Caithness giant

Gavin D. Smith heads up the North East coast in search of Gerston
By Gavin D. Smith
Today, Scotland’s northernmost county of Caithness boasts an internationally-known distillery in the shape of Pulteney, situated in the county town of Wick. Less well-known, however, is the fact that for all but a decade from 1796 to 1911, Caithness was also home to a second, large-scale whisky-making enterprise. It went by the name of Gerston, and was located close to the village of Halkirk, seven miles south of Thurso.

In the late 18th century, the parish of Halkirk was home to some 15 illicit distilleries, but the first licensed distillery in the area was established in 1796 by Francis Swanson, using water from the Thurso River. No doubt encouraged by the provisions of the liberalising Excise act of 1823, Swanson’s sons, James and John, decided to expand the business and sell the Gerston ‘make’ to a wider public. Ultimately, it achieved considerable acclaim in London during the 1840s, where it became popular with a number of leading political figures, including the Prime Minister, Robert Peel.

Despite such endorsement, the fortunes of Gerston seem to have been variable, and in 1872 the Swanson family sold their distillery. The identity of the new owners is not recorded, but they failed to make a success of the venture, and shut it down in 1875.

The distillery was demolished in 1882, and today only some piles of stones and a stretch of wall mark its site, close to the Thurso River and around 200 yards from Gerston Farm.

It has been suggested that one reason for the closure of the distillery could have been that an area of land on the hillside behind the farm was drained, causing the well from which pure water was obtained to dry up.

Undaunted by the failure of Gerston, and mindful of the ardent following the whisky had enjoyed in London society, businessmen in the capital formed the Gerston Distillery Company and built a new Gerston distillery during 1886 and ‘87, this time between Halkirk Bridge and Gerston Farm. The proprietors of the new company obtained permission to draw process water from the same source as the first Gerston distillery, the Calder Burn, no doubt hoping to emulate the success of its spirit.

One of the employees of the new Gerston distillery was William Grant, a son of the Glenfiddich founder, whose own new distilling venture was under construction at the same time as Gerston, finally coming on stream on Christmas Day 1887. Sadly, Grant died of typhoid fever not long before he was due to return to his Speyside home in 1888.

The second Gerston distillery was newly completed when Alfred Barnard visited, and he was duly impressed by the modern features incorporated into the new structure. These included one boiler, which supplied steam to all four stills and also “...for boiling the water in the Brewing Coppers in the Mash House,” as he noted in The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887).

An air of optimism obviously surrounded the newly-constructed distillery, and Barnard observed that “The present proposed output is 2,000 gallons per week, or about 80,000 gallons per annum, but the Works have been so constructed that the output can, at little expense, be doubled if required.”

No such expansion was necessary, however, as the new Gerston whisky failed to live up to expectations, and the fashionable London markets which previously welcomed this Caithness single malt now displayed a marked lack of interest in it.

Gerston was sold to Northern Distilleries Ltd in 1897, and it was subsequently renamed Ben Morvern, after a local hill. An advertisement in the Northern Ensign newspaper for January 1899 declared that the whisky was being sold locally as a nine-year-old single malt for three shillings per bottle.

Northern Distilleries enjoyed no more success than their predecessors, however, though their ownership of Gerston did coincide with a period of great contraction within the Scotch whisky industry, due to previous over-production.

The distillery probably closed down in 1911, but was certainly silent by the onset of the First World War in 1914. Four years later, the landmark chimney was demolished, and the rest of the structures were subsequently taken down. By 1929 everything but the dwelling houses associated with the distillery and some sluice gates on the Calder Burn had disappeared, leaving virtually no traces of what was, in its day, one of the largest commercial complexes ever seen in the county of Caithness.