"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

Friday, 1 April 2011

Clynelish (Brora) Distillery, Brora

After his brief look at Gerston Distillery Barnard once more took train and now truly began his long journey south, a journey which meandered its way through the Highlands, Speyside, Central and Lowlands before reaching his last Scottish distillery near the border with England.  There are no returns to his London home apparent during the summer and autumn of 1886.  The early part of this journey, a three hour ride to Brora, he describes as somewhat tedious but he records this change in direction with the optimistic “with our faces towards Inverness and more civilized parts, we bore it with equanimity”.  Dangerous word that, civilized, I’m just going to leave it alone.

The railway from Halkirk to Brora first continues further inland through the area known as the Flow Country.  Higher land towards the east coast sweeps northwards through lower lying peat bogs and marshland which the track must negotiate, no direct route along the coast ever being engineered.  North of the Tolkienesk sounding town of Helmsdale, where the railway turns inland, the high ground is cut by a series of gorges and waterfalls as the rains brought in from the North Sea find their way back to source.

In Barnard’s time the road along here was no more than a track in places, with long sweeping bends into the interior to find places to cross the chasms.  This coast now carries the A9 through a series of sweeping curves and hairpin bends that are a joy to drive.  In his Pulteney report Barnard mentioned the Ord of Caithness as “a formidable pass between Sutherland and Caithness” the old road taken by the mail coach being “a mere path or shelf along the outer edge of the promontory, without any protection form the precipice”.  Easier going now, the road through here and up and down Berriedale Braes still offers some pleasantly challenging driving.

I mentioned the Highland Clearances at the Ceannabeinne Township in my Northwest journey and there is similar evidence and memorials at Badbea near the Ord.  Barnard here touches on the subject but does so rather delicately.  At the time of his journey the full impact of what happened had not yet been subject to the scrutiny of history’s microscope and he records simply that the proprietors of the land moved the inhabitants of scattered inland hamlets to the coast and provided allotments for them.  Clynelish Distillery was also built by the landowner in 1819, the then Marquis of Stafford, to take up the grain produced on the new farmland.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle sea front

The Duke of Sutherland, as the Marquis later became titled, was a controversial figure in Scotland’s history for his part in the Clearances, much of which took place on his lands.  He also owned Dunrobin Castle a few miles south of Brora and Barnard provides a lengthy paragraph description of it.  A fairytale castle in the Scottish Baronial style to some, a damning statement of the excess of landed gentry to others, it is certainly one of the most picturesque castles in Scotland.

After his report on landscape and history Barnard provides a brief description of what was then one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland with an output of just 91,000 litres p.a.  The history of Clynelish since then offers far more of interest and we now have two adjacent distilleries to consider.  The Clynelish that Barnard saw has more recently been known as Brora Distillery, with the current Clynelish Distillery being built in 1967/68.  The spelling used by Barnard is also the more current version and less than 10 years before his visit it was recorded on maps as Clyneleish.

(Clynelish) Brora Distillery looking from Clynelish (new) Distillery
To the west of the distilleries lies Clynelish Moss from where peat was once cut for the kiln and which was also the source of water for motive power, having first drained into the nearby Mill Dam and directed through a lade to an over-shot water wheel, all of which have now gone.  The water source for mashing was described but unnamed by Barnard and is today piped in from the ‘original water supplies’ of the Clynemilton Burn a mile and a half to the north.  There is also a quite separate Clyne Burn that was and still is channelled right past the north edge of the distillery.

Barnard records the source as a small stream originating from a loch in the hills which “within about a mile of the Distillery, it enters a rocky gorge, and, tumbling over several falls, is caught at the foot of the hill in a substantial stone cistern, from which it is led to the Distillery in iron pipes.”  This description could apply equally to either burn, although the Clynemilton runs through more of a valley than a gorge and there is also a ‘fountainhead’ marked at the foot of the Clyne Burn gorge which is within a mile away, so I wonder if this closer source was a previous supply to the distillery, until pipes from the further Clynemilton were connected?  The water channel right by the distillery would be unsuitable as it was also fed from the Moss and had drained from agricultural land, so a search for evidence of a separate old pipeline from the gorge may be required.

Brora Kiln and Still House on right
The original Clynelish Distillery had three granaries and two malt barns and Barnard mentions that the adjoining kiln was a new erection and fired only with peat from the Moss.  The nearby Brora coal-field was a fuel source when the distillery was first built but Barnard records that the poor quality of the coal by the time of his visit was of no advantage.

Brora Wash Still
The mash tun was unusually shallow at just 3 feet 6 inches by 13 feet across and the four washbacks held an average of just 13,600 litres each.  There were two recently installed stills of the “old pot type”, heated by coal, although Barnard doesn’t provide their volumes and they were later replaced by larger stills.  There were 5 large warehouses around the site, built of stone and lime and holding up to 900 “puncheons” of whisky, that perhaps being their preferred cask size at the time.

The whisky was said to have been only supplied to private customers and trade orders were refused, a heavy stock of maturing whisky being required to maintain this system which explains the need for those large warehouses for such a limited production.  Despite the demand for the whisky the distillery only operated during the winter at the time of Barnard’s visit, perhaps by way of offering seasonal employment to the farm hands as well as acquiring the grain from their summer labours.

The distillery was leased by George Lawson & Sons when Barnard visited and he had been there since 1846, making substantial improvements that doubled the original output.  Further expansion was made from 1896 when the new owners Ainslie & Co of Leith sought to meet demand from the trade as well as private customers.  DCL became joint owners in 1912 and it transferred into SMD Ltd in 1930, although for 15 years from then it was mostly closed through recession and war restrictions.

Brora Spirit Still

Further changes were made after it recommenced production and in 1961 the stills were converted from coal to internal steam heating and in 1965 the floor maltings were closed.  The biggest change was soon to come though when, due to increasing demand and lack of space to expand, the new Clynelish was built just 100 metres or so uphill in 1967/68.  The two ran side by side for 6 months in 1968, the new distillery known as ‘A’ and the old as ‘B’ before the old place closed for 6 months.

With a complete change of whisky style it reopened in April 1969, renamed as Brora Distillery, and then producing a heavily peated Islay style spirit (40ppm per Udo, 2005).  This was to fill in the forthcoming gap in production from Caol Ila which closed in 1972 for two years of complete rebuilding, plus a shortfall in production at Port Ellen due to a summer drought.  The peating level at Brora was gradually reduced once supply was caught up again on Islay, although with occasional batches of heavy peat still appearing (Malt Madness.com).  However, with a shift in preference that was favouring the lighter and sweeter whisky styles, together with the economic problems of the early 1980s, Brora closed for the last time in 1983, the same year as Port Ellen.

Receivers and Spirit Safe at Brora
Most of the internal fittings have now been removed but the large stills and the receivers are still in place and can be viewed on a tour, albeit from behind a glass panel.  The wash still is 4,953 gallons (22,506 litres) and the spirit still 3,911 gallons (17,772 l), both with reflux bowls on the neck.  The warehouses here are among the longest I can recall at any distillery, now home to some of the substantial 4m litre p.a. production from the new distillery.

Brora Warehouses
Additional information here is from the distillery information leaflet and my thanks also to Claire Fraser who guided me round the two distilleries and filled in the gaps in the ever changing history.  I will bring the story up to date with some details on the new Clynelish Distillery and on the different whiskies in my next post on Monday.