"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, 21 April 2011

Dalmore Distillery, Alness (part 1)

After a second night in Tain Barnard’s party continued south by railway to the small town of Alness to visit the two distilleries there.  Half way between Tain and Alness the train passes near to Balnagown Castle, crossing a bridge that Barnard describes as elegant but which you might barely notice through the trees now.  His descriptions of the castle (imposing and stately…combines all the appurtenances of feudal greatness with modern comfort) and flower garden (on a scale of magnificence unequalled in the north) are taken from Anderson’s Guide.

Railway bridge at Balnagown
Built in 1490 and once home to the Chiefs of Clan Ross, Balnagown Castle was gradually extended and redeveloped over the centuries but eventually fell into disrepair in the mid 1900s.  The castle and estate were then acquired by Mohamed Al Fayed in 1972 and have since been carefully restored and the estate enlarged as his family home in Scotland.  The castle walls are now returned to a light pink colour in a style not uncommon in medieval times, the colour originally being produced by mixing pigs blood with whitewash.

I didn’t know the above history as I drove around the walls of the estate looking for the castle to take a picture.  The estate is fairly secluded although you can rent cottages and participate in field sports there.  I eventually found the main gate at the end of the drive, complete with a number of CCTV cameras and a very secure electric gate.  Perhaps the new Laird was at home as, after I loitered for a few minutes of map reading, a Range Rover with blacked out windows appeared through the gate and remained behind me, even as I stopped by the next gate round the wall to see the coat of arms of Clan Ross (and which appears to have been rather controversially hung there by Mr Al Fayed).

I finally shook off my tail (I think they just got bored) and continued on towards Alness.  Barnard’s train first passed Invergorden (sic) Castle although he couldn’t see it from the line due to a dense foliage of American and Australian shrubs (and due to it not actually being there, having been destroyed by fire in the early 1800s and replaced with a mansion house in 1872, that too now demolished).  The area is now a golf course although some of the ‘American’ gardens have been maintained.  His party then took a ten minute walk from Alness station and arrived at a “thickly wooded hill overlooking the Dalmore Distillery”.

Cromarty Firth and Dalmore 'Yankee' Pier
The distillery had both a branch line from the railway and “sea communication almost at its doors” which then would have been the Belleport Pier a little to the east of the distillery.  The railway siding has since gone and the old pier is no longer in use, a new deep water pier being built at the end of the First World War to the west of the distillery.  It was known as the Yankee Pier as it was built by American Navy personnel who were stationed at Dalmore from 1917.  The distillery became the headquarters of U.S. Naval Base 17 as part of the Northern Barrage defences.  The pier wasn’t finished until after the war and is now recorded on maps as Dalmore Pier.  Details here are from http://www.theinvergordonarchive.org/.

Dalmore during WWI, from The Library of Congress
From the small hillock above the distillery Barnard admired the beauty of the Cromarty Firth and the view across to the Black Isle.  He also had a good view over the layout of the distillery below him which he describes as a double quadrangle on the slope of a hill.  He mentions that the distillery has “sole command of the river Alness” although I’m not sure what he means by that.  The river (also known as the River Averon) is around a kilometre to the west and water “of the finest quality for distilling purposes”, also used to drive a water wheel, was brought in by a lade that runs from a weir on the river and is still the water source used today.

River Alness weir and source of Dalmore water
The River Alness is recorded by Barnard as issuing from the Loch of Gildermory close to Ben Wyvis, which is the dominant mountain from many views in the wider region.  The loch itself is actually Loch Morie in English, from the Gaelic word Mhuire meaning Mary.  The remains of Cille Mhuire (Church of Mary) lie right by the loch with a nearby Tobar Mhuire (well of Mary), so the waters running to Dalmore may indeed be blessed.  The Kildermorie Lodge near the church is an Anglicisation of its pronunciation and a possible source of Barnard’s record of the name.

Covenanter's Stone at Dalmore
A commemorative stone just above the distillery is more recent than the Neolithic and Pictish stones of before, although it’s exact date seems uncertain.  The date recorded on the stone has been worn away but it first appears on a map dated 1906 and wasn’t recorded on a map from 1880 (and not mentioned by Barnard).  Known as the Covenanters Stone it commemorates “the only place in Ross-shire in which the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is known to have been dispensed to the Covenanters during the days of persecution…in Sept 1675.”  The older map does record a ‘Covenanters Tree’ nearby but that seems to have been cut down around the same time as the stone was erected.

Dalmore Distillery from shore
Dalmore Distillery was established in 1839 and has been regularly enlarged and rebuilt in various ways since.  Sadly they were closed for renovations when I passed through the region so I was unable to take a tour.  There were some staff still around, working amidst one of the nicest settings for a building site anywhere, and they very kindly allowed me to take pictures from the shore to record my brief visit.  If you wish to visit this idyllic spot and tour the distillery, and there are many reasons why you should, then they expect to reopen in the middle of May.  I hope to return for a tour after then and so will save my comparison with Barnard’s informative report for another time.