Pulteney Distillery, Wick.
WHEN we left Kirkwall the weather, although cold, was fine, but after we reached the outer islands the rain came down in torrents, and the sea was so rough that our voyage was prolonged nearly two hours. Fortunately, the weather cleared up a little before we arrived at Scrabster Pier, and right glad were we to reach the hotel, and rest ourselves after the stormy passage.
We rose with the lark next morning, and caught the early train to Wick, which place we reached before breakfast. It is a seaport town, and the name, which is of Scandinavian origin, signifies an opening or bay, which is quite descriptive of the situation of the town. Wick derives its chief importance from being the great emporium of the herring fishery of Scotland, and during the season from 800 to 1,000 “boats may be seen leaving the bay.
On the south side of the bay stands the gloomy ruin of Auldwick Castle, said to have been built before the twelfth century, which serves as a landmark to mariners and is called “the Auld Man 0’ Wick,” and, on the north side, “John O’ Groats,” which is about eighteen miles distant from the town. The coast is engirt with rocks, rising precipitously from the sea, which from the steamer looks inaccessible; but here and there are to be found some curious little retreats for boats, hidden behind niches of projecting rocks. In one of these creeks, called Whalligoe, there is a fine cascade, which falls abruptly over the cliff, and to see this waterfall with the sun’s rays upon it is a sight never to be forgotten.
The sea coast throughout Caithness is generally lofty and rugged, and presents scenery of the grandest description. The iron-bound precipices are cleft by innumerable “goes” or fissures, whose steep sides in the breeding season are covered with thousands of wild fowl. At their base, in many places, gloomy caves open out, and here and there shoot up the isolated pillars of rock called stacks, which impart a peculiar and striking feature to the scene. Some of them are hollowed into arches by the restless surge, which, when agitated by the gale, is ever and anon seen pouring through them with a rush of foam. One of the most remarkable of these stacks, called The Brough, is situated near the Auld Man 0’ Wick; this immense oval-shaped rock, which is about 300 feet high and 600 feet long, is perforated from end to end, the passage being so large and water so deep that a boat can easily pass through in fine weather, and in the centre of the passage is a large space with an opening through the top, which lights up the interior.
There are several lofty headlands along the coast, but the most celebrated are the Ord of Caithness, Holburn Head, and the Promontory of Duncan’s Bay. The Ord, so well known as a formidable pass between Sutherland and Caithness, is situated at the eastern boundary of the two counties. On the Sutherland side the headland is cleft into a huge ravine or gorge of great depth, running a long way up into the interior. The old road, along which the mail coach travelled in olden times, was the only practicable route into the country, and was a mere path or shelf along the outer edge of the promontory, without any protection from the precipice, so that it could not be passed with safety in a storm. Holburn Head, which is about three miles from Thurso, is a magnificent promontory. It runs out on the west side of the roadstead of Scrabster, and with its bold precipitous ridge, forms, as it were a gigantic wall to protect it from the fury of the Atlantic. At the extremity of the headland there is an immense isolated rock, called the Clett, which adds considerably to its picturesque and striking appearance. The roadstead of Scrabster has been long famous as an anchorage, where a large number of vessels can ride safely at anchor during a storm. The most beautiful promontory on the coast is Duncan’s Bay Head, which lies about a mile from John 0’ Groats. It is a semi-circular shape and about two miles in extent, the greater part of which is surrounded by the sea, and forms a continued precipice remarkable for its stupendous boldness, and the wild and striking appearance of the few chasms and goes by which it is indented.
The scenery in land is tame and bleak, and with the exception of one or two small plantations near the town, there is scarcely a tree visible for many miles. The town is divided by the Wick river, and that part on the south side, where the Distillery is planted, is called Pulteney Town. The works are built close to the shores of the German Ocean, and about one mile from the station they are quadrangular in form, and cover nearly 3½ acres of ground.
Pulteney is the farthest north Distillery on the mainland of Scotland, and is one of the oldest Distilleries in the North, having been established in the year 1826 by the late Mr. James Henderson, by whose family it is still carried on. Previous to its erection, Mr. Henderson was the proprietor of a small Distillery further inland for a period of nearly thirty years, but on finding the demand for his “make” increasing, he determined to start a Distillery nearer the sea coast, which in those days was the only mode of transit to the south; the firm may, therefore, claim to have been Distillers from about the beginning of the century. Entering the establishment through a covered archway, we observed on the right the Maltings; they consist of three commodious and well ventilated barley Lofts, capable of storing 2,500 quarters of grain; and two Malting Floors, also of large dimensions, each possessing Steeps of proportionate size, which will wet 25 quarters at one time. At the end of these buildings are the Kilns, floored with iron plates, and where peat only is used in drying the malt. Adjoining the Kilns are two large Malt Deposits, each capable of containing 4,500 bushels. We crossed to the other side of the square, where are situated all the buildings connected with the Distillery proper, and mounted a staircase which leads to the Mill, placed over the Mash House. The dried malt is carted there from the Kilns; the malt rollers will crush 250 bushels per hour. Two shoots from the Mill Room convey the ground malt direct to the Mash-tun. In the adjoining apartment we noticed two Heating Coppers, holding together 3,000 gallons, which vessels are both heated by steam. Descending to the ground floor, we came to the Mash House, a building used for brewing only, containing a Mash-tun, 12 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep, fitted with revolving rakes and draining plates; also the Underback, placed below the floor.
We then retraced our steps to the level of the Mill Floor, and passed through a doorway into the Tun Room, where there are four Washbacks, each with a capacity of 6,000 gallons. Crossing this floor, we found ourselves on a gallery overlooking the Still House, on which are placed the Wash Charger and two Low-wines and Feints Chargers. From this elevation we noticed below us three old Pot Stills; one of them the Wash Still, holding about 4,000 gallons, and the other two Spirit Stills, holding about 2,000 gallons, of the oldest pattern known, similar to the old smuggler’s kettle, and are all heated by furnaces; here also are the Receivers, Safe and Sampling Safe, and Pumps.
Following our conductor, we passed the Manager’s house and offices; also the Spirit Store, which is opposite, containing a Vat holding 2,500 gallons, and finally reached the Bonded Warehouses, of which there are eleven, capable of holding 3,000 casks; one of them is newly built, and consists of three floors, which will store 100,000 gallons of Whisky.
There is a large water-wheel at the back of the Still House, and two large Worm Tanks. The water used comes from the Loch of Hempriggs, distant three miles, and is said to be of that peaty flavour so much sought after by smugglers in bygone years; the barley used is from Moray and Ross-shires.
In the court yard there are capital offices for the Distillery and Excise. Mr. George Todman is the principal officer on the premises.
The Whisky is pure Highland Malt, and the annual output is about 80,000 gallons, which is chiefly sold in the provincial towns of England and Scotland.