Archaeologists are hoping to unearth secrets from Scotland’s whisky-making past in a dig this week at a remote Highland farm distillery that dates back nearly 200 years.
Blackmiddens was only making whisky for eight years from 1825
Blackmiddens, sometimes referred to as Black Middens, located in the remote Upper Cabrach on the border between Moray and Aberdeenshire, began production in 1825, two years after the 1823 Excise Act helped encourage the small-scale distillation of whisky.
The act helped lure previously illegal distillers down from the hills, leading to the establishment of small farm distilleries such as Blackmiddens, which only made whisky between 1825 and 1833, possibly because of the lack of fresh water in the locality and its susceptibility to crop failure.
The distillery, operated by tenant farmer James Smith and then by his wife Elizabeth, would have had a small still with a capacity of only 40 gallons (180 litres), compared to a typical modern pot still, which might hold thousands of litres.
Historically located on the Duke of Richmond’s estate, the farm was occupied by William Smith in 1864, according to the Evaluation Rolls, and was later associated with the Sharp family.
Blackmiddens distillery was renamed Buck in 1827, according to research commissioned by the Cabrach Trust, which rejects the idea that there were two legal distilleries in the area – one at Blackmiddens Farm and one at Buck Farm.
Excavation work at Blackmiddens began on Monday (8 April), led by the Cabrach Trust with aid from Forestry and Land Scotland, and Historic Environment Scotland, and is due to conclude tomorrow (Thursday).
Blackmiddens may have stopped making whisky because of the lack of water
The Cabrach area was notorious for illegal whisky distillation and smuggling, as recalled by 66-year-old Joan Harvey, whose great-great-uncle, James Sharp, was tenant farmer at Blackmiddens, and a leader of the smugglers.
‘I was always told that my great-great-uncle was the head of the gang at the time,’ she said. ‘We were the “freebooters” who took the whisky to Aberdeen to sell in the pubs.
‘Stories about their adventures were passed down by my family. Apparently, my great-great-grandfather had a white stallion and, when the excisemen were billeted locally, he would ride his white horse, alerting everyone that the excisemen were there, so that the whisky smugglers could go to ground.’
The ‘freebooters’ used imaginative tactics to outwit the excisemen, she added. ‘I was also told that, one time, the excisemen were trying to catch the smugglers and had set up barricades all around Aberdeen.
‘My great-great-uncle hired a horse-drawn hearse and loaded the coffin with whisky. When he reached the excisemen, they all took off their hats as a mark of respect for the dead – and the whisky went through.’
The dig at Blackmiddens has prompted memories of whisky smuggling
‘The Cabrach is a place of many secrets,’ said Ann Brennand, chief executive of the Cabrach Trust, which plans to start a distillery and visitor attraction of its own at Inverharroch Farm.
‘For decades, local farmers secretly distilled whisky and smuggled it away under the noses of the excisemen. Then, when the law was changed to make small-scale whisky production profitable, Blackmiddens was one of the first farms to take advantage of this.’
Blackmiddens today is part of Scotland’s national forest estate, managed by Forestry and Land Scotland (known, until recently, as Forestry Commission Scotland).
The organisation’s national environment advisor Matt Ritchie said: ‘Illicit whisky stills can be found throughout the Highlands, but they were particularly common in the Cabrach. They are difficult to spot, but once you know what you are looking for, you can find them tucked away next to burns in the hills.
‘When the Excise Act changed in 1823 and smaller distilleries became legal, the illicit distillers came down off the hills and set up in farmsteads like Blackmiddens. Consequently, the nondescript buildings can be much harder to identify, and this is what makes this first-ever dig so exciting.’
CABRACH DISTILLERY SEEKS £5.3M INVESTMENT
Fundraising efforts are under way to generate £5.3m to build a new Scotch whisky distillery and heritage centre in Cabrach, on the southern edge of Moray.
How the finished Cabrach distillery will look
Spearheaded by the Cabrach Trust – which was founded to help rural regeneration in and around the Cabrach region – the money will be used to transform Inverharroch Farm into a visitor attraction highlighting the region’s illicit past of illegal whisky distillation and smuggling routes.
A planning application is due to be submitted by the end of 2016 and, if granted, the distillery is forecast to be operational by 2020, initially creating 10 new jobs.
If successful, the distillery plans to produce a malt whisky, the first bottling of which is forecast to be ready by 2025 – approximately five years from the site’s first distillation.
Grant Gordon, chairman of the board of trustees, said: ‘Our vision is to help develop a thriving community that offers opportunities for both residents and visitors to enrich their lives by enjoying and sharing their surroundings.
‘We believe that the distillery, heritage centre and the associated amenities will establish the Cabrach as a must-see in the north-east, bringing in new people and sustaining the local economy.
‘While the centre celebrates the Cabrach’s place in whisky history and folklore, it is to be built for the future and we hope this will act as the conduit for economic growth and regeneration.’
Plans for the new distillery and visitor centre will make use of the existing farm steadings and have been created by a team led by architects AKA Ltd and interior designers Surface ID.
The heritage centre will feature a café, exhibition space for public and private hire, and a gift shop.
The Cabrach Trust is also in the process of acquiring other buildings in the area to renovate into accommodation and training spaces – a local schoolhouse will be able to house up to eight people, while a former primary school (currently home to the Cabrach Trust) will be used as a warehouse and offices.
Meanwhile, the old Cabrach Hall will be used for training and meetings, and will be available for hire to local community groups..
The proposal has been welcomed by the MSP for Moray, Richard Lochhead, who said at the unveiling of the plans: ‘I’m looking forward to seeing the plans develop and will do all I can as the Cabrach’s MSP to help the trust deliver what will no doubt be a massive boost for the local community.’
So far, plans for the distillery have been funded through grants from foundations and private individuals, and a ‘major’ grant application will soon be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Anyone interested in donating towards the fundraising campaign should contact Sue Savege, executive director of the Cabrach Trust, on 0560 384 5996 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
CABRACH DISTILLERY GETS PLANNING GO-AHEAD
Plans for a new £5m Scotch whisky distillery in an area of Speyside notorious for illicit distillation have been given the green light by Moray Council.
Old ways: The distillery at Inverharroch Farm will use ‘historical methods’
Work on the Cabrach Distillery is set to begin in summer 2018, with production starting a year later and the first bottling of mature whisky earmarked for 2024.
The project, undertaken by the Cabrach Trust, will distil, mature and bottle 150,000 bottles of single malt whisky a year, ‘using the blueprint of an early 19th-century distillery and made with historical methods’.
Ingredients will be sourced locally, including spring water from the land surrounding the distillery, and the whisky will be matured in the Cabrach in quarter casks before being bottled on-site.
The trust is aiming to raise £5.3m to build the distillery and heritage centre in the traditional farm steadings at Inverharroch Farm, with a share offer set to be launched in 2018.
‘Now we have planning permission in place we are aiming to start work on-site in the summer of 2018,’ said Sue Savege, executive director of the Cabrach Trust.
‘In the meantime, we are busy working on the final specification of the distillery, which will use historical methods, and conducting further research in partnership with the ICBD [International Centre for Brewing and Distilling] into the exact balance of process, ingredients and maturation, as it’s crucial we get the flavour right for our very own Cabrach whisky.’
The Cabrach is a wild and remote part of Speyside, and was notorious in the early 19th century for its illicit stills and smuggling. The area’s last legal distillery closed 150 years ago.
Earlier this year, researchers commissioned by the Cabrach Trust discovered a former illicit whisky bothy built into the side of a hill and thought to date back to the early 1800s.
‘The distillery and heritage centre are at the heart of our plans to regenerate the Cabrach and contribute to a sustainable future for this beautiful but remote part of Moray, which has seen a huge decline in population over the years,’ said Savege.
All profits from the project will be reinvested by the trust to help create more jobs and to regenerate the local community.
NEW CABRACH DISTILLERY DESIGNS REVEALED
Revised architect’s impressions of a planned £6.5m heritage centre and distillery in the remote Highland area of the Cabrach have been unveiled.
The plans include an operational distillery using 19th-century methods
The new centre aims to celebrate the heritage of the remote rural area in Moray, Scotland, which was at the centre of illicit whisky-making in the 18th century.
The project by the Cabrach Trust will include a museum of illicit whisky and smuggling, and a learning centre, plus a working distillery designed to replicate the kind of operation found in the Cabrach in the 1830s.
Located at Inverharroch Farm, eight miles from Dufftown, the centre is expected to attract about 20,000 visitors a year and will provide the equivalent of 10 full-time jobs.
The heritage centre was granted planning permission in September 2017, and now a new architect, Forres-based LDN Architects, has been drafted in to draw up detailed plans while fund-raising efforts continue.
It is now hoped that work on the centre and distillery can begin this year, and that it will be able to open within the next couple of years.
‘The Cabrach has played a central role in Scottish history,’ said Dr Peter Bye Jensen, heritage manager of the Cabrach Trust.
‘It was the home of Jacobite rebels, its illegal whisky trade led to the Scotch whisky industry we know today, and its people fought in the country’s great wars – but all this was in danger of being forgotten.
‘The Heritage Centre will bring that history to life and unveil the secrets of the Cabrach through interactive exhibits where visitors will travel back in time to experience life in this harsh but beautiful place.’
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Cabrach’s 80 square miles are thought to have concealed dozens of illegal stills, and the area’s whisky became highly sought-after.
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Cabrach has been described as a ‘living war memorial’, thanks to the large number of farms abandoned after the First and Second World Wars.
Families who lost menfolk in the conflicts were forced to give up their farms, with the population of the area plummeting from 1,000 people to only 70 today.
Local people are being invited to view the architect’s plans for the heritage centre during drop-in sessions, attended by new Cabrach Trust chief executive Anna Brennand, at the Grouse Inn, near Inverharroch Farm, from 6-8pm next Thursday, 28 March.
THE LOST WHISKIES OF THE CABRACH
In the early 1800s, Scotch whisky from the remote Cabrach region of the Highlands was highly sought-after, fetching prices as high as the fabled ‘Glenlivet’. The last of its distilleries fell silent well over 150 years ago, but now whisky is set to return to The Cabrach once more.
This remote area produced some of Scotland’s finest whisky 200 years ago
‘Fine Devanha porter; gweed strong ale;
Real Cabrach whisky, as ever bore the bell.
Watty’s liquor’s gweed;
Gin ye hae nae money, Watty has nae trust.’
– Inscription above fireplace of Watty Reid’s Tavern, Aberdeen
For a brief period in the early 1800s, the whisky of The Cabrach was among the most renowned in Scotland, fetching similar prices to the illustrious ‘Glenlivet’ malt. And yet the last of its stills had fallen silent by 1851, beginning a period of slow, steady decline that has continued to this day in this remote part of the Highlands.
It takes only 15 minutes or so to reach The Cabrach from Dufftown, but once there you enter a different world, and one that becomes progressively wilder the deeper you go, from the rolling green hills and burns of the Lower Cabrach in the north to the heather-clad moorland of the Upper Cabrach, stretching south towards the village of Rhynie.
It is at first glance a desolate place, its many abandoned farmhouses testament to the devastating impact of two World Wars. At the turn of the 20th century, about 1,000 people eked out a living here; only 70 or so remain now and, despite their resilience, their numbers will drop to about 20 by 2050 if depopulation continues at its current rate.
Plans for Inverharroch Farm include a heritage centre and working distillery
But there is hope. The Cabrach Trust, a charity set up to preserve the area’s cultural heritage and aid its regeneration, is aiming to bring whisky-making back to The Cabrach through a £6.5 million project to build a heritage centre and working distillery at Inverharroch Farm. The trust wants to make whisky the old way, recreating the flavours found here around the time that Queen Victoria came to the throne.
‘The Cabrach is a magical place in many ways,’ says Dr Peter Bye-Jensen, heritage manager at The Cabrach Trust. ‘There’s something about the Scottish landscape that’s extra-pronounced here. Time stands still, or it’s more like it’s in slow motion, slow decay. That’s one of the things we’re trying to reverse.’
The Cabrach’s topography makes it a great place to hide and watch, whether you’re a Jacobite rebel fleeing the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746 or, in the decades that followed, an illicit distiller plying your trade in a hidden bothy by a burn.
‘You can place yourself at strategic points and you’ll know long before people come to find you,’ says Dr Bye-Jensen. ‘An excise officer would have had no chance to enter or leave The Cabrach without anyone knowing well in advance.’
At the first sign of trouble, white sheets would be spread on peatstacks or hillocks as a warning, the stills and other equipment swiftly concealed. The Cabrach offered, as Dr Bye-Jensen puts it, ‘an opportune landscape’ for illicit distilling, while its drove road provided the perfect infrastructure for smuggling.
Hundreds of people have left The Cabrach since the start of the 20th century
By the early 1800s, the practice was endemic. At its peak, there were well over 100 pot stills scattered throughout The Cabrach; most farms hosted at least one still, and many had half-a-dozen. Landowners turned a blind eye to their tenants’ nefarious activities, and often supplied the grain they needed, not least because it enabled them to pay rent.
Over time, whisky from The Cabrach acquired a following in the surrounding area – in Aberdeen, Huntly, Banff and as far afield as Montrose – but the region’s whisky-making decline began with the passing of the 1823 Excise Act, which revolutionised whisky production in Scotland and sounded the death-knell for most illicit distillation within a few years.
(Most, but by no means all. As late as July 1827, the Inverness Courier reported the transportation of John and William Gordon (or Garden) for shooting one of an excise officer’s party in The Cabrach earlier that year.)
Such was the impact on The Cabrach that some 80 or 90 people departed the area post-1823, robbed of their livelihoods and forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere, sometimes as far away as the United States or Jamaica. For those who remained, an already hard life became even tougher.
Three legal whisky distilleries emerged in The Cabrach in the aftermath of 1823: The Cabrach Distillery at Mains of Lesmurdie and Tomnaven, in the Lower Cabrach; and Blackmiddens (later renamed Buck) in the Upper Cabrach, the latter recently the scene of an archaeological dig.
Brighter future?: The Cabrach Trust hopes its plans will help regenerate the area
These were small, farm affairs, using stills that were tiny by modern standards (wash stills of about 200 gallons, spirit stills at 120 gallons, although Blackmiddens/Buck seems to have had only one still to perform both distillations). They used bere barley, and sometimes corn, grown on the surrounding land and imported from further afield, including the Lowlands and England.
All three started up in 1825-8, but none lasted long. Blackmiddens/Buck fell silent by 1833, and the others closed down some time in the 1840s. In this new world of legal distillation, The Cabrach’s major plus-point of remoteness became a huge commercial disadvantage.
There were threats from the remaining illicit distillers, and competition from new distilleries set up in and around the towns that formed the main local markets for whisky. Duty was increasing, brandy and rum were becoming popular, and the rising Temperance movement was impacting consumption.
After several crop failures and with a suffering Scottish economy in the early 1840s, grain prices rose, while fierce winters cut off transport links with the outside world, stopping grain from getting in and whisky from getting out. The Cabrach was ill-equipped to survive such a perfect storm of difficulties.
As whisky left The Cabrach, the exodus of people that went with it heralded further losses in the 20th century, particularly during the First World War. ‘Everybody that could carry a rifle signed up, and very few came back again,’ says Dr Bye-Jensen. ‘Some came home only to die a few years later from war wounds, and others had suffered shell shock, or what we would now call PTSD.
Many of the abandoned farms of The Cabrach housed stills in the 1800s
Some never made it as far as the Western Front, perishing of influenza or measles in English training camps; young men who had never previously left The Cabrach simply lacked the necessary immunity to resist common ailments.
A century later, despite past sadnesses, the scent of renewal is in the air. If The Cabrach Trust can raise the necessary funds, the heritage centre and distillery at Inverharroch Farm will create up to 15 jobs when it opens in about 2021, providing a focus for the area’s planned regeneration and giving people a reason to discover the area (about 20,000 visitors a year are expected). And whisky will be a big part of the plan.
‘What we’re going to try and aim for is to make a historic whisky,’ says Dr Bye-Jensen. ‘We’re going to lean up against what we think the whisky would have tasted like, experimenting with old techniques which have been forgotten, and staying as close to the historic reality as we can.’
So: peat, small stills, worm tubs, bere barley grown in the surrounding fields and tentative plans to malt on-site, as well as perhaps converting an old school into a bonded warehouse.
Whether it will taste like the whisky made in The Cabrach in the early 1800s is unanswerable, as is the question of what made the area’s whisky so special in the first place. Dr Bye-Jensen reckons slow distillation in small stills – compared to the more industrialised production in the Lowlands – was key, as was the ubiquitous use of peat. ‘It was a whisky that tasted like something,’ he says.
The Cabrach is only 15 minutes from Dufftown, but is another world
Two qualities that Cabrach whisky certainly lacked were maturity and consistency, thanks to the necessarily chaotic nature of illicit distillation. Smuggled along the drove road and through the hills in ‘ankers’ – small, 10-gallon casks – the spirit produced was highly variable and extremely youthful.
Those who had to sell it – the grocers and innkeepers of the local towns – soon learned to ‘condition’ the whisky to make it more palatable to their customers, combining multiple whiskies in larger casks or, when something tasted awry, decanting it into a fresh cask to improve it. These pioneering techniques laid the foundations for the blending and maturation practices that have helped to shape the modern whisky industry.
‘This is the cradle. This is where it all began,’ says Dr Bye-Jensen. ‘Our funders can see that we’ve got something special here. Once they visit us and just go for a little walk, then it makes sense to them. We’re trying to tell the story of where this whisky that we all almost take for granted comes from.
‘It comes from the burns, from the landscape. The landscape remembers what its people forget.’