The train first brought Barnard to Nairn which he notes as being called “The Brighton of Scotland”. I’m not sure where he got that from, certainly not from Anderson’s Guide which was dated before the arrival of the railway in 1855 and the subsequent Victorian development of the town, with its glorious beaches, into a spa resort. “Brighton of the North” does seem to have been a common appellation in guide books of his time though. It also seems to have fallen out of use sometime since as the current Lord Cawdor stated in 2006 that he wanted Nairn to reclaim its title when announcing plans for a new spa hotel and golf resort.
Barnard may have stayed one night in Nairn as on arrival he states “we at once proceeded to the hotel, and were fortunate in securing an open landau and a good steed”, although he needed these to take him to the distillery which he discovered was six miles away “much to our chagrin”! His next visit is to Glenburgie on the main road to Forres before arriving at Elgin “the next morning”, but his accommodation between Inverness and Elgin is unclear.
|River Nairn valley viewed from site of Raitknock steading (lost)|
Rait Castle is nearby, sadly now an overgrown ruin although efforts are under way to try to preserve it. Rait may be from the Gaelic word ‘rath’ meaning a small fortress but the castle was also once owned by a clan with the name Rait, although which was named after which is unclear. Raitknock from Gaelic would mean ‘fortress hill’ which may reflect a land feature rather than buildings as neither of the steadings nor the castle are in particularly defensive positions, the land around all being fairly flat.
The view he witnessed included the River Nairn winding its way sinuously through trees, hillocks and barley fields in the midst of which Barnard espied the distillery. Now I wonder if I needed to be sitting higher up in an open landau carriage like Barnard was to appreciate that view as the landscape here is flattish with scattered woods, the course of the river unseen from the roadside at either of the Raitknock steadings. I think his most likely route was the west road as the Raitknock on the east road lay beyond woods and a rise in the landscape that completely obscure the river valley from view. Both steadings have now gone and the only record is on older maps.
Barnard’s driver, “an intelligent fellow”, pointed out that this was Macbeth country and further on from the distillery lies Cawdor Castle, long associated (incorrectly) with Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’. Above the castle the Cawdor Burn runs through a ravine in Cawdor Wood before passing the castle and on into the River Nairn. This burn supplied all the water to the distillery when Barnard visited, now only supply the cooling water with mashing water being drawn from natural springs in the surrounding woods. Barnard here mentions the burn as being a favoured old haunt of the “noted Tarrick and other smugglers” but I have been unable to find out anything about this Tarrick.
The Royal Brackla Distillery was built in 1812 by a Captain Fraser and then as now it “consists of several ranges of old and new buildings”. The distillery is now owned by Bacardi through their subsidiary John Dewar & Sons and they had considered adding a visitor centre at one time but instead decided to maintain Dewar’s World of Whisky at Aberfeldy as the main visitor experience for the Group, so I was delighted to be allowed to see inside Royal Brackla with Distillery Production Manager Stewart Christine showing me round and providing some of the details included here.
|Old warehouse and offices beside more recent malt barn|
Barnard began his tour, as usual as he says, at the Barley Lofts and adjacent Malt Barns. He particularly notes the use of friction hoists to raise the home-grown grain from farmer’s wagons to the lofts and then a sequence of elevators and a screw-box for further moving the grain around. The kiln was heated by peat only, in this case dug locally from a “neighbouring moor” which may be the Cawdor Moss mentioned by Barnard, less glamorously named on maps as the Bog of Cawdor. Today the barley is both sourced and malted locally and is non-peated, the floor maltings last used in 1966 and the kiln floor is all that is left.
|Vacuum de-stoner and dust extractor|
|External stainless steel washbacks|
|Oregon pine washbacks with stainless steel domes|
|Spirit stills near side, wash to rear|
|Old rubble warehouses, c.1900, beside cooling water reservoir|
|Racking warehouses, the newest built on site|
The ownership of the distillery became incorporated as Brackla Distillery Co Ltd in 1898 when it was also refurbished and the new warehouses added. It was next taken over by a blending company called John Bissett & Co Ltd in 1926 who themselves were taken over by DCL in 1943 and the distillery remained with them until closing in 1985 for 6 years (Udo, 2005). It then became one of the few 1980s closures to have a new lease of life when DCL reopened it in 1991 and then sold it to John Dewar & Sons in 1998. Only the distillery was sold at that time, the earlier stocks in the warehouses here remain with DCL.
Royal Brackla was one of the key whiskies used by Andrew Usher when he began experimenting with blending whisky in the 1860s, the Ushers being amongst the partners in the distillery. The whisky is still mostly used for blends, with some of the older DCL stocks in Johnnie Walker and the newer stock in Dewar’s blends, but occasional OBs and some independent bottles of single malt are available as well as. Barnard had noted a “Duty-Paid Racking Store for the convenience of local customers” and the distillery still has the modern equivalent ‘off-sales’ today.
I had arrived late for my appointment after losing my way in the surrounding countryside yet Stewart kindly gave me more time to see around this historic distillery for which I am very grateful; my thanks to him also for showing me some old pictures that helped place the various phases of development. My visit here was towards the end of a busy and eventful trip to the Highlands, and the calm, pastoral setting of the River Nairn valley and the tranquillity of Cawdor village and the woods beyond were the perfect relaxant before the long drive back to Edinburgh.