Distilling was introduced to Scotland by the Irish Celts as they travelled from Ulster to Kintyre around 500 AD. Pot stills for the production of small quantities of ‘poteen’ or raw spirit, were widely distributed in the farmlands of East and West Kintyre throughout most of the 16th Century.
It was often part of the produce which served as ‘rent’ which a tacksman Tacksman could claim from his peasant crofters. Kintyre had great advantages, in terms of poteen production, not merely of having the skills but also access to good ‘bere’ the rough barley used in its manufacture and also coal and peat for heating the stills and abundant soft water. It also had coppersmiths, Robert Armour and Sons, who were famed as highly skilled manufacturers of the small pot stills.
By the 1790s a canal was built to bring coal and peat from the Laggan area to Campbeltown for the stills and export, and this was eventually superseded by the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Light Railway.
The 18th century saw the transition from peasant operations to highly commercial businesses and for this Campbeltown had a further advantage in that production on such a scale demanded good transport links both to bring in barrels and other requirements and also to transport the final product to the world. Across most of the highlands, transport was by road and very inefficient, whereas Campbeltown’s harbour provided the perfect means for distribution.
The economic success of the farming community, which had been planted into Kintyre in the late 17th early 18th century and their access to capital and entrepreneurial zeal played a major role in this success. This was coupled with a significant but equally important factor, the demand by the Duke of Argyll that a special high-quality water reservoir, Crosshill Loch, be created, which had its own ‘Distiller’s Main’ distinct from the domestic supply. This still provides a controlled water supply to the town ’s active distilleries.
By the mid-1840s demand for good whisky had grown, as Victorian industrialization prospered and overseas export markets expanded with the diaspora of Scottish traders and adventurers. Fortunately, Campbeltown had the capital, the people, the product and the accessibility to take advantage.
By 1843, Campbeltown had 25 active distilleries producing over 700,000 gallons of whisky per year. These numbers ebbed and flowed with the economy and demand, but in 1909 Lloyd George’s great hike in whisky tax, to reduce alcoholism had a dramatic effect and Campbeltown’s heavily peated and flavoured whiskies became less popular. The number of distilleries was reduced to half that of the 1850s.
This decline continued in the first half of the 20th century, and many of the old whisky buildings and bonds were turned into bus garages, stores and even a Tesco supermarket, though their characteristic architecture and blackened walls can still be recognised. After the Second World War, the industry was still in its doldrums and only the two Campbeltown distilleries which exist to this day, Springbank and Glen Scotia were still active.
Fortunately, the demand for special quality Malt whiskies and aggressive marketing of the uniqueness of the two Campbeltown malts has been very successful. Campbeltown-type Malt Whiskies are one of the four specific and very distinct Scotch Whisky types (Highland, Lowland, Island and Campbeltown). Both distilleries and the new Springbank adjunct, Glengyle, now operate at full capacity and have well-received visitor centres and international marketing operations.