Lagavulin Distillery, Islay.
FROM Ardbeg our route homeward lay through the beautiful village of Lagganmhouillin or Lagavulin, “the Mill in the Valley,” and no prettier or more romantic spot could have been chosen for a distillery. We trotted merrily along, the horse apparently knowing that its face was stable-ward, and the driver, evidently anticipating another “wee drappie” at our next halting place, occasionally broke out into song, but as it was in Gaelic we were none the wiser, and his command of the English language so limited, that he could not favour us with a translation. As we rounded a ridge of one of the hills we came in sight of the historical ruin of Dun-naomhaig Castle, which stands on a large peninsular rock, protected on the land side by a thick earthen mound opposite the village of Lagavulin. It is the place where Robert Bruce took refuge after his disastrous defeat by the Earl of Pembroke, and was also a stronghold to which the Lords of the Isles constantly retreated. There are remains of several such strongholds in Islay, the walls of some of them being 12 feet thick, and there is usually a gallery in the midst of the wall; one of those we visited had a stone-seat two feet high round the area. The picturesque ruins of the principal castle and chapel where the Lords of the Isles resided in royal pomp are on an islet in Loch Finlaggan, a lake three miles in circumference, and several traces are still to be seen on its shore of a pier and habitations used by their guards and men-at-arms. In former times a large stone was to be seen on which the MacDonalds stood when crowned King of the Isles by the Bishop of Argyle.
“Where are thy pristine glories, Finlaggan?The voice of mirth has ceased to ring thy walls,Where Celtic lords and their fair ladies sangTheir songs of joy in Great MacDonald’s halls.And where true knights, the flower of chivalry,Oft met their chiefs in revelry-All, all are gone and left thee to repose,Since a new race and measures new arose.”
Towards the head of Lochindaal on the same side of the Island, there are also vestiges of a similar pier and dwellings, where in olden times the MacDonalds had a body of 500 men to guard the shores of the loch, who were formed in two divisions, the first called Ceatharnaich was the principal one, and was composed of the very tallest and strongest of the islanders, of these a picked body of sixteen, formed the body-guard of their lord, whose duty it was to attend him wherever he went, even in his rural walks and friendly visits; one of their number denominated Gille-“shiabadh-dealt” headed the band. This piece of honourable distinction was conferred upon him on account of his feet being of such enormous size and form as in his progress to shake the dew from the grass preparatory to its being trod by his master. These Buannachan, as they were called, enjoyed great privileges and were given lands, which rendered them particularly obnoxious to their countrymen. The last gang was destroyed in so ludicrous a manner, yet withal so sanguinary, that we cannot forbear relating the tale to our readers. The Buannachans were particularly distasteful to one Macphail in the Rhinns, whose occupation when not required to attend the Lord of the Isles on a foraying and slaughtering expedition, was that of a peaceful woodman. One day seeing the Gille-“shiabadh-dealt” and his comrades coming he set about splitting the trunk of a tree, in which he had partly succeeded by the time they had reached him. He requested his visitors to lend a hand which they willingly did. So ranging themselves eight on each side they took hold of the partially severed split, on their doing which the crafty Macphail removed the wedges which had kept open the split, which now closed on their fingers holding them hard and fast in this clever rustic man-trap. Macphail and his three sons then equipped themselves from the armour of their captives, and after compelling them to eat a lusty dinner, with fiendish cruelty beheaded every one of them and made their escape to Ireland.
Close to the Distillery, as if to throw round the establishment its spiritual protection, stands a quaint-looking church; the bell which summons the worshippers instead of being in the tower, is fixed on a cross-tree of pyramidical shape on the top of a neighbouring hill, so that its sound may reach the remotest parts of the parish. The clergyman’s residence, like the church, is picturesquely situated beside a rocky inlet of the sea coast, and nearly opposite the castle before referred to. The country from Lagavulin to Port Ellen, three miles distant, presents a well cultivated and fertile aspect, and forms a striking and beautiful contrast to the rugged coast. On reaching the village we put the horse up and proceeded to inspect the Distillery.
The works are built at the head of a miniature bay, around which rocks of fantastic shape rise abruptly from the sea; in some places detached masses have fallen in such a position that they rise from the sea like weird monsters of the deep, and by moonlight produce startling effects on the surface of the waters. Lagavulin is said to be one of the oldest distilleries in Islay, the business to a certain extent having been founded in 1742. At that period it consisted of ten small and separate smuggling bothys for the manufacture of “moonlight,” which when working presented anything but a true picture of “still life,” and were all subsequent1y absorbed into one establishment, the whole work not making more than a few thousand gallons per annum. The term “moonlight” used always to be applied to illicit Whisky in contradistinction to that which paid duty which was termed “daylight.” A century ago smuggling was the chief employment of the crofters and fishermen, more especially during the winter, and many were the encounters which took place between them and the Government officers. Up to the year 1821 smuggling was a lucrative trade in Islay, and large families were supported by it. In those days every smuggler could clear at least ten shillings a day, and keep a horse and cow. Early in the century the buildings were converted into a legal Distillery, and in the year 1835 they came into the possession of the present firm, who repaired the place and made considerable additions and improvements. During the past thirty years the works have been somewhat enlarged to meet the growing demand for the product, nevertheless the old character of the place has been preserved, and there is not a modern building to be seen, except one or two new Bonded Warehouses. The water used comes from the top of the hill of Solan, where there are two lochs, both brought into requisition, one for driving and the other for mashing. Our driver informed us that the Lagavulin water has a hundred falls before it reaches the Distillery, and that it travels over moss and peat lands all the way down, which is said to give the pronounced flavour to the Lagavulin Whisky. In the absence of Mr. Graham, the resident partner, the manager showed us over the works, and without his directions we should certainly have lost ourselves in the old place. The Maltings, which are arranged on one side of a long open court, are 150 feet long and 36 feet broad. The top floors, used for storing the barley, will hold 3,000 quarters, and underneath are the Malt-floors with stone Steeps. Attached to these buildings there is a Kiln, measuring 36 feet by 28 feet, floored with wire cloth, where only peat is used in drying the malt. A door-way from the Kiln floor leads direct into the Malt-deposit, a well-lighted room capable of holding 1,000 quarters. From this department the malt is sent by elevators to the Mill to be ground, from which place the pulverized malt is raised to the Grist-loft in the adjoining building. In this chamber there is a hopper into which the ground malt is tipped, and from whence it falls through the Mashing Machine direct into the Mash Tun below. We then followed our guide to the Mash and Distilling-house, a sombre building, which brings our memories back to the middle ages. It contains two Brewing tanks heated by steam, a metal Mash Tun, 18 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep, which possesses the usual revolving stirring rakes; a metal Underback, a Morton’s Refrigerator, the Pumps, and in the roof a set of old fashioned Coolers. We next proceeded to the Tun-room, which contains seven Washbacks ranged round the wall, each holding 2,000 gallons and at an elevation a Wash Charger. The Still-house contains two old Pot Stills, heated by old fashioned furnaces; one of them is a Wash Still holding 1,200 gallons, inside of which is the revolving chain arrangement, and the other a Low-wines and Feints Still, holding 650 gallons. Here also are the usual Receivers, Chargers, and Safe. Crossing the roadway we next visited the Spirit Store, which contains a Vat holding 2,000 gallons, and the casking apparatus, where the spirit is weighed, branded, and sent to the Warehouses or under bond direct to the stores in Glasgow. From thence we bent our steps to the four large Warehouses, which contained at the time of our visit 4,000 casks of Whisky of various ages. There is a small cooperage, carpenter’s shop, stores, stables, and cart-sheds on the premises.
The Whisky is mostly shipped from Port Ellen, but some of it is floated out to ships. The Distillery is under the entire management of Mr. J. C. Graham, the resident partner, who resides in a picturesque house, opposite the works. The make is pure Islay Malt, and is principally sold in Glasgow, England, and the Colonies. The annual output is 75,000 gallons, and the make is held in high repute; we tasted some eight years old before starting, which was exceptionally fine. The make is largely used for blending purposes, but is also sold as a single Whisky; there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent.