"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, 28 April 2011

Ben Wyvis Distillery, Dingwall

The train from Alness brought Barnard’s party to the town of Dingwall, at the head of the Cromarty Firth and guarding the eastern end of Strathpeffer valley, for two nights in an unnamed hotel.  The only hotel named on maps at that time is the National, not far from the station and still operating as a hotel today, but there were other hotels in town including the Caledonian so it is uncertain where they found a place to rest.

Dingwall Town House incorporating old Tolbooth tower
Waking the next morning they had a look at the town and its environs, Barnard commenting on “two remarkable buildings, the Court House, an ancient castellated edifice, and the Town House, a dignified looking building which possesses a spire”.  If this sounds familiar then there is a similarity to his description of similar buildings he noted at Tain before visiting Balblair Distillery.  The Town House was built around an old tollbooth in the 1730s and renovated a couple of times since and is still a standout building in the High Street.

Ben Wyvis mountain is again mentioned, this time with an appreciation for its place in the landscape and its local history.  Barnard has it at 3,722 feet high but it is now registered as 3,432 feet (1,046 metres) and regardless is a dominant land feature for many miles, from south and east of Inverness right round this stretch of the east coast up to the Dornoch Firth and beyond.

Ben Wyvis viewed from Culloden Moor, east of Inverness
Barnard notes that the only time anyone remembers the summit being free from snow was in September 1826 and he recounts from a version of an old royal charter that “the forest of Naish is held of the Crown, on condition of presenting at Court a snowball of three wains of snow gathered from the top of Ben Wyvis on any day in the year on which it may be required”, which would not have been a problem on the day I visited its surroundings.
Ben Wyvis etching in Barnard
The Ben Wyvis Distillery was of recent construction having been founded in 1879 by another distiller with the name Ross.  It was built on terraces on a hill slope facing the Cromarty Firth, making best use of gravitation in its design.  This layout is clearly shown in the etching in Barnard, although the angles appear exaggerated to show more detail, including Ben Wyvis looming behind.  Of note is the bay in front of the distillery with only a narrow stretch of land and the east coast railway separating the two, although the foreshore may have been shortened in the etching for perspective as a much wider stretch of land, some 5-600 yards, was reclaimed here many years earlier.  The place where my photo below is taken from is around the same as for the view point of the etching and was marked on an 1876 map as the 800 yard firing point of the “Volunteer Rifle Range”.

Ben Wyvis 'Old Distillery', now apartments, warehouse in middle ground
Barnard describes the buildings as having an imposing appearance, from the barley barns on the top terrace through the successive main distilling operations down to the spirit store and offices at street level.  From the etching the building at the front beside the railway was a bonded warehouse, the offices just behind it to the left.  These two buildings are the only ones that remain today, now converted into apartments, with the upper terraces now home to more modern apartments on the grounds where the distillery buildings were demolished.

The distillery was a substantial operation producing 727,000 litres p.a. and the water requirements were met by a 3 1/2 mile conduit from Loch Ussie to the west of Dingwall.  The barley was carted up the terraces from the barns by the railway and then raised to the grain loft at the highest point by elevator and an endless belt.

Barnard offers a fair bit of detail about the malting and milling processes although nothing particularly unusual to note.  He doesn’t mention the heat source for the kiln stating only that “by a simple arrangement of air passages the supply of hot air to the malt is under complete control”.  I imagine that it was peat that was burned in common with the availability in this area and its use across Scotland at that time, although a peat shed is not mentioned either.  Hhmm?

After the detail on the malt he then mentions the Mash Tun of which he sets up the tantalising “a vessel so excellently got up as to be worthy of special examination” – and then fails to really mention any observations from his examination.  He does later mention it as being 18 1/2 feet wide by 6 1/4 deep which was quite large, and he does mention a peculiarity about the draff which appears to be first dropped into the Underback before passing through “Sluice Ports” on to a “Draff loading bank”, which may just be the place from where the local farmers collected it.

There were four quite large washbacks at 59,000 litres each and two Pot stills with the Wash at 18,176 litres and the Spirit half that at 9,088.  Tubular condensers were employed which Barnard records as “more economical of water and space, and more rapid in [their] action” and in a fashion seen elsewhere the waste water from them powered a small water wheel to work the agitator in the Wash Still.

Barnard notes some early environmentally friendly practices with the heat from the still flues passing under the boiler before release, and from which “steam in the boiler is got up by this means alone”.  The steam was used for the engines, for cleaning the various vessels and also to heat the coppers for mashing water.  He doesn’t state the heating source for the stills, although as he describes flues taking the heat away this suggests coil or oil fired, perhaps built just before the technology for steam heating water tanks was adapted to heat stills?

Ben Wyvis Bonded Warehouse and grain store, now apartments
Spirit was casked in the spirit store underneath the Still House before being rolled across the main road, either for storage in the warehouse or directly onto railway trucks.  Barnard described the bonded warehouse as being of five stories, the top three actually storing grain, but the windows here suggest only four stories.  The railway siding that once ran along the wall has now been shortened and stops short of where the cask shed and cooperage were.  A Burnt Ale Tank was also stationed here to supply farmers.

Ben Wyvis cask shed and cooperage site
Despite all the new advances employed by the distillery the venture only survived until the 1920s, with a few hiccups along the way.  The year after Barnard visited it was sold to the Scotch Whisky Distillers Ltd consortium who only survived a further two years.  A new lease of life and a new name came in 1893 when Kirker Greer & Co from Belfast took over as the Ferintosh Distillery Co Ltd (Udo, 2005).  Ferintosh was a historic name long associated with distilling in this area up until a century before and I will cover that fascinating story in a later post before we leave this area.

Ben Wyvis offices, now being redeveloped into housing
The distillery found its way into DCL in 1922 but was closed for good in 1926, although SMD continued using the warehouses until the 1980s.  The Ben Wyvis name was later used by Invergordon Distillers for the short lived malt whisky distillery built within their grain distillery complex a few miles north of here, that too now gone.  The original offices were turned into a business centre at one time and are currently being redeveloped again into housing.

The street name for the hillside terrace and the two blocks of modern apartments on the upper slope is now simply ‘Old Distillery’, the Ben Wyvis and Ferintosh names no longer in vogue.  The converted warehouse is recorded as part of Station Road and aside from the bars on some of the windows no other trace of the distillery remains.