Lowland life

Gavin D. Smith charts the rise, fall and soon the rise again of distilling in the Lowland region
By Gavin D. Smith
Currently, the most southerly working distillery in Scotland is Bladnoch, located in the far south-west of the country, some 50 miles from Dumfries. But for the intervention and persistence of Ulster businessman Raymond Armstrong, who revived distilling at Bladnoch in 2000, the former Bell’s distillery could well have been the subject of this feature.
Happily, however, it is not, and news that the old Annandale distillery, 15 miles from Dumfries, is in the early stages of being restored and re-commissioned means that the Dumfries & Galloway region will eventually boast a brace of active distilleries.

For many years, the area was home not only to Bladnoch and Annandale, but also Langholm and nearby Glen Tarras distilleries.

Of the quartet, Langholm was the first to be established, constructed on a site between the main road just south of the historic mill town and the neighbouring River Esk in 1765.

For most of it active life, Langholm was in the hands of the Connell family, with Arthur Connell purchasing it in 1832, and when Alfred Barnard visited in the mid-1880s, the distillery was turning out some 46,000 gallons of whisky per year.

Much of the Langholm ‘make’ went for blending, with the Connells producing a blend of their own by the name of Mountain Dew, and what was sold as ‘self whisky,’ ie single malt, was retailed in England. Barnard also mentions a fascinating aspect of Langholm distillery, noting that “...the aged Manager informed us that there is annually made a certain quantity of Birch Whisky, which his father taught him the secret of making.” Sadly, the great Victorian chronicler offers us no more than this tantalising glimpse of the product!

Langholm survived until 1917, when the lack of available barley during wartime was one of the principal causes of its closure. Most of the production buildings were demolished in 1926, with the warehouses following suit three years later. Part of the site was subsequently occupied by a garage and petrol station business.

One of Arthur Connell’s early partners in the Langholm distillery venture was James Kennedy, who had an involvement from 1832 until 1835, going on to build Glen Tarras distillery four years later. Kennedy’s new distillery was located on the banks of the River Tarras, a tributary of the Esk, some four miles from Langholm.

Glen Tarras was owned and operated by James Kennedy until 1872, after which it was acquired by the Glentarras Distillery Company. They, in turn, sold it on in 1903 to the London firm of Seager, Evans & Co, who specialised in gin distillation. The distillery ceased production a couple of years later and by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, all stock had been removed. The production buildings and warehouses were subsequently knocked down, and today little more than the former distillery manager’s house survives. When he visited Glen Tarras, Alfred Barnard noted that “The Whisky is highly and richly flavored (sic) Malt, and sold principally in London. The annual output is 75,000 gallons.”

Like Glen Tarras, Annandale distillery was established during the comparative boom period for Scotch whisky that followed the passing of the 1823 Excise Act, opening for business in 1830. It was created by former excise officer George Donald, whose family ran it until 1882, after which Annandale was leased to John Gardner, who went on to substantially revamp and re-equip much of the distillery.

However, around 1886/87 the site was acquired by John Walker & Sons Ltd of Kilmarnock. Whisky consultant Dr Jim Swan, who is involved in the current project to revive distilling at Annandale with owners David Thomson and Teresa Church, is of the opinion that Walkers purchased the distillery to give them a source of peated malt for blending purposes. Alfred Barnard noted after his tour of the plant that “The malt is raised by elevators to the Kiln at the end of the Maltings, which is floored with wire cloth and heated with peat.”

The Walkers ceased distilling at Annandale in 1919, but in contrast with the other ‘lost’ Dumfries & Galloway distilleries featured here, Annandale has survived the intervening years remarkably intact, with many of the buildings being used by the neighbouring farm. Hopefully, before too long, it will be even more intact and making both peated and unpeated Lowland whisky. That, however, is a story not of the past but of the future.