Blackmiddens: distilling the history of Scottish whisky

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Excavations of the 19th-century Blackmiddens whisky distillery revealed the internal layout of the building. (IMAGE: The Cabrach Trust)

In what is thought to be the first excavation of its kind, the remains of a 19th-century Scottish whisky distillery have been uncovered in Cabrach. The project, undertaken by Peter Bye- Jensen from the Cabrach Trust along with Cameron Archaeology and local volunteers, has provided valuable new insights into early whisky production, and a period of prosperity that transformed this rural region of Scotland.

The excavated distillery, Blackmiddens, was one of the first farms to be granted a licence to make whisky following the Excise Act of 1823, although it is believed that illicit production was going on before then. Blackmiddens’ official operations were only short-lived, spanning 1825-1833, and after production stopped the distillery fell into ruin. As operations ended so quickly, however, it made for an excellent time capsule, preserving invaluable evidence for how distilleries of this period were run.

The exact location of the distillery was known from historical maps, and rubble and some cornerstones were visible on the surface. Historical Environment Scotland carried out the initial site survey, mapping the distillery in relation to the rest of the farm, which continued to operate into the 20th century. Then, between 8 and 11 April, the team excavated the site of the old distillery. What they found was quite a sophisticated operation.

Much of the internal layout could be reconstructed from the remains, and the team discovered that the distillery operated over at least three levels, using gravity to aid in the distillation process – much like its modern equivalents do today. While the still was not found, the pit where it was most likely located was identified, along with a duct leading into it for ventilation. Production items such as glass bottles and cask iron-bands were also recovered during the investigation.

One thing that eluded the searchers, however, was the all-important water source needed for whisky production. The team is continuing to work with local historians to try to see if maps and old records may help locate it.

The Cabrach Trust is now planning to use this invaluable information to help construct a replica of a historic distillery, which will be open to the public alongside a new heritage centre telling the story of illicit and early legal distilling in the region.

This article appeared in CA 353.

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