Many visitors to the Orkney Islands make a pilgrimage to Highland Park distillery, on the outskirts of the island capital of Kirkwall, and the more dedicated whisky buffs also take a look at Scapa, located within sight of Highland Park.
Apart from these two survivors, however, there were as many as six licensed distilleries in and around Kirkwall during the 1820s and two distilleries in Orkney’s second-largest town of Stromness. One of the Stromness pair only operated from 1825 until 1831, but the principal Stromness distillery lasted well into the 20th century.
It was established close to the harbour by John Crookshanks in 1817, and was named Stromness distillery, but the whisky it produced was sold for many years as Man O’Hoy, after one of Orkney’s most distinctive landmarks, the red sandstone sea stack off the island of Hoy.
Stromness was in the hands of no fewer than six individuals before closing in 1867, but 1878 saw it restored to use by the Macpherson brothers, who renamed the distillery itself Man O’Hoy and marketed its whisky as Old Orkney, or ‘OO’.
The Macphersons ran Stromness distillery until it was acquired somewhere between 1900 and 1910 by Belfast-based J&J McConnell Ltd, who operated it through their McConnell’s Distillery Ltd, London subsidiary. However, the harsh economic climate of the inter-war years forced its closure in 1928. It was subsequently owned for a time by Booths Distilleries, but the distillery buildings were demolished during the 1940s, and ultimately replaced by local authority housing.
Once the distillery closed, Old Orkney branded whisky continued to be bottled well into the 1930s, initially as a single malt and latterly as a blend, while bottles labelled as ‘Old Orkney Relics’ were also released. These contained a 12 Years Old blended whisky which incorporated single malt from the last few casks of Old Orkney.
When he visited during the mid-1880s, Alfred Barnard described Stromness as “The most remote Distillery in the Kingdom,” and wrote that “In the little old-fashioned Still House are to be seen two of the ‘sma’ old Pot Stills,’ each holding 300 gallons.
“One of these, a veritable smuggler’s Still of a peculiar shape, is the quaintest we have seen in our travels, and was formerly the property of a noted law evader; its body is shaped like a pumpkin, and is surmounted by a similarly shaped chamber one fourth the size, to prevent the goods boiling over, through which the neck passes to the head of the Still.
“The Whisky, which is Highland Malt, is sold in Scotland, where there is a good demand for it, and the annual output is 7,000 gallons.”
To get a sense of just how ‘boutique’ the Stromness enterprise was, it is worth noting that Barnard records 50,000 gallons being distilled per annum at Highland Park.
By the time an undated brochure, written before the First World War and titled Farthest North, was produced by J&J McConnell Ltd, Stromness had been upgraded and expanded.
The uncredited author writes that “The proprietors of the Distillery have modernized all that is possible to modernize in this primitive spot without interfering in any way with the old-style system of making good whisky. The very nature of the Distillery itself human hands cannot alter. The rock-hewn chambers, the ‘sma’ auld stills’ (which still remain, though now unused, having been replaced by larger ones of the same pattern)...”
He also notes that “Perhaps the quaintest part of this very quaint Distillery is the room underneath the wash-backs. This is said to be the oldest portion of the whole Distillery. It consists of a low vaulted chamber, and is cut out of the solid rock. In the old days it is said to have been used by the smugglers and law-evaders as their still and mashing-house.”
For many years, one of the council houses that occupy the site of Stromness distillery was home to the celebrated Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown.
In terms of whisky, Stromness distillery is remembered in a Blackadder 15 Years Old cask strength bottling of what is almost certainly Highland Park, which appears under the Old Man of Hoy name, while Gordon & MacPhail revived the Old Orkney ‘00’ brand for a blended Scotch whisky, bearing the legend ‘The island’s peedie [little] dram.’