Highland Park

The below is taken from The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard first published in 1887.

Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney.

ONCE more resuming our wanderings, we take train from London to Thurso a tedious journey occupying a day and a half. On reaching Thurso we hastened to embark on board the mail steamer, “St. Olaf,” which leaves Scrabster Pier soon after seven. The passage across the Pentland Firth is one of the roughest and usually most unpleasant in the British Isles. It is the channel which connects the two seas, and is never smooth. Here the unbroken flow of the Atlantic comes rolling in, and as it approaches the German Ocean the huge waves are dashed against the projecting headlands of Caithness and Orkney. Within a quarter of an hour after leaving the harbour we are in the thick of it. Soon we were buffetting and overtopping the waves, one moment in the air, and the next in a seething cauldron of enraged waters. Now we bounded over the waves, anon we charged at them, and were frequently drenched in a shower of spray after each shock. After two or three hours of this terrible treatment, we at last began to sail among the islands in smooth waters, and finally arrived at Scapa Pier about midnight. From the Pier to Kirkwall is a drive of two miles, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. There is no night in these regions during the summer months. It is light enough even at midnight to enable a person to read, and during our ride the lark and landrail kept up a constant chorus of music. Indeed, all nature seemed awake on this summer’s night, which really was but a softer day, and the scene was one that will be remembered by us all when back again at our southern homes. On reaching the Castle Hotel, the buxom landlady was waiting to receive us, and presented each person with a nip of neat whisky and a ginger cake, according to custom.

Kirkwall is a much larger and more interesting place than we expected. Many of the houses have their gables towards the street, and are verging on antiquity. The first object that arrests the attention is the ancient and venerable Cathedral of St. Magnus, built in the 12th century, and one of the most complete architectural monuments of the time existing in Scotland. Its stately form rises above the town, and is seen on either side of the island very many miles distant. Not less interesting are the magnificent ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s palaces, and picturesque narrow paved streets. The morning after our arrival we ascended the Wideford Hill, to take stock of the surrounding islands. Although only 721 feet above the level of the sea, it is the highest hill in the vicinity, and a breezy spot we found it. Here there is always a wind on the premises, and many an enthusiastic tourist, like one of our party, forgetting all else in the grandeur of the view stretched out before him, has thus doffed involuntarily to Æolus. Nothing is easier than to forget everything in the mere enjoyment of the sense of sight as we stand in such a novel position and with such an outlook. On either side stretched the sea, the sun pouring down its rays on an infinite expanse of water. From this eminence the whole archipelago is distinctly visible, and what a variety of tone and colour is presented by the surface of these islands. Some are dark heath covered; others with beautiful green fields, interspersed by many holms and skerries; whilst here and there are same, barren and black, encased as it were in a range of lofty precipices, which rise perpendicularly from the ocean, or even as in some places overhanging the surging waters. The Orkneys appear to us Cockneys to be quite out of the world, and each island a little sphere apart. Although only a few hours’ sail from the mainland, they appear to be so isolated that each is complete and complacent in itself. The inhabitants are grave and reticent, but proud of their history and descent from the ancient Vikings.

As we descend the hill, our guide points out to us the Highland Park Distillery, about a mile distant, planted on the opposite slope. He is delighted when we tell him the object of our visit, the old man having been connected with the Highland Park half a century ago. From him we learn that the site whereon the Distillery now stands was the place where the famous Magnus Eunson, carried on his operations. This man was the greatest and most accomplished smuggler in Orkney. By profession he was a U. P. Church Officer, and kept a stock of illicit whisky under the pulpit, but in reality he was a “nn Professing” distiller. This godly person was accustomed to give out the psalms in a more unctuous manner than usual if the excise officers were in church, as he knew that he was suspected, and that a party of the revenue officers, taking advantage of his absence, might at that moment be searching his house. A singular story is told of this man. Hearing that the Church was to be searched for whisky by a new party of excisemen, Eunson had the kegs all removed to his house, placed in the middle of an empty room, and covered with a clean white cloth. As the officers approached after their unsuccessful search in the church, Eunson gathered all his people, including the maidservants, round the whisky, which, with its covering of white, under which a coffin lid had been placed, looked like a bier. Eunson knelt at the head with the Bible in his hand and the others with their psalm books. As the door opened they set up a wail for the dead, and Eunson made a sign to the officers that it was a death, and one of the attendants whispered “smallpox.” Immediately the officer and his men made off as fast as they could, and left the smuggler for some time in peace. We have seen numerous stories in print of this clever smuggler and his band, but space will not permit us to reproduce them here.

It is a pleasant walk to Highland Park, and occupied us about a quarter of an hour. Mr. Milne is now the resident partner on the island, and, as he had only recently arrived in Orkney, he handed us over to Mr. James Ellis, the Manager, who conducted us over the Distillery. Before commencing our tour of inspection, we ascended the hill a few hundred yards above the establishment to see the water supply, as there is a peculiarity about it which led to the site being chosen by Magnus Eunson, and continued by his successors. Here there is no mountain stream or brawling rivulet; the water wells up from two springs at opposite angles of a small park, and is conveyed aqueducts to two reservoirs, where the waters are mixed together and conveyed into the Distillery fifty yards distant. The whole of the works and the park above referred to are enclosed in a substantial stone wall, and the main entrance to the Distillery is from the high road from Kirkwall to Holm. The establishment covers three acres of ground, and is built in three terraces on the slopes of a hill. It faces Wideford Hill, and has Scapa Flow on its left and Kirkwall Bay on the right. Passing through a gateway we find ourselves in a large open court with a tree in the centre, the first we have seen in the island; hence it attracted our notice. Ascending the hill a short distance we come to the Granaries and Maltings, a V shaped stone building of two floors, at the apex is an old fashioned Kiln, which commands both sides of the structure. These two ranges are each one hundred feet long and twenty feet broad, and roofed with slates. We should here state that there is very little barley used here, which doubtless all connoisseurs of Highland Park Whisky know. The grain used is the old-fashioned bere grown in the neighbouring islands, dating back to the time of the Norwegians, and used at Campbeltown until the last twenty years. It is, of course, a species of barley, but a lighter grain. But to return to the Maltings. The top floors of each section are used for storing the bere, and will hold 2,000 quarters of grain. The lower, are used for Malting purposes, and have each a stone Steep capable of wetting twenty-five quarters at one time. These floors are of a compound mixture of clay and earth which keeps them continually moist. The Malt when properly developed is hoisted to the Kiln by an old fashioned windlass, and tipped on to a floor which is composed of flat metal plates, through which holes have been drilled out, of a primitive pattern.

We now ascended a movable stair to inspect this ancient Kiln, the outward appearance of which is that of a dungeon. It has walls over two feet thick and the building is about twenty-four feet square. The celebrated Orkney peats are the only fuel used in drying with the exception of a little heather hereafter referred to. On each side of this Kiln is an antique chamber now used as a Malt Deposit, each holding about five hundred quarters of dried Malt, where the Malt is filled into sacks and carried on the backs of stalwart Orcadians through the contiguous buildings, and across a drawbridge swung over the Mash Tun to the Mill building, where it is tipped into a hopper, and falls into the Mill below, which contains the usual malt cylinders driven by steam. The Pulverized Malt is raised from the mill floor by a windlass and shot into the hopper communicating with a Steel’s Mashing Machine, where the grist becomes properly mixed with hot water and falls into the Tun below. The Mash House bears indications of great age and little or no restoration. It has an open roof and a boarded floor, and contains on a shelf stretching across the building, a Heating Copper (with a capacity of eight hundred gallons) the shape of a tea urn of the last century, also on the floor a circular iron Mash Tun ten and half feet in diameter and five feet deep, with the usual stirring gear, which is driven by steam, and the Under Back, holding three hundred gallons, which is of metal and is placed below the floor. As we stand on the bridge, which has been slung over the Mash Tun for our benefit, our heads are on a level with the open roof of the next building, and we see stretched out before us the Coolers, which are in two divisions, each of which measures thirty feet square, and both having the old fashioned revolving fans driven by steam. Descending from our perch we come to a stairway, at the bottom of which we found ourselves in a narrow passage, leading to the Tun Room or Back House. On passing through the doorway we step into a gloomy building of a triangular shape, which contains ten Wash Backs, each averaging 2,128 gallons contents, and all switched by hand props. On leaving this department, a few steps down brings us to the Still House, paved with stone - the oldest part of the works, its exterior green with age, but inside cleanly with whitewash and paint. As we enter the building we pass under a low gallery, on which are placed the Wash Charger, holding 3,655 gallons, and the No. 2, Low-wines and Feints Receiver, holding four hundred gallons. Opposite the door by which we have entered, and standing back against the wall, are two old Pot Stills, of ancient pattern and design, one of them a Wash Still, holding 1,180 gallons, the other a Spirit Still of eight hundred and forty gallons, both heated by furnaces. Under the gallery already referred to, there is a Spirit Receiver holding four hundred and thirty-five gallons, a No. 1, Low-wines and Spirit Receiver seven hundred and eleven gallons, and the safe. The pure Spirit is pumped from the Receiver into a Vat, which holds 1,627 gallons placed in the Spirit Store, an adjoining building.

Having done justice to the Still House, we now passed into the yard, and proceeded to inspect the two large Worm Tubs at the back of the Stills. On our way we noticed a peculiarly shaped timber building, which our guide informed us is called the “Heather House.” Here heather is stored, which has been gathered in the month of July, when the blossom is fully set. It is carefully cut off near the root, and tied into small faggots of about a dozen branches. One or two of these faggots are used with the peat in drying the malt every time the fire is made up, and imparts a delicate flavour of its own to the malt, rendering Highland Park Whisky unlike any other made in the kingdom. To convince us of this, a few sprigs, well covered with dried blossoms, were thrown into an open chauffeur with a small quantity of peat, and we must confess that we detected a most pronounced odour, and quite different from the peat when used alone. We have only seen the heather used in three other distilleries in the whole kingdom. Opposite the Heather House is the old fashioned Water Wheel, and higher up the hill we come to the enormous Peat Sheds and Stacks, which together extend 400 feet up the slope, and contain some thousands of tons stored here for winter use. Descending on the other side of the Distillery proper, we come to the Excise and Brewers’ Offices, Racking Store, and one of the large new Bonded Warehouses. It is 130 feet long, 42 feet broad, and both well lighted and dry. The other ten warehouses, which are distributed in the front and sides of the court yard round the premises, are not quite so large. The whole of the eleven warehouses contained, at the time of our visit, 3,194 casks, holding 213,509 proof gallons.

In the Engine House, which is an annexe of the Mash House, we noticed a 12 horse-power horizontal engine, and a boiler 16 feet by 6 feet diameter. The excise officers’ houses, are beautifully situated, and command a view of the sea on either side of the island. At the left hand of the gateway there is a small detached building, which is used for the Distillery offices, and contains a private room for the resident partner. The burnt ale from the Distillery runs into a tank by the side of the public road, over which a pump has been fixed for the free use of the small farmers in the vicinity. Mr. Graham is the chief excise officer, and there are fifteen persons employed in the Distillery.

The Whisky, which is pure Highland Malt, is sold principally in Scotland and England, whilst some of it is shipped to the Colonies.

The annual output is 50,000 gallons.

Images of Highland Park