"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

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.