Isle of Harris
THE SOCIAL DISTILLERY
ISLE OF HARRIS GIN
FIND OUR SPIRIT
THE HEARACH SINGLE MALT
THE DISTILLERY HARRIS TWEED PART 1.
The Orb Mark, a guarantee of provenance and product. Image © Harris Tweed Hebrides
Those of you who follow our story closely will know about our Harris Tweed Project, an exploration of the craft and creativity behind this iconic island cloth.
This time last year, we set out to discover more about the art of weaving and the skills of the people and mills who help bring this historic textile into being.
With the help of Harris Tweed Hebrides, the Harris Tweed Authority and our islands’ education services we’ve worked closely with schools and pupils across the islands to design a new Isle of Harris Distillery Harris Tweed pattern.
Freshly dyed pure new wool. Image © Harris Tweed Hebrides
The first phase of the project culminated at the start of this summer with the announcement that the work of young Scott Murray from Sir E Scott School in Tarbert had been chosen from over 150 entries to be the basis for this exciting creation.
Scott’s ideas have now been interpreted into a real pattern design and work has been underway to bring his concept to life at the Shawbost mill, home of Harris Tweed Hebrides the leading producer of this beautiful material.
Our tweed’s journey now begins with pure new wool, shorn from Cheviot sheep, a breed well-recognised on crofts across the Outer Hebrides. Bales of this natural, soft, white fleece form the basis of every inch of Harris Tweed.
Loosely blended wool colours. Image © Harris Tweed Hebrides
Harris Tweed is dyed in the wool, as a myriad of colours is imparted to this raw material in large steaming vats. From traditional moorland browns and greens to bright rust oranges, heather purples and sky blues, there is a rainbow of natural hues to draw from.
These individual bagged batches can then be combined according to the yarn-maker's recipe to create a complex blend of tones and shades. The wool is then tossed and tumbled in warm air to mix them together.
This wonderful melange is then transported to the sharp-toothed rollers of the carding machine, where the wool is gradually teased into a finer, embryonic yarn, the disparate colours now effortlessly intertwined into a cohesive whole.
Fragile wool from the carding machine. Image © Harris Tweed Hebrides
The emerging strands of wool at this point still remain incredibly fragile and can be pulled apart with ease. But, when placed in skilled hands and the speeding whirr of the spinning frame, strength is suddenly imparted.
The simple act of twisting transforms the wool into a useable thread which can be wound onto tall bobbins in a long wall of activity kept under a watchful eye. Each bobbin holds hundreds of meters of spun wool ready to meet the challenges of the weaver's loom.
Finally, there is the business of warping, as a web of different yarn threads is arranged in exact order and carefully wound onto a long metal beam following the demands by our specific pattern.
The spinning frame. Image © Harris Tweed Hebrides
This heavy beam and several bags of bobbins comprise the key ingredients for the next stage of our Harris Tweed journey. Accompanied by a coded design card, these components have now been delivered to our chosen hand-weaver here in Harris.
Every part of this age-old process has taken place in the Outer Hebrides where the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 legally binds the making of the cloth. This unique set of laws has ensured not only deep provenance but also protected skilled jobs for hundreds of hard-working men and women within our island community.
ISLE OF HARRIS DISTILLERY
ISLANDS SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY
The ‘social distillery’ is a true island distillery, run by the local community for the local community. All the cows on Harris are fed for free on the distillery’s draff; work experience placements are offered to school children during the summer; local artists’ work feature within its walls and the visitor centre plays home to book readings.
The only style of whisky fit for a distillery like this is a complex island malt, lightly peated with additional layers of flavour from a cloudy wort and long fermentations. Of course maturation takes place completely on the island, predominantly in ex-Bourbon casks with some oloroso Sherry butts.
The single malt will be bottled as The Hearach (a Harris islander), which won’t be ready for some time, but expect it to be full-bodied, fruity and with a touch of that salty, windswept Hebridean character island malts are famous for.
The Isle of Harris distillery officially opened in September 2015, though the story of the Hebridean island’s first commercial distillery begins several years earlier.
Musicologist Anderson Bakewell, who owned a property on the neighbouring island of Scarp, was troubled by the dwindling population of Harris, an island he cared deeply about. Despite not being an avid fan of whisky, he sought to build the island’s first distillery in Tarbert, the island’s capital and ferry link to Skye. His plan was to create a business that not only involved the local community but also provided an attractive long-term employment solution for Harris residents.
Not long after selecting a site on the main north-south road through Tarbert, Bakewell’s project secured the largest public grant awarded to a food and drink business in Scottish history. Further grants and private investments soon flooded in from all over the world.
Upon opening, Isle of Harris distillery employed 10 workers, a number that has since risen to over 20.
While the team is adamant it won’t release its first official bottling ‘until it’s ready’, expect to see an NAS expression rolled out in limited quantities around 2020.
Until then, the distillery produces and bottles Harris gin, which is made with nine botanicals that ‘capture the elemental nature’ of the island.
CAPACITY (MLPA) i
CONDENSER TYPE i
Shell and tube
FERMENTATION TIME i
FILLING STRENGTH i
GRIST WEIGHT (T) i
HEAT SOURCE i
Steam from external heat exchangers
MALT SPECIFICATION i
12-14ppm for core expression
MALT SUPPLIER i
Bairds of Inverness
MASH TUN TYPE i
NEW-MAKE STRENGTH i
SINGLE MALT PERCENTAGE i
SPIRIT STILL CHARGE (L) i
SPIRIT STILL SHAPE i
SPIRIT STILL SIZE (L) i
On-site warehouse in Tarbert; off-site warehouse in Ardhasaig
WASH STILL CHARGE (L) i
WASH STILL SHAPE i
WASH STILL SIZE (L) i
WASHBACK SIZE (L) i
WASHBACK TYPE i
WATER SOURCE i
Abhainn Cnoc a’Charrainn
WORT CLARITY i
YEAST TYPE i
A BHEIL GÀIDHLIG AGAIBH?
It’s the sound of the peat banks and sheep fanks and can be heard in homes across the Outer Hebrides. It can be discerned in village shops, streets and schools across our islands and, if you listen closely enough, in our distillery too.
Scottish Gaelic is our beautiful native language, and Harris is one of the rare places in the world it continues to survive. Its rich words and rhythms are inextricably tied to island culture and identity in ways that are, ironically, often hard to articulate.
Whether used to share a good bit of gossip or sing loudly at the local Mòd, Gaelic is quite simply part of life here. Indeed, a quick poll of the Tarbert team shows that around half of our staff speak it fluently.
So, as our distillery story continues, we felt it was time to introduce more Gaelic into our work and share a little of it with visitors here at the distillery and our more far-flung friends online.
While we won’t try to turn anyone into a fluent speaker anytime soon, we hope many of you may enjoy learning some simple phrases and perhaps be inspired to discover more about the language in your own time.
To begin with, we’re delighted to announce that we’re now offering monthly tours of the distillery conducted entirely in Gaelic and led by our popular local guide Marie ‘MM’ Morrison.
Whether you’re already a Gaelic speaker, currently learning the language, or can’t tell the difference between a ‘tha’ and a “chan eil”, we think you’ll enjoy this immersive experience with her.
We’ll also be providing our guests with a lovely keepsake card explaining some of the key words they’ll encounter along the way, helping them to understand and pronounce mysterious words like eòrna, stail, mòineand, of course, uisge-beatha.
You’ll find Gaelic appearing more often in our Facebook posts, Tweets and even at the distillery, on places like tour tickets and till receipts. We plan to share more music, poetry and prose in the language too.
So, the next time someone says to you “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” you might feel confident enough to reply “Beagan!” But don’t worry if not, sharing an excellent dram with a confident “Slàinte mhath" will surely suffice for now!
Tha sinn a' coimhead air adhart ri fàilte bhlàth a chuir oirbh chun a chiad turas Ghaidhlig againn aig an Taigh-staile. Tha sinn an dochas gun còrd e ribh ar sgeulachd a'chluinntinn agus cuideachd gun còrd e ribh druthagde spiorad ar n-eilean òl nuair a thig sibh còmhla rinn. Chì sinn a dh'aithgheàrr sibh!
THE FIRST LEGAL DRAM FROM HARRIS
THE INFLUENCE OF AN ISLAND
The people from Pabbay, a small island off our western coast, could once boast of the uisge beatha which flowed from their hidden stills far from the exciseman's eyes.
These days are sadly long gone and the wee island now lies empty of both whisky and anyone to make it.
Today, we're proud to be reviving the tradition of Harris distilling almost 170 years later here in Tarbert.
Like the Hearaich themselves, our malt whisky is a conversation between nature and nurture, with two powerful parents, each influencing the dram in their own unique ways.
Firstly, there are the elements of Harris itself.
We're making The Hearach from the softest of Outer Hebridean waters, the fast-flowing stream from which it flows, Abhainn Cnoc a ’Charrain, running over the oldest rocks on earth.
And then there's the environment in which it all takes shape, a place swept by the Gulf Stream and Atlantic storms.
For all its wildness, the island is not always a savage place.
Those infamous winds keep the summer cool and in winter snow rarely lies except on the heights of the mighty Clisham mountain, helping to ensure that, despite all odds, we have a climate which is perfectly balanced for whisky maturation.
CHAOS IN THE CASKS
THE WONDERS OF WOOD
The second parent is the long, complex process of spiritual interaction with wood.
We take the sourcing of our casks very seriously, using only the best bourbon barrels from carefully chosen distillers in Kentucky and sherry butts from a single Spanish bodega.
We are also experimenting with full maturation in Pennsylvanian rye casks and Sauternes-style barrels from Bordeaux.
This focus on good wood will have a profound influence on the hue and expression of The Hearach as it resides in our warehouse by the shores of Loch an Siar near the village of Ardhasaig over the coming years.
Our distillers have been cutting peat by hand at 'Cleite Mhòr', an area of South Harris where peat has been cut for generations. These decayed remnants of ancient forests have been used to malt some of our barley for a more heavily peated expression of our dram.
The final results remain to be seen but, rest assured, our first whisky will be free from chill-filtering and naturally coloured, embodying all the character, soul and elemental nature of the Isle of Harris when it's finally ready to drink.
Every drop will have been distilled, matured, and will eventually be bottled, by local people in the Isle of Harris.
LIFE TAKES TIME
A SLOWER APPROACH
As every islander understands, life takes time.
Life here in Harris is lived at a different pace, a culture which has evolved naturally from our distance from big cities and closeness to the rhythms of the natural world.
This less regimented approach to the dictates of the clock is something we bring to our distilling work too.
Our mashing, for example is measured and gentle, the rakes of the mash tun turning slowly to create a lighter wort.
Our fermentation process is unusually long, from 3 up to 5 days, accomodating as it does the distillery's adherence to the island Sabbath with no work on a Sunday.
We're also in no rush to release our first, historic single malt to the world. We'll wait until the right moment to bottle it, when the whisky is at its best and worthy of bearing our island's name.
Exactly when that will be only time and taste will tell.
Meantime, we can tell you that The Hearach single malt whisky promises to be an Outer Hebridean dram of distinction.
Medium peated, to evoke the the gentle whiff of village fires, it will combine spirit drawn from both our bourbon and sherry barrels in careful balance.
Complex and full of Isle of Harris character, we look forward to sharing a glass with you someday soon, but not too soon...
" We know we can’t rush the seasons and have always been more dictated by natural rhythms than by the stopwatch. There’s a great appreciation of this idea I think and so what gets done in the distillery will not be rushed, we’d rather do it right.”
Kenny Maclean, Head Distiller.
While we are never guaranteed anything, this time of year often brings pleasures of its own...
Sunrises seem to be the first sign of change, as we wake to find the morning sky ablaze. It’s something our early-rising distillers will notice from the windows of our east-facing Spirit Hall as they start their working day.
The days are shortening swiftly too with the sun-setting not long after seven pm, bringing the blessing of black skies and a blanket of stars when the clouds finally clear. And, with darker nights comes a rare promise to see the northern lights of the Fir Chlis.
With all the rain we’ve endured after one of the wettest summers on record, the grasses of mountains and moor remain a lush green. Good news for local livestock who lazily graze across crofts and hills.
But, the ferns are fading and the heather is losing its purple bloom, the machair flowers dwindle and the few trees we have are beginning to turn to red, russet and gold.
Birds which have spent the breeding season in the higher parts of the northern hemisphere migrate overhead, heading south for the winter, many stopping off with us en route. Others, like the Great Skua, will be leaving our own shores, bound for the warmer climes of North Africa.
The last of the summer’s bounty of mackerel and herring is being enjoyed by the local cetaceans and seals. The latter are often seen lounging on in-shore rocks, backs bent like bananas, enjoying the last warm rays of the sun while they still can.
Nearby, our Sugar Kelp diver Lewis Mackenzie can be spotted piloting his small boat, pulling up a lobster pot or two and gathering what we need to see our Isle of Harris Gin through the winter. During the colder months, he leaves the seaweed to rest and regrow ensuring a sustainable harvest.
Here at the distillery, we can sense the season change too, as the number of visitors eases after a very busy few months. Our Tour times will change in October and soon the Canteen soups will feel heartier as the peat fire blazes high.
But, no matter what time of year it is, our distilling remains undaunted and we’re always working hard, making our gin and filling oak casks of new-make whisky spirit.
We recently took delivery of some more beautiful Oloroso casks from Spain and in return shipped lots of Isle of Harris Gin to Switzerland, France, Italy, and New Zealand.
The team here in Tarbert remain busy sharing our spirit and story and extending a warm Harris welcome to everyone who continues to join us at the distillery.
Our ambassadors do likewise far from our shores, and if you happen to be in London this weekend, look out for our special Seafood Supper and gin tasting at The Cleveland Arms.
But, if you can’t be with us in person please stay in touch across our social media channels. Meantime, let’s raise a glass to this fine time of year, as our island calendar continues to unfold.
THE KELP BOOM
Earlier this year we began our Diaspora Project, a slow and meditative look at the roots of population decline here in the Outer Hebrides. Under the auspices of our ‘Always Learning’ value, we’ve set out to explore the history of Harris to better understand the stories which underpin many of the issues our island community faces today.
Beginning with the earliest emigrants, driven west to America in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, we discovered the first painful changes from the communal clan system to the harsher realities of commerce as capitalism began to take hold here at the end of the 19th century.
Initially, it was the ‘silver darlings’ of the sea which brought financial success to our island under a businessman called Captain Alexander Macleod who bought the Isle of Harris in 1779 from an indebted clan chief. His vision was to transform the local seasonal fishing activity into a big industry, catching and curing herring to be sold at market.
His economic experiment worked wonderfully for a time until the herring shoals did what they always seemed to do every few years…and just disappear. Luckily, for our islanders anyway, the French Revolution had begun, and the humble kelp seaweed was to prove a new way to survive and thrive.
Up until now the seaweed around our shores was mainly harvested by islanders to help fertilise their crops and feed livestock. That was all about to change as the wars with France saw Britain increasingly isolated from international trade and essentials like glass and soap became challenging to produce.
This new demand was to be met by seaweed which when burned produces soda ash, eagerly sought after by the chemical industries of the time. Harris had limited natural resources, but this particular marine plant was abundant, and a new industry soon sprung up as kelp farming and burning began in earnest.
Local landowners quickly cashed in on demand, ensuring that every scrap of seaweed from the shores be sent for burning into this useful potash instead of fertilising fields.
They urged islanders to move from the more pastoral west coast of Harris to the rugged eastern shores to gather and process kelp to help pay their rents. It was hard and dirty work with many tonnes collected by hand and dried, before being pounded and burned in round, stone-lined kelp kilns.
The fires would pour acrid smoke for hours until a dark, oily substance emerged which was then left to cool before being shipped off to mainland factories. The relocated kelp workers soon found their farming lands left neglected, starved of labour and the nutritious seaweed which usually gave life to their crops.
But the population swelled, and money flowed into the island once more. However, the real wealth often ended up in the pockets of others. The green goodness around our shores had become so valuable that the landlords of Harris and neighbouring North Uist even fought a legal war over the salty stuff. An angry dispute arose over ownership of a particular set of rocks in the Sound of Harris, a stretch of water which divides our two islands.
The rocks themselves were utterly worthless on their own, but the kelp which clung to them was worth its weight in gold! The courtroom drama finally hinged on whether or not someone from Uist could walk out to the rocks at low tide. If they could, then they could claim them, if not they belonged to Harris.
The men from Uist did their best, going as far as to drag their own rocks out to sea and act as stepping stones to reach their goal. But, the men from Harris, who claimed a boat could sail through the channel at its lowest ebb, were proved right and so ownership, and the precious seaweed, went to our island and remains so to this today.
All this angst and effort was soon to be proved in vain. Just as with the herring boom which preceded it, the kelp boom was to come to an end, and with it more hard times for Harris
THE DIASPORA PROJECT
One of the defining aims of the Isle of Harris Distillery is to address the pressing issues surrounding population decline here in the Outer Hebrides.
During the 1950s, nearly 4000 people lived in Harris but today the number is half that, a figure reflected in The 1,916 endeavour.
The stark trend continues to this day, as we continue to face acute economic challenges, an ageing community and young people leaving to seek work and opportunity elsewhere with few financial reasons to return.
But, this is not a new phenomenon and the roots of our island’s struggle to survive and thrive lie some 250 years in the past when Harris was a very different place.
The 'Hercules' which carried 93 Harris people to Australia in 1852.
From the mid-1700s until the turn of the 20th century, there has been a succession of key trials and tribulations in our Hebridean history, pushing and pulling people from our shores.
Thousands of island emigrants have departed Harris in search of a better life, leaving their homes and often families behind, to seek new opportunities across the world
From Cape Breton to Carolina, Patagonia to the Prairies, the Falklands to the Philippines, men and women of Harris have sailed far and found homes in almost every corner of the world.
And with them, they took their clan names, like Macleod and MacDonald, Morrison and Maclennan, MacKinnon, MacAskill and more…
Waving off the 'Metagama
Waving off the 'Metagama" ship which took 300 Hebrideans to Canada in 1923.
So, tonight we launch The Diaspora Project to tell their incredible stories and share the history which underlies the distillery’s founding goal.
We also want to discover our international connections, old and new, as we search for far-flung island friends and family and bring them closer to their Harris heritage.
It promises to be a long and fascinating exploration of the past but always with an eye on a positive future. It may also be a painful story at times, but not one we’ll shrink from telling.
We’re grateful to be supported in this project by the wonderful Bill Lawson from the Seallam centre in nearby Northton. His lifetime of invaluable knowledge and research will be our guide as we go.
A new interactive online map will be a repository for the stories we uncover together, and we hope to watch it grow as we trace the epic voyages and the adventurous souls who made them over the last two centuries.
We invite you to share your Isle of Harris connections with us too. If you, your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents have ties to our island then we’d love to hear from you.
Tell us all about your familial links to our island home, and we’ll add your story to the map along with any photographs or information you’re happy to share.
And, if you’d like to research your ancestry to discover more, then we highly recommend visiting Bill’s genealogy website at www.hebridespeople.com to undertake a more personal Diaspora voyage of your own.
So, please join us on our social media channels and here on the Journal as we begin to set the historical scene.
The Battle of Culloden is over, the old clan system has collapsed and faced with rising rents the first Harris folk leave for North America. A war courtesy of Napoleon is coming, but kelp seaweed promises new prosperity…
THE EARLY EMIGRANTS
We built our distillery with a founding aim of addressing the issues surrounding endemic population decline here in the Outer Hebrides.
Over the centuries, thousands of islanders have departed these shores never to return again, leaving behind family, friends and an ageing community faced with ever-dwindling numbers.
Our Diaspora Project sets out to understand the history of these emigrations, sharing the incredible stories of the men and women who sailed from here and hopefully help us connect with some of their families still scattered across the world today.
The story begins almost 300 years ago, at the turn of the 18th century when the Isle of Harris was a very different place. The village of Tarbert where our distillery now stands held less than a handful of houses and the road to these doors would have been travelled by sea rather than land.
The population was settled mainly on the fertile machair lands of the western shores, and on nearby islands like Pabbay, Berneray and Taransay. Here, potatoes, oats and barley were grown, fishing was commonplace and cattle kept for milk and meat.
For centuries, Harris was ruled by the chiefs of the clan Macleod from castles at Dunvegan and Pabbay, a religious centre at Rodel and their hunting grounds in the forests of North Harris. But times were changing, and the old clan system built on the bonds of kinship and rent paid in kind rather than cash was in decline.
In 1745 the infamous Jacobite rising and struggle for the British throne culminated in the Battle of Culloden a year later. In the aftermath, the old clan chiefs began to act more like landlords than leaders as they chose to value money over the lives of the men and women who lived on their estates.
As rents in Harris rose and land-rights went to the highest bidder, it was the local farmers or 'tacksmen' who felt the pressure of this new regime first. One such farmer was Donald "Domnhall Iain Oig" Campbell from nearby Scalpay.
Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). 1720 - 1788
Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). 1720 - 1788
Donald was best remembered for discovering the fugitive 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' at his door seeking shelter while fleeing Culloden in 1746. Finding the obligations of Hebridean hospitality more important than a reward for his capture, Donald gave him shelter and chased away a local minister who arrived with soldiers to claim the £30,000 bounty.
But, Donald was soon faced with painful rent increases being sought by his landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan, and determined them to be more than his farm was worth. So, leaning on historic Harris ties to the tobacco trade in Virginia, the prospect of a new life in America became far more appealing.
In the 1760s he became one of our island's earliest recorded emigrants, leaving with his family along with many of his sub-tenants to Cumberland County in North Carolina, finally settling at a place called Mclendon's Creek. He was followed by his son-in-law Alexander MacLeod from Pabbay in 1774.
Donald Campbell's home island of Scalpay, just a few miles from our distillery in Tarbert.
Donald Campbell's home island of Scalpay, just a few miles from our distillery in Tarbert.
Others were undertaking this long journey to the new world too, pushed by economic circumstance and pulled by the promise of a better life far from their Outer Hebridean homes.
It was to become an all too familiar story for islanders over the coming century.
Join us next time, as we continue to explore the roots of population decline here in Harris and the reasons which lie at the heart of our distillery's driving purpose to help our community survive and thrive.