"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

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.