Spirit of the architect

Ian Buxton looks at the man behind the iconic pagoda,his contemporaries and his legacy
By Ian Buxton
Stop reading this article now – and draw a distillery. Then come back to this page.Chances are your sketch, however crude, has a pagoda roof somewhere in the design.You didn’t have to think about it, it was just there. Without it, your picture wouldn’t really look like a distillery. With it, the building instantly says ‘distillery’. It just feels right.One man is responsible for this: Charles Chree Doig (1855 – 1918).He started life with some advantages. For one thing, he was born in Scotland which, in the 19th century, meant that despite his humble background (his father was a farm labourer) he received a decent secondary education. And, for another, he moved to Elgin in 1882 to join a surveyor’s practice, having trained in architecture in Perthshire.That meant he was in the right place, at the right time. Imagine being an architect, in the heart of distilling country, at the start of the greatest distillery construction boom Scotland has ever seen.Cometh the hour, cometh the man.By the late Victorian period whisky was enjoying unprecedented popularity. Everrising levels of demand meant that existing distilleries were expanded and new ones built.Charles Doig was the principal architect of this expansion and, almost single-handedly, defined what we think a distillery should look like.His achievements were prodigious though, sadly, his name is not well known outside the industry and much of his work has been lost – swept away by ‘progress’ in subsequent redevelopment, such as at Craigellachie, or lost altogether such as at Gerston, Lochside, Auchinblae, Stronachie, Breadalbane and Killowen distilleries. All ghosts now.“Charles Doig designed 56 of our Scotch whisky distilleries and pagoda roofs, but sadly I feel he has never been given the true recognition he deserves,” says Richard Paterson, master distiller at Whyte & Mackay.Others put the number higher still. Much of Doig’s work survives in the archives of his old firm, preserved by Moray Council in Elgin and Forres, and this suggests that Doig worked on around 100 distilleries in all.His most brilliant contribution is, of course, the pagoda - or Doig Ventilator as it should perhaps be known. Whisky expert Alex Kraaijeveld has shown, the design for the ventilator evolved through a series of sketches for Dailuaine distillery, who commissioned Doig to make alterations to its maltings. The aim was to improve the efficiency of the chimneys at drawing off peat smoke.Doig succeeded brilliantly, with a design both functional and elegant and, in an industry not noted for its ready acceptance of innovation, his pagoda was swiftly adopted.The trade press praised the new look Dailuaine and other commissions swiftly followed.Indeed, his competitor John Alcock immediately developed the idea for the striking twin pagodas at Strathisla, and later worked with Doig at Glentauchers. Doig’s influence on the great Japanese distilling pioneer Masataka Taketsuru (founder of Nikka Distilling) in the design of Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido is also clear at a glance.The list of Doig’s commissions comprises a roll of honour: beginning with his first commission at Glenburgie and then Dailuaine, Doig worked at Glenfarclas, Dalwhinnie, Balblair, Knockando, Aberfeldy, Pulteney, Bushmills in Northern Ireland, Dufftown, Talisker, Glenkinchie, Speyburn, Benromach, Aberlour...to pick just a few names at random. And the list goes on.Other Doig sites, such as Dallas Dhu which is preserved as a museum, or Imperial which is mothballed and could re-open mean his legacy will never be totally lost.Distillery commissions dried up after the Pattisons crash and subsequent slump in the industry at the end of the nineteenth century.Doig himself famously prophesied that after Glen Elgin (1898) no distillery would be built on Speyside for fifty years. That was not perhaps as prescient as it sounds, as whisky went into a decline as catastrophic as the dot com fiasco of recent memory, but it’s a curious fact that he was right, it being 1958 before the construction of Tormore saw new distillery construction by the Spey. Sadly, Tormore’s ventilators are squat and functional.There is no statue to Doig and his work, though he was rightly eulogised in an obituary in the Northern Scot and Moray & Nairn Express, which read: Additions and reconstructions were extensively undertaken by many distillers of Highland malt whisky, and in all this work the services of Mr. Doig as an architect were very much in demand. All over Scotland and in the north of Ireland his work was well-known, and in the course of his professional career he formed many warm friendships among the distillers. In matters of arbitration and valuation he was much in request, his keen business ability, combined with fairness of judgement, being readily recognised.Though the firm continued after his early death (he was 63) the magic was gone and with more than sufficient capacity in the industry the salad days of distillery construction were over.Now, at last, he may be honoured. Richard Paterson has been leading a campaign to erect a memorial in Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience (you may know this as the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, but it ‘rebranded’ recently).Some £7,500 was raised by an auction at McTears in 2004 and the team behind this project await a suitable opportunity during the next planned refurbishment at the Scotch Whisky Experience to install their tribute to the great man.But, just like buses, you wait for ages and two come along at once. In Manhattan, sculptor and architectural designer Elena Colomba is planning her own tribute.Colomba has ambitious plans. Her proposed design is of solid copper construction, 21 ft tall on a 21 ft square base, with a 2 ft deep tidal pool as its base. Astanza from the poem ‘Natures Law’ by Robert Burns and a short biography of Charles Doig will be inscribed and silvered on the copper floor of the tidal pool.In the concept drawings, an eternal flame (symbolising the malting chimney and the hearth) illuminates the piece. The copper arcs give abstract form to the current of air that draws peat smoke through the barley from the kiln fires below – a defining moment in the creation of Scotch whisky.The memorial will be oriented to mark true north by an extended compass needle that sweeps down the edge of the northern arc, drawing a finned line that disappears into the sand or turf of the site. Located ideally where land, water and sky meet, the memorial will respond to its environment by collecting sea water and specimens in its tidal pool during high tide, and holding them within the edges of the base during low tide.According to Colomba: “The arcs evoke Doig’s most significant design contribution to the distillery and to the efficiency of the malting chimney: the pagoda roof.” She continues: “For me, the Charles Doig Memorial has become the flash point of an obvious relationship between fire, whisky, Scotland, and the rest of the world. The depth of the Scottish fire calendar is transcendent: Beltane, Samhain, Hogmany, Up Helly Aa, and Burns night – the whole lot. I would like nothing more than to help celebrate this primal relationship.” Let us hope that one or other of these proposals bears fruit soon: Charles Doig, Scotland’s architect of spirit, deserves a greater monument than hot air passing through a ventilator.