"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

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Glendarroch Distillery, Ardrishaig

Alfred, Alfred, Alfred!!!  What are you doing to me???  Just when I thought I had got to grips with the rough timings of his journey he throws me a curve ball!  He claims to have travelled on the steamer ‘Columba’ from Greenock to Ardrishaig, home of Glendarroch Distillery, on the 26th of July, the only time in his entire book that he provides a specific date for anything.  On his journey from Greenock to Campbeltown some 3-4 weeks earlier he noted that the steamer ‘Davaar’ to Campbeltown would be busy with Glasgow Fair holiday makers.  Glasgow Fair is the last two weeks in July, so how can he then travel to Ardrishaig on the 26th?   Grrr!

There are a number of possible answers to this, and to some other anomalies in his recent travel record, but you will have to hold on a while for a later post on the subject as it is too much to cover here on a distillery report.  It also needs just a little more research and I did promise you a post this weekend, so on with the story.

Barnard’s report on Glendarroch is one of the longest in his book although more than half of it is actually a description of his journey to Ardrishaig, the area around the distillery, the Crinan Canal that flows past it and the owner and manager’s houses and gardens.  The report also contains six etchings, more than any other single report, although again three of them are of the canal and general landscape.


His report begins with a description of the “Columba”, the steamer from Greenock to Ardrishaig, which contains “every imaginable convenience and contrivance for the comfort of passengers” including a post office, fruit shop, bookstall and a “magnificent dining saloon”.   None of yer CalMac curry and chips here then!  CalMac, short for Caledonian MacBrayne, is the current operator on most of the island ferry routes, the company having grown from David MacBrayne’s summer tours that Barnard followed to travel around the west coast.

From Greenock the ferry passed by the Kyles of Bute through scenery that Barnard considered “most picturesque and varied…and romantic” and he arrived at Ardrishaig at 1pm.  After securing quarters at the hotel, now the Royal Hotel I think as this site was the only one marked ‘hotel’ on the old maps, and also the same half mile distant from the distillery that Barnard then made his way along, following the banks of the Crinan Canal.  He here mentions the SS Linnet which is a small canal steamer that travels along the nine miles of the canal and which he later takes on his journey to Oban.

Darroch waterfall
Behind the distillery site is ‘Robber’s Glen’, once used by smugglers and rising high into the hills behind.  The Darroch Burn flows through the glen and passed by the distillery before being channelled under the canal and out to the loch, powering the distillery water wheels on its way.  The last drop of the burn beside the distillery was a 70 foot waterfall that has now been fenced off by the council to protect children playing in the park on the slope beside it.  There was also a small reservoir behind the distillery which was fed by the Ard Burn and which supplied the mashing water.

Barnard’s party climbed up the thickly wooded hill behind and he embarks on another of his ‘best scenery in the world’ monologues.  He finds a “scene of indescribable charm and beauty” – heather covered hills above the sylvan lower slopes with Loch Fyne stretching away below.  On the opposite bank of the loch is Kilmory Castle, “the whole tinged with a roseate suffusion of the setting sun”, and this in the middle of the afternoon on a bright summer’s day!

They dallied longer than expected with this scenery, keeping friends waiting at the distillery below.  Barnard shows no remorse at this, stating “it is a spot of enchantment, and no wonder that such a scene should excite us to enthusiasm when recalling those days spent at Ardrishaig”.  They eventually descended via the Ard Burn and passed the distillery reservoir it fed into.

Ard Burn behind distillery site
Standing on the north bank of the canal the distillery was built in the form of a quadrangle and with a frontage of 500 feet to the canal.  It had its own small wharf for unloading supplies and barley was brought up the canal and discharged at the granary doors, hoisted direct from the ships to the barley loft.  Barnard first visited the granary and maltings which had a kiln at one end that was “one of the finest we have seen in this part of Scotland”, heated with peats only, dug from nearby.

Distillery wharf on Crinan Canal
The Mash Tun here was 17 feet by 6 1/2 feet, a fairly average size for that time, and it contained treble acting stirring gear driven by the water wheel.  The old fashioned coolers (large open tanks that cool by surface area) had been removed by that time and a Miller’s Refrigerator was handling all the cooling requirements.  The Tun Room had 5 washbacks averaging 5,500 gallons (25,000 litres) each and the switchers powered by a second water wheel were apparently “to keep the liquor in motion during the process of fermentation”, although I think that may just be a misunderstanding of their purpose.  It occurred to me here that he hasn’t yet mentioned yeast in any report; I will look out for it later as he may comment as his understanding of the brewing process develops.

The Still House sounds like a bright building with eleven large windows.  There were three "sma’ Pot Stills" - a hefty Wash Still at 4,726 gallons (21,475 litres) and then a big drop in size to 2 x low wines at 1,000 gallons (4,544) and 500 gallons (2,272).  The Worm Tub stood close to the Darroch Burn but was actually fed continuously from the reservoir.  Barnard notes it as a “conspicuous object from the canal”, attracting the attention of tourists and it can be seen in the etching here.


The Spirit Store contained both a Spirit Vat and a much smaller Ullage Vat holding only 231 gallons (1,000 litres).  This is Barnard’s first mention of ullage and he doesn’t elaborate on it.  In one sense it is the technical word for the more romantic ‘Angel’s share’, but in the sense of a separate Vat it must be an overspill or pressure buffer for the spirit vat.

There were four warehouses on site for 2,000 casks and more were stored at Waterloo Street in Glasgow.  All the operations on site except pumping the worts were done by gravitation and elevators.  Apparently the Excise authorities considered it “one of the most complete distilleries in the district”, the district possibly being all of Argyll as the next closest was Oban, 30 miles away.  The annual output of pure Highland Malt was 80,000 gallons (364,000 litres).

Barnard describes the neighbouring houses in a little detail.  Glengilp House was the residence of the former proprietor and now of the manager and was also a previous name for the distillery.  There were houses for the Excise men in the grounds and further houses in the park for workmen.

Glendarroch House still hidden by trees
The House of Glendarroch on the other side of the Darroch Burn had been recently acquired by the proprietor William Gillies as his summer residence, so the distillery seems to have done very well for him although he was only there from 1884-87.  The house was almost hidden by trees and roses climbing the walls and roof, and fuschia (sic) trees lining the path “testify to the mildness of the climate in this district”.  After the distillery tour Barnard’s party returned to their hotel to don their “war paint” (his inverted commas) and then returned to Glendarroch House to enjoy the hospitality of the owner.

Glendarroh Distillery was only known as such from 1870-87.  It was founded as Glenfyne Distillery in 1831 and had also been known as Glengilp for a time, probably when owned by William Hay, who also once owned Lochgilphead distillery that stood just four miles away at the top of Argyll Street in that town until around 1860, marked on maps from 1870 up to 1938 as just ‘Old Distillery’.  Two years after Barnard’s visit Glendarroch joined the Scotch Whisky Distillers Ltd consortium and the name once more reverted to Glenfyne.  It continued operating under that name until 1937 when production ceased for reasons no longer known, although the warehouses still stored whisky until the 1970s.

Linnet Court on site of distillery facing the canal
The buildings were then used for various functions including a joinery and then a fish hatchery that utilised the old distillery reservoir.  Townsend reports that by 1993 all had been demolished save a 100ft section of wall facing the canal.  Now even that appears to be gone and the site is now all new housing.  The two streets here are named Linnet Court and Columba Court after the steamers mentioned earlier.  Glendarroch house is still there, still surrounded by trees; Glengilp House went with the distillery; the Darroch Burn now renamed Kilduskland Burn as it is known further up the hill.

One lasting memory of the distillery comes by way of a whisky called ‘The Loch Fyne Blend’ which has an artists impression of the old distillery on its label, an image designed around the report provided by Barnard.  Loch Fyne Whiskies are based in Inveraray near the top end of the loch and they have a very welcoming whisky shop there.  LFW is owned by Richard Joynson who also wrote the introductions to both the 2003 and 2008 copies of Barnard which include his profile of the man based on the character that appears through his writing.  Richard imagines what it would be like if Barnard could have visited his shop and seen how the industry has changed, and he is certain that he would “light up the shop with his presence”.  Now that would be something to witness.