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Dock of the Bay

The story of the ships of Lagavulin.

In 1823 Captain McDougall, master of the Active, an Islay sloop, planned a voyage from Coleraine in Ireland to Tobermory on Mull. She was a tiny vessel registered in Campbeltown in 1818, with a maximum cargo of just 29 tons. Did the weather turn stormy, or was he making a final delivery to Lagavulin on his way home to Islay? Why did the good Captain find himself in Lagavulin Bay?

It should have been a safe haven (hundreds of ships assembled here before the men of Islay sailed to help Robert the Bruce rout the English at Bannockburn in 1314). Yet on April 8th The Marine List reported in London that the Active had gone down in the bay itself (which may support the theory that she was delivering to Lagavulin) with all her cargo “except about four bolls of meal”.

In 1823, of course, there was no pier. Lagavulin in its current form was just seven years old, though production had already reached 4,178 gallons two years earlier and, so the story goes, the distillery’s first whiskies were already being floated out in casks to meet the ships that called for them.

The bay may not have had a pier, but it had something far more significant to an early nineteenth century skipper. It had rocks. Rocks you could see, which guarded the entrance to the bay as they do today. And rocks you could not see, below the surface, rocks that can still cause great damage to the unsuspecting new arrival. Did the unfortunate Active strike one of them?

We shall never know, but if records are anything to go by, this was a surprisingly isolated incident. Of forty major shipwrecks recorded around Islay, most are far later and are concentrated around the island’s treacherous west coast. A few small vessels, such as the Islay II in 1902, or the Limelight, in 1966, foundered in the entrance to Port Ellen bay, on the face of it a far more benign spot, but one more frequently visited.

Further east, off Ardbeg Point, jagged rocks accounted for three more; the Luneda, a small inshore cargo vessel, was among them in 1937.

And up further towards Kildalton, where the rocks become ever more jagged, lie two more; one of them is the wreck of the Shuna, which foundered here in 1936.

But Lagavulin, it seems, had claimed its victim early. For another seventy years, before the distillery pier was built in 1892, men manhandled casks out onto the waiting ships. Quite often, and probably here, special boats of shallow draft were run up onto the shore in order to permit this, then floated off at high tide.

These ships had their origins in the mid 19th century invention known as ‘Clyde Puffers’, after the distinctive puffing sound made by their simple steam engines and the puffs of steam they left in their wake, like some Native American signaller frantically trying to communicate with the far shore. Stumpy little cargo vessels no bigger than and derived from a sailing barge, they were sized to pass through the locks on the Forth & Clyde Canal, so were no more than 66 feet long. They were built entirely for the inshore and canal trade and were not themselves sea-worthy.

However, out of them there evolved a larger class of vessel capable of working the rougher waters around the Hebrides. These ‘outside’ boats were longer, some 88 feet long, but still able to use the locks on the Crinan Canal, cutting across the Kintyre peninsula, whose western end was a gateway to the islands. Still bluff-fronted and flat-bottomed, they plied their trade to the islands and took Lagavulin’s whisky to market in ever increasing numbers of casks.

Soon, though, the steadily growing volume of production heralded the arrival of a more efficient loading system. The distillery pier arrived in 1892 just as sales of White Horse blended Scotch Whisky (a new blend with Lagavulin at its heart) were beginning, and demand for Lagavulin really took off.

It was that simple pier that enabled that demand to be met. Ships could now berth alongside and casks could be there to meet them. They were lifted on and off by cranes carried on the boats, reducing the manual labour required considerably. Probably no single innovation did as much for island Scotch whisky production as the pier, and its related innovation, the ‘outside’ boat (still called a puffer although the engines no longer ‘puffed’ steam, as they used seawater condensers). Many a picture of a distillery beside the sea features a boat at the pier, loading or unloading. It’s no accident.

Quite early in the twentieth century one of those ships, the SS Pibroch, became famous for her triangular run, between Glasgow and the distilleries of Lagavulin and Caol ila on Islay, then Talisker on Skye. Followed in 1957 by the diesel powered MV Pibroch, the two ships clocked up fifty years of distillery service between them, until in 1974 the arrival in Port Ellen of the roll-on, roll-off ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne took away their reason to be.

Now, casks could be loaded on to lorries when they were ready to leave the maturation warehouses here, and could make a single journey by road to the mainland without any more loading and unloading. In the 1890s, the lift on, lift off or Lo-Lo vessel had been big news. In the 1970s, the roll on, roll off or Ro-Ro ferry was the next huge innovation.

Lagavulin now has a recently built new pier, and it’s rather smarter than its predecessor, not least because these days it seldom sees a commercial arrival. Most often, it now plays host to visiting sailors, yachtsmen and women who can moor beside it to visit the distillery. Though still, they must safely negotiate the rocks of the bay, before they can tie up at the dock of the bay.