Phoenix rising

When the journalist Alfred Barnard stayed in Campbeltown during 1885, visiting whisky-making establishments which would ultimately be featured in his epic tome Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, he toured no fewer than 21 distilleries, proclaiming Campbeltown ‘Whisky City’. But half a century later, only Glen Scotia and Springbank were operational, with both having previously experienced periods of silence. So how did whisky boom turn to whisky bust so decisively for the Argyllshire port, and what has been happening there in more recent times?


Campbeltown is one of the largest towns in Argyll & Bute, a three-hour drive from Glasgow, and situated towards the south of the Kintyre peninsula, with the Isle of Arran to the east and Islay to the west.

The settlement was reputedly the seat of the Scottish Parliament set up by King Fergus in 503, and the town, originally known as Kinlochkilkerran, was renamed in the 1600s by local landowner the Earl of Argyll. Elizabeth, Duchess of Argyll, was instrumental in the creation of the first harbour there during the early 1700s.

Fishing became a major source of employment and prosperity, and when the 19th century herring fishing bonanza was at its height, as many as 600 boats worked out of the harbour. The port even had its own shipyard until 1980.

The first record of whisky-making in Kintyre dates from 1609, and illicit distillation was rife on the peninsula during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

By 1795 there were no fewer than 21 illicit stills in Campbeltown itself, and 10 located in the surrounding countryside. The first legal whisky-making operation to be established in town was Campbeltown distillery, licensed in 1817.

The crowded Old Quay in Campbeltown in the early 1950s, the arrival of one of the regular steamers always being the main event of the day. The large fleet of ring-net fishing boats are tied up in the inner harbour. The Calton ‘prefabs’ can be seen in the background to the left of the Lochend Church steeple and also in the background to the left of the photograph is The Royal Hotel overlooking Campbeltown Harbour

Image courtesy of Stenlake Publishing

The Old Quay in Campbeltown was still a busy place in the early 1920s, with a mixture of steam and sailing ships. Around 30 or 40 fishing skiffs can be seen on the right, with a schooner in front of them. The barrels would have been full of salted herring for markets in Glasgow and elsewhere

Image courtesy of Stenlake Publishing

Campbeltown Harbour - whisky barrels, cargo and passengers await boarding onto a sister ship of the S.S. Davaar – making this ship either the Kinloch or the Kintyre

Image courtesy of Stenlake Publishing


The rapid decline of Campbeltown as a distilling centre in the early decades of the 20th century was due to a number of factors, but to an extent it may be seen as the author of its own misfortunes.

Some of its more unscrupulous distillers began to turn out inferior spirit, distilled too quickly and embracing an over-generous spirit ‘cut,’ which they then filled into poor quality casks.

Campbeltown’s distinctive, peaty whiskies began to gain an undesirable reputation, even being referred to in some quarters as ‘stinking fish’. US Prohibition (1920-33) was also a serious blow to the Campbeltown whisky establishment, which enjoyed a thriving trade with North America.


A further factor in Campbeltown’s distilling demise was the closure of the Drumlemble coal mine in 1923, while the town’s remoteness by road from Glasgow was also becoming an issue. Additionally, and very significantly, many blenders came to prefer the more elegant and less intense ‘Speyside’ malts of north-east Scotland.

Campbeltown’s fortunes should not, however, be seen in isolation, as the 1930s saw the Scotch whisky industry as a whole at its lowest ebb, with just nine malt whisky distilleries operational across Scotland in 1933.

Where other whisky-producing regions recovered in time, however, Campbeltown did not.

This comprehensive view of Campbeltown, looking eastwards over Glebe Street towards the loch and Davaar Island, was taken from Gallowhill on a long-gone summer’s day. The steeple that was then Longrow Church (now the Lorne and Lowland Church), dominates the townscape, and across the loch a ship can be seen on the stocks at Trench Point shipyard. At one time Campbeltown had more than thirty distilleries, and rows of distillery buildings can be seen behind the hay rucks

Archive imagery from Campbeltown will feature as part of Glen Scotia’s Virtual Whisky Festival from 7 June as part of a project exploring Campbeltown’s people, sense of place and whisky making history


Springbank and Glen Scotia distilleries somehow managed to survive the hardest of times, albeit with lengthy periods of inactivity in both cases.

But the town received a significant fillip in 2004 when a totally re-equipped Glengyle distillery came on stream almost eight decades after it closed down.

Glengyle became the first ‘new’ distillery in Campbeltown for over 125 years, and like Springbank, it is in the independent ownership of J&A Mitchell & Co, with its low-profile but highly regarded single malt being marketed under the Kilkerran brand name.

One of the main reasons for the resurrection of Glengyle was that Springbank owner Hedley Wright, a relation of the founder, thought that the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) intended to remove Campbeltown’s official standing as a whisky-producing region due to it only having two working distilleries. At the time, ‘Lowland’ was an SWA region with just three distilleries, so once Glengyle was operational, Campbeltown’s status was secure.

In more recent years, Glen Scotia has benefitted from significant investment in both production and visitor facilities in the ownership of the Loch Lomond Group and now Hillhouse Capital, while the range of whiskies on offer has been completely revised and augmented. Springbank, meanwhile, remains Springbank; iconic in the truest sense of that much overused term.


By 2009, the old ‘Whisky City’ was feeling confident enough to host its very own whisky festival, taking place between Spirit of Speyside and Islay’s Feis Ile, and featuring all three Campbeltown distilleries and their personnel.

This cemented a renewed perception of Campbeltown as a whisky region with its own unique identity.

To show just how passionate the folk of the Kintyre peninsula are about their whiskies and their heritage, a campaign was launched to recognise Campbeltown as ‘the whiskiest place in the world’, culminating in an ‘early day motion’ in the UK parliament to that effect. Scotland’s smallest official malt whisky-producing region may have endured many vicissitudes in its time, but it remains a stubborn survivor. As the saying has it: “It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”