The people of Dingwall are heirs to a little-known history where whisky plays a fascinating role. Jacobite raids, government whisky privileges, distillery lawsuits, financial ruin and brand reincarnation – it's all happened here in Ross-shire.
Ferintosh in the Black Isle – just across the Cromarty Firth from Dingwall – was once the greatest site of legal whisky production the Highlands had ever seen. In 1690, the landowner Duncan Forbes of Culloden was granted a privilege to distil whisky at Ferintosh virtually-tax free. The Ferintosh privilege lasted almost a century, but came to an end in 1784 after much protestation by neighbouring distillers. Ferintosh whisky was so famous that Robert Burns, living hundreds of miles away in the Scottish Borders, lamented the revoking of the privilege. The remains of a distillery can be found at Ferintosh today. Visit the North of Scotland Archaeological Society website for more information on visiting the site.
The Forbes family came to Culloden, near Inverness, in the early 17th century. They were a cadet branch of the Forbes of Tolquhon family in Aberdeenshire, whose ancient castle still – partly - stands today. The family reportedly paid 19,500 merks for the barony of Culloden, ruffling the feathers of the local aristocracy who regarded the incomers as social climbers. The family also purchased the baronies of Ferintosh, near Dingwall, and Bunchrew, near Inverness. Lord Lovat, whose family had held its lands near Beauly since the 15th century, felt it necessary to remark that no one could call the Forbeses a family, 'no more than a mushroom of one night's growth can be called an old oak tree.' But the Forbes family undoubtedly became a great oak - the purchase of Ferintosh was the all-important seedling to their great whisky story.
Lord Lovat's comments aside, the Forbes of Culloden family rose to significant political prominence and were big players in 17th and 18th century politics. As a staunch Presbyterian, Duncan Forbes 3rd of Culloden did not support the catholic monarchy; during the Revolution of 1688, when King James II of England (VII of Scotland) was overthrown by his protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange, he resolutely supported the new monarchs. Duncan Forbes became a target for Jacobite frustration.
In 1689 Jacobite forces led by major-general Thomas Buchan raided the lands of Ferintosh. Buildings and farmland were ravaged – people living on the land were left with nothing. With the damage amounting to 54,000 merks' worth, Duncan Forbes claimed compensation from the Scottish Parliament - he was a shrewd businessman. An act passed by parliament on 22 July 1690 granted the Forbes family the right to distil whisky in the barony of Ferintosh virtually tax free, for the relatively small annual fee of 400 merks.
Throughout the Jacobite uprisings, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Forbes family loyally supported the government. Duncan Forbes 5th of Culloden worked tirelessly to dissuade Highland clans from joining Bonnie Prince Charlie.
There was an evangelical religious revival in Easter Ross during the 18th century – it was a time of great religious zeal and superstition, and Ferintosh enjoyed its fair share of strange happenings. However, with such a proliferation of alcohol at hand - this was during the height of the Ferintosh whisky days - one must question what was fuelling these fantastical stories - the devil, or the drink.
Culbokie Loch was known as the meeting place of the Ferintosh and Resolis witches, where their 'Grand Master' was said to glide over the loch 'in the form of a spunkie.'
On another dark night by the same loch, a local man called David Ross saw a small black dog. The dog grew larger and larger, and fiercer and fiercer, causing David's horse to fright. Not knowing what else to do, Ross recited a passage from the bible, 'whereupon the monster all at once dissolved into flames of fire, which, shooting along the sky with long trains of light, which emitted a strong stench of brimstone, glided towards the north and lost themselves likes a number of falling stars behind Ben Wyvis.'
Over the course of a century, the Forbes family created a small whisky empire at Ferintosh. Duncan's heirs built at least three more distilleries on their lands, exporting huge amounts of whisky south to the Lowlands, and even as far as London. One commentator estimated that by the late 1760s, two-thirds of legal Scottish whisky came from Ferintosh.
Ferintosh's monopoly, however, could not last forever. Other distillers could not compete with the Forbes family, and they grew increasingly disgruntled. Finally, in 1784, after much petitioning, the privilege was revoked. The Forbes family was paid a small fortune in compensation. However, for the hundreds – possibly even thousands – of people who had moved to Ferintosh to work its fields, stills and breweries, the end of the privilege meant the end of their livelihood.
Indeed, 30 years later, the people of Ferintosh had fallen on hard times. Alexander Mackenzie of Newton of Ferintosh wrote a heartfelt letter in 1814 to the local Justice of the Peace, pleading for clemency for illegally distilling whisky at his croft. Alexander wrote, 'Your petitioner has Poverty, Poverty, Poverty, bad health which is legible in his countenance, a throng and weak family, without a horse or a cow, a calf or a sow, a cart or a plough for supporting them.' For many Highland crofters, clandestine whisky production was an important source of additional income. We don't know if Alexander was let off the hook, but Justices of the Peace were typically sympathetic as they were often customers!
Robert Burns captured the mood of the time in his 1785 poem Scotch Drink:
Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an' barkin hoast
May kill us a'
For loyal Forbes' charter'd boast
Is ta'en awa?
Ben Wyvis Distillery in Dingwall was the brainchild of D.G. Ross, a local ironmonger, agricultural merchant and town Baillie. The distillery was built in 1879 – it took 90 men 9 months to blast away the Dingwall hillside to make way for the site. The town's proximity to the Highland Railway line and the Cromarty Firth meant it was logistically perfect for a distillery. Ross sought to make his distillery as modern as possible, and employed renewable energy techniques - Victorian-style. An Irish firm bought the distillery in 1889 and three years later renamed it Ferintosh Distillery. Whisky marketing and brand awareness had come into its own during the nineteenth-century - the employment of a famous name like Ferintosh was no-doubt a calculated move to boost sales. Sadly, the Ferintosh name wasn't enough to sustain the distillery during the tough years of U.S. prohibition and it closed in 1926. For the second time, Ferintosh had been 'sadly lost'.
D.G. Ross was a Dingwall ironmonger, agricultural merchant and town Baillie. Ross had an ambition to build a whisky distillery in Dingwall, and in the 1870s he set to work in finding a location and building one. The town's proximity to the Highland Railway line and the Cromarty Firth meant it was logistically perfect for a distillery. The challenge, however, was finding a suitable water source. Ross eventually chose a site to the south of the town. He overcame the water problem by running a 3.5-mile pipe up the hill behind the site to Loch Ussie, famed for its connections to the legendary Brahan Seer. It was reportedly also a favourite water source for local illicit distillers and smugglers, who came from far and wide to 'convert its limpid waters into mountain dew.'
Ross built his distillery into the face of a hill. It took 90 men 9 months to blast away the hillside, clearing away over 200,000 cubic metres of earth and solid rock, which was then used as building material. Ben Wyvis Distillery opened in the late summer of 1879 and soon had a staff of about 40 people. Distillery buildings sat atop descending terraces that ran down the hillside, with the offices and customs and excise building at the bottom of the hill, level with the road.
Ross sought to make his distillery as modern as possible. He was an early adopter of what we would call renewable energy techniques – Victorian style! The waste water from the still condensers passed over a small water-wheel that drove the agitating gear of the wash still. The distillery's steam boiler was heated solely by the waste heat from the flues from the stills. This steam boiler in return heated the stills, and was used to steam-clean distillery equipment. Ross was ambitious and sought to make Ben Wyvis a distillery that reflected the advancements in technology created by the Industrial Revolution.
Ross was so confident in the potential of his modern distillery that the initial plans allowed for the doubling of production. If Ross had wanted to increase the distillery's output twofold, all he would have needed was additional wash backs and a new still and condenser.
By 1887, Ben Wyvis was sold to Scotch Whisky Distillers, which comprised also of Glen Nevis, Glendarroch, Gleniffer and Dean Distilleries. In 1889, Scotch Whisky Distillers went into liquidation and the four distilleries were put up for sale. Belfast-based firm Kirker Greer & Co. bought Ben Wyvis Distillery.
In the winter of 1892, local excise man John Macrae Ferguson sued the distillery for £4,500 for injuries he had suffered on-site. During a late-night visit to the distillery, Ferguson fell into a hole in the ground, dug by the distillery workmen who were working on the drains. The jury decision went in Ferguson's favour and he was awarded £1,250 in damages.
Ben Wyvis Distillery went through a rebrand the following year. Kirker Greer & Co re-named it Ferintosh Distillery. Whisky marketing and the concept of brand awareness was well established by the late 19th century, so the employment of a famous name like Ferintosh was no-doubt a calculated move to boost sales.
This was during the height of the British Empire, and whisky increasingly found its way into colonial markets. In 1896, a pharmacist in Bombay was reportedly selling Ferintosh whisky across the entire length of India. It was described as 'a favourite brand of the popular panacea.'
Sadly, the Ferintosh name wasn't enough to sustain the distillery during the tough years of U.S. prohibition and it closed in 1926. For the second time, Ferintosh had been 'sadly lost'. The distillery stood empty for decades, but was eventually demolished in 1993. The bonded warehouses and the distillery offices, however, are still intact and can be seen as you come in to Dingwall from Maryburgh.
Glenskiach Distillery, north of Dingwall in the village of Evanton, was built in 1896 and was designed by the distillery architect of the Victorian era - Charles Doig. Doig was inspired by the buildings of China and Japan. His trademark feature was the pagoda ventilator, which assisted with the malting process; the pagoda is an iconic feature of Scottish distillery design, although today its function is purely decorative. Glenskiach Distillery stood beside the River Skiach, which is an Anglicisation of Abhainn Sgitheach, meaning Hawthorn River in Gaelic.
Local man John Ross, whose descendants still live in the village today, was the distillery manager for the distillery's duration. John came from a family with strong distilling ties to the local area, including Balbair and Pollo distilleries further north.
Dingwall-based architect William Cumming Joass (1833-1919) was also involved in the distillery design; Joass was involved in the resurrection and redesign of Pollo Distillery in 1894-6, along with John Ross's father Andrew. Joass designed and altered many of Dingwall's best known buildings, including the current Post Office, the town's Masonic Hall, St Clements School and the Royal Hotel.
Sadly, Glenskiach was only in operation for 30 years; profits were damaged by US prohibition and the distillery fell silent in 1926. The distillery was demolished in 1933 and the site was later turned into a curling pond. However, the winters were never quite cold enough to keep the pond frozen, and it was abandoned. Today, a modern house sits on top of the site. The distillery manager's house, the brewer's house, and the distillery office all still stand today and are private homes.
During the late 1950s, blended whisky became very popular, particularly in America, and the industry exploded. Invergordon Distillery, just east of Dingwall, was founded in 1959 to produce grain whisky for blends. Today it is owned by Scottish whisky giants Whyte and Mackay, and remains the only grain distillery in the Highlands.
In 1965 Invergordon started to produce a single malt whisky called Ben Wyvis, predominately to use in its blends. Two 10,000 litre pot stills were housed within the grain complex. However, the distillery held a few casks back and bottled them as a single malt. These bottlings are not easy to come by owing to their rarity. However, here at GlenWyvis we are lucky enough to own two– a 27 year old and a 37 year old.
However, Ben Wyvis at Invergordon was short lived. The 1973 US oil crisis, followed by the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, caused a major crash in the industry and the US economy buckled. There was a slight improvement in 1977, however by 1979 the world economy was on the brink of a major recession. Ben Wyvis Distillery ceased production in 1976. Its stills have since been repurposed by Mitchell's Glengyle Distillery in Campbeltown.
Thank you to Sandra MacDonald and Ian MacLeod for their help in researching the history of Ben Wyvis Distillery in Dingwall, and to Adrian Clark for his help in researching Glenskiach Distillery in Evanton. The research carried out by Meryl Marshall and the North of Scotland Archaeology Society on Ferintosh has been invaluable – thanks also to them.