A Highland Massacre
First Society bottling 1983. The tale of Towser, Glenturret's mighty mouser may lack the pathos of a Greyfriars Bobby, but her marketing is unsurpassed. An entry in the Guinness Book of Records, courted by Blue Peter and The Record Breakers (although too old to travel by this time) and a bronze statue: one cat has made an indelible mark on the long and distinguished history of this distillery.
Glenturret, about one mile north west of Crieff in Perthshire, occupies a site known from parish records to have been producing illicit whisky as early as 1717 and the distillery, established in 1775, has a very strong claim to being Scotland's oldest.
It still produces 120,000 gallons a year. Its Highland setting is superb, but what sticks in the memory is three or four dead mice a day for twenty-four years! There were 28,899 in total - brought in from the surrounding fields and laid out for the stillman each morning, on the Still House floor, until Towser herself died in 1987. In its long history, Glenturret has had two (of its nine?) distinct lives.
Established in 1775, the 1823 Act of Parliament gave it formal legality. But long before this, its setting had made it perfectly placed for illicit stilling. With its narrow gorge flanked by hills on either side, lookouts could be placed to give ample warning of approaching militia or excisemen. Its other blessing was - and still is - the quality of the water from Loch Turret. "This work" (distilling), observed the writer Alfred Barnard in 1887, "is reported to have been originally in the hands of smugglers, who selected the site not only for its convenient slope to the river but more particularly for the sake of the Turret water, which is said to be as fine as any in the Kingdom, and to contain all the required properties for distilling purposes.
The water that rises high on Bechonzie is famous for its softness and today is piped to the distillery from a 100,000 litre storage tank high on the hill. By the time of Barnard's visit, relations with the excisemen had been put on an altogether more agreeable footing, under the proprietorship of Mr Thomas Stewart. "Good offices," he notes, "have been provided for the three Excise gentlemen, of whom Mr P Cunningham is the supervisor".
In 1887, the whisky industry was in a healthy state. The boom years lay just ahead, when demand would almost exceed supply. Alfred Barnard must have been in a happy frame of mind when he arrived in the attractive little holiday town of Crieff. Unlike visitors today, in that expansive Victorian age he had been privileged to travel there by train. "It was a lovely day", he wrote, "when we first made the acquaintance of Crieff and its neighbourhood." "Its vale is a perfect paradise to artists, who come in great numbers to transfer some of its transcendent beauties to canvas. Poets have celebrated its many romantic scenes in song and verse".
When we diverged from the main road into the glen, our route lay all the way along the river. It is a lively, dashing stream, falling over innumerable rocky rifts and projections, and is about 60 feet wide. From this point the valley opens and expands with most inviting attractiveness and, although the hills on either side seemed occasionally to merge and approach very near one another, forming a gorge wide enough for the river and roadway, yet, nevertheless, they do not conceal the upper part of the glen with its mountain background.
During the First World War, Glenturret was closed down and then, afterwards, reopened under the ownership of Mitchell Brothers. But not for long. By 1921, Mitchells had closed down the distillery and retained the buildings for storage. This was to become its fate - or was it? Through the years of Depression and American prohibition that followed, the Scotch whisky industry suffered greatly - with a few notable
Glenturret's tiny neighbour, Edradour, across in Pitlochry, did such a flourishing trade with America through the prohibition years that
rumour sprang up that it was controlled by the Mafia. But Glenturret did not flourish. By 1923, its equipment had been removed and in 1928 it was sold to the neighbouring landowners, the Murrays of Ochtertyre - for storage. No distilling took place at Glenturret for over forty years. But good fortune must indeed shine on Glenturret.
In 1959 a remarkable rebirth took place, due to the knowledge, vision and energy of one man, James Fairlie. Philip Morrice writes, "Some of the existing buildings were pressed into service but many adjustments and additions had to be made. New warehouses had to be constructed and since 1963, six have been put up along the public road outside the distillery proper. The entire operation was planned and supervised by Mr Fairlie himself and one of the most pleasing results is that the uninitiated eye can scarcely distinguish between new and old in the outward appearance of the buildings, which while spruce and freshly painted, nevertheless retain a certain solidness from an earlier period.
James Fairlie continued to run Glenturret after its take-over by the French liqueur company, Cointreau in 1981, but then in 1990, it moved into the control of Highland Distillers. As with many other distilleries, the emphasis at Glenturret, in its second life, rests very heavily on tourism. It takes only six men to operate the distillery but in a high season, Glenturret's award-winning tourist centre employs a staff of around fifty. On a busy day, as many as 2,000 people pass through: over 200,000 a year.
The approach to the distillery is almost unchanged from that sunny day over a century ago, when Alfred Barnard made his way to Glenturret and it must have been one of the best days of the year too, when I arrived there recently. The low, whitewashed buildings sparkled in the sun. Smart black and white canvas flapped in the breeze. Italian seemed to be the dominant language and everyone appeared in a good mood.
The immaculately restored buildings, the weed-free sweep of gravel, the restaurant, dram bar and audio-visual display are far removed from the centuries of grinding rural poverty. But the tourism is skillfully handled and you are still left with the impression of the small working distillery that it ever was. However; it is on a bottle of whisky liqueur that the two most lasting personalities in the history of this tiny distillery have jointly left their mark. The bottle of Fairlie's light Highland Liqueur is decorated with Towser's paw prints.