"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

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Craigellachie landscape and the Speyside Cooperage

Barnard passed through and stopped at Craigellachie a number of times on his travels.  The railway junction here was a place he disembarked after travelling from accommodation in Keith on a number of occasions as it was convenient for hiring horse drawn carriages for visiting distilleries that were off the track or did not have nearby stations.  He notes in his Aberlour report “Craigellachie is a good hiring station, and it is well for travellers to know this, otherwise they may have to retrace their steps for many a long mile before they can procure a horse and vehicle”.  We get a picture of a busy transport hub here, following the earlier days of it being a crossing of ways for cattle drovers.

Craigellachie village above the River Spey
The name Craigellachie comes from the steep cliff that faces the village from the opposite side of the Spey, the Craig Ellachie, possibly translating to either ‘rocky/craggy hill’ or ‘rock of a stony place to cross a river’.  This name is enshrined in the history of Clan Grant whose motto is Stand Fast and war-cry is “Craigelachie” (sic), sometimes recorded together as one phrase.  Another hill called Craigellachie can be found rising steeply on the west side of Aviemore at the southern end of their territory and a few miles south of Castle Grant, their original ancestral home, the Grant lands once stretching “between the two Craigelachies”.  Further discussion on the origins of the name and its association can be found on Clan Grant’s history pages.

Telford's Craigellachie Bridge and the Craig Ellachie cliff
The cliff formed a border of the old trunk road north of the Craigellachie Bridge before the current A941 was built on a straighter path.  Of the old road Barnard says “the road of access to the bridge is most picturesque, being cut out of the face of the solid rock, amid scattered firs of the impending mountain”.  The bridge was designed by Thomas Telford and is certainly one of the most picturesque crossings of the Spey, standing in graceful contrast to the stark rocky cliff above it and the straight lines of the modern bridge that the main road now crosses.

Craigellachie Bridge approach road from north, cut into the cliff face
Telford’s bridge was completed in 1814 and it opened up the road network to connect the parish of Aberlour, of which Craigellachie formed the northern corner, to the market town of Elgin and the port at Garmouth.  The Second Statistical Account of Scotland notes in 1836 that the bridge is “frequently visited by strangers as an object of curiosity” - a statistic I was happy to add to.  The bridge was used as a vehicle crossing up until 1972 and the new crossing was opened in 1970.

Old and new Craigellachie Bridges over the River Spey
The Craigellachie Bridge was one of the few on the river to survive the muckle spate of August 1829, the largest flood ever recorded on the River Spey.  The river rose almost 20 feet (6m) above its normal level in some places and wrecked havoc along its banks, washing away homes and bridges and scouring the top soil from fields.  The bridge survived this onslaught as its high single arch of cast iron with a span of 150 feet allowed the turbulent waters to pass safely below, unlike masonry bridges where several arches supported by pillars standing in the water were washed away, such as at Fochabers.  Regardless, the flood still damaged the masonry supports on the eastern bank almost to the loss of the bridge, but somehow it survived.  Stand Fast, Craigellachie indeed.

Confluence of the River Fiddich and River Spey
To the northeast of the bridge lies the section of river known as the Boathole of Fiddich where the River Fiddich meets the Spey, two famous whisky rivers merging near to where a ferry was stationed before the bridge was built, and where the railway viaduct once connected the Morayshire and Strathspey railways at Craigellachie Junction.  There are wider shallow sections on the Spey here beside the shingle banks of the Heathery Isle, once used for safer crossing of cattle, although the water still flows pretty fast through here.  This crossing point perhaps adds weight to the second meaning of Craigellachie noted above.

New Craigellachie Bridge over River Spey rapids at the Heathery Isle
The Strathspey railway and junction transformed the economy of the highlands and led to the growth of Craigellachie as a village to support the transport links.  When the viaduct across the Spey was completed in 1863 it connected the Strathspey railway to the Morayshire railway and Inverness beyond for just over a century.  Both of these lines were closed in 1968 and the tracks of this once great network were removed soon after, including the demolition of the viaduct.  Very little seems to have been recorded about the viaduct and it was gone by the time a 1971-73 map was published; the only photograph I could find was on Wikipedia and dates to 1890.

Overgrown remains of the Craigellachie railway viaduct (north side)
There is still evidence of the junction at Craigellachie - one of the old platforms is still obvious but overgrown, others are now long grassy mounds that trace the layout of the junction, and there is a circle of flagstones marking where a train turntable once operated.  But that is about it - the once great industry that transformed this little corner of the highlands disbanded and removed, a victim of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s that restructured our national railway network and closed many rural lines.

Platform from old Strathspey Railway at Craigellachie Junction
The Speyside Way country trail now passes along here with a branch off the main route that you can follow all the way to Dufftown after crossing over another viaduct, this time over the River Fiddich.  The Popine corn and saw mills were once powered by the Fiddich on the other side of the viaduct, the overgrown mill lade all that remains of the industry that once thrived along this stretch of the river.  A farmer’s auction mart was later added beside the railway junction, a throw back to the days of cattle droving through this valley.

Nearby is the historic Fiddichside Inn at the Bridge of Fiddich, one of the smallest bars in the country but with one of the nicest settings for its terrace beer garden.  The Inn was working as a public house back to the time of the building of the railways and it still retains an old world charm inside.  The meeting of ways that is Craigellachie offers accommodation for travellers in a number of B&Bs, and whisky drinkers may well be familiar with the many shelves full of bottles at both the Highlander Inn and the Craigellachie Hotel, more on which in my next post when I will report on the distillery in town.

Speyside Cooperage
Craigellachie’s whisky connection lies not just with its own distillery as it is also home to the Speyside Cooperage, the largest independent cask repairing business in the country.  This facility not only provides a cask building and repair centre that supplies many distilleries, it is also a five star tourist attraction where you can see the coopers at work and appreciate some of the craft that goes into allowing our greatest product to mature in its oaky cocoon.

The importance of good oak casks and the variations that cask type, age, treatment, previous contents and even location in the warehouse can have has been the subject of many distillery communications, forum debates and comments from whisky ambassadors and writers in recent years.  From the earliest days when casks were used simply to transport liquor, often in very small quarter-casks or smaller to help evade the pesky authorities, the influence of the cask in whisky production has gradually become more and more important and better understood and appreciated.

Some distillers now own their own forests in Spain and America and supervise the process from the very beginning at the planting of saplings.  Others own their own bodegas and sherry seasoning operations to ensure the casks arrive in Scotland exactly to the specification they need for their spirit.  At Highland Park, Glenmorangie and Macallan I had previously seen the importance of wood selection and cask construction in some detail and discovered the differences between American and European oak; at the Speyside Cooperage all of these factors are celebrated, together with the traditional craft of coopering.

At one time almost every distillery had its own cooperage on-site and many were recorded by Barnard, although not in too much detail. One of his earliest descriptions was at Dundashill in Glasgow where the cooperage had “the usual facilities for steaming and seasoning new casks, and where the immense stock of casks, over 12,000, are overhauled and repaired as they are returned”.  At Loch Katrine distillery he records casks piled in “a perfect pyramid” and at Clydesdale there were “upwards of 100 Sherry Butts just imported from Spain”.  His favourite description though, oft repeated, was just to say that a distillery had a “capital cooperage and cask shed”.

Speyside Cooperage and cask yard below Blue Hill
Coopering in Barnard’s time was therefore a far more widespread industry that also supported the extensive breweries that patterned our cities in the Victorian era.  Now there are only a few distilleries left who cooper on site and thus central cooperages such as Speyside supply the casks needed for most of the industry.  The Speyside Cooperage was established in 1947 when it was located right beside the Craigellachie Distillery in the village.  It moved to its present site just above the town in 1992 and this family-run business now builds or repairs well over 100,000 casks per year.

The visitor tour begins with time to browse the display boards, cask sections and coopering tools that take you through the long history of coopering as well as discussing the characteristics of different types of oak and different cask sizes.  This is followed by a film that celebrates the life of an oak tree and the craft of the cooper, the journey from ‘Acorn to Cask’ that is the philosophy behind the visitor experience here.  All very informative (and multi-lingual) and you will have a new appreciation of the humble Quercus acorn after you leave here.

The main reason to come here though is to see the coopers at work and the viewing platform above the main cask processing area gives a great view of all the activity below.  The coopers here are trained on a four year apprenticeship and for many it becomes a career for life.  They are paid on a piece-meal rate for each cask made or repaired and there are 16 coopers employed in total.  This is obviously very physical work and many of the tools have changed little since Barnard’s time and long before, a good eye and steady hand required to fit the staves into a watertight cask that may then lie untouched in a warehouse for several decades.

The processes include repairing casks where some of the staves have become cracked or weakened, rebuilding hogsheads from staves imported from abroad and converting American barrels into different sized casks for storing whisky.  Some of the tasks are automated to assist the coopers and speed the process but the traditional craft and skill remains as it always has.

In the yard behind the cooperage stand the ‘perfect pyramids’ that are the most efficient way of storing casks that are waiting for some tlc, either at the hands of a cooper or ready to convert the spirit from the still into whisky.  The final results of the quality of each cask are not revealed for many years, and best appreciated from a single cask whisky, the individuality of each one testament to the personal touch of the cooper who selected the staves and built it.