by Terry MacEwen
Campbeltown, a small town on the Mull of Kintyre peninsula, was once nicknamed ‘Spiritsville’ or ‘Whiskyopolis’ and even ‘The Whisky Capital of the World!’, due to the immense number of distilleries that were located there. Unbelievably, there were as many as 37 established during the 19th century, with 20 of those opening by 1885. Sadly today, only three remain.
Campbeltown was once one of the richest towns per capita in all of Scotland – and yet today little is known about the history of such an important Scottish centre of industry. Campbeltown is located on the banks of Campbeltown Loch, and in fact this sheltered port played a key role in growing the whisky, fishing and tourism industries of the town back in the 19th century. Before the founding of legitimate distilleries in the late 1800s, illegal distilling was rife in the region; those who had illegal stills were rarely prosecuted for operating the illegal distilleries. So, when the Excise Act of 1823 allowed people to run legal distilleries the flood gates, literally, opened! And it was whisky that poured through them! Between 1823 and 1825, a total of nine new distilleries had opened and by 1932 that number was 28! The air in Campbeltown was thick with peat smoke, and the loch had unfortunately become polluted from the sheer scale of the whisky production.
Campbeltown was the perfect place to make whisky, for a myriad of different reasons; the climate, for one. Campbeltown is blessed with a mild and temperate (for Scotland!) climate due to the caress of the Gulf Stream. The land around Campbeltown is also exceptionally fertile with a ready supply of peat. Furthermore, the crystal-clear Scottish waters are ideal for creating the classic Scottish tipple. Couple the natural abundance with the influence of human ingenuity and engineering and you have a match made in whisky heaven! Campbeltown Loch is a fantastic natural harbour, which was a boon to the shipping industry, and allowed whisky to be transported easily.
The West coast of Scotland has always had strong links to Ireland and the distilling expertise there, which further contributed to the development of whisky in the area. There were also strong rail and canal links which already hauled natural resources such as coal and peat mined in the area, to places such as Glasgow on the Clyde. In fact, Glasgow provided a ready market for the newly produced whisky and it was much easier for Campbeltown to supply the city than those land locked distilleries in the Highlands.
The most famous form of whisky transport though was the Glasgow Steamers, huge steam powered ships paddling down the Clyde. The steamers would come down from Glasgow twice a day at the height of Campbeltown’s popularity! There were so many people coming down to sample, and indeed buy Campbeltown whisky, that the Scottish phrase getting ‘steaming’ (meaning drunk), actually originates from people travelling back to Glasgow on the steamers after imbibing enormous quantities of the local nectar.
An additional market for whisky actually developed even further west, in America and Canada. This was due to emigration, and of course the Highland Clearances in the 1800s. There were a large number of Scots that had settled in North America, and far more with relatives and links on the continent. It is unsurprising that the whisky then followed across the Atlantic.
Whisky was a massive industry in Campbeltown until World War One, when a lot of distilleries closed temporarily. Most re-opened after the War but a combination of factors led to the industries near total decline. Drumlemble Coal Mine closed in 1923 which eliminated the whisky industry’s cheap fuel source. The close of the coal mine led to the railways transportation system being eliminated a mere 10 years later, as there was no need for haulage transportation and the passenger traffic was not enough to keep the railway running.
Today only three distilleries remain in Campbeltown: Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle. Springbank actually names two of its current whiskies after previously closed Campbeltown distilleries, ‘Hazelburn’ and ‘Longrow’. Hazelburn was arguably the most successful of the lost distilleries, with a production capacity of around 200,000 gallons and part of Springbank is actually housed in an old Longrow bonded warehouse. Both whiskies are delicious, and worthy of their namesakes.
A wonderful place to get a sense of the history of Campbeltown’s amazing whisky story is in (apart from the three remaining distilleries of course!) the Campbeltown Heritage Centre. In fact, in the Heritage Centre are several re-created rooms designed to explain distinctive aspects of historic Campbeltown life including the history of, of course, distilling. Of particular interest is the re-created cooper’s workshop. Considering the proliferation of distilleries operating during the 1880s, usually at least 25 at any one time, the coopers were therefore a very important part of the local economy, and definitely worth a look! However, no trip would be complete without sampling the fantastic whiskies, and taking a tour of one of the three remaining, beautiful distilleries. Something else of note is the crystal clear, man-made loch situated above the town. Today this loch provides the three distilleries with their water. It is not only responsible for the delicious whisky that is produced, but it is also a place of breathtaking beauty.
Campbeltown was so synonymous with whisky production that the connection was actually immortalised in song by Andy Stewart in the 1960s! The premise for the song was the huge whisky production in Campbeltown, but in the song the singer laments the price of the whisky as being much too high.
Oh! Campbeltown Loch, Ah wish ye were whisky!
Campbeltown Loch, Och Aye!
Campbeltown Loch, I wish ye were whisky!
Ah wid drink ye dry.
Now Campbeltown Loch is a beautiful place,
But the price of the whisky is grim.
How nice it would be if the whisky was free
And the Loch was filled up to the brim.
I’d buy a yacht with the money I’ve got
And I’d anchor it out in the bay.
If I wanted a nip I’d go in for a dip
I’d be swimmin’ by night and by day.
We’d have a gathering of the clans
They’d come from near and far
I can see them grin as they’re wading in
And shouting “Slàinte mhath!”.
But what if the boat should overturn
And drowned in the whisky was I?
You’d hear me shout, you’d hear me call out
“What a wonderful way to die !”
But what’s this I see, ochone for me
It’s a vision to make your blood freeze.
It’s the police afloat in a dirty great boat
And they’re shouting: “Time, gentlemen, please!”
By Terry MacEwen, Freelance Writer.