Museum of Islay Life all bring people here to visit.  It will further increase in importance in the coming years as Bruichladdich have plans to rebuild Lochindaal/Port Charlotte Distillery.  The new buildings will be partly on the old site although the Youth Hostel will remain on the warehouse site.  All going well, the new whisky should be ready before a century of closure has passed, as the renaissance in artisan distilling on Islay continues.