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Hard Times

Life was hard at Lagavulin even before any distilling took place

The barley bogle. Sounds like a strange figure at the centre of an ancient island ritual of some kind, doesn't it? In truth a barley bogle wasn’t quite that strange. It was part of a ritual, but this one was all to do with how we used to prepare to make malt whisky at Lagavulin. And it involved a great deal of hard manual labour.

To appreciate the barley bogle’s part in our story, let’s first take a look at what happens today. In 2016, malted barley arrives at Lagavulin ready to mill, fresh from the nearby maltings at Port Ellen. Once the barley is milled, in the traditional machine, the mashing and distilling is ready to begin, burning oil that arrives by tanker to generate steam to heat the stills. So far, so simple.

But during the distillery’s first hundred and fifty years, things were not so simple. As late as the early 1960s, a great deal of very hard work was needed before any whisky could be made at all.

Donnie Mackinnon, who began his working life at Lagavulin in 1960 as a maltman, remembers that his first job was ”just sweeping about and different things, and barley boats and coal boats and stuff like that.” He makes it sound deceptively relaxed, but in truth his initiation will have been anything but.

First there was the coal. In 1960 distilleries still had stills directly heated by coal fires burning beneath them, and Lagavulin was no exception. The coal came in by ship as ‘big coal’ straight from the mine, which had to be got onto lorries to reach the distillery. Once there, it had to be broken down into ‘small coal’ before it could be loaded into the furnaces. Back-breaking work.

Bringing in the barley was no easier. Distilleries back then had their own malting barns, in which they malted their barley, and Lagavulin was no exception. Ripe barley in roughly 100 kilogram (2 cwt) sacks arrived by sea, usually at Port Ellen, as there was no barley grown on the island of Islay.

The next job was transferring these heavy sacks onto road transport, which took them to the distillery. Once the barley arrived, men had to empty each sack into a hopper, from which an elevator took the barley up into a loft, on the very top floor, where there was a conveyor belt that ran the length of the building.

As it reached the top, it would drop onto the belt, which took it along and dropped it into the barley bogle (in fact a wonderfully named wheeled wooden overhead hopper that ran the length of the building on rails). Once it was full, a man rolled it along and emptied the barley onto the floor in the desired place.

From this loft, when the time came, the barley would be shovelled onto a conveyer and along it into great tubs called ‘steeps’ at the end of the building, to be steeped in water, prior to germination.

Once it was ready, men would position a large barrow under the steeps and barley would come out onto that. They would tip it on the malting floor until the steeps were empty. And then they would shovel it onto the floor, and start turning it.

Former manager Grant Carmichael remembers his first job at Lagavulin was “in the malt barns, learning how to turn malt, with the wooden shovels, and I can remember the head malt man saying to me, ‘Are you right-handed or lefthanded?’ I said, ‘Right-handed’, ‘Well you’ll start left-handed’.”

In those days men walked one pass turning the barley with the right hand, then came back the other way working with the left hand, to leave the floor even. If it was all turned the same way all the weight would have gone to one side, so a malt man had to learn to use both hands. If you were right-handed, you started lefthanded.

Not the easiest of initiations, clearly. And once the barley had been turned (to control the speed and evenness of germination) and had germinated, it was time to move it again. How did you know when? It was all done by eye, knowledge of temperature and time – informed by all three, a trained man knew when the barley was ready to go into the kiln.

More hard labour followed, which features in many early pictures. Three or four men would stand together with a long shovel and all together push the barley into a huge heap, all the while directed by the Head Maltman. From here, they would shovel it onto a conveyor, which dropped it into an elevator that took it into the kiln.

This was heated by peat fires below, and in the hot rushing updraft of the peat reek the barley would shoot up as it smoked, then drop down a chute into a box with two handles on it, each held by a man. When it was full they had to run quickly to the corner, which was quite a distance away, to drop it, then return to collect more. Finally, it was ready to mill, mash, turn into alcohol and distil.

Elsewhere, men would be cleaning the distilling equipment by hand. In the days before health and safety direct fired stills required frequent maintenance and routinely a distillery worker would step inside the still and use a brush to clean the inside walls. One such, Angus by name, was a six foot, twenty stone giant of a man who could barely get through the small aperture in the side of the still to do the work. As one of his colleagues opined, woe betide him if he had ever had a problem when inside, for they couldn’t have got him out....

To give Grant the last word, working in a distillery in those days was “A very, very hard job.”

And the hardest work of all was done before a single drop could be distilled!