Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William, Invernesshire.
WE left Oban - the Charing Cross of the Highlands - by the morning steamer, and shall long remember the voyage from that place to Fort William. The sea was smooth, the sky clear, and the weather all that could be desired. There are surely few experiences to be found more delightful, than steaming through the romantic scenery of the Highland Lochs upon a fair morning in summer, under such conditions as now linger in our memory. As a matter of fact there are no better appointed steamers in the United Kingdom, than those belonging to Mr. David Macbrayne. Most of them have been specially built for tourist service, and admirably answer the requirements, and anticipate the wants, of the travelling pilgrim. Strolling upon the maindeck of the “Mountaineer” we had ample time to study the beauty of the scenery, as we steam along with that sense of freedom and exhilaration, which the modern invention of the railway train has struck out of the list of human enjoyments. Lochs Lomond, Etive, Katrine and Earn, full of historic fame and of world wide reputation, need only to be mentioned to recall to many the grandeur of the shady valleys and lofty sunlit hills; but the voyage from Oban to Fort William transcends them all. We have travelled many a highway at home and abroad, but can recall nothing so varied and lovely. Leaving Oban, and rounding the point upon which stand the ruins of Dunolly Castle, we entered Loch Linnhe, and the mighty mass of Ben Nevis, with its grey barren domes flushed with sunshine. In the distance, burst upon our view. This grand eminence, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, rises 4,406 feet above the level of the sea. It stands almost isolated, by two yawning ravines, from the adjoining lofty mountain ranges. Its base at one side is almost washed by the sea, and from any point of view its appearance is most imposing. The brow of this majestic mountain is generally encircled with an icy diadem, and its topmost furrows and chasms filled with snow. On the northern side of the summit there is a tremendous precipice, falling some 1,500 feet; and at the height of 1,700 feet from the base there is a wild tarn or mountain take, whose dark waters look weird and terrible.
When free from its soft covering of clouds there is a grand view from the summit of Ben Nevis, and the spectator is astounded at the wild and strange sublimity of the scene, augmented by the depth of the surrounding precipices. Gazing over the horizon an ever-changing panorama meets the eye; now Ben Cruachin, Ben Lomond and other lofty mountains in the far distance are revealed, then for a time they will be hidden by banks of mist that sailing on the wind fill the rugged depths of chasms, black as night, and impenetrable to the eye and light of day. These again pass away and the awe-struck spectator finds himself amidst cloud and mountain scenery, the beauty and ever-changing complexion of which no words or pen can describe. On the summit of the mountain the Scotch Meteorological Society have erected an Observatory, having obtained a feu of an acre of ground from Mrs. Cameron Campbell of Monzie, the owner of that portion of the mountain, which is included in her estates of Fassifern and Calart. In establishing this National Observatory the object sought is to obtain a knowledge of atmospheric changes and disturbances, and from this source the value of forecasts of the weather over the British Isles is greatly enhanced, a detailed report from the Observatory appearing daily in the columns of the Times. All honour to the little band of observers, who, for weeks at a time, are cut off from intercourse with the outer world, save by the power of the electric wire; and who, in the cause of science, isolate themselves from the world, and suffer cold and privations, that they may keep hourly watch over the weather, and by the power of the telegraph flash the results to all parts of the United Kingdom.
But to return to Fort William. This place was formerly called Maryburgh and the Garrison of Inverlochy, from the ancient castle which still stands in solitary magnificence. The fort was one of the garrisons erected by Oliver Cromwell to overawe the Scotch, and was destroyed and re-erected by William III, from whom it receives its present name. It played an important part in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745, and was maintained as a garrison until 1864, when it was purchased from the Government by Mr. Campbell of Monzie. The dark tragedy of Glencoe is intimately connected with the history of Fort William, while it will be remembered that the MacDonalds figured as the victims of that awful massacre. On nearing our destination one of the first objects that strikes our view is the handsome new pier, built by Mr. McDonald on the property of the Ben Nevis Distilleries, for his fleet of steamers.
On the landward part of the quay there is a neatly built block of houses occupied by the Distillery employees, and a row of warehouses for general supplies and stores for the works. The quay is entirely built of concrete, and was constructed by Mr. McDonald’s workmen under his own superintendence.
On our arrival at the landing stage we proceeded to the West End Hotel for refreshment and rest. The next morning we drove to the Ben Nevis Distillery situated south-east of Lochiel and two miles from the town. It takes its name from the gloomy mountain, its solitary companion, and was the first legal Distillery in the Lochaber district. Our way led over the river Nevis, past the battle-field, immortalized by Sir Walter Scott in his “Legend of Montrose,” and by the ruins of the ancient and royal Inverlochy Castle which stands on Mr. McDonald’s farm, a short distance from the Distillery.
Ben Nevis was built in the year 1825 by Mr. John McDonald, the father of the present proprietor, and, with the new Distillery on the banks of the Nevis, a little nearer the town, is the only Distillery within 50 miles. Mr. Donald P. McDonald, the present owner, descends from the Keppoch branch of the McDonalds, formerly one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands. His father, who was a man of great stature and noble physique, was familiarly called “Long John” to distinguish him from the many other Johns of his numerous clan. On looking up the records of this ancient and historic clan, we find that in 1745 the McDonalds nobly came to the assistance of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” and sent upwards of 2,000 men to fight for him, and the chief of the Keppochs was killed at the battle of Culloden. As we drove in at the gates of the Distillery we were struck with the picturesque appearance of the buildings, all of which are grouped about on a carpet of green, bordered with fir plantations, in striking contrast to the background of the mountain whose projections intrude themselves up to the walls of the Distillery. Forty years ago this establishment was on a very small scale, and the Whisky manufactured by “Long John” but little known and appreciated; now it is famous in all parts of the world. Then 200 gallons per week was about the average make; now it exceeds 3,000 gallons.
The first place we visited was the Malting House, a stone building of two floors, the upper one used for storing barley, and the lower as a withering floor, with a timber steep at the end filled by means of a trough running direct from the side of the stream. The Maltings proper, connected with this Distillery, are situated in the town, close to the harbour on Mr. McDonald’s property, and are conveniently arranged for unloading the barley from the ships. At one end of the Maltings at the Distillery, is placed the Kiln, floored with wire cloth, heated with peat, and the furnaces enclosed with sheet iron. The malt is hoisted to the Kiln by an old fashioned windlass, and after being dried is carried across the yard and over the stream in sacks to the Malt deposit, which forms the roof of the building on the side of an acclivity, on a level with part of the yard, and which is over the Mash house. Here the Malt is dropped into a hopper and falls into the mill below, which contains a pair of malt rollers, driven by a turbine water-wheel, made by the Lowmoor Iron Company, Bradford, one of the first erected in Scotland for that purpose. The grist is elevated from here to an apartment over the Mash Tun where it is tipped into a sluice, and run first through the Mashing machine, thence into the Mash Tun, which is 13 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep, holding 3,000 gallons, and capable of mashing 200 bushels, and having the double action stirring gear. The Mash House is a substantial building 42 feet by 22. The three heating coppers, which supply the hot water to the Mash Tun, are in an adjoining building. Under the mash tun is placed the Underback, an iron vessel holding 2,500 gallons. From the Underback the Worts are pumped up by a centrifugal pump into the Worts Cooler placed above, from whence they run over a set of Lawrence’s upright refrigerators into a trough alongside the Tun Room into the six Washbacks, each of which contains 6,000 gallons. The Tun room, 84 feet long and 24 feet wide, is a bright, cheerful and clean house, contiguous to the Still House and above the level of the Stills. The wash is pumped by another centrifugal pump into the Wash Charger, holding 6,000 gallons, placed on an elevation in the Still House, and the liquor now runs by gravitation into the Wash Still. Very few of the old Distilleries can boast of such a fine Still House as Ben Nevis possesses. It is 72 feet long and 27 feet wide, lofty, well lighted and kept in perfect order. The Stills therein are all of the “small” pot kind and of the following capacities: the two Wash Stills, 1,000 and 800 gallons respectively, and the Spirit Stills, two 350 and one 500 gallons. In this House there is a capital little 6-horse power engine, and steam boiler 12 by 6, also two Low-wines and Feints Receivers, and two Spirit Receivers with indicators. The two Worm-tubs are outside the Still House. We walked across the top of these Receivers into the Safe Room, which contains a Main Safe and two Sampling Safes. Across the court and adjoining the Excise Office is the Spirit Store, wherein are two Spirit Vats holding 700 and 200 gallons respectively.
On another side of this court are the Smithy and Engineers Shop, a Cooperage, Joiners’ Shop and a Saw-mill. Ranged round the yard are Cart Sheds, Stables and Stores. Distributed about the premises are ten Warehouses entirely detached from the Distillery and from each other. No. 9 Warehouse is a large building, 126 by 108 feet, roofed with sheet iron, lighted by windows, and containing over 2,000 casks of Whisky placed in tiers on gauntrees from end to end of the building, with working avenues between. No. 10 is the newest and most recently built, 156 by 84 feet, of a similar construction, and contains 1,600 casks of Whisky. No. 8 is 124 by 78 feet, and the other seven Warehouses are somewhat smaller. The whole together contain 8,161 casks, holding 523,722 gallons. The original, and at that time only Warehouse belonging to the Distillery, is still to he seen, and is a picturesque old building. We now walked across the park to the farmsteading, which brings us to the old castle of Inverlochy, the stately and extensive old ruin before referred to. Mr. McDonald farms about 150 acres of arable land, and rents upwards of 5,000 acres of Ben Nevis mountain, whereon are about 2,000 sheep. The farm buildings are neatly arranged and contain nearly 200 head of cattle, which are fed with the grains from the old Distillery.
Thirty men are employed on the farm and the Distillery, for whom dwelling houses have been provided. There are three Excise Officers.
The Whisky is pure Highland Malt, and the annual output for the year 1884-5 was 152,798 gallons.
Urgent business at this time called us home, and our next visit to this district was in the winter, and in the following chapter we describe the new Distillery which Mr. McDonald has erected in close proximity to his old work.