|Inside the former warehouse of Hazelburn.|
In Victorian times, Campbeltown was the whisky capital of Scotland. Renowned author Alfred Barnard traveled there while writing his seminal book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in 1885 and found over 30 distilleries to visit. Now, there are just three. On a recent visit to the town we went on a walk with a local guide around some of the former sites and discovered what went wrong.
Whisky is engrained in the history and heritage of Campbeltown. There is evidence of it on almost every street and around every corner it seems. Located at the end of the Kintyre peninsula, Campbeltown was once a giant of the Scotch whisky industry. Old buildings remain and road names refer to past distilleries that are long gone. You cannot help but feel a bit of sadness as you walk around.
In a relatively short period following Barnard's visit, the Campbeltown whisky industry almost terminally turned to dust. A combination of a failed rail link materialising, a slump in whisky sales and the Pattison Crash meant that by the early 1900s most of the 30+ distilleries had been closed. This led to the decline of Campbeltown not just as a centre for whisky production but as a town itself, especially once the fishing industry began to deteriorate later.
Now, only three distilleries remain in production - Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank. Of those, Glengyle only re-opened in 2000 after being closed for 75 years. It was originally founded in 1872. Springbank was founded in 1828 and is the oldest remaining in production. The same company, J & A Mitchell & Co, own both distilleries. Glen Scotia, which is currently owned by Loch Lomond Distillers, was founded in 1832 and was known as Scotia until the 1930s.
|The pagoda at Benmore.|
But the ghosts of Campbeltown's past linger on and reveal themselves without much effort. Our walk began at the site of the Benmore distillery, which is now the town's bus garage. It was one of the last to close in 1923 and much of the old buildings remain including the warehousing, malting floors and striking pagoda roof of the kiln.
Almost next to it and just along the street is where the Lochead distillery once stood. This has been replaced by a modern building that is home to the Tesco supermarket. It was so named as it sat at the head of a small inlet in the main bay. This inlet was later filled in to create the large grassy recreational park that now covers the area between the supermarket and the sea promenade wall.
|Lettering on the entrance to Hazelburn.|
You really get the sense that Campbeltown was so bustling and important as the next former distillery (Hazelburn) is literally next door to Loch End. That is three in a very small space and this is later revealed to be replicated across the town. The distillery part of Hazelburn is no longer in existence but the shell of the large warehousing complex still stands (pictured at the top of this post). It is awe inspiring to stand within the walls and gauge the history and scale.
Around the corner from the Hazelburn warehouses, and close to where the original distillery once stood, is the Co-op supermarket and car park. This was formerly the site of Rieclachan, a distillery that closed even later than Benmore in 1934. You would not even know a distillery had ever been there but for one remaining wall on the rear side, close to where Glengyle stands.
Behind the Co-op is further evidence of two more former distilleries - Ardlussa and Glen Nevis. As with Hazelburn, only some of the warehousing remains and this is currently used as a car mechanic workshop. It again highlights the close proximity of each distillery to the next - these two were literally over a small lane from Rieclachan, which in turn was over the road from Hazelburn and Glengyle.
|Glen Nevis warehouses.|
We then cut down passed the back of Springbank, which is just 100 metres or so along from Ardlussa and Glen Nevis, and to the main street of Campbeltown, which is called Longrow - this and Hazelburn are names from past that are honoured by Springbank in their current single malt releases. Longrow is their peated spirit and Hazelburn their rare triple distilled spirit.
Our final stop before ending up at Glen Scotia, back on the other side of the harbour and almost back where we began at Benmore, was Lochruan. This cut almost the saddest sight of all with the sturdy stone walls remaining but a quick peek through the gates showed it being used as a dumping ground for old washing machines and refrigerators.
|Lochruan and its collection of white goods.|
Campbeltown is like nowhere else in Scotland. Today it cuts a sleepy figure with an air of faded grandeur, but once you begin to scratch under the surface its rich history reveals itself. Nowhere in Scotland, or indeed the world, had so many distilleries historically operating in such a small area. Not legally anyway and is definitely the case in the modern industry.
Campbeltown must have been bustling and busy in a way that is now difficult to imagine. If only we could jump in a time machine and re-visit its whisky heyday to see for ourselves ...
|The gates at Benmore.|