The steamer to Orkney, the St Olaf, departed from Scrabster pier soon after seven but didn’t arrive until around midnight, a 5 hour crossing compared to 1 1/2 hours now on a good day. The steamer docked at Scapa pier then, rather than Stromness. Scapa was the main port for Orkney in the 1880s only, with Stromness being the destination from Scrabster before and after then, as it is today. There are now also routes from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and from Gills Bay near John O’ Goats into St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the closest of the Orkney islands to the Scottish mainland.
|Scapa pier and Scapa Bay looking south|
Barnard almost gives his first hint as to when he had resumed his travels, describing the lack of night during the summer and a light that “even at midnight enables a person to read”. He continues poetically “during our ride all nature seemed awake on this summer’s night, which really was but a softer day”. However, all of this appears to be taken once more from Anderson’s Guide and whether he was actually reading at midnight accompanied by the "constant chorus of music from lark and landrail” is very much open to question. I think his journey here was more likely late spring simply due to the number of days travelling and visiting distilleries he describes in the following pages, including a trip round Ireland, before his book is published in January 1887.
|Lloyds branch, once the Castle Hotel|
|St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall|
Barnard began his tour with a climb up Wideford Hill, the highest point around Kirkwall, to survey the area. The town was much smaller then and the Highland Park Distillery, a mile distant on the opposite slope, was then in the middle of open farmland (the High Park) but now the town extends right up to its walls on the north side. The breeze at the top of the hill drew Barnard’s attention and he gently says of one of their group who lost his hat that he had “doffed involuntarily to Aeolus”. It was very windy during my three days on Orkney. Well, I say windy, but my comment at the Visit Orkney centre on gusts of 40mph was met with a shrug and a nonchalant recollection of much higher the week before.
|Highland Park Distillery from below Wideford Hill|
The first comment about the distillery that Barnard shares with us is a story about Magnus Eunson who was a U.P. [United Presbyterian] Church Officer but also an accomplished smuggler of illicit whisky. He had operated in the 18th century from the site on the High Park where the distillery was founded in 1798 and numerous stories are told of his exploits and cunning ways of avoiding capture by the excisemen, some of which are recounted on the distillery website.
The water source for the distillery was Barnard’s first stop and he climbs up a few hundred yards to the two springs that are channelled by aqueduct to reservoirs fifty yards from the distillery, there being mixed before use. The water now comes from another nearby spring and is piped into the distillery.
|Gateway from the High Road|
|New Kiln with floor maltings on the right|
Barnard intriguingly states “there is very little barley used here” before noting that “the grain used is the old-fashioned “bere” grown in the neighbouring islands”, before coming full circle and confirming that “it is, of course, a species of barley, but a lighter grain”. The barley used now is optic and is brought over from the Scottish mainland. Around 20% of the malt requirement is produced on the traditional malting floors at the distillery, the remainder from Simpsons’ maltings in the Scottish Borders.
|Traditional floor maltings provide 20% of the malt|
Orkney peat was and still is used in the kilns, then as the only fuel but now used to add a 40ppm aroma to the malt before it is properly dried by burning coke in the kiln. The malt supplied by Simpsons is only around 1-2ppm and the two are combined to provide the gentle, balanced smokiness of the final product. The Orkney peat is dug on Hobbister Moor not far from Kirkwall and the heather that covers the moor adds a floral touch to the peat smoke.
Barnard’s description of the Mash House gave an indication of its age and lack of restoration. He records that the malt was carried in sacks “across a drawbridge swung over the Mash Tun to the Mill building” and he later stands on the bridge “slung over the Mash Tun for our benefit”. He also notes that the house had an open roof and boarded floor, the neighbouring building containing the coolers also with an open roof? This seems strange given the inclement weather, perhaps an aid to the coolers but detrimental to the heating coppers and water temperature required in mashing, and working conditions that would not be acceptable today.
|Mash House and Tun Room combined|
|Still house and condensers|
|Four 'dumpy' stills, Wash pair at the back|
|Cask display in Warehouse number 3|
We returned to the visitor centre which was first built in an old peat store in 1986 and refurbished twice since, the current fittings from 2007 in a style that reflects both the history and the ruggedness of these islands. We had begun the tour here with the longest video I have watched at any distillery and which looks more like an advert for Visit Orkney than for whisky. Two different shorter versions of it are on the distillery website; lots of haunting music and soft focus shots of fields of barley, running water and damsels standing on bleak cliffs, curly red hair and tweed shawl billowing in the wind. Still, she was a bonny lass and not as hairy as Hector McDram, so mustn’t grumble.
|Visitor Centre dramming table|
I must thank my guide Holly for her very informative tour and for tracking down answers to some awkward questions. If you want to know more but can’t get to Orkney then have a browse through their website which is one of the most complete I have seen (but may well distract you for over an hour). There are extensive videos covering almost every stage of preparation, production and bottling together with tasting information on each of their whiskies and notes on the history of the distillery.
There have been a few changes in ownership over the years, with the Borwick family handing it down for much of the 19th century before James Grant of Glenlivet was in charge until 1937, overseeing that doubling of the number of stills and further expansion in 1907 and 1924. It was then part of Highland Distillers, although still trading as James Grant & Co for many years with further expansion and new warehousing introduced. The 12yo was released as the first OB in 1979, before then the whisky was mainly used for blending. HD were bought by the Edrington Group in 1999 and a high proportion of the output still goes into blending, including into the Famous Grouse, although an extended range of OBs are now available, right up to a 50yo if you have £10k to spare.
|Rugged old warehouses, shiny new branding|