Stromness

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

Stromness Distillery, Orkney.

A TOUR to the Orkneys may strike a rash observer as unlikely to be fruitful or interesting, but let him just take the next steamer and spend a week on the Orcadian Islands, and he will not only cease to wonder, but regret that he has so long left unvisited these remote “Isles of the Sea.” The early history of the Orkneys is as stirring and romantic as that of any country owning allegiance to Britain. From the earliest times the bold and daring deeds of the Vikings have been chronicled in the prose and poetry of many lands. The numerous acts of cruelty and conquest perpetrated by these northern sea-kings have so moulded the habits and formed the customs of their posterity, that to this day they betray their origin, in their lofty hearing, erect carriage, and simple faith in their ancient customs and folk lore. Everyday during our stay in Orkney there was something new to see, and our three hours’ drive from Kirkwall included more wonders than we had dreamt of, or could relate here.

We must not, however, omit to mention one or two curiosities of the journey. After passing the celebrated Maes-Howe, or tumulus, like that described in a previous charter, we came to the Standing Stones of Stennes; these antiquarian relics, whose fame is second to Stonehenge in repute as Druidical monuments, are situated on a peninsula in the midst of Loch Stennes. The Circle of Brogar (as they are called) is about 340 feet in diameter, round which the “Standing Stones” were originally planted, each averaging 18 feet high and 5 feet wide, and all placed at equal distances of 17 feet apart, and thirteen of these dumb sentinels are still standing.

We next came to the head of the Stennes Lake, which has a tidal communication with the sea, so narrow that it is spanned by a bridge, which our carriage passed over; and shortly after this we reached our destination, and arrived at the most northern point of our tour.

Stromness, so named from “Strom,” a stream or current, and “nes,” a promontory, is a seaport, and the town is unlike any other we have seen in Scotland. A good many of the houses, between the beach and the street, stand within high water-mark, and have little bulwarks, jetties and quays of their own, for their fishing operations, and unloading boats, etc. The bar is, in reality, a natural harbour, about a mile long and half a mile broad. There is a good pier, which is used by the mail boats and vessels starting for the Arctic regions, which sometimes call in here for shelter and provisions. The hero of Sir Walter Scott’s “Pirate,” John Gow, the “Captain Cleveland,” was born on the Cairston Shore, Stromness, and we were shown the remains of Gows Garden, where his father’s house formerly stood. He was commander of the “Revenge,” 24 guns, and used to visit the town and give dancing parties to his friends, and before his true character was discovered engaged the affections of a beautiful and rich lady. He was finally captured in Edday and sent to London, where he was executed. It is said that the young lady whose affections he engaged, went to London to see him before his execution, but arriving too late she requested a sight of his corpse, and touching its hand formally resumed the troth plight, believing that her lover’s ghost would not then haunt her should she bestow her hand upon another. The town consists of one paved street, about a mile long, so narrow and crooked that two vehicles cannot pass each other. At the north end is the quaint little Distillery we had come so far to see. It is planted at the foot of a steep hill, and was built in the year 1828 by Hector Munn, and covers about half an acre of ground. The water used for mashing and distilling comes from a burn, having its source in the hills rising between the Distillery and the celebrated Black Craig.

The following is a brief description of this, the most remote Distillery in the kingdom. It is built in the form of a parallelogram, and enclosed by substantial stone walls. There are three Barley Store Rooms, and two others for Malt. The Kiln is floored with metal plates, and heated in the usual way by a fire, wherein peat only is burned. In close proximity is the Mill, containing a pair of metal rollers for crushing the malt. In the Mill Store, which combines a Mash House, are the Heatings Copper and the Mash Tun, a vessel, 10 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep, with a large tank underneath it, used as an Underback. The Tun Room contains four Washbacks, each holding 2,200 gallons, fixed on solid blocks, a Wash Charger with a capacity of 1,100 gallons, and three Receivers suitable to the requirements of the above vessels.

The Distillery being situated on the side of a hill, no pump is required until the wort is run into the Wash Still. In the little old-fashioned Still House are to be seen two of the “sma’ old Pot Stills,” each holding 300 gallons. One of these, a veritable smuggler’s Still of a peculiar shape, is the quaintest we have seen in our travels, and was formerly the property of a noted law evader; its body is shaped like a pumpkin, and is surmounted by a similarly shaped chamber one fourth the size, to prevent the goods boiling over, through which the Deck passes to the head of the Still. On the floor of the house is placed an old-fashioned Low-wines and Feints Charger, a stumpy-looking vessel constructed of timber. This building is the oldest part of the Work, and consists of a vaulted chamber cut out of the solid rock, and was formerly used by the smugglers as their Still and Mashing House.

There are two Bonded Warehouses, containing, at present, nearly 300 casks of Whisky. The Malt is crushed by both water- and steam power, the waterwheel being 9 feet in diameter. The steam-engine is of 12-horse power, and by means of shafts stretching allover the place, can be made to do almost all the Work of the Distillery.

The Whisky, which is Highland Malt, is principally sold in Scotland, where there is a good demand for it, and the annual output is 7,000 gallons.

Mr. Samuel Watson is the Excise officer.