"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

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Gerston Distillery, Halkirk

Barnard’s train journey from Wick first headed inland back towards Thurso and he stopped at the town of Halkirk to visit the second Gerston Distillery to be built nearby.  He doesn’t mention the date it was built but it had in fact just opened in 1886 not long before he arrived, possibly the most recently opened distillery on his entire journey.  It was situated close to the River Thurso which he describes as “one of the best angling streams in the North of Scotland”.  Halkirk is only a few miles south of Thurso so I drove down to visit before heading on to Pulteney.

The original Gerston Distillery had been built around half a mile south of Gerston II, right on the banks of the River Thurso which likely powered the machinery due to its swift flow.  The distillery water came from the Calder Burn channelled in from Loch Calder to the west and which is said to have given the whisky its reputation.  The new distillery secured the right to this water and a tunnel aqueduct was built from the burn to supply the Mill Lade that ran directly past the north distillery walls, the main burn running past its south.

Gerston I retaining wall
Gerston I Distillery site

The reputation of the whisky was said to have reached London where it became a favourite of some politicians including the Prime Minister from 1841-46, Sir Robert Peel (Townsend, 1993) yet this was not enough to secure a long future for the distillery which closed in 1875 and was demolished in 1882.  A retaining wall by the river and a few other stones remain on the site of what must have been a low volume enterprise given the small buildings recorded on maps from the time.

Gerston II (from www.thisishalkirk.co.uk/about/whisky.htm)
The new distillery was built on a far larger scale - “a commanding feature in the landscape” - to meet the demand from London, but it didn’t fair any better lasting only around 25 years.  Barnard provides a brief description of the operations which are certainly up to date but he doesn’t provide volumes, sizes or numbers for any part, perhaps as this was a brief stop for him between trains.  The modern design included steam heating for the stills and for the mash water, all the steam requirements being provided from one boiler room and thus just one fire to be stoked which “effects a great saving of manual labour, and leaves the Mash and Still House beautifully clean”.

Gerston slope for gravity power
The other key feature that Barnard observes is the use of gravitation to keep the production flowing “full advantage being taken of a natural fall on the site” that can be seen in the picture here.  At the bottom of the slope is the one remaining building which has now been converted into private flats.  A few low walls from the old Still and Mash House still remain beside a depression where the lade passed through.

Last building remaining from Gerston II
Production that first year was proposed to be 364,000 litres p.a. but that could be doubled if required.  How much it did finally produce is no longer known as it ran into trouble and was sold in 1897 to Northern Distilleries Ltd who renamed it Ben Morven Distillery after a local hill.  It then closed for good in 1911 and the buildings were demolished in stages up until 1929 (This is Halkirk).  The area where the main distillery buildings were located still has a concrete floor under the moss and grass, and some brick wall sections remain.  The warehouse area by the Calder Burn is now a lawn beside new housing and the foundations of an outlying building can still be made out under the grass.

Foundations and location of warehouses beyond
The article on the This is Halkirk website also records an interesting point about the style of whisky availale at the end of the 19th century.  It records an advert in a local paper offering Old Pulteney and Gerston whiskies at 10 and 9 years old respectively, quite well matured for that time.  The article also mentions that James Henderson of Pulteney Distillery had his earlier inland distillery at Poolhoy which is just a few miles east of Halkirk and contemporary with the first Gerston Distillery when built.  There had been many small illicit operations in this area at the time, and despite that period of political fame for the Gerston brand only Pulteney now remains to fly the flag for Caithness.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Pulteney Distillery, Wick

Having visited the most northerly distillery in Scotland at Highland Park we now visit the most northerly on the Scottish mainland.  Pulteney Distillery is in Wick in Caithness, a port town that was once one of the major herring fishing towns of Scotland, like Campbeltown had been on the west coast, with anything up to 1,000 boats stationed there during the season.  The area known as Pulteneytown was built by the British Fisheries Society in the early 1800s on the south side of the bay and has been administered as part of Wick since 1902.

Wick harbour with an easterly wind - not sure I'd be parking my bus there mate! 
Barnard travelled to Wick by train from Scrabster and he mentions some of the coastal features of Caithness.  John o’ Groats, Duncan’s Bay Head (sic) – the actual north-eastern point of the mainland, Holborn Head by Scrabster, sea stacks and other features that line the coast of Caithness are all described and present a stunning image of ruggedness, in contrast to the “tame and bleak inland scenery…with scarcely a tree visible for many miles”.  You would be forgiven for thinking he had never left Orkney, so similar is the landscape presented.

Pulteney Distillery was built in the area of Wick called Upper Pulteney Town, a more residential area away from the lower town by the harbour.  The distillery name doesn’t include the commonly associated word ‘Old’ which is reserved only for the whisky produced here.  The buildings are still arranged in the quadrangular form that Barnard witnessed although some changes have been made to accommodate modern practices and transport, and to add new warehouses.

Entrance to Pulteney Courtyard
The distillery was established in 1826 by James Henderson whose family were still in charge when Barnard visited.  Henderson had closed his previous smaller inland distillery in 1823 after 30 years there and the new distillery was built close to the sea to provide ease of transport of goods both in and out, the road south then being undeveloped and increasing demand for the whisky requiring better transport arrangements.

Pulteney workforce under the entrance archway
Barnard entered through a covered archway which has now gone.  It can be seen here above the workmen in an undated photo in the distillery offices and also in the etching in Barnard.  Along with a significant redevelopment of the site in 1950/51 the whole archway had to be removed to accommodate modern tankers and delivery lorries.

Bottle your own Pulteney whisky
Beside this archway was the old cooperage that has now been turned into the visitor centre where I was met by Tanya for a tour.  There were two other guests on the tour, a friendly couple who run the Blaue Maus bar on the island of Amrum off the north coast of Germany, and we will meet them again later at another place.  There are some interesting displays in the centre and you can fill your own bottle of Old Pulteney here as well.  After introductions and the obligatory video we headed out to the courtyard where Barnard had also begun his tour.

There were originally three barley lofts and two malting floors on the right of the quad and Barnard also mentions Kilns heated by peat at the end of this building, although he doesn’t state how many.  The distillery picture above shows two pagodas in this location and these and the maltings beyond have since all been redeveloped into warehouses that now stretch back to the corner of the road at the top of the picture.  The barley is now brought in from Baird’s maltings and is unpeated.

Pulteney Mash Tun
We began our tour proper in the mill house where old malt elevators are still in place and an old dresser above the mill.  The old Mash Tun was 12 feet by 5 feet and the current tun is a similar width but now with a deep bed which empties at a slower pace and receives four waters per mash.  It is a semi-lauter style and has some lovely pine cladding round the outside which I have not seen done anywhere else.

5 of the 6 cast iron washbacks
Barnard observed four washbacks at 27,000 litres each and there are now six holding 23,500 each.  The current backs are cast iron with a stainless steel lining and there are five in the tun room and one in the still house where a third still once stood.  Until 1950 the backs were made of wood and the current backs were installed then.  The fermentation is a mid-range 50 hours and produces an 8.5% abv wash.

Wash Still

Wash Still Lyne Arm
Now to the still house where the current stills have some very interesting features.  Barnard saw one wash still at 18,000 litres and two spirit stills at just half that size, of an “old smuggler’s kettle pattern” and heated by furnaces, all very standard for his time.  The current stills are a wash at 21,707 litres and spirit at 17,343 litres, both steam heated, but it is their shape that makes them unusual.

The top of the wash still is flat and the near horizontal lyne arm projects from a point around a metre below the top before taking a turn and going through the wall to the outside worm tank.  The story attached to this is that the still was too tall to fit the house so they cut the top off and rearranged the lyne arm to fit!  The wash still also has a very large reflux bowl which has been likened to a diving suit of old.  The spirit still has a smaller reflux bowl and its short lyne arm goes through a few convoluted turns and a purifier before reaching the worm tank.

Spirit Still with washback no.6 behind
Barnard recorded worm tanks and a large water wheel behind the still house.  Worm tanks are still used but the water wheel no longer sits on the lade that had been designed, along with Pulteneytown, by Thomas Telford.  The lade still brings the main distillery water from the Loch of Hempriggs three miles to the south.

Pulteney Lade and Worm Tanks
In 1886 there were 11 bonded warehouses holding a total of 3,000 casks, one of which was newly built with three floors to hold 454,000 litres, with an annual production of 364,000 litres.  There are now four major warehouses holding 24,000 casks, three of them dunnage and we visited the impressive Warehouse no.3 which was a racking store 8 casks high and holding 10,000 casks.

Warehouse No.3
All their whisky is matured on site and production is currently around 1.3m litres although capacity is significantly higher.  The whisky is casked at a higher than average 68% and they use mainly bourbon casks with only around 1% sherry casks.  Most are first and second fill for the 12, 17 and 21 yo OBs.  The shape of the Old Pulteney bottle neck is a design based on the shape of those unique stills.

For a while whisky wasn’t produced here at all.  For 25 years from 1922-47 Wick was a ‘dry’ town under the 1913 Temperance Act of Scotland, almost twice as long as prohibition in America!  The impact on the distillery was significant and after changing hands a few times in the 1920s it was closed from 1928-51.  Reopening after renovations it was then owned by Robert Cumming who already owned Balblair Distillery further down the coast.  It was taken over by Hiram Walker in 1955 and by current owners Inver House Distillers in 1995.  They have continued to expand the single malt bottling which now takes around 50% of production volume.

The Old Pulteney Range - 12, 17, 21 and 30yo
 We finished our tour back at the visitor centre where Tanya pointed out those earlier photographs and my thanks to her also for answering my questions and to everyone for delaying in the courtyard while we tried to work out where the buildings in the Barnard etching once stood.  My driving schedule didn’t allow for a tasting but I have been working through a bottle of the 17yo after enjoying it at Whisky Fringe last year, the maritime heritage to this town carrying through to the bottle with a touch of sea breeze mingling nicely with sweet vanilla and coconut notes and a long delightful finish.

After visiting the distillery I tried to find some of the local landmarks mentioned by Barnard, including the castle known as the ‘Auld Man o’ Wick’ and a large sea stack called the ‘Brough’.  However, the signposts around town were a bit vague and I had to give up and head to my next destination at Brora.  On route I also tried to find the Whaligoe waterfall and the precipitous steps cut into the cliff nearby, but despite driving through the village in both directions and walking through twice there were no sign posts for the feature.  There are a number of cairns and Brochs here that are signposted so I have good reason to return some day.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Orkney Archaeology and Landscape

A trip to Orkney wouldn’t be complete, or really even possible, without seeing some ancient monuments.  5,000 years of human habitation can be seen across the landscape here and much of it shows the resilience of people living on the margin of the sea, in a land swept by North Atlantic storms that have both shaped, and in some cases preserved, the structures that they lived in or were the focal point for their communities.

Atlantic waves wash the shore beside Skara Brae
I will never get back to distilleries if I allow myself to be too distracted by the intriguing evidence left by Neolithic people so I will just give a brief mention to a few key places and hope that if you have not already been there you will one day have the chance to see these unique monuments and let the ghosts of the past whisper their story on the breeze.  Actually it was more of a winter gale for me so some of the voices and echoes were lost as I tried to avoid being blown off the various cliffs I ventured near to.  My car did get a good wash on the Churchill Barriers as well, more on which later.

Hearth and internal fittings at the Broch of Gurness
I mentioned Brochs in my report on Scapa Distillery and there are numerous remains of these Iron Age structures around the Orkney shoreline, central to farming communities around 2,000 years ago.  Many have disappeared, either through modern farming or just having their stones removed for the building of later dwellings around the islands.  The Broch of Gurness is the best preserved here, others marked on OS maps you wouldn’t otherwise know were there, even standing on the low grassy mound covering the foundation stones.

Standing Stones of Stenness
I also mentioned the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, in my Stromness report.  These are monuments of celebration, burial grounds, time keepers or markers of a community’s place in the land.  The stones here are not as massive as those at Stonehenge but they do predate them, Stenness from around 3100 BC and Brodgar more contemporary from around 2-2500 BC.  The scale of the Ring of Brodgar offers a different perspective as well, Stonehenge being quite an enclosed, exclusive space (even today) and Brodgar being an open expansive area measuring almost 104 metres across.  The area around the Ness o’ Brodgar has many burial mounds and there is an appropriate silence to the atmosphere.

Ring of Brodgar looking towards Stenness

Maeshowe chambered cairn
The best known of these mounds is the chambered cairn of Maeshowe, although how it was used for burials is not really known.  Dated to around 2,700 BC its shape was changed slightly in 1910 to help preserve the structure and it is now around 35 metres wide by 7 metres high and is entered by a single passageway.  At the winter solstice the setting sun illuminates the passage and strikes the back wall of the inner chamber.  Now run by the Historic Scotland you can take a tour into the inner chamber where Viking rune ‘graffiti’ can also be seen, the largest single collection of runes outside Scandinavia and some of which suggest that treasures were once removed from within.

Skara Brae Neolithic housing
Contemporary with the landscape markers of Maeshowe and Stenness was the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae on the west coast of Mainland.  Preserved under sand and turf it was uncovered in a storm in 1850.  The initial excavations were not extensive and it was left to the elements for over 75 years.  It was first properly excavated in 1928 with further re-evaluations since and occupation of the houses dates from 3100-2500 BC.  The site is now run by Historic Scotland and there is an exhibition and visitor centre here.  Together with the three previously mentioned sites they form the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, one of the five Scottish UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Looking at the construction style of the Brochs and Skara Brae I noticed something familiar.  The many layers of flat stones in the buildings of Highland Park Distillery echo those buildings of antiquity.  Broken seams of rock are plentiful around Orkney, Old Red Sandstone being the dominant geology of the islands and easily cut into flagstones.   These flat and wide stones are ideal for strength against the wind and the thick walls from this style of construction also offer insulation.

Orkney building material for generations, shaped by nature and by hand
The Vikings who inhabited these islands around 1,000 years ago built their own style of settlements and the remains of one of these can be seen on the east slopes of the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island just of the northwest tip of Mainland.  The settlement may have been abandoned as the coast eroded, and parts of it have fallen into the sea.  The causeway can normally be crossed for two hours either side of low tide, although often less when the winds are high as was the case when I visited, this picture taken just 90 minutes after low tide with the causeway already covered.

Brough of Birsay
To the south of Mainland a 45 minute drive will take you to the closest point to mainland Scotland and past some interesting features from the last century.  The route takes you over the four Churchill Barriers built between islands to protect the fleet stationed in Scapa Flow during WWII after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a U-boat that had crept passed the earlier 'Blockships'.  There are many wrecks in the Flow that attract divers from all over the world and the masts of some Blockships can be seen above the waves.  The barriers were constructed from concrete blocks and were built by Italian POWs who also built the ornate Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, converted from two Nissen huts.
Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm
One notorious corner at the north end of barrier number 2 often meets the full force of the waves in Holm Sound and even a curved breakwater fails to stop the surf storming over the road on a wild day.  You have to time your crossing well to avoid being temporarily blinded by foaming water and it is definitely not safe for cyclists on a windy day.  Still, I had driven almost 1,000 miles by that point of the week so my car needed a wash that was duly delivered just before making it back to dry land.

Churchill Barrier car wash
That concludes my visit to Orkney where three very different distillery experiences were accompanied by over 5000 years of history, some pretty wild weather and the wise words of one of Scotland’s celebrated writers.  Barnard returned from Scapa Bay in stormy weather that delayed his crossing by 2 hours and he was very glad to reach Scrabster and an unnamed hotel, likely now the building converted into the Harbour Trust offices.  I returned the way I had arrived, by ferry from Stromness, passing the sentinel of the Old Man o’ Hoy on the way.

I found a hostel room in nearby Thurso and the next morning, before visiting Pulteney Distillery, I drove up to the most northerly point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head, for no other reason than to say I had been there.  It’s a lovely drive though and there are some dramatic sea cliffs at the end of the road, the southern tip of Orkney just visible across the waves.  Due to time constraints (I had slept in) I didn’t make it to John O’ Groats for now I had to press on with a trip down the far northeast coast of Caithness and Sutherland.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Stromness Distillery Update

Towards the end of my post on Stromness I included a quote about whisky from George Mackay Brown.  I knew the line was from somewhere in a 1979 collection of his columns written for The Orcadian newspaper called Under Brinkie’s Brae, but I wasn’t sure exactly which piece of writing and I was keen to find the full reference for it.  I was glad that I did as I have also found some other interesting thoughts in the book and I have been reminded how good a writer he was, not just of poetry but prose and drama too.

The quote came from a column titled Bridge of Snow, published in The Orcadian on 11 Jan 1979.  The subject of that week’s column was Hogmanay and recalled MacKay Brown’s participation in the local celebrations the week before.  The Bridge in the title I think refers to the crossing from the old year into the new, a liminal moment hinted at in the column rather than a physical place.  That particular Hogmanay was very wintry as well with soft, sugary snow already on the ground from earlier falls, itself then lost under a blanket of white that arrived in the early hours of the new year.

Mackay Brown’s party made their way between hospitable houses and then at midnight, as he was “dark-haired”, he was given the honour of ‘first footing’ to bring luck to their hosts in their home for the coming year.  This old Hogmanay tradition requires a tall, dark, (handsome if possible) stranger to be the first foot in your door after the ‘bells’ at midnight, carrying some whisky and some coal for good luck.  Chimney sweeps and miners were popular guests in days of old for obvious reasons; a type of cake called Black Bun now often taking the place of coal in these days of central heating.

The symbolism of the coal and whisky was set out by Mackay Brown, giving context to the line from my last post:

“This must be a very ancient ceremony too; for the fire in the hearth is a sign of life and well-being in a house.  And the whisky: what is it but the earth’s rich essence, a symbol of all fruit and corn and cheerfulness and kindling?...”

Evocative and heart-warming, not unlike a coal fire, a dram, wonderful prose or all three combined on a cold winter’s eve.

Also in the compilation is a column from 23 June 1977 titled “Old Orkney” Whisky.  Finding the story above was pleasing enough, to add further evidence to the distillery story was surely providence.

Mackay Brown mentions an exhibit of both “Old Orkney” and “Old Man of Hoy” whisky bottles in the window of the museum mentioned in my last post.  This leads to him reminiscing about the old distillery and he recalls his feelings about its closure “how melancholy that particular section of the street was; deserted, padlocked and decaying.”  Sad words so often appropriate to distilleries that I have tried to find on this journey, my own despair at their passing softened by the bulldozing and rebuilding of recent years so that I need not gaze upon decay and ruin, like that which darkened “that blank piece of Stromness”.

He also mentions huge warehouses in the field behind, where the street called Faravel is now.  Now these must have been from the early 1900s as they are not shown on maps up to 1903 and are gone by the time a 1969 map was published.  I haven’t found any maps from the years in-between to see how they were recorded at another time.  The description of those warehouses as “huge” suggests that the production capacity had increased substantially from Barnard’s time.

Mackay Brown also helps with the dates for redevelopment, stating in 1977 that the old place “was pulled down ten years ago, and in its place rose Mayburn Court and Faravel”.  And here there was some light to lift the gloom of the lost distillery - I mentioned before that Mackay Brown lived in Mayburn Court and it was also where he wrote his column, finishing this particular piece with the reflective words “I write this, maybe where the barley was turned on the malting floor, or perhaps where the excise-man had his little office.”

One further gem that his book has provided is an answer to the naming of Alfred Street.  In a column titled Hamnavoe Names published 5 May 1977 he states that the main road through the old town was named after Queen Victoria at the north end (I now recall the sign for Victoria Street) and one of her sons, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh at the south end!  All of which seems obvious now that George has kindly pointed it out to me, as is so often the way.

I am glad I have rediscovered George Mackay Brown’s poetry and prose.  His observations on human behaviour and traditions, his wit and his engaging use of language are altogether illuminating and entertaining.  I hope to read more of his work as my journey continues and see what other notions he might assist me with.  I also hope that my own prose can catch just a little of the stardust that he sprinkled through his work, and I can but try to learn from him.

There may be another short break before the next post as I negotiate a few distractions this week.   My journey has already moved on south through the highlands and I will begin to catch up with the backlog of posts in a few days time.  Cheers for now.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Stromness Distillery, Orkney

The third and final distillery on Orkney when Barnard visited is sadly long gone, closed in 1928 and demolished in the 1940s (Udo, 2005) the site of Stromness Distillery is now a small housing block.  However, my visit to Stromness was full of surprises and I am glad to have spent some time wandering around this lovely historic little town, even if the weather was what the BBC forecasters have started describing as ‘murky’ in a very descriptive if not quite meteorological way.

Stromness from approach road, Hoy in background, ferry dominating the shore
Barnard began his report by quashing any notion that a visit to Orkney might not be fruitful or interesting, a comment perhaps directed at the London readers of Harpers who may have had an understandably ‘distant’ view of the land and the lives of the people this far north.  He continues with a faint praise reference to the Viking origins of the Orcadians, stating “the numerous acts of cruelty and conquest perpetrated by these northern sea-kings have so moulded the habits and formed the customs of their posterity, that to this day they betray their origin, in their lofty bearing, erect carriage, and simple faith in their ancient customs and folk lore”.

We both took a journey from Kirkwall to Stromness via some of Orkney’s most celebrated archaeology, some of which I will mention later before we return to mainland Scotland.  Here Barnard notes the burial tumulus of Maes-Howe (now known as Maeshowe), the Standing Stones of Stenness “whose fame is second to Stonehenge in repute as Druidical monuments” and The Circle of Brogar (now Ring of Brodgar).  His report is a little confused as the way he writes it he places the Stones of Stenness around the Circle of Brogar when in fact they are two separate sites about a mile apart.

Ring of Brodgar
Barnard also seems to have lost his bearings a little when he arrives at Stromness, declaring that they have “arrived at the most northern point of our tour” which was in fact at Highland Park.  He also places the distillery at the north end of the town’s one main street when it was actually towards the south end.  Perhaps it was a particularly cloudy day and he had no sun to help his directional sense and hadn’t realised that they had turned south again after the stone circles, assuming they were heading north all the time?  The distillery was also at the northern end of a section of the main street called Southend so perhaps that threw him a bit.

MV Hamnavoe leaving Stromness
He provides a meaning for the town name, Strom being a stream (in this case likely the tidal stream that rushes through Hoy Sound – Orkneyjar.com) and nes, as we saw on Mull, is a promontory.  Its Old Norse name was Hamnavoe which means either ‘harbour bay’ or ‘safe haven’, not dissimilar in meaning to the Gaelic ‘Ledaig’ at Tobermory.  Hamnavoe is still the name of the bay here and is also the name voted for by local people for the Northlink Ferry from Scrabster that was launched in 2003, a good luck bottle of Highland Park being smashed on her bow at launch.

Stromness old town shore with private quays
Barnard’s description of the town is still appropriate today and is reflected in the pictures here.  Houses on the shore side of the main road were often standing “within high-water mark, and have little bulwarks, jetties and quays of their own, for their fishing operations, and unloading boats, etc.”  Maps from around this time record ‘pier’ or ‘slip’ all the way down the shoreline and some look like they are still used with boat hoists standing ready, others rusted and worn.

Stromness quayside boat hoist 
He mentions Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate, the hero of the novel having been based on pirate John Gow who was brought up in Stromness in the early 1700s.  He then describes the town as consisting of “one paved street, about a mile long, so narrow and crooked that two vehicles cannot pass each other”.  Sir Walter Scott had himself visited Stromness in 1814 and commented that the town "cannot be traversed by a cart or even by a horse, for there are stairs up and down even in the principal street... whose twistings are often caused by a little enclosure before the house” (Orkneyjar.com).  The Neuketineuks of Kirkwall seems an appropriate name for here as well.

Stromness main street in old town
The street and the shore front houses remain in a similar fashion today although the stairs in the street have been smoothed out.  One street that Alfred Barnard doesn’t mention, perhaps through modesty, is Alfred Street which had its south end right by the distillery.  I am not sure which Alfred the street was named after but the name seems to have more Anglo Saxon roots (e.g. King Alfred the Great of Wessex) than Viking.  Stromness was built up by the Hudson Bay Company as a port of call for whaling vessels and later as a fishing port so the street names could reflect historical figures or settlers from various places.

Alfred Street looking south towards distillery site
So, having traversed the narrow, crooked street with wing mirrors still intact, Barnard arrives at the “quaint little distillery…the most remote in the kingdom” which was at the foot of a steep hill and covering just half an acre of ground, about one third the size of Scapa Distillery.  The water source was the May Burn rising in the hills behind and old maps show a small reservoir and sluice just above the distillery, with the burn then running around the buildings and down to the nearby shore, driving a small water wheel on its way.  The proximity to the shore would have been important for bringing goods in and out.

May Burn now runs under here where distillery reservoir once sat
Barnard records the distillery as being built in 1828 by a Hector Munn but the distillery licence record shows the first licence in 1817 to a John Crookshanks (Udo, 2005), although there was a Hector Munro in charge from 1825-32.  A second licence for a distillery called Stromness was granted in 1825 but that venture only appears to have lasted for six years.  The distillery name also changed from Stromness to Man O’ Hoy, seemingly the latter when Barnard called although he records it as Stromness.  Man O’ Hoy must be a reference to the famous sea stack that stands off the shore of nearby Hoy Island, looking out defiantly over the North Atlantic waves that first made him and now try to break him.  The picture here is from inside the MV Hamnavoe as I left the islands at dusk, the weather too stormy to venture out on deck.

Old Man O' Hoy, a lone sentinel staring out to sea
Barnard describes the layout of the distillery as being a parallelogram with a separate Still House and this layout was shown on maps up to 1880/81.  The parallelogram is shown as two long and narrow adjoining rectangles slightly offset from each other, a bit like a stretched version of that annoying piece you get in Tetris that you can never fit in anywhere.  Here it was shoehorned into a narrow cutting at the base of the hill and between other buildings, and yet by 1902 there was a further building, possibly a warehouse, added further into the hillside with the burn seemingly channelled underneath it by then.

Site of Stromness Distillery
For so small a distillery it still had the usual maltings and a peat fired kiln.  The mash tun was 10 feet across by 5 deep and supplied four washbacks holding 10,000 litres each.  The Still House was “a vaulted chamber cut out of the solid rock”, once used by smugglers for illicit distillation and now containing two “sma’ old Pot Stills” of just 1,360 litres each.  One of them Barnard describes as having once belonged to a “law evader” and was “the quaintest we have seen in our travels…its body is shaped like a pumpkin, and is surmounted by a similarly shaped chamber one fourth the size”.  This sounds like an alembic style of still of which I don’t have a picture, but Google is your friend.

Output was only 31,800 litres p.a., the third lowest in Barnard’s record with only Edradour and Grandtully being lower at that time.  The whisky was stored in two bonded warehouses that held 300 casks when he visited.  The whisky may have been called Man O’ Hoy when the distillery was Stromness but after a period of closure in the 1860/70s it was restored in 1878, the distillery renamed as Man O’ Hoy and its whisky became known as Old Orkney, or often just as O.O. (Townsend, 1993).

Mayburn Court from below
After closing in 1928 the site was demolished in the 1940s and the housing called Mayburn Court built on the site.  The parking area in front of the garages is where the later building was added between 1880 and 1902.  The Still House may have been a small structure marked on old maps beside where the path now comes down the hill on the right of this picture.

One of Scotland’s most celebrated poets, George Mackay Brown (1921-96), lived here for the last 28 years of his life and there is a plaque on the wall to commemorate him.  His poem Hamnavoe is a popular work that recalls his father, a postman, meeting some of the local characters on his delivery round.  The evocative line below is from Under Brinkie’s Brae, a 1979 collection of his columns written for The Orcadian newspaper, Brinkie’s Brae being the steep hill behind Stromness:

“And the whisky what is it but the earth’s rich essence, a symbol of all fruit and corn and cheerfulness and kindling?”

Across the way from the distillery was the Town Hall which had a museum added by 1881, the museum now the sole occupant of the building.  It was closed when I visited otherwise I am sure they could have offered me even more information about the location to bore you with.  One of the old and rapidly disappearing styles of red phone box still stands outside, and I had to laugh at the road sign warning of a narrow street ahead, until I remembered that I still had to drive back that way.  I had to wait a while to take the quiet photos above as traffic and pedestrians normally move freely in both directions.

Stromness Museum beside distillery site
Nothing remains of the quaint and remote distillery that Barnard’s record may be a sole testament to, but Stromness is a delightful place to visit.  The south end of that main street full of neuks and turns still reflects the scene witnessed by travellers and writers of days gone by, the north end of town a modern gateway to a past that suddenly meets you near the ferry terminal.  I hope to return to this safe haven on a brighter day.

Click here for an update on the Stromness story.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Scapa Distillery, Orkney

About a kilometre across Scapa Bay from where Barnard arrived in the middle of the night sits the second most northerly distillery in Scotland, just over half a kilometre south of Highland Park and a little to the west.  Scapa Distillery was one of the most recently built that Barnard visited, opening in October 1885, about 6-8 months before his visit.  Perhaps only Gerston was more recent, opening in 1886.

Scapa Bay from beside distillery, Highland Park on hill to left 
Barnard again comments on the lack of trees and quotes a “Yankee” who had arrived on the steamer who commented on such a “tarnation fine clearin’.”  However, the use of land for cultivation and the beautiful seascape seem to make up for this and Barnard shows interest in the sailing ships in the bay, quoting some lines from an old 'boat song'.

He also comments on the Lingro Broch that once stood beside the distillery.  Brochs were Iron Age dwellings built from solid stone for shelter and safety, with double walls often with stairs rising inside them.  They are peculiar to the north and west coasts of Scotland where they would offer protection from the wild Atlantic storms that often hit these coasts.  Only the foundations remained at Lingro when Barnard visited and they too have now gone, ploughed out by decades of modern farming.  The picture here is of the Broch of Gurness on the north coast of Orkney Mainland, one of the most complete broch ruins in Scotland.

Broch of Gurness, Iron Age dwelling on Orkney
Before I describe the distillery I should first mention that it is not open to the public and there are no organised tours or visitor centre here.  The entire distillery is run by just three dedicated men working shifts to keep the place going, without coach loads of tourists from the cruise liners that arrive in Kirkwall Harbour to distract them from their craft.  For a few years around 2000 there was an agreement for a few Highland Park staff to distil at Scapa during the HP close season but the three men now here are full-time employees of Chivas, the whisky division of Pernod Ricard.

Scapa water wheel for power
The water supply was the first thing that Barnard noted at the distillery, with water from springs and from the Lingro Burn being carried from the hill above in iron pipes.  The Lingro Burn continues through an artificial channel beside the distillery and once drove a water wheel for power.  I’m not sure if the wheel shown here dates from Barnard’s time but one thing that struck me was the direction of the blades on the wheel.  This was an ‘overshot’ wheel and the water from the burn must have been channelled through a higher pipe or lade that has since been removed.  The burn is still used for cooling water and spring water is still piped in for mashing.

Barnard summed up the facility he saw as “certainly one of most complete little Distilleries in the Kingdom” and the same could be said today.  The operations are all contained in a series of adjoining rooms and only the old kiln and spirit stores that are now gone were in separate buildings.  It all looks simple and straightforward and with an uncluttered and elegant charm to the still house; ideal for such a small team to run.

Scapa Distillery from front
The picture here shows the full extent of the distillery with offices at the front as they always were.  The tall building on the left was where the barley store and malting was, the kiln once standing behind it (Barnard says it was to the south of the malting, although not shown there on maps from 1902) and connected by a gangway bridge to transfer the dried malt back to the main buildings and into the malt deposit.  The kiln was “heated with peat in the ordinary manner” but today the malt is unpeated and brought in from mainland Scotland, the maltings having closed in 1962.

The distillery had a significant refurbishment in 1959 so the internal arrangements don’t quite match what Barnard saw. There is now an old Porteus dresser above a mill from the same company, both dating from the 1950s.  The grist is then raised to the mash tun in the next building which now also contains the boilers that once sat in an engine room beneath the mill.  The mash tun that Barnard saw was very shallow at only 4 feet deep and 12 feet across and with stirring gear that could either be steam or water driven.  There was also a sprinkler mechanism to extract the last sugars from the draff.  The current tun is a little larger and was installed during a further extensive refurbishment in 2003/04.

Scapa washbacks
The adjoining tun room now contains 8 steel washbacks taking 13,000 litres of wash each, compared to 4 with a capacity of 21,500 each in 1886.  New backs were also installed in 2003/04 and there are now 8 mashes run each week and they are left to ferment for 7 days, one of the longest in the industry.

The original stills were quite small, wash at 5,000 litres and spirit at just 3,180 litres.  This being a new establishment the stills were steam heated and fitted with collapse valves and the spirit was condensed in a long rectangular outside worm tub fed by the burn.  Barnard didn’t mention it but the outflow from this once drove a smaller water wheel to power a rummager (per RCAHMS, 1981) although that may have been installed later.

Scapa stills, Lomond style wash still with 'patches' where rectifying plates were removed 
The stills were replaced during the refurbishment in 1959.  Hiram Walker had owned the distillery since 1954 and they also owned Inverleven distillery in Dumbarton where a new ‘Lomond’ still had been developed.  This had a straight neck containing a few rectifier plates and a variable lyne arm, the idea being that the character of the spirit could be altered within the same still, depending on requirements.  Six of these were built in total and the one installed in 1959 at Scapa is still used as the wash still today, although after the rectifying plates had been removed.  The only other one still being used is Ugly Betty that we met at Bruichladdich and which was the original one from Inverleven.

The Lomond Still at Scapa has an S shaped lyne arm and a purifier and the two condensers here are now housed in an extension to the still room, having once been outside where the original worm tub had been beside the burn.  The still sizes are now 13,500 and 12,563 litres (Udo, 2005).

The annual output of “pure Highland Malt” was only 182,000 litres when it opened and Barnard only notes one Duty Free Warehouse, described as “rubble-built” in a 1992 archaeology note (RCAHMS).  A map dated 1902 shows a few more warehouses around the site and more have been built later in the 20th century.  The full production capacity is now over 1,500,000 p.a. and I am told they are currently filling 75 casks per week.

Original 'rubble-built' warehouses at Scapa
The distillery has had a few different owners over its life and a few periods of closure as well.  By 1936 it was bought out of a brief closure by the Glasgow blending company Bloch Brothers Ltd, who also owned Glen Scotia and later Glengyle (although the latter without success) in Campbeltown before the company was taken over by Hiram Walker in 1954.  They carried out the refurbishment in 1959 and ran the distillery until it was mothballed in 1994 and after being taken over themselves by Allied Distillers in the mid 1980s.  The ‘moonlighting’ years by Highland Park staff commenced in 1997, followed by the improvements in 2003/04 when it fully reopened under Allied, now part of Chivas and going strong since.

Scapa’s OB is now a 16yo and there are a few independent bottles available too.  The OB was a 14yo from 2004 to 2008 but I personally preferred the standard 12yo they produced before then.  Scapa whisky will generally offer gentle fruit sweetness with some honey and malty notes, only ex-bourbon casks being used.  The 12yo had a bit more of the sea to it as well but the extension to a 16yo was required by that closure from 1994, the extra time in the cask smoothing out the whisky a little I think.  Most of the production still goes into blending, Ballantines being one recipient.

Scapa from shore, still house on left. Lingro Broch once stood on the left foreground.
My visit to Scapa was a nice surprise on the only fine day during my stay on Orkney.  I had enjoyed a 40 minute walk out from the town centre through rolling farmland to get to the pleasant setting by the shore.  I was disappointed to see (or rather not see) that the Lingro Broch had completely gone, but encouraged to see that the distillery was unlikely to suffer the same fate.