"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, 28 February 2011

Nevis Distillery, Fort William

Barnard signed off his previous report on Ben Nevis Distillery with the words “urgent business at this time called us home” and that would have been sometime in late summer.  He returned to Fort William in winter to visit the Nevis Distillery but then doesn’t visit any more until the following spring/summer.  He doesn’t mention any other business he undertook on that winter journey but it would be strange to travel all the way north by train and then steamer to visit just one distillery.  He does begin his report “From Edinburgh to Oban, on a cold winter’s day” so perhaps he had previous business in Edinburgh to attend to and it made sense to fit in his last trip to the west coast at that time.

Barnard’s report begins with an appreciation of the scenery that they had witnessed the previous summer but this time from a winter perspective.  After a railway journey from Edinburgh to Oban through snow and “sleet beating against the windows of the railway carriage is no joke” he once more travelled aboard the steamer ‘Mountaineer’ from Oban to Fort William.  Despite the piercing wind his party was well wrapped and appreciated the views.

He twice notes that the scenery would be impossible to describe but he tries his best anyway, this time seemingly from his own observations rather than referring to a guide book.  He points out extraordinary ravines with frozen waterfalls, dark pine trees standing in relief against the snow, and Ben Nevis standing proud with its summit clear of clouds on this occasion, all beheld as the work of “the Great Creator”.  He notes a verse from a song by Mackellar that begins “Oh for a sight of Ben Nevis, Methinks I see him now, As the morning sunlight crimsoneth, The snow-wreath on his brow”, but I can’t find the full song anywhere nor who this Mackellar was.

They were met by friends at Fort William who may have put them up for the night and then proceeded to the distillery the following morning.  Nevis Distillery, number 50 on Barnard’s list, was mentioned in the previous report as it was built by Donald MacDonald of Ben Nevis Distillery to help meet the demand for ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis’.  Ben Nevis Distillery was two miles north of Fort William town centre but Nevis Distillery was close by its north end, on the west bank of the River Nevis just before it made its final turn and poured out into Loch Linnhe.

River Nevis near its end, slopes of Ben Nevis behind, houses on right where distillery was
Perhaps because he only has one distillery to visit on this trip Barnard provides a lengthy description of the works which he found to be modern and with buildings mainly of concrete and iron built in 1878.  The place was very busy when they arrived as workmen from many departments were engaged in meeting an urgent export order to be sent out by steamer that day.  Barnard thought there was a “foreign air” about the place that reminded him of the champagne districts but his description reminded me of no less than the “scene of great commercial activity” he had witnessed at his very first distillery, Port Dundas in Glasgow.

He mentions the water source that we discussed last time and then moves through the usual order of the various processes.  Unlike Ben Nevis this place had all its own malting on site and the buildings were quite substantial.  I wondered if this might therefore be the place “in town” that Ben Nevis used as its maltings proper, but that had been described as being close to the harbour and convenient for unloading barley from the ships and Nevis was perhaps too far inland to fit that description.

Anyway, the first building had a barley loft above two large malting floors with two lofty kilns at the end; the second maltings was “the largest under one roof in the north of Scotland” with a withering floor “so capacious that 3,000 persons could be seated there with ease”.  A further kiln adjoins this building and is 40 feet square.  Barnard describes a “patent American Elevator” that can load the kiln with barley in just twenty minutes.  The barley was sourced from northeast Scotland, as is that used at Ben Nevis today.

The mash tun was large at 20 feet across by 6 deep and the final mash was floated to a separate drainer from where the water was returned to the heating tanks for the next run.  The tun room was the “lightest and cleanest we have seen”, again, until the next time, and contained 8 washbacks, 2 at 17,000 gallons (77,000 litres) and 6 at 8,000 gallons (36,000 litres).

Next was the still house containing seven “sma’ pot kind” stills, heated by furnace despite the rest of the works being considered very modern and including a number of powerful steam engines and pumps, although Barnard later noted that the power was mostly water driven from the River Nevis with steam power only supplemented where necessary.

There were two wash stills at 3,500 and 2,000 gallons (16,000 and 9,000 litres) and five spirit stills ranging from 580 to 450 gallons (2,635 to 2,045 l).  Barnard here describes the spirit in a first for him as “imperfect spirit, on leaving the Worm Tub, runs into the Spirit Stills to undergo a second and similar process of distillation, emerging therefrom a perfected spirit”.  He seems to be more familiar with terminology and ways of working now and we shall see more of this later.


His book includes this wonderful etching of the still room that shows some features that I am surprised he didn’t comment on, given the amount of detail in the rest of his report.  The wash stills had what look like large purifiers on their lye pipes and the far spirit still has a columnar neck that reminds me of the type seen at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown, where the neck contained condensing tubes that throw back some of the fusel oils into the still to help purify the spirit.

Barnard is shown around the four warehouses by the chief Excise Officer and here he notes rather grandly that “for convenience, economy of space, light and ventilation, we commend them to the notice of distillers intending to build new warehouses”, now beginning to see himself as a bit of an expert on the subject?  These warehouses again hint at a move towards racking style storage, with “guantrees” being used to support second and sometimes third layers of casks without resting on each other.

The warehousing is also substantial and contained 9,915 casks “the whole of which has been bought and paid for by customers”, such was the demand for the ‘Dew’ distilled here.  Barnard also notes the pride of workmanship that takes place amongst the 200 men working here, with MacDonald being likened to an army general and the staff keen to show off their workmanship, often to Barnard’s amusement.  He comments on how much of the joinery work both here and in town and the wheelwright work for the carts and lorries is carried out by distillery staff.

Barnard’s report finishes with an unaccredited verse that I have tracked down to the song The Land of the Bright Blooming Heather by Hugh MacDonald, c1860.  There are four verses to the song, all similarly patriotic and sentimental and which would be quite at home in the Hector McDram school of emblems of Scotland, imagery that became very prominent during the Victorian Era.

"Here's a health to the land of the mountain and glen,
To the land of the lake and the river,
Where the wild thistle grows in her rude rocky den,
Proud Freedom's stern emblem for ever!
The land of the Claymore, the Kilt, and the Plaid,
The Bagpipe, the Bonnet, and Feather,
Let’s join heart and hand upstanding in pride,
Here's the land of the bright blooming heather."

Sentimentality doesn’t stand in the way of progress though and in 1894 the railway finally arrived in Fort William and a siding was built right into the heart of the Nevis Distillery complex.  Yet despite the large scale of operation and an annual production of some 1.2m litres the distillery was only operational for 30 years before MacDonald decided to merge it with Ben Nevis in 1908, long before the impacts of WWI and prohibition in America contributed to the devastation of the industry in the 1920s.  Perhaps the initial downturn at the beginning of the century led to a reappraisal of operations, and by the 1920s the whole business transferred out of the MacDonald family and the stills at Nevis were left silent.

Camanachd Crescent housing where Nevis Distillery once stood
The warehouses at Nevis continued to be used for decades after but they too have now gone.  The estuary at the mouth of the River Nevis was converted into reclaimed land in the 1980s and a new development opened in 1988 that included a leisure centre and supermarket.  The old distillery area was converted first into industrial units where the old telecoms company NTL once had a base but later redeveloped into the modern housing that stands today, the last of the old distillery demolished in the process.  The old gates from Nevis Distillery are now installed at Ben Nevis Distillery in memory, no other trace of it remains.

Nevis Distillery gate, now at Ben Nevis Distillery