Distillery Focus

A region once again (Campbeltown)

Robin Laing packs his bags and heads out to Campbeltown to find whisky production is thriving again
By Robin Laing
Back in 1098, the Treaty of Tarbert granted to the King of Norway, Magnus Bareleg, “all the western isles round which a ship could sail”. The Viking warlord immediately had his longships dragged across the one-mile neck of land at Tarbert to prove that the Kintyre peninsula was an island too. He made his point but these days he would simply have to sail through the Crinan Canal. A tourist sign at Tarbert announces that you are now crossing over to ‘the Mainland Island’.Kintyre is a magical land of forests, misty headlands and surf-battered beaches. It has a wrap-around, shipwreck coast with panoramic views of Arran, Ailsa Craig, Islay and Northern Ireland. It offers a shadow show of historic figures from Fergus the first King of Scotland, who had his parliament here, to St Columba, whose footprints can still be seen nearby, from the Vikings to Robert the Bruce and later on, to the fanatical Covenanters.It might as well be an island, such is the journey required to get there, but from the time of the earliest saints in their coracles through the age of Magnus and his longships to the long rule of the Lords of the Isles and on to the great age of steam ships, the sea was the main highway of the world and Campbeltown was an important crossroads.In the glory days, about a hundred years ago, Campbeltown could claim to be the richest town in Scotland. That wealth came from shipping and fishing, and from coalmining.It also came from the whisky industry, and at one time Campbeltown was the Whisky Capital of Scotland, with more than 30 distilleries in the town.In 1887, Barnarddescribed it as the “Whisky City” and the “Whisky Metropolis”. He preferred not to take the steamer directly from Glasgow as it would have been full of drunken trippers during the Glasgow Fair. Instead, they sailed to Tarbert, leaving a six hour journey by coach. The idea of going the long way round by road would never have occurred to anyone then. Barnard refers to Campbeltown harbour as “the best roadstead in Scotland” and it took him two weeks to visit the 21 distilleries active there.Surely it was one of the great whisky regions then, but sadly the 20th century saw a steady decline. One by one the fires went out in the Campbeltown distilleries and a shadow crept over the place. Seventeen distilleries closed between 1920 and 1935 and eventually only Springbank and Glen Scotia remained.The complex reasons for this dramatic decline are examined by David Stirk in his book The Distilleries of Campbeltown, but they include the ascendancy of road transport, the changing requirements of blenders, Prohibition in America and some quality issues that impacted on reputation.Springbank distillery is more than just a survivor; it is a standard setter, a shining light and a Mecca for anyone who is interested in Scotch whisky. Springbank is an eccentric establishment whose very traditionalism goes against the grain. Some of its equipment might belong in a museum but it still works and those who lament the gradual stripping away of functions that has happened in most distilleries will find some comfort here. It only uses Scottish barley, malts it all itself, matures everything on site and bottles it there too.Nowhere else in Scotland can the whole process still be seen in one distillery.Having three stills and its own maltings allows Springbank to experiment and as a result, it now produces three quite separate single malts. Springbank is two and a half times distilled and light to medium-peated, receiving six hours of peat smoke during kilning. Longrow is twice distilled and given up to 48 hours peat smoke exposure, while the more recent Hazelburn is three times distilled and gets no peat at all. Longrow and Hazelburn are named after two of the defunct Campbeltown distilleries, not exactly a surprising link with the Campbeltown past when you consider that the Mitchell family have been distilling there for more than 200 years.With Glengyle, they went a huge step further and instead of re-invoking the name in a single malt, they have rebuilt the actual distillery. Glengyle distillery was founded in 1872 by a member of the Mitchell family but closed in 1925. The building has been used for various things since but a few years ago the site became available and Mitchell’s has now recreated Glengyle distillery within the walls of the old distillery. No trace of the original equipment existed, so this really was a new-build.Almost every part of the plant is brand new, though the Boby mill came from Craigellachie and the stills were rescued from Ben Wyvis distillery. Production started in 2004 and when the malt is ready it will be called Kilkerran.Let us not forget Glen Scotia, for it is also a survivor. In late 2006 the distillery had been given a bit of a paint job and must be one of the few to have a bright red mash tun. The rumour was that Glen Scotia was about to be sold, though nothing further has transpired.Glen Scotia came through the dark years though its proprietor did not. He was Duncan MacCallum, who committed suicide in Campbeltown Loch in 1930 after facing bankruptcy. It is said that his death inspired the Music Hall song that goes “Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky” though that seems rather cruel.Campbeltown, like some river gambler of the Mississippi Delta, has had a fortune and has lost it.Signs of the glory days are still in evidence in the large houses round the bay and at nearby Machrihanish but property prices these days are among the most favourable anywhere in Scotland.This is not a town that regrets its fall from grace or hankers for a lost age; people in Campbeltown are contented and hospitable.Down at this remote end of the Kintyre peninsula there is a palpable sense of community.Few distilleries can be as closely knitted into their communities as Springbank is.This should be a good year for Campbeltown; Hazelburn will be 10 years old and Glengyle comes of age with its spirit reaching three years and legal whisky status.It may be stretching things to talk of a renaissance, but having Springbank, with its three separate malts, Glen Scotia, and now Glengyle with its Kilkerran single malt, does mean that Campbeltown can claim once more to be a whisky region.Some authorities, e.g. the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Michael Jackson, never dropped the status of whisky region from Campbeltown but others did.Now that it has as many working distilleries as the Lowlands, it is firmly back on the map and there is talk in the Mull of Kintyre of ‘a region once again’.