"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

Monday, 18 June 2012

Tamdhu Distillery, Knockando

A mile south of Cardhu distillery the River Spey carves through a couple of sweeping bends and the Strathspey Railway once ran along its north bank here as it passed through the Parish of Knockando.  Beside these bends two distilleries were built towards the very end of the 19th century, a decade after Barnard passed this way on his main journey.  However, he did return to visit the first of these soon after it opened to provide material for another chapter in the Highland Distillers brochure Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut that we previously encountered at Glenrothes Distillery.


Barnard visited Tamdhu the day after Glenrothes and he took the long 12 mile journey by horse and trap.  He could perhaps have taken the railway to first Craigellachie junction and then changed onto the Strathspey line for Carron station, from there following his same 4 mile route to Cardhu Distillery from the decade previously and continuing on to Tamdhu.  He notes in his report that there was no station beside Tamdhu at that time “but the Company are having one built, which will be opened in a few months’ time” which handily places his trip here to around early 1899 as the station opened in July that year, more on which in my next report.

Two miles south of Rothes his horse “left the highway and we made our way up a zig-zag road to the heights which overlook Craigellachie”.  This would be from the road junction opposite the then Dandaleith Station that takes you up past Macallan Distillery on what is now the B9102.  I have walked up this road before, on my way from Craigellachie to Macallan, the uphill route on that day catching me out a little until it levelled out and here Barnard records a similarly difficult uphill journey.  Once it levels off he describes a fine view across to Ben Rinnes and the Conval Hills and gives his first appreciation of the scene.  His usual excess is unabated here with phrases such as “The Valley of the Spey – proverbial for whatever is magnificent and picturesque in Nature” setting the bar rather high in the first few paragraphs.

Ben Rinnes and Conval hills beyond, from near Tamdhu
His journey then descended towards a high single-arch bridge that I haven’t traced but I wonder if it was an old and now demolished structure at the Bridge of Sandyhillock.  He continues from here “after this we passed through a straggling village” which could only be, but surely not Archiestown which is a good sized village laid out in a well organised grid pattern!  The road then took another steep ascent to a summit above Knockando where the tall chimney of Tamdhu could apparently be seen above the treetops by the Spey.  He includes further appreciation of the scenery here, trying hard to keep up with his own grandeur from earlier, but some of the features he claims to see, including Tamdhu’s chimney, are simply not visible from this plateau.  It might have been Cardow’s chimney instead which would have been just visible above the trees from that road summit.

The driver then apparently pointed out a historic feature that we have encountered before, the site of encampments associated with the Battle of Mortlach.  Here he describes a dyke that he says was built by the Scottish army under Malcolm III (actually Malcolm II for that Battle), a dyke long since recorded on maps as the “Danish Dyke” and associated with their army, and he mentions that the King and Queen spent the night on “a spot of ground called to this day the ‘Queen’s Haugh’”.  This is likely to be the ‘Queen’s Green’ as it was marked on maps of the time, a haugh being a meadow beside a river so interchangeable terms.  Both of these features were close to Dailuaine Distillery.


From there the journey descended rapidly to Tamdhu, following a bridle path that was at that time being turned into a proper roadway.  The road is accompanied down the hill by what Barnard calls the Tamdhu burn, otherwise marked on maps as the Knockando Burn, and he briefly mentions that this had turned into a river during the floods of 1829 and washed away homes and industry.  This Muckle Spate we have encountered a few times before and it was recorded in the Second Statistical Account of Scotland in the Knockando Parish report of 1835 which quoted the extent of the devastation from one account of the event:

“The Knockando Burn is extremely small, but it was swollen by the flood to a size equal to that of the Spey in its ordinary state.  After the flood the prospect here was melancholy; the burn that formerly wound through the beautiful haugh had cut a channel as broad as that of the Spey, from one end of it to the other.  The whole wood was gone, the carding mill had disappeared, the miller’s house was in ruins.  A new road was recently made in this parish, and all the burns were substantially bridged, but, with the exception of one arch, all yielded to the pressure of the flood.”

Barnard describes the approach to the distillery with the burn running through a gorge, under bridges and the road taking them through a “Birch Glade” near where the historic Knockando Woolmill has now reopened.  He arrived at his destination and proclaimed that the malt whisky produced in the wider district here is celebrated as much as the beauty, scenery and history that he has just spent almost half of his entire report describing.  He then realises, quite astutely I think, that “our readers will begin to enquire when we are coming to what we have to say about the Tamdhu Distillery and its subsidiary buildings.”  Quite, yes, I’ll get on with then.

Tamdhu Distillery
He began his distillery record by noting it as one of “Mr Doig’s recent creations” and stating that a plan of it was annexed to his report.  This plan doesn’t appear in the book but I wonder if the Edrington Group archivists have an original with the only known surviving copy of the brochure?  The distillery was built in 1896/7 with the first spirit flowing in the summer of 1897.  The design of the buildings was modern and included the most up to date processes and machinery and the story since then has been one of change and redevelopment.

The water power was from the burn that Barnard had just followed down the hill, now tamed and utilised where once before it had been a wild torrent on that fateful night.  The process water was drawn from a spring in the “Smugglers Glen, some three or four hundred yards above the distillery” and local spring water is still used today.  Peats were brought a few miles from “that famous moss, Bog-Hur” (nope, me neither) which I guess could be the Blair Hur moss above Upper Knockando.

He continues “there are few distilleries so romantically situated as this, and no words of ours can describe the unrivalled views from any part of the premises”, although that didn’t stop him helping himself to yet another paragraph of scenery gazing!  He drags himself away from the view and begins his tour of the premises, as usual for him then and very often on tours today, at the maltings.  He called it a hasty visit and the interesting point here is that he mentions the railway siding that ran up the side of the distillery to the end of the maltings, connected to the Strathspey railway that passed by the distillery’s southern end.

Tamdhu maltings, tall grain silos behind
The kiln was described as “scientifically constructed” with a high drying floor that allowed a temperature 30 degrees higher than older kilns.  As the distillery was designed by Mr Doig it no doubt also had one of his pagoda roof tops but he doesn’t mention it.  The maltings and kiln have undergone major changes since then - in 1949/50 the floor maltings were converted to Saladin box maltings, one of the first distillery in Scotland to have them installed and the last to continue to operate them right up to 2010 (Malt Madness.com).

The Saladin boxes were built across the triple vaulted malting floors and the kiln at the end has been adapted and no longer reflects the older designs.  Two huge silos were also added to the west side in the 1970s, one for barley intake and one to store the malt, after the railway that once supplied barley direct to the granary closed to freight traffic in November 1968 (railbrit.co.uk).  The air in the kiln was preheated by the hot water from the condensers and a little peat was also burned for the malt used at Tamdhu (Udo, 2005).  The number of Saladin boxes was doubled to ten in 1966 to also supply other distilleries, including Glenrothes whose own malting floors closed at that time.

Tamdhu kilns
Barnard then visited the mill room and stepped through to a spacious mash house, a step no longer possible following a 1973/4 rebuild of the distillery.  The mill and mash house are now at the opposite end of the distillery from the maltings and the mashing to distilling process now flows in the opposite direction from when it opened.  A conveyor belt was installed in the roof above the still house to transfer the malt from its silo to the mill room at the far end.

The mash tun was described as capacious and contained a “porcupine or stirring apparatus” for mashing and the draff was then extracted by Archimedean screw direct to railway wagons on the siding running past.  Barnard also describes a “coign of vantage” for the brewer to direct operations in three departments below, the historic equivalent of the modern one man operation via a control panel.  He also notices the roar of the water wheel which was situated under the floor of these buildings and which drove all the machinery.

Tamdhu tun room and mash house
The tun room has been another significant change in the layout of the distillery.  The room visited by Barnard was a wing off the middle of the main distillery block, the central section of Doig's classic E design, but is now in the mid 1970s building added at the south end of the complex, the old wing demolished and its location now part of the car park.  There were originally six washbacks holding 41,000 litres each but Barnard notes that the building was arranged to allow further backs to be added later.  I’m not sure if that ever happened but the new tun room holds 9 Oregon pine backs at around 50,000 litres capacity each (Udo, 2005).  Barnard had a look inside a back that was nearly finished fermenting and gives us his one and only description of the wash as having a surface with “the appearance of a beautiful piece of rock-work”.

The still house was apparently quite a feature at Tamdhu, although in all respects similar to that at Glen Rothes that he had visited the day before and which he had described as one of the finest in the district and also designed by Doig.  It was a lofty building lit by twenty windows and with two large outside worm tubs.  There were two pot stills then which Barnard describes as being “of the O.G. shape, which the Manager is of the opinion are more efficient than the old fashioned ones, and of much better appearance”.  I can only imagine that he here meant ‘ogee’ shape, that sweeping double curve from base up through the shoulder and onto the swan neck on a pear shaped still, without the interruption of a reflux bowl or constricted neck.

The stills were increased from two to four in 1972 and then following that 1973/4 rebuild they were increased again to six.  The moving of the mash tun and the tun room from the middle wing allowed the expansion of the still house northwards as part of an overall increase in production at a time when the whole industry was doing well.  The distillery capacity is 4m litres per year placing it around the top quarter mark in Scotland.

Tamdhu warehouses
Barnard noted two large warehouses across the yard and they have been substantially added to since; a mixture of dunnage and racking warehouses now form the largest part of the complex.  A row of workers houses sat near the entrance and another four were built in the early 1900s and a further four when the Saladin maltings were installed in 1949, these later additions overlooking the maltings.

Tamdhu was founded by a consortium of blenders that included William Grant of Highland Distilleries, a company formed by the merger of his Glen Rothes distillery and Bunnahabhain distillery in 1887 and which formally took over Tamdhu in 1898.  This new distillery was built during the boom years just before the Pattison collapse but it survived along with the other two, although silent later from 1927-47 (Udo, 2005).  In 1999 Highland Distillers was bought by the 1887 Company Ltd, 70% owned by Edrington and 30% by William Grant & Sons (MWYB 2011).  At times it was worked in tandem with Glenrothes distillery by the same staff until it was mothballed in 2010, the stills and maltings both then falling silent.

This turned out to be a temporary closure though as the distillery was sold to Ian MacLeod Distillers in June 2011 and production restarted in January this year after a break of just 18 months.  Ian Macleod already bottled a 16yo Tamdhu independently but most of the previous production went into blends including Famous Grouse.  Tamdhu has normally always been lightly peated and it will be interesting to see what style(s) the new owners will produce going forward.  Tamdhu single malt is to be relaunched with new branding next year after only limited availability and as special releases and independent bottles in the past (MWYB 2011).

Tamdhu station before renovation this year
The obsolete Knockando railway station (the line was removed after closing in 1968) was renamed as Tamdhu by the distillery in 1977 when they converted the station building into the distillery visitor centre.  The buildings have very recently been given a renovation by the new owners but there are no plans to reopen to visitors yet.  Although the distillery is a little way of the trail it is worth a detour to visit the location, or take a walk along this glorious stretch of the Speyside Way that now follows the railway path.

Barnard tried a wee sample of the Tamdhu before leaving, pronouncing it as excellent, and notes that of the many hours spent there “time has indeed flown with us this day, but it has not been misspent”.  Hear, hear! to that Alfred, and may time forever flow for Tamdhu’s future as surely as the Spey flows by their doors.  I hope to visit again and not misspend some time there now that they are back in production, perhaps if that station building once more echoes to the sound of weary travellers in need of sustenance.

River Spey rapids below Tamdhu
Barnard left with a parting glance up and down the Spey before driving the long road back to Rothes.  The Spey rumbles through this pass just 200 meters away from the distillery, tumbling over the boulders carried down from the hills beyond and flowing timelessly on while the railway above it no longer rings to the vibrations of steel.  Not forgetting the extended scenic beginnings to his report, Barnard’s final verse is given to another (unaccredited) romanticised description of splendour:

“It is the land of beauty and of grandeur,
Where looks the cottage out on a domain
The palace cannot boast of.  Seas of lakes,
And hills of forests. –Torrents here
Are bounding floods; and there the tempest roams
At large, in all the terrors of its glory.”

The first four lines here almost describing a scene that you could witness along the Spey both then and today; the latter full sentence remarkably sounding like a nod to the Muckle Spate that so shaped the landscape here.

I managed to trace the original verse, which was shortened and paraphrased by Barnard, to an 1833 play called The Wife by the early 19th century Irish dramatist James Sheridan Knowles.  The description in the play (in full below) actually refers to Switzerland, a country I hope to visit sometime ere long to catch up with departed whisky friends from Edinburgh.  Whisky-News.com is written by Patrick Brossard of Switzerland and he introduced himself to me on this blog just two weeks ago so finding this verse now carries an element of propinquity to it.  There is a picture of the inside of Tamdhu’s Saladin boxes on his site if you are curious about them.

If this wasn’t a romantic description of Switzerland then it most certainly could have been of the Highlands of Scotland (except, perhaps, for the vineyards):

“It is the land of beauty and of grandeur, lady!-
Where looks the cottage out on a domain
The palace cannot boast of.  Seas of lakes,
And hills of forests! Crystal waves that rise
‘Midst mountains all of snow, and mock the sun,
Returning high his flaming beams more thick
And radiant than he sent them.  Torrents there
Are bounding floods; and there the tempest roams
At large, in all the terrors of its glory.
And then our valleys! Oh! They are the homes
For hearts.  Our cottages, our vineyards, orchards,
Our pastures studded with the herd and fold!
Our native strains that melt us as they sing them!
A free – a gentle – simple – honest people!”