Royal Lochnagar

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

Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Balmoral.

WE left Aberdeen at a very early hour on the morning of our visit to the Royal Lochnagar Distillery, as the coach to Braemar leaves Ballater on the arrival of the first train. The railway runs along the valley of the Dee, or Deeside, as it is popularly designated, one of the most celebrated tourist routes to Balmoral. On our way we passed the Catholic College of Blair, about six miles from Aberdeen, which contains the renowned portraits of Queen Mary and Cardinal Beaton. After this the route becomes delightfully picturesque, and we pass Drum Castle, the House of Durris, and many other notable and historic places. At Banchory the Dee is joined by the Feugh, a dark and angry-looking stream in the distance can be seen the hills among which its waters rise, and anon the summits of Caer Loch, 1,890 feet, and Cloch-na-ben, 1,963 feet above sea level the latter with a vast projecting hump, looking like a huge wart upon its brow. On reaching Aboyne the rail runs due west on the property of the Marquis of Huntly, and fine views of wide stretches of forest land, picturesquely broken with rocks, are obtained. Passing through a tunnel, a more open range of country opens out, the monotony of which is relieved by distant hills and the fine background of Lochnagar mountain, the monarch of the district, bending in a gracefully waving outline; it rises about 3,800 feet above sea level. Close by is Ballatrich, the farmhouse where Byron, when about eight-years of age, stayed after an attack of the scarlet fever. He has described Lochnagar as one of the most sublime and picturesque amongst our “Caledonian Alp.” Its appearance is of a dusky hue, but the summit is the seat of eternal snow. The Impression made upon his poetic mind by the lovely scenery of this district is shown in his lines to the mountain, the last stanza of which runs -

Years have roll’d on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,Years must elapse ere I tread you again:Nature of verdure and flow’rs has bereft you,Yet still are you dearer than Albion’s plain.England! thy beauties are tame and domesticTo one who has roved o’er the mountains afar:Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic!The steep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr!

Again in “The Island,” written a year or two before his death, he breaks out in poetic admiration of this Highland Monarch, and from the period of his star in the district he dates his love of mountainous countries, the glories and beauties of which he describes in many a verse such as he alone could frame. The ascent of Lochnagar can be made from Braemar, Crathie, or Ballater; from the latter place it is a little over twelve miles. Once at the top, the traveller is amply repaid for the toilsome ascent.

Upon arrival at Ballater, the first thing to be done is to secure a seat on the coach, and if the box seat can be obtained it is lucky, for the drive to Balmoral from start to finish is superb, and upon a fine day the scene presented to the eye is one not easily forgotten. A short way before coming upon Her Majesty’s Highland home we obtained an excellent view of another and far more ancient royal abode, namely, Abergeldie Castle. This picturesque old building, with its quaint architecture, its turrets and bartizans, is situated quite close to the Dee on the south side of the river, and is always viewed with interest. Abergeldie has been in the possession of the Gordon family for at least four centuries, and while, as mentioned, the seat is entitled to be called a royal residence, it does not belong to the Crown, the Queen holding the castle only on lease, and devoting it to the accommodation of distinguished visitors. Here it was that the Duchess of Kent, mother of Her Majesty, used to reside, finding it a charming summer home. Here also, during some past years, Eugenie, ex-Empress of France, the lonely relict of the Third Napoleon, through the gracious consideration of the Sovereign of England, found a fitting retreat when stricken with the great sorrow of her widowhood, the lamented death in Zululand of her beloved son, the Prince Imperial. Eugenie was the object of the deepest respect in the upper Strath of Dee, and when out driving never failed to acknowledge from her carriage the lifted hat or bonnet of the humblest wayfarer. Abergeldie Castle is the residence of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales when they pay their autumn visit to the Aberdeenshire highlands. As we approached Crathie the lovely vale of Balmoral lay spread out before us, bordered all round with magnificent woods and almost encircled with majestic mountains; this lovely spot forms a picture said to be unrivalled in Europe. Here is the chosen retreat from the cares of state of our beloved Queen, and it would be difficult to find a more beautiful spot. On one side a wooded haugh slopes gently down from Craig Gowan’s shaggy side to the margin of the river Dee, on the borders of which the noble caste is built; on the other are ranged battlements of hills with glimpses of magnificent scenery, while eastwards is to be seen the Rock of Oaks and the pine-covered hills of Invercauld. As the eye returns to the point first noticed, it is glad to rest on the soft foliage of the “birks of Craig Gowan,” and one can fully endorse Black’s opinion that in all Scotland there is no region in which the sublime and beautiful are more harmoniously blended. Balmoral is a fine property, comprising upwards of ten thousand acres, more than a thousand of which are under wood, and in addition there is a deer forest of upwards of thirty thousand acres.

Leaving the coach and bidding good-bye to its occupants, we crossed the beautiful suspension bridge which leads to the grand entrance to Balmoral, and turning to the left begin the ascent of the steep hill which leads to the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. The road is beautifully wooded, and half way up we pause to rest.

The Distillery was built in the year 1825 by one John Robertson of Crathie, an old smuggler, and it came into the hands of Mr. John Begg in the year 1845. It is situated within a mile of Balmoral Castle, and the late Mr. John Begg held a lease of the property under Her Majesty the Queen. There is no Distillery within fifty miles round, therefore its isolation gives it a distinctive character. It was first visited by Her Majesty and His Royal Highness the Prince Consort on the 12th September 1848, and by Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales on the 15th September 1863, and we were informed that the Whisky made at the Distillery has been supplied to the Royal Palaces and Court for the past thirty-six years.

At the decease of Mr. John Begg in the year 1882, the Distillery came into the hands of his son, Mr. Henry Farquharson Begg, the present proprietor. The Distillery, with the farm attached thereto, covers one hundred and thirty acres of ground, and lies at the foot of the mountain from which it takes its name. The works consist of a series of oblong buildings, mostly detached, and none of which are enclosed. At the back there is a fine reservoir, in which is collected the water of a spring which, rising in the mountain, runs down its sides in the form of a burn, collecting numerous other little streams in its onward progress over heather and peat mosses.

Our guide first conducted us to the Malt Barns, of which there are three, triangular in shape, and averaging from 60 to 90 feet in length by 30 to 40 feet wide; they are two-deckers and together hold 2,700 quarters of barley. We then crossed the way to the Malting House, a peculiar old building with stone floor peculiarly adapted for malting purposes; it is 105 feet long by 64 feet broad, and possesses an ancient stone Steep capable of wetting thirty quarters of barley at one time. Here also are two other Granaries of large dimensions, capable of holding 3,000 quarters of barley. In conjunction with these buildings is one of the quaintest Kilns we have seen, 30 feet square, floored with wire cloth and heated with peats burned in open chauffeurs. The neighbouring moors supply good peats, and we noticed a fine lofty shed filled with dry peats sufficient for several years supply.

Leaving the open court we next came to the Distillery proper, which forms the central building of the group, and first entered the Mill which contains a pair of steel malt crushers. The Grist Loft is above, to reach which we ascended an outside ladder and found ourselves in a low pitched chamber, which on account of its difficulty of approach would have made a good hiding place in olden times; the grist is removed from this floor by manual labour. Returning to the main building we passed two huge Heating Tanks, and then came to the Mash House, which forms a part of the upper floor of the Still House, and through which the Still Heads protrude to the Worms. The Mash Tun is 10 feet in diameter and 4 feet deep, and connected therewith is a Steel’s mashing Machine, and a set of revolving stirring rakes driven by a water-wheel. The Underback is in close proximity and near the doorway at a lower elevation. Over the roof of the Mashing Department are placed the Coolers 54 feet long and 27 feet wide, up to which the worts are pumped from the Underback, and they possess the old-fashioned fan arrangement driven by water power. In the next building which is called the Tun Room, we observed five Washbacks, each with a capacity of 800 gallons, and on a loft above is the Wash Charger, a timber vessel holding 2,000 gallons. The Still House is a neat stone building and contains two old “Pot Stills,” the Wash Still holding 1,362 gallons, and the Spirit Still 899 gallons. The Worm Tub connected with these vessels is a square iron dish supplied with a constant stream of water from the “Craignagall Dam” or Reservoir. At the end of the Still House are placed the Low-wines and Feints Charger, Spirit Receivers and Safe. In close proximity is a Spirit Store which adjoins the duty-paid racking store. Mr. Donald Stewart, the Excise Officer, was introduced to us and conducted us to the two duty-free Warehouses, where we tasted some remarkably fine old Whisky, and thus refreshed completed our tour of inspection. We then visited the Distillery and Excise Offices, the latter a rustic edifice, standing in the beautiful garden attached to Mr. Begg’s house. From thence we proceeded to the Brewer’s neat little residence, and afterwards inspected the cottages occupied by the employees, of whom there are twenty. There is no steam power on the premises, all the driving being done by water-wheels.

In the adjacent farmsteading are a hundred head of fine cattle, which consume the draff and spent wash. The farmlands which stretch almost to Abergeldie, the house already referred to, of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, produce splendid barley and other grain. The Bonded Warehouses at Lochnagar are small, as the greater part of the Whisky manufactured there is bonded in the eight Lochnagar Warehouses on the quay at Aberdeen, where also are handsome offices and large Bottling Stores. These buildings stand on the site of the once well known “Cowie’s Brewery,” and cost, including excavations, vaulting, &c., close upon 8,000.

The Whisky which is pure Highland Malt is sold principally in the United Kingdom, and the annual output in 1884-5 was 65,000 gallons.

Images of Royal Lochnagar