"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.