Such a trip would not be complete without seeing and commenting on Ben Nevis which dominates the view inland on approach to Fort William, on a fair day at least. Barnard again dips into Anderson’s Guide to provide a description, at first holding off on adding any of his own interpretation but eventually giving in. He does provide the updated and then accepted height for Britain’s highest mountain, 4,406 feet, the earlier figure of 4,370 recorded in Anderson at a time when Ben Nevis still only had “fair pretensions to be the highest mountain in Great Britain”.
|Ben Nevis in cloud, summit hidden on the left|
Barnard brings us up to date by mentioning the observatory which had only been opened in 1883 and where a few hardy souls lived the whole year round and provided hourly weather updates by telegraph for 21 years until it closed. A summit hotel was also opened beside the observatory and ran as Britain’s highest hotel for around 25 years. The ruins of these buildings can still be seen, an emergency shelter now sitting on top of the observatory tower being the highest man made structure in Britain.
Anderson’s Guide notes an ascent time via the path of around three and a half hours and a little over half that for the descent, timing’s that are still relevant today in good conditions. The report also includes the interesting advice “the inexperienced traveller, also, may be the better of being reminded to carry with him some wine or spirits (which, however, should be used with caution), wherewith to qualify the spring water, which is fortunately abundant, and to which he will be fain to have frequent recourse, ere he attain the object of his labours.” So, take a hip flask is the message, and enjoy a well earned dram when you reach the top of the land.
|Old pier at Fort William, built by Ben Nevis Distillery for supplies|
|West End Hotel, Fort William|
Before arriving at the separate landing stage for the steamer Barnard notes the concrete pier built by the distillery owner for use by their steamers bringing in barley and other supplies. Beside the pier were storage warehouses, the main distillery maltings and houses for employees, all some 2 miles away from the distillery. Barnard’s party stayed at the West End Hotel for one night, another one built in the few years before he arrived as railways opened up the north to tourists. The same hotel still stands at the entrance to the town centre from the south, although Barnard’s stay there is not something they have a record of anymore. The pier shown in an etching in Barnard still stands too, although now in poor repair, silted up and no longer used.
|Ben Nevis Distillery with the mountain projection behind|
The Allt a’ Mhuilinn runs right past Ben Nevis Distillery into the River Lochy but it is unclear how this water was fed to the Nevis Distillery almost 2 miles away. The water source has now changed and the distillery now relies on the water piped down the hill behind it, the end of a 24km pipeline from Loch Treig which lies due east of Fort William and which provides a huge volume of water to drive the large turbines at the nearby aluminium smelter. Long John considered water as the most important ingredient for making whisky, with barley, yeast and a measure of peat reek from both water and kiln being next important in that order; no mention of the influence from either cask or location at this early time before such things were fully understood.
|Water pipes for aluminium smelter turbines and distillery supply|
The milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling processes described by Barnard were all fairly standard, with six washbacks at 6,000 gallons each (27,000 litres), 2 wash stills at 1,000 and 800 gallons (4,500/3,600 l) and 3 spirit stills, one of 500 gallons (2,300 l) and 2 at just 350 gallons (1,590 l), all of the ‘sma pot’ style and condensed in two outside worm tubs.
A lot has changed since then and various stages of ownership are worth noting. The distillery transferred out of the MacDonald family early in the 1900s although it continued trading under their name until 1955, the Long John brand name being sold in the 1920s to Seager Evans Ltd. In 1955 the distillery was sold to Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd under the control of Joseph Hobbs who owned a few others around Scotland at that time, mostly on the east coast.
|Old Still room at Ben Nevis where a Coffey Still once stood|
The second major change took place in 1957/58 when Hobbs changed the washbacks from Oregon Pine to concrete! Yup, the once and only place I think you will hear that. You will not be surprised to hear that they didn’t last, the cleaning process taking its toll on the material. Hobbs passed away in 1970 and the distillery closed the following year, the last time either of his innovations were used.
The distillery was purchased in 1980 by Long John International, originally a subsidiary of Seager Evans Ltd that then became part of Whitbread, perhaps keen to ensure the source of the whisky that gave them their name. After £2m of investment the distillery reopened in 1985 but closed again within two years as the economic realities of the 1980s took their toll on the industry. The Coffey Still was stripped out and 8 stainless steel washbacks installed during this time.
|Ben Nevis washbacks, six stainless steel, two of Douglas Spruce|
|Ben Nevis Still House|
|Function room in old warehouse with original rafters and columns|
Barnard noted ten warehouses on the site, each one entirely detached from any other building as a fire precaution. The three newest were large structures that sounded like racking warehouses from his description, the other seven, including the original single warehouse from 1825 were all much smaller. The stock when he visited in 1885 was a substantial 8,161 casks holding over 523,722 gallons (2.4m litres). Old Long John MacDonald had only been producing around 200 gallons per week (47,000 litres p.a.) but by the time Barnard visited, his son Donald had increased this to around 3,000 gallons per week (700,000 litres p.a.) plus a further 260,000 gallons (1.2million litres) from nearby Nevis Distillery. Nevis has long since gone but Ben Nevis now has an annual capacity of 3m litres.
Barnard finishes his report by noting that “urgent business at this time called us home” and it must have been an emergency of some kind as he doesn’t stay in town just another day to see the Nevis Distillery, instead returning all the way north to visit it in the winter before recommencing his travels the following spring/summer with a trip to Orkney. That winter journey he endured to visit just one distillery will be up next.