The Magical History of the Great Brora Distillery


    The main reason why George Granville Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford (1758-1833) - who had married the heiress of the Sutherland estates and was to take the name of Duke of Sutherland later on – decided to establish the Clynelish Distillery near Clynelish farm probably wasn’t the quality of the grain grown on his estate, nor the fact that there was a coal mine in the neighbourhood. Like in many places in Scotland, including Islay as Andrew Jefford tells us in his excellent book ‘Peat, Smoke and Spirit', lots of farmers had just been cleared from their fertile lands during the ‘Highland Clearances' to make way for some much more profitable sheep, and had been moved to the town of Brora, were the Marquess had to give them a job – so that they could pay him their rents, of course. So, the farmers started to grow cereals and a distillery was built, so that these cereals could feed the growing and much profitable Scotch whisky market (and not get distilled illicitly, as it was customary at these times). The whole scheme also included the regeneration of the arable farms on the estate’s coastal strip.


In his ‘DCL Distillery Histories Series’, written in 1982, Brian Spiller quotes James Loch, the Marquess of Stafford’s Lands Commissioner: ‘The first farm beyond the people’s lot (at Brora) is Clynelish which has recently been let to Mr. Harper from the county of Midlothian. Upon this farm also there has just been erected a distillery at an expense of £750. This was done to afford the smaller tenants upon the estate a steady and ready market for their grain without their being obliged to dispose of it to the illegal distiller'. And Mr. Loch to point out that illicit distilling was a practice that had nursed the people ‘in every species of deceit, vice, idleness and dissipation’.
    Clynelish was one of the earliest examples of a purpose-built distillery, whereas most other distilleries at that time were extensions of farmsteads or even converted breweries, like Oban. Yet, both Clynelish farm and Clynelish distillery were integrated, as the old architect’s plan shows that there was a piggery, where the pigs were fed directly with the spent grains’ leftovers. The pigs were then to fertilize a ‘larger proportion of unimproved land’ added to the farm ‘in consequence of the command of manure which the distillery will afford the tenant’, as James Loch wrote in 1820. That’s the way a part of Brora Muir was converted to farming lands.

    Besides, the coal mine nearby provided some rather cheap combustible, and the whole venture proved very successful right from the beginnings, provoking the envy of the other distillers in Scotland.
Yet, Clynelish distillery had just one pair of stills at that time: the wash still with a capacity of 200 gallons (XXX litres) and the spirit still with 87 gallons (XXX litres). The output was approx 10,000 gallons a year, and James Harper, the lessee who was running the place, is said to have paid duty of £2,774 for the 1821-1822 season, corresponding to exactly 10,015 gallons of alcohol (XXXX litres, to be compared to the new Clynelish’s XXXX litres today.)
What I don’t know yet is whether the malt was dried with coal or peat at that time, although it was probably peat.

In 1834, Andrew Ross is the new lessee.

    George Lawson, whose brother was the local banker, obtains the lease of the premises. He’s then joined by his sons and forms a partnership with them: George Lawson & Sons (clever). Mr. Lawson has an excellent vista, and makes two major decisions: first, through his brother the banker, he obtains capital and makes substantial improvements and extensions to the distillery. A new malt kiln is erected, and the two original stills are replaced, although I don’t really know whether the shapes and capacities were changed or not – I guess they were larger, that is, as Alfred Barnard will sort of tell us later on, but I’m not sure.

Second, George Lawson decides to specialize in a private customer trade instead of working with brokers or merchants, and each year sees his income increase, while the brand name ‘Clynelish’ gets more and more famous throughout the whole country, including London, and even abroad, to the point that the orders from the whisky trade can’t be fulfilled anymore. The whisky from Clynelish is said to be the most expensive from Scotland. The Lawsons are also very efficient farmers, as two of their Clynelish Highland oxen win the first prize at the Smithfield Show in 1894.
      Alfred Barnard visited Clynelish (sometimes wrongly quoted as Clyneleish in his book) in 1886 and the two pages about his visit are packed with worthwhile information. For instance, we learn that ‘the situation (of the distillery) was chosen partly on account of the proximity of the Brora coal-field, but in the present day this is of no advantage, as the coal produced at this mine is of such poor quality that none is used at Clynelish’.
     Barnard wrote a full and very ‘Barnard-esque’ – indeed - technical description of the distillery, published in 1887 – here it is (take a deep breath):
... ... ... ...
   The buildings are in form of a rectangular oblong, with two courtyards in the interior, and a fringe of buildings, consisting of warehouses, offices &c., round the north and part of the east and west faces. They cover about two acres, are all roofed with slates, and have been put into a thorough state of repair. To the south is the yard for peats, which are cut from a moss about a quarter of a mile away, and from this moss is also drawn the water required for motive power. The water used in the Distillery is taken from a small stream, which originates in a loch, some miles distant amongst the hills. In its course it runs alternately over moss and gravel until within about a mile of the Distillery, when it enters a rocky gorge, and, tumbling over several falls, is caught at the foot of the hill in a substantial stone cistern, from which it is led to the Distillery in iron pipes.  
    There are three Granaries, capable of storing about 2,000 quarters of grain, and two Malt Barns, one with a stone, the other and iron Steep. The Kiln, which is a new erection, and in which nothing but peat is used, can dry 20 quarters at a time. The Malt Mill, as also the Worts and Wash Pumps and the Coolers, are driven by an over-shot water-wheel.
The Mash House is of large dimensions, and contains a Mash-tun, 13 feet in diameter and 3 feet 6 inches deep, two large Copper Boilers, also the Underback, and the Worts and Wash Pumps. In the Tun Room are four Washbacks, with an average capacity of 3,000 gallons, above which is the cooling floor.
The two Stills, which have recently been put in, are both of the old pot type, and are heated by coal. In addition to them, the Still House contains the Wash and Low-wines Chargers, and Low-wines and Spirit Receivers; also the Spirit Safe.
In the Spirit Store there is a vat of 900 gallons content, and the usual casking appliances. Distributed about the premises there are five large Warehouses, all built in stone and lime, with slate roofs, and capable of holding about 900 puncheons of Whisky. During the summer months the distilling operations cease in this establishment.
The Whisky made is Highland Malt, and the average annual output is nearly 20,000 gallons.’

That’s it for the technical part, but Barnard also wrote some interesting ‘commercial’ lines. Here they are:
‘(The whisky) is sent out duty paid to private customers all over the kingdom, and the demand for it in this way has become so great that the firm have for some years been obliged to refuse trade orders. This system entails the keeping a heavy stock of Whisky while it is maturing; and the whole of the extensive warehouse accommodation being required for this purpose, all offers to purchase in bond are declined and the whole stock is thus available for the ordinary business of the firm.
Now, I’d love to see some old catalogues or mail pieces from Clynelish’s or George Lawson & sons. Maybe they even invented CRM? But let’s move forwards now…