Barnard records that they had been anticipating this part of the journey for weeks “and consequently were anxious about the weather”, which turned out to be rather fine in the end, only occasional showers driving them below deck. They began the day with a hearty breakfast and I am beginning to see that Barnard regularly enjoyed the simple pleasure of a good feed, a practice I have happily adopted for my own journey. It is hard work visiting all these distilleries, honest it is; hearty sustenance is indeed required!
Their steamer was to take a two hour detour on route to Portree, the capital of Skye. They stopped by Loch Coruisk on the south coast and were transferred to shore in a couple of large boats “manned by a sturdy set of Skyemen” who wore the uniform of MacBraynes. I am somewhat envious of Barnard as he makes the short five minute walk inland to the edge of one of the most spectacular views in Britain, one that I have yet to see. Loch Coruisk stretches for two miles into the very heart of the Cuillin Mountains, cliffs rising on all sides.
For once Barnard is almost lost for words, his normal ebullient descriptions of the landscape seemingly deserting him. He records that the “awful grandeur would be impossible to describe” and leaves the romanticism to Sir Walter Scott, the lines here from his epic poem from 1815 The Lord of the Isles:
“A scene so wild, so rude as this,
Yet so sublime in barrenness,
Ne’er did my wandering footsteps press
Where’er they happ’d to roam.”
You will need to search online for images of the loch; for now I can leave you with the only slightly less grand view of the Cuillins from the other side, this picture taken near dusk in Glen Brittle. Those of you lucky enough to visit Skye in the summer can take a short boat trip to witness the same unspoilt view that Barnard did.
|Cuillin Mountains from Glen Brittle|
|Portree Hotel and Camanachd Bar|
He complains of the rain that washes the dust from clothes “and pierces your mackintosh like duck-shot through a boat’s sail” and despairing about how bleak and desolate the landscape was, not passing through any village on the 19 mile trip to the distillery. They admire the mountains when the rain subsided, here calling them the Cuchullin Mountains after Cúchulainn, one of the heroes in the Ulster Cycle of Irish folklore, Cuillin being a short Scottish form of the name. Legend has it that Cúchulainn travelled to Skye to be schooled in the art of war and fought in a great battle here.
My own journey began north of Portree as I wanted to see the stunning landscape in the Trotternish peninsula and to drive on two great scenic routes before reaching the distillery. Iain Banks considers that all Skye roads are generally to be classed as “Great Wee Roads” and I almost agree with him. The day began with duck-shot rain but soon eased into greyish but quiet skies that permitted some of these photographs of the scenery (click to enlarge).
|Old Man of Storr and Trotternish landslip|
|Mealt Waterfall and Kilt Rock|
I first stopped by the Old Man of Storr, a pinnacle formed from a land slip that is a landmark beyond Portree. Next came the evocatively descriptive Kilt Rock with its 200 feet high ‘pleats’ of basalt and the stunning Mealt waterfall nearby. The first driving test was the single track road that rises from the landslip feature known as the Quirang, hairpin bends escorting my car to a great view across the land. A massive landslip runs for 19 miles up the centre of almost the whole length of Trotternish and this road climbs a pass across it and down to Uig on the west coast.
|The Quirang and the road through the pass|
|Seafood loving sheep on Skye?|
Founded in 1830 the distillery had changed owners a few times and was substantially improved and updated in the nine years before Barnard arrived, two-thirds of the then property being modern and containing the latest in distilling appliances and vessels including a new kiln and still house. Despite all this modernisation the supplies were still brought in and out from offshore, steamers using smaller boats to transfer barley ashore which was then carted up to the granaries, full casks being floated out to sea for uplift. Various owners battled with the laird to get permission to build a new pier which was eventually constructed in 1900 and included a tram way for horse drawn trolleys to ease the delivery of supplies.
|Talisker pier and old tram way|
The mashing and fermenting processes were standard and Barnard has little to say about them. The current mash tun was installed in 1998 and is a good size with a high copper dome and currently running 19 mashes per week as production has increase in the last couple of years. Barnard recorded six washbacks but doesn’t give the sizes. There are now eight, two more having been added in 2008, made from Oregon pine with a full capacity of 53,000 litres each.
Talisker was set up for triple distillation and Barnard observed the three Pot Stills but doesn’t give the sizes. They were condensed in two worm tubs fed from the burn here. Two more stills were later added and they were all coal fired and ran triple distillation until 1928. Alas, in November 1960 some spirit boiled over onto the coals and the entire still house was destroyed by fire. The distillery closed until a new still house was opened in 1962 with five brand new stills faithfully replicating the previous design. Remarkably, despite that fire, they remained coal fired until converted to steam heating in 1972. The two wash stills are 14,706 litres and the three spirit stills are 11,024, the spirit stills appearing much smaller as the necks are much shorter than on the wash.
|Talisker worm tubs|
|Old no. 4 Warehouse with old Managers House (now offices), Carbost Burn in foreground|
|Cask display in No. 4 Warehouse|
The distillery paraphrases a line from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem as part of their promotion, noting that Talisker was recorded by him as “The king o’ drinks”. A little cheeky perhaps as I think that RLS actually has the hero of the poem indicating that Scotch Whisky in general (the blood of Scots) is the “king o’ drinks”, regardless of where in Scotland it came from, but Talisker is an exceptional whisky so perhaps we can let them off with a bit of poetic licence. The line comes from the poem The Scotsman's Return From Abroad, and the extended verse is:
“At last, across the weary faem,
Frae far, outlandish pairts I came.
On ilka side o' me I fand
Fresh tokens o' my native land.
Wi' whatna joy I hailed them a' -
The hilltaps standin' raw by raw,
The public house, the Hielan' birks,
And a' the bonny U.P. kirks!
But maistly thee, the bluid o' Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to John o' Grots,
The king o' drinks, as I conceive it,
Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”
Maidenkirk, now Kirkmaiden, is a small village about as far south in Scotland as you can get and on the far opposite corner of the country from John O’ Groats, the line in the poem above being the old Scottish version of ‘from Land’s End to John O’ Groats’. First published in 1880 just five years before Barnard’s visit, the poem is written in the Scots tongue and it is a satirical comic gem of character, nostalgia and the hypocrisy of dour sectarian prejudice which I think Barnard would have thoroughly enjoyed if he had understood it. It also includes a comment on happily enjoying the nosing of whisky:
“Syne, weel contentit wi' it a',
Pour in the sperrits wi' a jaw!
I didnae drink, I didnae speak, -
I only snowkit up the reek.”
|Talisker and Cuillin Mountains|