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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field club Bulletin
April 1975

John Porter

To many, Industrial Archaeology would appear to be a dreary branch of the science centred in urban areas and devoted to the exploitation of the remains of dark satanic mills. In Caithness however the study is more or less confined to the flagstone industry, mills of various types, and distilleries. The latter subject is one which particularly interests me, not because of my drouth but because I came upon its study inadvertently.

In 1966 we bought a house at Gerston near Halkirk beside the little burn which flows from Loch Calder to join the Thurso river. (How the house came to be christened Mingulay is another story!) It transpired on examining the title deeds that the house had originally been built about 1890 as the Exciseman's house in the Ben Morven distillery complex. Although we have done a considerable amount of work on the house and garden however, we have failed to unearth any bottles of the Exciseman's samples.

The history of the distillery at Gerston dates back to 1825, when the brothers James and John Swanson commenced distilling. The plant continued under their management, gaining national acclaim, until it was relinquished by them in 1872. The new proprietors did not persist long with the venture and the distillery closed down about 1875. The spirit lived on nevertheless and a bottle of the pure is preserved in Loch Dubh Hotel. The 'Gerston' was much prized in London especially amongst the politicians, and indeed was the subject of some lavish testimonials by eminent men, among them Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister from 1841-1846. There is now little trace of the distillery save a few mounds of stones and a low wall beside the Thurso river about 300,yards above the present Gerston Farm.

The Ben Morven distillery was situated on the same bank of the river, about halfway between Gerston Farm and Halkirk Bridge and was built in 1887. It as the most up-to-date complex of its time and when Alfred Barnard visited in the autumn of 1887 he praised the layout which utilised the slight natural slope on which the buildings were constructed to allow much of the process to be worked on a gravitational system. The stills were steam heated with one furnace and boiler at the lowest level supplying the steam and hot water for the Mash House. Barnard added "this arrangement effects a great saving of manual labour and leaves the Mash and Still House beautifully clean". The Still House is all that now remains of the site which was one of the largest industrial complexes ever erected in Caithness. Water was obtained from the Calder Burn, about 100 yards above the point where it passes under the Gerston Farm road. The remains of the sluice gates at the entrance to the tunnel aqueduct may still be seen. On the opposite bank of the burn, at this same spot, water was led through a sluice and lade to Gerston Farm Mill which ceased to operate about 1940. In 1942 the mill wheel was hitched up to a dynamo and this supplied light to the farm until its connection to the public supply in 1947.

The Ben Morven spirit, although made from the same water, never quite attained the excellence of its predecessor and was not a success as a pure malt. Production was intermittent and, due to increasing costs, the financial position of the company and, as some aver, poor Management, it was finally closed in 1911 and the buildings dismantled in stages. The tall chimney stack was demolished in 1918 and the remaining buildings had gone, with the exception of the present dwelling house, by 1929. The dwelling houses associated with the project were also sold at this time - Morven House, now occupied by Mrs. I. Gunn, was the Manager's house; Glenmorven, now occupied by Peter Lees, comprised the Stillman's house and Maltman's cottage; and in Mingul the Exciseman resided.

The Pultneytown Distillery in Wick has outlived its competitors, although for 25 years no amber bead distilled from the copper worm. One James Henderson, who had been making whisky in a pot still in the Watten area, founded the business on the present site in 1826, only 3 years after the passing of the Excise Act which made the production of whisky legal on the payment of a licence. Pultneytown, therefore is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland. Its water, so necessary to the bouquet of any whisky, comes from Hempriggs Loch which is said to impart the distinctly peaty flavour of Old Pulteney. This is a flavour greatly sought after by the connoisseur and it is worthy of note that Donnie B. Macleod on a BBC TV programme once broke the no-advertising embargo to state that Old Pulteney was his favourite melt.

The following advertisement which appeared in the January 1899 edition of 'The Northern Ensign' gives some idea of the cost of Caithness whiskies. (The 'Gerston' referred to must be, by its age, from the Ben Morven distillery.)

"Having purchased 425 gallons of 10 year old 'Old Pulteney' and 9 year old 'Gerston' at the recent sales of bonded whiskies which were sold by orders of Messrs. Walter G. Cormack and Donald Wares, Wine & Spirit Merchants, Wick, and as it is rare that such fine whiskies come into the markets, Mr. Sutherland is desirous that his customers should get the benefit of a good dram at the New Year. He is therefore offering 10 year old 'Old Pulteney' at 3s6d per bottle and the 9 year old 'Gerston' at 3s per bottle. Those who desire a sample bottle of this fine whisky to be sent them should forward their order at once. The Sutherland blends, which have now become a household word, can be had at former prices viz 3s and 2s6d per bottle.
D. Sutherland (Proprietor) Latheronwheel Hotel "
(This advertisement explains why Latheronwheel Hotel has long been known as "The Blends.")

The only other 'legal' distillery in Caithness was situated on the Wulf Burn which flows from the Hill o' Forss into the sea at Burnside between Thurso and Scrabster. Old records suggest that it commenced operation about 1825 and was situated on both sides of the burn, between the Thurso-Tongue road and the quarries at Hill o' Forss. No trace of the buildings has survived.

Broadening the search to the field of illicit distilling, one finds their remains equally difficult to locate - although this is only to be expected. In the late 18th Century there were at least 15 illegal stills in the Parish of Halkirk alone and I doubt if the other Parishes of Caithness were any less enterprising. In the First Statistical Account the Parish minister of Wick stated that whisky was drunk to excess and advocated the introduction of brewing as being the lesser of the two evils. Some of the illicit spirit was of high quality, the operators taking great pride in their product. James Henderson the founder of Pultneytown Distillery, made a very fine 'drop o' the craitur' at Poolhoy, for about 30 years before moving to Wick. However many of the private operators produced a rough spirit and could scarcely wait until it had cooled before tippling.

In recent years one could find 'a eweie wi' the crookit horn' as the stills were affectionately known, in such unlikely places as Pultneytown, Newtonhill, Scotscalder and even on a Thurso housing scheme - but enough said!

As a fitting epilogue to any article on distilling in Caithness one can do no better than quote from "Scotch" by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart:-
"Mr. Neil Gunn, who was an excise officer in the Highlands before he became one of Scotland's foremost and most Celtic authors, is more reluctant to commit himself and more catholic in his appreciation. He gives high praise to Glen Mhor, an Inverness whisky, and has a kindly word to say for Old Pulteney, a potent product from his native county of Caithness. He is an ardent champion of malt whiskies and no other man has sung their praises with such lyrical enthusiasm.

These generous whiskies, he writes, with their individual flavours, recall the world of hills and glens, of raging elements, of shelter, of divine ease. The perfect moment of their reception is after arduous bodily stress - or mental stress, if the body be sound. The essential oils that wind in the glass then uncurl their long fingers in lingering benediction and the noble works of creation are made manifest At such a moment the basest man would bless his enemy."