Ballechin, Scotland.

Extract from Alfred Barnard’s historic tour of every whisky distillery in Great Britain, published in ‘1887’

TRAVELLING in an open carriage is exceedingly pleasant. There is more freedom about it than the railway, for you are your own master, free to hurry or dawdle as you please. Sometimes you may want to reach your destination quickly. At others you may wish to enjoy the country; to pause here and there, and watch the far-seeing panorama. Yesterday at Aberfeldy, and today at Pitlochry, Ballinluig and Ballechin, moving through such enchanting scenery, we have felt that our locomotion could not be too slow, and at several nooks and places on the hill-sides we would fain have pitched our tent, and dwelt there a while to enjoy the rich treasures of beauty spread out before us. We are passing through a district rich in traditional and legendary lore, and abounding in scenes of enthralling interest. As we drive through the parish of Logierait, our worthy coachman, who knows the object of our visit, reminds us that we are in the heart of a district famous from a most remote period for the distillation of whisky. The burns, or small streams, which rise in the peat mosses and bag of Ballechin moor, under the shade of the Fergan range of hills, fall into the Tay, and are associated at every secluded bend and shady corner with the smuggling bothy, where illicit distillation was carried on extensively in olden times. Among the Strath Tay smugglers there were men of remarkable muscular power and shrewd audacity. A surviving remnant of the brotherhood, residing near Ballechin, still tells of a Halloween night same forty years ago, when the famous Stewart arrived at a place near Perth with a boatload of potheen. He had gent up to the town for assistance to remove the Whisky, when “lo and behold!” instead of his friends, the revenue officers appeared on the scene. Stewart immediately rowed out mid-stream, but the officers seeing an idle boat followed him. A chase commenced, and the smuggler seeing that he was closely pressed, and that capture seemed inevitable, proceeded to use strategy that he might escape out of their clutches. Pretending to surrender, he invited the gaugers into his boat to take possession, and seized one of their oars to assist them in stepping on board. In a twinkle he had thrown the Dar on the top of his potheen barrels, and quickly rowed down the stream, leaving the poor discomfited gaugers with but one Dar “to paddle their own canoe” as best they could. He was soon lost to sight, and landed his cargo safely in one of his hiding-places on the river side. The career of this noted smuggler is a record of unbroken triumph; his last distillation was gold in Leith, and was conveyed thither in a canopied cart, containing a caretaker muffled up as a patient (with an infectious disease), who managed thus to escape the prying curiosity of the exciseman, and succeeded in disposing of the Whisky at a high price.

Not far distant from Ballechin is Logierait, a place historically famous as being the old capital of the ancient Earldom of Athole. Here also Robert III of Scotland had a castle, which he made his residence in his hunting expeditions among the surrounding mountains. I t was from a prison in this village in the year 1717 that the famous Rob Roy escaped. The Ballechin Estate, which we are now approaching, has from time immemorial been in possession of the Stuarts, who have the honour of being descended from royalty. It was Patrick Stuart, of” Ballechin,” who commanded the Atholemen at Killiecrankie, in 1689, and the Royalist General Mackay crossed cc Ballechin” Moor in his flight from that fatal field. Ballechin is generally supposed to have been the death scene of Sir James the Rose, celebrated in the old song which bears his name:

“O hae ye seen. Sir James the Rose,

The young heir o’ Buleichan.”

The Ballechin Distillery was founded in the year 1810, by a company of farmers who resided in the immediate neighbourhood, and grew all the barley used in the works. In the year 1875 it came into the hands of the present proprietors, Messrs. Robertson and Sons, who succeeded the late Mr. Robert Kennedy, the only survivor of the original company. The Distillery, which is a quaint, old-fashioned place, covers 11 acres. It is built on the slope of a hill, in the farm of the letter L, and is situated on the high road, three miles from the railway station. The water comes from a weird place called “Collin’s Hollow,” or, as it is termed in the native Gaelic, “Ghhaichdehalan,” and is of excellent quality. As evidence of its purity, we may mention that it has been used for a period of thirty years in the same steam boiler without showing the least sign of encrustation. The front of the Distillery faces the Grandtully Moors (said to he the finest grouse moors in Scotland) and Strathtay, and the view therefrom of the surrounding country is picturesque in the extreme, the outlying mountains being softened by the nearer hills, which are clothed with the richest verdure. Like the monks of old, the Highland distillers have located themselves “where every prospect pleases.” But to return to the object of our mission. We commenced our investigations of the spiritual life as carried on at Ballechin by Messrs. Robertson and Song, under the pastoral care of Mr. James Reid, the Brewer, whose practical experience and lucid explanations “did us much good.” We first ascended the slopes of the hill, so as to begin at the Granaries, which are placed at the top of the works. I t is in these buildings that the barley commences Its progress towards a new life, and how that life is developed, afterwards crushed out, and eventually re-appears as Whisky, has already been shown in these pages.

As we entered the Barley Barn, we noticed on our right a roadway up the side of the hill to the barn doors, and were informed that the barley is carted by this approach and laid direct on to the floor. The building is 70 feet long and 50 wide, and holds 300 quarters of grain. Underneath is the Malting Floor, of same dimensions, having at one end a large stone steep, and at the other a kiln. The barley is dropped into the steep through sluices in the floor, and after being soaked therein for 48 hours, the wetted barley is spread out to grow on the concreted floor of the malting. As soon as the acrospire, or sprouts, are sufficiently advanced the malt is wheeled on to the Kiln, an apartment 20 feet square, with an open roof, and floored with wire netting. It is heated principally with peat, and is capable of drying 20 quarters at a time. Continuing our journey down hill, we come to the Malt Deposit, a room somewhat larger than the Kiln, which contains a Hopper, through which the dried malt is dropped into the Mill below. The building appropriated to the Mill is very antiquated, and contains a pair of Malt Rollers. From this apartment the material begins to ascend, and the grist, or pulverized malt, is gent by elevators to the Hopper in the Grist Loft, which is above the Mash Tun. At a somewhat lower level are two heaters for hot water. Our guide next conducted us to the Mash House, which is on the ground level, and opens into the four t yard. It is a large place, and contains several vessels, notably the Mash Tun, a circular iron vessel, 11 feet in diameter, and 4 feet deep. The mixing machine in this tun is the invention of Mr. A. Robertson, one of the partners, and consists of a double set of teeth racks, irregularly placed, but fitting into each other, one stationary, and the other revolving, which thoroughly mixes and breaks up the malt in the tun. At one side, just above the top of the Mash Tun, a trap-door has been let into the wall, and through this opening the grains are thrown direct into the farmers’ carts. Below the level of the floor is sunk the Underback, an iron vessel 6 feet square and 4 feet deep, which receives the liquor from the Mash Tun. the worts are pumped from this vessel to the Coolers in the roof, which are of the oldest fashioned pattern we have seen. These Coolers are 24 feet square, having in the centre an enclosed cylinder for accumulating the air and driving it over the surface of the worts, which was also invented by Mr. A. Robertson. Mr. Reid now led the war to the Tun Room, which adjoins the Mash House, and contains five Washbacks, each holding 1,800 gallons. After fermentation has taken place, the wash is gent by a single-action pump up to the Wash Charger, which is erected on a gallery over the Still House, and contains 1,800 gallons, and the wash descends therefrom by gravitation into the Wash Still. We now retraced our steps to the Brewing House, at the end of which are placed two antiquated Pot Stills, a Wash Still, holding 753 gallons, and a Low Wines and Feints Still, holding 660 gallons. The Worm Tub is the most ancient we have seen, a regular smuggler’s worm, laid in a vessel red from the overflow of the hum. The spirit from the Wash Still, after running through this apparatus, goes into the Low Wines and Feints Receiver which is a timber vessel, and holds 827 gallons, from whence it is pumped up into the Low Wines and Feints Charger. From this Charger the spirit runs by gravitation into the Low Wines and Feints Still, again through the Worm Tub into the Spirit Receiver, which contains 816 gallons, and finally into a vat holding 750 gallons, placed in the Spirit Store, where it is casked, weighed, branded, and rolled into the bonded warehouses.

There are three of these warehouses, all new buildings (one being of corrugated iron), containing 40,000 gallons of Whisky, of various ages, and adjoining there is a cooperage, smithy, and carpenter’s shop. In the Engine house there is a capital little horizontal engine, of 8-horse power, for driving the various machinery. The pump over the spent Wash Tank in the yard is a curious machine, with a revolving fly-wheel, and was erected before the present proprietors were born. All the peat used at the Ballechin Distillery is brought from Inverness-shire and the Orkneys, the peat mosses on the estate being al most inaccessible.

The Whisky is pure Malt, and the annual output is 18,000 gallons. There are two excise officers, the chief being Mr. Fraser.