"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

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Charlestown of Aberlour

It seems a long time ago that Barnard settled into the Gordon Arms in Elgin as a base for his distillery visits around that town and down to Rothes, his time in that hostelry enjoyable and impressing him greatly.  He then decided to move base by taking a night train to Keith to stay at another Gordon Arms, this time for two weeks as he travelled in the ‘Glenlivet’/Speyside district, and he again comments very favourably:

“excellent quarters…one of those rare old fashioned hostelries which are fast passing away.  Mr Barclay, the jolly landlord, made us exceedingly comfortable during our fortnight’s sojourn at his house.”

I located the Gordon Arms Hotel on old maps of Keith and I was pleased to find that it still runs as a hostelry today, now called the Grampian Hotel since the 1980s to avoid confusion with two or three other Gordon Arms in the region (although no longer the one in Elgin), and when I stayed there on my later trip to Keith I found it as comfortable and welcoming as Barnard had, more on which another time.

Grampian Hotel, Keith - formerly site of the Gordon Arms
The next day Barnard made his first trip to Craigellachie Junction, en route to Aberlour Distillery.  He describes the train journey through the valley between Keith and Dufftown “alongside the River Isla, into a picturesque country of woods and stream…such pictures of rocky ridges, wooded plantations, miniature waterfalls, river and mountain, that it all seemed like magic”.  An enchanted start to this next section of his adventures then, enchantment a theme that we will encounter a few times in this report and the next.

Barnard’s party were coached to Aberlour from Craigellachie by the proprietor of the hiring company himself, Charlie Stuart, and he notes here the Telford Bridge that I mentioned in my post on Craigellachie.  On reaching the “charming village” of Aberlour he offers his first impressions of Benrinnes (sic) as a “grand mountain 2,765 feet above the level of the sea, and from its summit ten counties, from Caithness to Perth, are visible”.  I will have to take his word for that as I wasn’t for venturing up that far, me old jalopy only taking me to around 1,100 feet on the mountain pass through to Glen Rinnes.

The bare wind swept north slope of Ben Rinnes
Ben Rinnes is one of the most important whisky mountains in the whole of Scotland, shepherded on three sides by distilleries with six in total directly relying on its burns and springs for water supplies, many more benefiting from the watershed that this high point in the district creates.  We will hear more on its fluvial properties as we circle around it on our way through Speyside; a variety of whiskies would be appropriate refreshment if you were to take in the view from the summit.

Barnard continues with mention of James of the Hill, a “noted freebooter”, in a tale of dubious origin and then notes the water rising from a spring near the summit that feeds into the Burn of Aberlour.  Aber (mouth of) lour (loud or chattering burn) gives its name to the village below and to the distillery that sits by its lower banks.  Half a mile above the distillery the burn falls over a cascade that Barnard identifies as the Lynn [Linn] of Ruthrie, “a fall of 30 feet, broken by a projecting rock, and received into a gloomy pool below”, a delightful setting that our early nature worshipping ancestors would have celebrated as mystical.

Linn of Ruthrie on the Burn of Aberlour
The word Linn we have encountered before as being a Scots word for waterfall/pool and Barnard also here describes rocks covered with trees “which reverberate the sound of the water”, a sound that reflects the name 'chattering burn'.  The Second Statistical Account of Scotland (SSAS), where Barnard may have taken his wording from, records that the burn “falls into a circular pool or basin below, formerly of immense depth, but now greatly filled up by the boulders and debris brought from the hills in the flood of 1829”, this flood being the Muckle Spate that wrecked havoc along the Spey valley and its tributaries in August of that year.  The burn was in some rush when I visited, the waterfall a thundering cascade that drowned out any chattering.

Aberlour and the Haugh of Elchies from near Fairy Knowe
A path through the woods begins beside the distillery entrance and follows the burn upstream to the Linn, then round below a conspicuous mound known as Fairy Knowe for a great view across the village to the slopes on the other side of the Spey.  The Knowe is another of those places once considered enchanted, a possible old burial cairn or small stone circle on its summit.  My walk up from the Linn was a little surreal, not from fairy activity but courtesy of a couple of local lads who were practicing their tracking skills on me, almost staying out of sight but not quite out of sound once the roar of the falls was left behind.

From the top of the path a steep walk downhill into the village brings you to the Fleming Cottage Hospital.  James Fleming was the founder of Aberlour distillery in 1879 and he lived in the town until his passing in 1895.  He was a great businessman and philanthropist and fully embodied the Fleming family motto “Let the deed show”.  This philosophy is evident in the legacy that he left in Aberlour and reflected in various locations around the town, including the Hospital which he left £9,000 in his will towards.  He had earlier designed and financed a public hall and also left £500 towards the Victoria Suspension bridge to replace the ferry across the turbulent Spey, after hearing that someone had fallen from the ferry and drowned.  The bridge opened in 1902 and was also known as the Penny Brig as a penny was the fee to cross it at one time.

Victoria Bridge (Penny Brig) over the Spey at Aberlour
The old church of St Drostan once stood in the kirkyard across the road from the distillery at the south end of town, now ruinous after first falling into disrepair and then further damaged in the Muckle Spate that also destroyed the old Manse.  The ruined walls of the south transept are all that remains of the church which gave its name to the community of Skirdustan that long preceded the current town.  An ancient packhorse bridge crosses the Burn of Aberlour beside the cemetery, once the main route into the community but now in disrepair and hidden in trees.

Aberlour was extended up the slopes on its east side in the late 20th century but wandering through the main street you can see evidence of the simple town plan that was developed by a local Laird, Charles Grant of Wester Elchies, in 1812 and after whom the town received its official name of Charlestown of Aberlour.  A new church in the town square was also built as part of this development and it only has clock faces on three sides of the steeple, the blank northwest side appropriately facing the timeless flow of the River Spey.

Aberlour church and old station, now the Speyside Way Visitor Centre 
Between the church and the Spey was the old railway station, now the Speyside Way Visitor Centre with a putting green where the rail lines once ran past.  Nearby, the Mash Tun is a well known hostelry frequented by whisky drinkers, and beyond it the Speyside Way continues on its route upstream and passes by the Penny Brig.

Continuing up the main street we finally reach Aberlour House which stands in landscaped grounds at the very north end of the town.  Built in 1838 it was later converted into the junior Prep school for Gordonstoun independent high school which is north of Elgin.  The two schools shared the same motto "plus est en vous", a contraction of "plus est en vous que vous pensez" which means "there is more in you than you think", which sounds apt as a motto to adopt after whisky festivals as well!

Since 2004 Aberlour House has been the headquarters for Walker’s Shortbread, a fine piece of sustenance to have along with a dram of something robust such as the whisky from Aberlour distillery.  The history of the distillery and Barnard’s and my own visits there are described in my next report.