Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery VisitsHistory

Brora – The Industrial Village

Clynelish distillery is at the northern end of Brora and as I was coming from Dornoch I drove the whole length of the village but it didn’t make much of an impression. I thought it drab and the squat, grey  vernacular architecture glowered rather than smiled. However it would be wrong to confuse drab with uninteresting as Brora  has a fascinating history. It was the flip side of the Highland Clearances. It was a community  planned by its aristocratic landowners  to be an industrial village where the forcibly dispossessed could rebuild their lives.  It was similar in conception to The New Towns built after WWII.

The clearance of the inland communities, the emptying of the land for large sheep farms, might have been the most important part of the story of the Clearances but initially the idea  was not to drive people out the region and abandon them to their fate. Instead they were meant to relocate in coastal communities and build a new type of life based on fishing and other industries and partial crofting. In the beginning the people of the estate were still seen as a “resource” and the plan was for economic  “improvement”. Brora was  meant to be an example of how this could be done.

(It was only later, after the initial clearances, especially after the disaster of potato blight that overpopulation became an intractable problem and  people were shipped out like cattle to Canada or Australia).

The Highland Clearances are vivid in our minds for their cruelty and the fact that people were driven from their land, their homes were burnt so they couldn’t return, and communities were broken up. All to provide grazing for large flocks of sheep! It was an attack on the traditional clan system and ways of subsistence that were at odds with ideas of “Progress” and the industrial revolution.  There is always a poignancy about what was lost especially when the change was dramatic and the methods of enforcement were ruthless. In the history of the Highland Clearances The Sutherland Estate was particularly notorious. One of their agents, Patrick Seller, was tried for manslaughter of an old woman who had been driven from her croft and his actions remain, to this day,  a symbol of the cruelty of the times. Not only that the Marquess of Stafford and his wife, The Countess of Sutherland, who inherited the estate, were the richest people in the kingdom. The contrast  between the displaced communities and their lord could not have been greater. It was a dramatic dichotomy; but though the people moved had no power over their physical destiny, no economic status, they had the power to create a narrative. The story was told an re-told and with each re-telling  the hearts of the agents became flintier and their actions crueler until the whole episode had the power of myth. Marx even used the Sutherland clearance in Das Capital as as a case study of the capitalist expropriation of the peasantry. It was in the newspapers and a cause for campaigning journalists and eventually reached the ears of the Government in London.

We must never underestimate the power of narrative and storytelling. It might not put food on the table, at the time, however it can shape how we see things and what is learnt from history. Even today these stories of the Clearances have potency and are fought over as Scotland is actively engaged in recasting its identity.

But history is never straightforward. The Highland Clearances were not simply a tale of landowners acting cruelly and capriciously, driven solely by a hatred and distaste of the Gaels. It was part of a transformation sweeping not only the whole of Britain but other parts of Europe as well.  The growth of industry,  development of capitalism, and an increase in the population could only be supported by agricultural surplus and for that to happen there had to be change. The agricultural revolution and industrial revolution had to march hand in hand and traditional, subsistence communities in the ‘First Industrial Nation’ were out of time. Their inhabitants, without much in the way of economic resource, were powerless in the face of  the pressure for economic, demographic, social and philosophical change. The old model was broken. But change is hard and transition difficult, especially when it involves the break-up of a culture in the name of a remote concept of ‘The Economy’.

Hidden forces, though, are much better understood when they are personalised and so the Marquess of Stafford, his main agent James Locke, and his largest tenant and one time factor Patrick Sellar, often stand as proxy for changes in the whole of the Highlands and the destruction of Gaeldom itself. The fact that they actually they went to greater lengths to relocate their tenants and invested  more money in the development of the estate than most of the other landowners counts for little in the popular imagination. They are the symbols of a capitalism that emptied the land of people for sheep – for sheep!

That it is why it is interesting to be in Brora and think of the clearances from the other side of the coin. The Sutherlands invested money in infrastructure in the hope that individuals would come and develop enterprises. The new harbour was built in 1815 to expand the fishing, and there were plans for  enterprises based on the local availability of coal.  Brora is the most northerly coal field in the UK. Isolated, small, and younger geologically than all the others.  It provided a softer, dirtier fuel but the seam was workable and  marginally viable until 1974, when it was finally closed and it managed to supply the needs of a a brickworks, salt pans, textiles.  All enterprises that have come and gone. The Duke’s  ambitions of sustainable renewal and economic growth were not realised.

Nevertheless the distillery remains.  Interestingly it was not the first alcohol choice. The Countess opened a brewery in 1815 in the hope of moving people away from the dangers of hard liquor. This was  a fairly common idea at the time as beer was seen as safer and more sustaining than spirits – but you can’t change culture that easily. Physically you can move someone, economically  you can change how they must earn their living but you can’t so easily alter a persons interior sense of who and what they are. The brewery failed. A distillery was built and although it also had a rocky start it survived and has flourished and its whisky has always had a high reputation.

It is strange how whisky has proved itself to be more constant than almost any other part of Scottish industrial or agricultural life. In the 200 year history of Scotch Whisky whole industries have come and gone from the country. Huge industries, vast employers of men – gone.  Brora is a good place to think of this. Behind it is the land that was emptied but the sheep farms were only successful for a time. In the village  the harbour did not lead to a sustainable fishing industry. Things just didn’t work out as planned.

But the whisky is still here.


* I am very confused as to how to refer to the family who owned the Sutherland Estate 200 years ago, so excuse any inconsistency. The estate was inherited, after a legal challenge,  in 1771 by the infant Elizabeth, who was the first female heir. She became the Countess of Sutherland.  In 1785 she married George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, who was known as Earl Gower from 1786 – 1803, when he succeeded to his father’s title of Marquess of Stafford, in 1832 he was created Duke of Sutherland and Elizabeth became the Duchess-Countess of Sutherland

If only people had one name, like distilleries… Oh hang on a minute!

P.S. The 3D image was produced  as part of The Virtual Histories Project, which is is a collaboration between four museums (Eyemouth Museum, Shetland Museum, Taigh Chearsabhagh and Timespan) and the University of St Andrews School of Computer Science, The School of History and the SCAPE Trust.

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