Campbeltown: The Birth of a Whisky Capital (Part 1)

Step back to the very origins of scotch whisky, to an area that was once hailed as the Whisky Capital of the World.


Listen to the Episode

Show Notes

We'll track the first Gaels from Ireland, meet the Lord of the Isles, and learn about a town that was one an ancient capital of Scotland called Dalruadhain, evolved into Lochend, and then boasted the largest collection of distilleries featured in one town, in the history of the British Isles. It's a lot of whisky and a lot of history in this two part journey.


Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above. 


"O all ye learned ones of Alba (ah-la-BAH)
o stately yellow-haired company,
what was the first invasion, is it known to you,
which took the land of Alba?

It was Albanus who took it with his host."

For the last eleven hundred years, historians and writers have tried to recall the very beginnings of Gaelic influence in the land that was once a kingdom known as Alba - a land you know today as Scotland.

Since the 11th Century, the history had been established through a poem called Duan Albanach, or The Song of the Scots. In its first few lines, it speaks of Brutus sending his son Albanactus to conquer the land of the Picts north of the River Humber to the area known today as North Berwick, east of Edinburgh. Albanactus, as the legend goes, would be killed in battle by his older brother Locrinus - a fact that may have been used by English kings including Edward I to show an English right to dominance over the Scots.

The poem goes on to speak of Erc, the king of Dál Riata, a kingdom located in present day Northern Ireland. Thanks to the blessing of Patrick, his three sons Loarn, Mac Nisse, and Oenghus would go off to Alba with vigour, conquering the land.

Mac Nisse who would later be referenced as Fergus (FAIR-uh-gus) Mor would become the king of Dál Riata and the kingdom would now be spread to both sides of the Irish sea - and the Gaels (GAY-uls) would bring their language with them as they traversed the Scottish Kintyre Peninsula, where modern day Campbeltown resides.

And while parts of the story are likely true, these stories passed through oral tradition may have been embellished to fit a desired narrative.

The same can be said for the theory that the Gaels brought with them to Kintyre, the art of making distilled spirits. The practice of distillation in Europe wast really mentioned until the end of the 13th century and Ireland’s first mention isn’t until an unfortunate incident in 1403 when a brief mention is made of a x dying from a surfeit of aqua vitae at Christmas time. Likely distilling was going on, but the monks who chronicled so much of Ireland’s history seemed to have neglected it in their writings.

But however it arrived in Kintyre, it would be a skill that would prove valuable in an area rich with barley and fertile soil. So much, in fact, that the royal burgh of Campbeltown, the place King Fergus I claimed as his ancient capital, would soon earn the moniker - The Whisky Capital of the World.

Well where have we heard that before? It’s time to dig into the town's history with both legal and illicit spirits - learn how big the industry really was in Campbeltown, and try to put to rest the question of who was the real Whiskey Capital of the World, Peoria, Illinois or Campbeltown, Scotland?

Origins of Distilling In Campbeltown

Dalruadhain was the original name given to the ancient capital of the Dál Riata monarchy, today’s Campbeltown. When Fergus Mor passed away, his brother Loarn mac Eirc moved the seat of power north to the area around Oban, Glen Coe, and the Isle of Mull. 

Abandoned, the settlement near the loch Dalruadhain would be reinhabited decades later when St. Ciaran (Kair-un), one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, landed there in the 6th Century and established it as Kilkerran, meaning Head of the Loch of the Church of Ciarán. It was said St. Patrick himself had converted St. Ciaran, giving him copies of the four gospels.

St. Ciaran’s mission was to bring Christianity to the land across the sea and he went about setting up several houses of worship all over the Kintyre Peninsula, before setting up a mission college on the Isle of Iona, just off the west coast of the Isle of Mull. 

Kintyre would live in relative peace for centuries until a Viking invasion which ultimately saw the Scottish King Edgar ceed Islay, Kintyre and the remaining kingdom of Dál Riata to Norwegian King Magnus. 

Although a century and a half later, much of that land would be sold back to the Scottish King Alexander III. Some thirty years later, three clans would control the area MacRory, the MacDougalls, and the MacDonalds, who were descendants of the Dál Riata Scots.

When a dispute arose over the guardianship of Scotland between Robert the Bruce and John “The Red” Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, the MacDougalls decide to side with John the Red while the MacDonalds and MacRory’s side with the Bruce. When John is killed at the Greyfriar’s Monastery, the MacDougalls are forced to give up their claims to the MacDonalds. The MacDonalds and MacRory’s would unite under the title The Lords of the Isles. And when x married Margaret, Scotland’s King Robert II, her dowry would include the remaining lands of Kintyre.

The Lords would hold a tight grip on the region and there would be great tension between the clans and the Scottish Kings, James IV and James V. Needing to take royal control of the area, James IV would have a fortification built on the south side of Ciaran’s Loch, naming it Kilkerran Castle. Finished in 1490, it would quickly be housed with a garrison of troops, with the hopes of keeping the MacDonald’s clan in check. 

While on an expedition to the area James the V would be greeted by a very disconcerting sight. It seems that Alexander MacDonald, 5th of Dunnyveg wanted to show his might to the king and sent his men over to storm Kilkerran Castle. As soon as King James was in view of the castle, Alexander hung the governor from the walls.

Exasperated, King James made a grant of the MacDonald’s territory and put it under the control of the Campbells of Argyll, with the hopes they would be able to do what he couldn’t.  

The Campbell’s would have great influence over the town at the head of the loch, and while it was mostly known as Lochead starting in 1597, as early as the 17th Century many would refer to it as Campbell’s Town.

The Necessary Evil

The Campbell’s hold an interesting distinction when it comes to Kintyre and whisky. Two of the earliest references to aqua vitae, the spirit that would evolve into whisky could be tied to the family.

In 1591, Alex Campbell, the Laird of Calder was the earliest found purchaser of aqua vitae. And in 1636, the town they controlled Lochead was taking rent payments for Crosshill Farms in the form of aqua vitae.

Making spirits in those days would have been easy with all of the ample local barley, fuel and peat. And even though beer was likely more used as a leisurely drink, aqua vitae the earlier form of whisky would have been present in many homes.  And up until the 17th century, distilling would have been part of the woman’s duties in the home.

Now prior to 1644, there would be no need for moonshining or distilling in the shadows. But on January 31, 1644, the Scottish Parliament, looking for funds to pay for the war against England’s King Charles, found whisky as the perfect source of revenue. This would be the first ever excise law on spirits and it would be expensive, 13 pence per Scottish pint produced. 

Over the next 70 years, there would be a lot of political upheaval in Scotland, made worse by severe droughts. Farmers would have to use what grain they could spare for whisky production, so they would have something to barter for their rent. 

When the Acts of Union brought a near bankrupt Scotland together with England in 1707, there were promises that Scotland would not pay the high rate of taxation on malt that England paid, but within 6 years this would be revoked, causing rebellion in Scotland. And soon elicit distilling and smuggling would gain favor throughout the countryside.

In 1700, Lochead, now a royal burgh, would see its town council appoint the first still inspector for the area - but rather than calling him a revenewar or an agent, he was simply called “a visitor.”

That didn’t make him any more likable to the people trying to make their whisky. But at least he was local. But by 1713, Lochead would now need a British excise officer assigned to the area.

The town council would bring about other ground breaking laws as well, including no bathing in the town’s water supply - a law influenced by a barley malting man named William Dunbar. And the town would appoint inspectors to make sure no low quality, watered down whisky was being produced by those that were legally distilling. They would also try to promote the consumption of local whisky when in 1719, they passed a three year ban on the purchase of brandy and other spirits from outside Great Britain.

This helped the developing whisky industry add greatly to the local economy. Occupations were developing, like malt men, barrel coopers, and revenue agents. 

By 1743, there were as many as 40 malt barns around the town. A coopering society was established the next year. No longer was herring fishing, and farming the town’s only source of revenue.

But according to Iain McAlister, Distillery Manager and Master Distiller at Glen Scotia Distillery, both then and now, there was always an uneasiness about the whisky industry in Campbeltown.

[Glen Scotia 1 - Campbeltown’s acceptance of whisky]

“People talked about everything but whisky. Necessary evil”

Yet for all of their discomfort with whisky production, they put up with it, that is until a looming crisis would put whisky distilling in the crosshairs.

Ever since whisky production had become a normal part of the lives of the working classes, local governments would use droughts and grain shortages as a reason to curb the practice. Inverness was the first, when back in 1569, a severe drought caused the town to prohibit distillation of malt. Soon other towns followed suit.

When grain shortages reached a crisis level in March of 1783, the Lochead town council suggested that the stills around the area should be collected and stored until things improved. And if you didn’t comply, your still could be taken or even destroyed.

But that didn’t stop men like James and John Armor, a local cooper and merchant who supplied whisky to merchant ships and to the Isle of Arran for over three years. And an uneasy minister Dr. John Smith, from the Highland Parish church suggested there were some 22 licensed distilleries in the area, producing nearly 20 thousand gallons a year by 1792 - increasing to 26,150 gallons by 1797.

But changes to the excise would occur over the next few years, leading to Lochead and Kintyre being listed as part of the Highlands for taxation purposes - and this meant the duty on spirits would be raised to £9 per gallon, much higher than in the Lowlands. It also restricted distillers to smaller 40 gallon stills and restricted sales to only the Highlands region. A letter was sent to the commissioners of the excise to complain that these drastic moves would drive distillers into the smuggling and illicit distilling trade. 

Their words would be prophetic as by 1797 all signs of legal distilling had completely disappeared from the area.

The Rebirth

As the 19th Century brought with it new hope, the growing town of Lochead, more and more being referred to as Campbeltown, had not lost its skill for distilling whisky. Underground networks developed and pseudo companies joined together to manage the supply coming from hidden stills. 

If you wanted to find a still, just look near a waterway, where cool water could easily be obtained. A small pot still, likely 18 gallons in capacity, would be set up in a hut along with casks used for cooking and fermenting. These were very inexpensive set ups, not because of a lack of funds available, but more because the owner knew they would likely be seized at some point.

Some distillers took to the mountains or into the woods, only to be discovered by the smoke they were producing, black whisky bacteria on the trees, or discharged drauff (or grain) found downstream.

Most of the stills found in the area were similar in size and design. And this was thanks to a local plumber and coppersmith named Robert Armour, whose shop at Main Street and Shore was known as the go to man for still. He would record £2000 in sales of stills between 1811 and 1817. And apparently he was doing a little distilling himself - right under the nose of the excise men.

In 1885, while the building at Shore and Main was being renovated, a vault was discovered in the basement, where Robert had rigged up a small still for himself, with the smoke from his heat source piped into the chimney, so that his neighbours would think he had just lit a fire in the fireplace.

An uneasy unity would exist in the first two decades of the 19th century between townspeople, distillers, and smugglers.

And then thankfully the long dreaded Highland taxation line was abolished. Duties would remain high, but many of the restrictions were removed. It seemed the Parliament was starting to see how revenue was being lost to the illicit trade due to the restrictive measures. 

In 1817, this changing attitude of Parliament prompted a local banker named John Beith and a malt man named John MacTaggart to team up for the creation of the Campbeltown Distillery. Using the skills earned through illicit distilling, two smuggler’s pot stills were set up, and old world buildings surrounded by a gate were erected on the spot, near the inception of Longrow Street. 

In Alfred Barnard’s 1880s book about the distilleries of Scotland, he mentions that Campbeltown Distillery’s whisky was so great, it had inspired Robert Burns, the Scottish poet to sing when he visited his Highland Mary in Campbeltown. There are a couple of issues with this legend. First, while his love Mary Campbell had lived in Campbeltown, they actually met elsewhere and with the distillery only being built in 1817, his death in 1796 might be a bit of an inconvenience to the fables' validity. 

The Boom Begins

Parliament's attempt at bringing illicit distilling out of the shadows apparently had little effect on the area beyond the Campbeltown Distillery. And throughout all of Scotland it is estimated that as many as 14 thousand elicit stills were being confiscated every year! 

Something had to be done and it would take a wealthy Highland landowner, the Duke of Gordon, to propose the landmark Excise Act of 1823. Now all Highland distillers, like the ones in Campbeltown would have to do is pay a x10 license fee and pay a per gallon duty on the spirits produced.  

Illicit distilling would all but disappear over the next decade. There was real - legal money to be made in the trade. 

Campbeltown distillers were like bulls behind a gate and when that gate opened, they charged forth with abandon. The old wharf or quay was about to be transformed into much more than just a dock for fishing boats and with the invention of the steamship, soon money and whisky could flow quickly between Glasgow, Campbeltown, and markets beyond. The positioning of Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula was ideal and had drawn several Lowland families to the area. Names like Greenlees, Covill(e), Ross, and Mitchell would soon head up a boom, the likes of which the whisky industry had never seen before.

Within the span of a year, four new distilleries came online. 

First was the Caladonian, established in 1823 by Peter Stewart and Company. 

Then Lamb, Covill(e), and Company established the Kinloch Distillery on the site of an old malt house that had been used by smugglers. It was close to the harbor, so it had plenty of activity surrounding it. 

These were followed by Lochead Distillery. Built by A & R McMurchy and Co. and located Lochead Burn - a spot that was likely used for illicit distilling not long before.

Then came another John Beith distillery with John Ross at the helm, a man who would spend more than 60 years in the distilling business in Campbeltown and whose money will help fund the building of the United Presbyterian Church next door.  The distillery would take the name of the street on which it was located, Longrow. 

And the other distillery built in 1824 would be the first associated with the Greenlees. The Meadowburn was built by Kirkwood, Taylor & Co. of which Matthew Greenlees was a part of. 

But it didn’t stop there. Four more distilleries would come online in 1825. Burnside was built by McMurchy, Ralston and Co near the Meadowburn Distillery in the shadow of the hills overlooking the loch. 

Dalaruan was built on the site of an old brewery by Charles Coville and David Greenlees. And it, of course, took its name from Fergus’ early settlement.

Hazelburn Distillery also the brainchild of David Greenlees and part of Greenlees, Coville and Co. 

And Rieclachan Distillery, would see the Mitchell family enter into Campbeltown distilling history with a facility built by Wylie Mitchell and Co right next door to the Campbeltown distillery. 

These early distilleries all took on a similar character. It was almost like they were being mass produced from a factory. 

Most would range from 1 to 2 acres, many built out of stone with buildings neatly arranged. They would consist of multiple granary floors and malt barns using either concrete or tile floors.  A small local barley called bear would also be used by many, bringing a special character to the whisky - but grain and peat could be brought in from anywhere and as the industry grew, that happened more and more. 

Each distillery would have at least one kiln on-site some multiple. They would all use peat as a heat source for malting their barley, giving Campbeltown whisky a unique character. The mill rooms would contain rollers for crushing the grain. Some distilleries used gravity to move grain through the process others elevators and manual manipulation. Open top mash tuns would be employed, likely hand stirred in the early days, but special steam powered rake systems would be deployed over time. 

Several washbacks would be employed in each facility for fermenting, while 2-3 pot stills would complete the distillation process. These early wash and pot stills would have looked similar to their smuggling era ancestors. Cooling pools would sit outside in a courtyard, ,used to cool the vapors back into liquid. A spirit store would house the low wines, heads, hearts, and tails in vats, Then a barreling house, an engine room for the steam engine, and a distillery manager’s house. The distillery would be completed by a series of dunnage warehouses, where whisky would be stacked in barrels three high. 

And while the town must have started to look like a series of smokestacks by 1825, the construction didn’t stop there. In 1826 came the Union Distillery, then in 1827 the Highland Distillery and MacKinnon’s Argyll Distillery.

1828 saw the construction of the Glenramskill Distillery and Springbank Distillery. 

1830 kept construction crews running too and fro as a record five distilleries rose up, including the Albyn, Glenside, Kintyre, Lochside, West Highland, and Springside.

And by the end of the 10th year since the Excise Act was passed, Dalintober, Meadowbank, and Scotia came online. A total of 21 distilleries now dotted the landscape of Campbeltown. An industry wasn’t only born, it had exploded on the scene. The towns population would grow, from 7000 years earlier to near 9000. Steamships were now making frequent trips between Glasgow and Campbeltown - money was being made - and the town was earning a reputation for high quality whisky. 

But how long could it last?

Next time on Whiskey Lore - Growth in Campbeltown Distilling is nowhere near competition as several more distilleries come online giving it the nickname, The Whisky Capital of the World. But today there are only three distilleries in Campbeltown. We’ll find out what happened to crush the thriving industry. And we’ll hear the story of a prosperous distillery owner, whose great success ended in a tragic story - and its said his ghost still haunts one of Campbeltown’s remaining distilleries. Hear the story next time, on Whiskey Lore.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

If you enjoyed today's episode, help Whiskey Lore grow by telling a friend about the show and make sure you subscribe so you don't miss the upcoming season.

And join me this Whisky Wednesday on my other podcast Whiskey Lore: The Interviews, where you’ll get a chance to hear my full interview with Iain McAlister of Glen Scotia Distillery, as we talk about his life in Campbeltown it’s history, and we taste and talk about Glen Scotia’s whisky. Find Whiskey Lore: The Interviews on your favorite podcast app.

In the meantime, thanks for growing your whisky knowledge along with me, and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.

For show notes, resources, and transcripts for this episode, head to Whiskey-Lore.com/episodes