"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, 9 February 2012

Coleburn Distillery, Glen of Rothes

I don’t plan to visit too many of the distilleries that opened after Barnard’s journey and which are no longer open today but I have included Coleburn as it ties in with some of the other distillery stories.  It is also set in the most verdant and peaceful location and although it is now closed as a distillery we will see later that new life is soon to be breathed into the old stone walls.

Most distilleries in Scotland are, if not conspicuous in the landscape, at least relatively easy to stumble upon, whether from following the tourist trail signs with eager anticipation, espying the elegantly pleasing design of a pagoda roof over the tree tops (or more often now a slender black topped chimney), or following an enticing aroma up a glen (more likely the aroma of draff being carted away, or the lovely roast malt notes of dark grains being produced, rather than the sweet aroma of maturing whisky that drifts away too quickly on the breeze).

Coleburn Distillery in hidden valley
The now silent Coleburn Distillery is an exception as it must be one of the most hidden distillery sites in Scotland, sitting beside the Glen Burn in a small dell at the very north end of the narrow Glen of Rothes and hidden from the road by dense woodland.  Some of my visits around the Elgin area were from a base in Craigellachie so I became very familiar with the A941 from there up to Elgin, yet it took three passes through the Glen before I found the correct turn off for the distillery, so well hidden it was.  Given its location though, I am sure that if it had survived the 1980s downturn it would now be on the tourist trail and well signposted.

My perseverance was rewarded by one of the most tranquil settings of any distillery I have encountered on my travels.  Even with the noise and bustle of industry it must have been a pleasure to work in this location in its heyday and I can understand why the present owners are planning to redevelop the buildings.

Coleburn Distillery grounds
The distillery name follows from other earlier buildings nearby.  A map from around 1860 records a burn running down the hill from the northeast and into the Glen Burn beside what would later become the distillery site.  The burn looks man-made to drain water from the slopes above but it is not specifically named on any map, although I am sure the local people would have referred to it as the Cole Burn.  There was a small dammed reservoir on the burn beside which were buildings marked Coleburns (sic) and which are now a farm, also an earlier Coleburns Woollen Mill sited a little further north down the Glen Burn.

A number of websites and books report that the name Coleburn originally came from the charcoal production that took place here, but most of these reports seem to be copies of each other or from an unknown source and I haven’t yet found any information about the charcoal from a historical source; there could be an interesting story about this and any local information would be welcome.

The Glen Burn flows out the north side of the valley and on towards Elgin, supplying the cooling water for Glen Elgin Distillery before becoming the Longmorn Burn that then feeds into the Burn of Linkwood; thus one of the most important water courses for distilling in Scotland with no less than five distilleries dependant on it at one time.  The industries on and around the burn meant that it was only suitable for use as cooling water and even then may have been unreliable for the downstream distilleries during periods of drought.  All the distilleries in this area rely on spring water either piped in or from bore-holes to supply their process water.

Coleburn Distillery opened in 1897, three years after Longmorn and just preceding Ben Riach and Glen Elgin.  It was another one designed by Charles Chree Doig who was very busy in the Elgin and Moray coast area in the last few years of the 19th century.  His E shape distillery design was oft repeated to keep up with demand, tweaked here and there to suit local requirements and Coleburn was no different.

Coleburn Malt Barn and Kilns
However, one major difference is the presence of two kilns positioned on either side of the wide malting floors, although I haven’t yet established if they were both there in the original design.  The smaller of the two structures is actually described in the Buildings at Risk register as a ‘barley drying mill’ rather than a kiln, and a map from 1906 suggests it may have been converted from two previous smaller structures.  The structures also have different shapes to the pagoda top, the kiln with a more common pointed spire and the drying mill with a shallow domed canopy.

Unlike Glen Elgin Distillery a mile or so further north, Coleburn sat on a level with the railway that passed a few yards from it and a siding was added that ran right along its main wall in a similar fashion to Dallas Dhu.  Supplies in and out could therefore be easily transported either inland by railway to the south, or north and east to the sea ports on the Moray coast and Aberdeen.

There is not too much to report about the distilling life of Coleburn and facts and figures are hard to come by.  It was founded by John Robertson & Co who were blenders in Dundee and the first change in ownership saw the Clynelish Distillery owners take over in 1916.  From there was a path into DCL as part of various subsidiaries, the last one being J&G Stewart Ltd who owned it when it closed in 1985 and they returned the licence in 1992 (Udo, 2005).

The works were gradually expanded and improved in the mid decades of the 20th century, with the usual change from coal to steam heated stills and additional distillery cottages built to house workers and which are still occupied beside the main road.  There was also a piggery on site at one time with the pigs perhaps raised on the draff.  There were two stills and most of the production was used for blending although a few independent bottles can still be found.

After the distillery closed the Category B Listed buildings were left derelict for 10 years until in 1995 initial planning permission was sought for conversion of the site into a housing development.  This application was withdrawn in 1997 but consent to remove all the internal fittings was granted in 2001.  Since then the current owners, Mark and Dale Winchester, have developed plans for a full conversion of the buildings into a hotel, spa and conference facility.

The architectural drawings show the malt barn, kiln and drying mill would all be converted into bedrooms, a restaurant where the still house used to be, and an integral wedding/conference space created in the upper level.  The old bonded warehouse is to be converted into a large conference venue suitable also for weddings and music events and the piggery converted into a spa and gym leisure facility.

Coleburn Warehouses
I think these plans must be unique in Scotland at the moment, with no other old distillery being converted to new use internally while still maintaining the fabric and iconic style of the buildings.  Others have been partly converted in the past, Glenlochy in Fort William and Millburn in Inverness are two that spring to mind, but never to the same extent as planned for Coleburn and the others have been integrated into larger housing developments.

In the meantime the Coleburn Malt Barn is being run as an events venue and last year saw their inaugural family event day as part of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.  By all accounts this was a fun day out that included cask buggy racing, archery, local crafts and foodstuff and a whisky auction.  An event day is again being organised as part of this year’s Festival on 6 May so you could drop into this pleasant valley to see the past as it becomes part of the future.

With thanks to Gwenda Michielsen at Coleburn Events for the current information.