Skye Highs

Hugo JACOMET

Skye Highs

SKYE HIGHS

by Rt Hon Brian Wilson

Text and photos © Whiskeria Magazine

The New Statistical Account of Scotland, published in 1841, recorded a dim view of developments in the Parish of Bracadale on the Isle of Skye. Generally, contributions to these invaluable records of the times were written by a clergyman, in this case, Rev Roderick MacLeod, Presbyterian minister of Bracadale.

While the construction of a “Parliamentary road” earned his approval, the conversion of small farms into large units for sheep grazing had the result of “dispossessing and setting adrift the small tenants” – a process which, in due course, would become known as the Highland Clearances.

There was even worse news to follow.  The glen of Talisker – “its formation being particularly romantic and its soil particularly fertile” – had seen “the erection and establishment of a whisky distillery” a decade earlier. Rev. Mr MacLeod regarded this as “one of the greatest curses which, in the ordinary course of Providence, could befall it or any other place”.

It may be assumed that this negative view of Talisker’s origins was not universally shared by the minister’s flock since he also noted that there were “five whisky houses” within the parish, “to the manifest injury of the temporal interests of the people, and the progressive and sure destruction of their morals”. At least nobody could accuse him of sitting on the fence.

Fast forward and Skye, in all its scenic magnificence, is the second most popular tourist destination in Scotland, behind only Edinburgh, and the infrastructure is struggling to cope.  The opening of a bridge between the mainland and Kyleakin, in the south of the island, in 1995 removed the last barrier to accessibility. Now a plethora of tourism businesses vie for attention from the procession of bus tours and camper vans.

Given Skye’s power as a tourist magnet, it is surprising it has taken so long for a second distillery to appear on the island. Called Torabhaig, it is located on the Sleat peninsula close to the ferry terminal which still allows traffic from Mallaig to come “over the sea to Skye” without the aid of a bridge.

Torabhaig, owned by the Dutch company Marussia Beverages, is located within a restored 200 year old farmstead. It was originally the vision of Sir Iain Noble, a merchant banker who became local landowner in the early 1970s but proved to be very different from the norm. Iain was deeply committed to the Gaelic language while never losing his entrepreneurial instincts.

In 1976, he founded a company to market blended whiskies with Gaelic names and identities, but never quite got round to producing them on Skye.  In 2002, Iain Noble gained planning approval to convert the Torabhaig building into a distillery but died before advancing the scheme. Restoration has been achieved to the standards he would undoubtedly have set and Torabhaig is now open for business and pulling in the tourists.

Additionally, a small distillery has been created on the Isle of Raasay which lies to the east of Skye.  Raasay is larger than Manhattan but is home to just 140 people. The distillery, which has been operational since last year with the first Isle of Raasay single malt due in 2020, should give a welcome boost to the local economy.  It looks across to the Cuillins and claims “arguably the best view from any distillery in Scotland” – a hotly disputed accolade!

Meanwhile, after nearly 190 years, Talisker distillery, on the shores of Loch Harport in the north-west of Skye, has defied all spiritual and temporal challenges to achieve its current exalted status. Mind you, the “Parliamentary road” which last year carried 75,000 tourists and tasters to its visitor centre has scarcely kept pace with the march of progress!

I had not visited Talisker for about 20 years and, even as late as that, it scarcely bothered to cater for tourists as opposed to concentrating on the meticulous and extremely private business of producing fine whisky.  Now it treats the two functions with equal seriousness.

Gender stereotyping is a risky business these days but I suppose most of us would still think of a distillery manager as a man well into middle-age and quite possibly with a military background.  So it came as a surprise – and a very pleasant one, I hastily add – to find that the  current Talisker site manager ticks none of these outdated boxes.

Diane Farrell entered Diageo’s Supply Graduate Scheme in 2012 after completing a Chemical Engineering Masters degree at the University of Strathclyde.  After working her way through various aspects of the industry, she became manager of Teaninich Distillery, in Easter Ross, before moving to Talisker, one the jewels in the Diageo crown, last year.

“My management team at Talisker are all female,” says Diane, “and I am very proud of them as strong, inspiring, dedicated women. I’m also very proud to work at Talisker – it’s such an incredible brand”. The distillery is operating at full capacity, carrying out 20 mashes a week using water drawn from underground springs.

Curiously enough, the brand name “Isle of Skye” is not available to island distillers – which must be a little irritating since brand identities do not come much stronger than that.  Since 1933, a blended whisky has been sold under that name. Its connection with the island lay with the original owner and blender, Ian MacLeod, who sold his company in 1963 to the Russell group, based near Edinburgh.  The Isle of Skye continues to be marketed successfully –  not least on the Isle of Skye!

Ian was the younger brother of Duncan MacLeod, an extraordinary figure in the whisky industry during the first few decades of the 20thcentury, whose name is still well known on Skye today.  His most successful brand was called Clan MacLeod– and latterly he returned to Skye as an extremely wealthy philanthropist and promoter of agricultural improvements.

His grandson, Ruaraidh Hilleary, recalls: “He went to Liverpool with nothing and landed a job selling lemonade in New York. However, he soon discovered that whisky was a much better bet. I think the Commercial Bank of Scotland lent him £1 million at a very early age to buy Bulloch Lade (one of the big Glasgow whisky houses which was taken over by Distillers Company in 1920).

“His early trading was during Prohibition. I believe he lost his first fortune then made it again. As a child, I remember him as a most exciting grandpa!  My earliest memories  from the 1930s are of him coming to Skye in a yacht called Trident and you never knew who was going to be there – lords and ladies, celebrities, all sorts mixing together.  I do remember the atmosphere of hospitality and laughter”.

The days of buccaneering whisky entrepreneurs may be over but there is no shortage of new entrants to the field.  There are plans for a Whisky Trail and visitors will be able to follow in the footsteps of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell who included Sleat, Raasay and Talisker in their late 18thcentury perambulations which led to the celebrated Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides. The trail will also take in the much-praised Isle of Harris Distillery, a 90 minute ferry crossing from the north end of Skye.

“A man of the Hebrides”, noted Johnson when he was in Skye, “as soon as he appears in the morning swallows a glass of whisky; yet they are not a drunken race, at least I was never present at much intemperance; but no  man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk”.

Rev. Roderick MacLeod of Bracadale might have dissented from that view.

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This article was originally published on Whiskeria Magazine (see the link to the digital version below).

Opening photo : credit Natasha von Geldern.

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