Made to rally the spirits

PICTURED: Portrait of Indian soldiers at Knockdhu distillery

The whisky industry has played its part in efforts to tackle coronavirus, but it’s not the first time it’s stepped up to help during troubled times, writes Gavin D Smith

Few would dispute that coronavirus has made the world a different place, for the short term, and perhaps for ever. Amid all the loss and hardship, however, there have been many stories of people and organisations rising to the challenge and reaffirming a belief in the basic good of human nature. This has sometimes been likened to a ‘wartime spirit’ and the Scotch whisky industry has certainly played its part, by providing ethanol for hand sanitiser and even producing hand sanitiser at individual distilleries.

In doing so, there have been echoes of the alternative roles adopted by distilleries during both the First and Second World Wars, when most whisky-making was prohibited or severely curtailed. Wartime conditions also led to the introduction of female workers into many industries, and with a striking photograph of women employees at Carsebridge grain distillery during the First World War in mind, Diageo’s Archive Manager Christine McCafferty declares that: “We know that many distillery staff went to war and this gave an opportunity for women to start working in distilleries – and they never left.”

The uses to which distilleries were put during wartime were many and varied. Dalmore, situated on the Cromarty Firth north of Inverness, was repurposed in 1917 as US Navy Base 17, with the star- spangled banner flying over the distillery in the last months of the war.

Meanwhile, in Inverness, Glen Albyn distillery became US Naval Base 18. Both sites were transformed into factories for the assembly of mines to be used in the Northern Barrage, stretching from Orkney to Norway, with mine components being shipped from the US to the west coast of Scotland, then transported by rail from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness and Dalmore. Once assembled, the Dalmore mines were transported by rail to nearby Invergordon, where they were loaded on to mine-laying ships for deployment. More than 38,000 mines were assembled at Dalmore before the war ended.

Inevitably, the distillery was transformed by the venture, with casks of whisky being removed to other distilleries in the area, including Glen Skiach, as explosives and warehouses filled with whisky did not seem like a happy mix.

Mines being transported from US Naval Base 18, at Glen Albyn distillery in Inverness

Documentation shows that more than 6,000 casks from Dalmore and almost 3,000 from Glen Albyn had to be moved because: “It is not thought advisable to leave this Whisky in the Duty Free Stores with so many men on the premises.”

Large mine-assembly sheds were then constructed, along with railway lines, accommodation for up to 1,000 men and a new pier, still known today as ‘The Yankee Pier’.

During the Second World War, the Cromarty Firth was once again of strategic importance, and land to the west of Dalmore was taken over by the RAF in 1942 to allow an expansion of their Invergordon base, with the firth being home to many seaplanes.

Another distillery associated with seaplanes during the Second World War was Bowmore, situated on the shores of Loch Indaal, on the island of Islay.

According to a booklet published to commemorate the distillery’s bicentenary in 1979, “…the war brought a strange cuckoo into the walled nest on the shores of Loch Indaal. Requisitioned by the Air Ministry, the distillery became the wartime base of Coastal Command flying boat squadrons. A grain loft was the Operations Room as giant Sunderlands and Catalinas took off on anti-U-boat patrols.”

Other coastal distilleries such as Scapa, Highland Park and Stromness on Orkney were also given over to military use, and the – possibly apocryphal but persistent – tale is told of the washbacks at Highland Park being used as communal baths by sailors from the nearby Scapa Flow naval base.

Many distilleries became billets for servicemen, including Laphroaig, where the malt barns became home to soldiers from the First Company of Royal Engineers.

The Distillers Company-owned Knockdhu distillery near Huntly in Aberdeenshire was used as accommodation for soldiers of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) between 1940 and 1945.

Female workers at Carsebridge

A fire engine at Dalmore

They were part of Force K 6, a mule transport corps, with experience of fighting in the frontier territories of Afghanistan, and their role was to assist British troops training for mountain warfare.

For religious and cultural reasons, live sheep, chapatis and ghee were dispatched by rail to the Indian soldiers, and at Knockdhu they created a mosque from two Nissen huts and a halal slaughterhouse which is still standing today.

Banff distillery, on the Moray Firth coast, was the base for a contingent of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who were housed in the barley lofts, and the distillery became notable for an incident in August 1941, when a lone German aircraft – perhaps unable to locate Aberdeen docks – dropped bombs on No.12 warehouse.

Inset: Indian soldiers barracked at Knockdhu

According to the local newspaper The Banffshire Journal: “Thousands of gallons of whisky were lost…and so overpowering were the results that even farm animals grazing in the neighbourhood became visibly intoxicated.”

When Banff was closed in May 1983 as part of the Distillers Company’s swathe of distillery closures, the same newspaper declared that the recession did to Banff what Hitler’s bombs failed to do.

Of course, there are many more stories concerning ‘whisky at war’, some verifiable and others less so as a result of the passage of time.

According to the Distillers Company Distillery History series, the dam wall at Imperial on Speyside – now the site of Dalmunach distillery – sustained damage as a result of soldiers throwing hand grenades into the dam during the Second World War.

Somewhat more apocryphal is the tale of personnel from RAF Brackla, constructed close to the ‘Royal’ distillery of the same name in Inverness-shire, extracting a cask of whisky from one of the warehouses, and transporting it away in a sling fitted between two ‘borrowed’ ladies’ bicycles.

The coronavirus ‘war’ may not produce many entertaining distillery stories, but when it comes to issues of community and responsibility, the Scotch whisky industry has undoubtedly risen to the challenge, much as it did in times past.

Backdrop image: US servicemen at Dalmore