As we edge closer towards Hallowe’en and the nights turn darker, Gavin D Smith turns his attention to the spookier side of whisky distilleries, where more than one kind of spirit has been detected over the years
The world of Scotch whisky seems to have spawned a significant number of tales relating to hauntings, ranging from Orkney to East Lothian and Aberdeenshire to Islay.
Probably the best-known concerns Glenrothes distillery in Rothes, once haunted by Biawa Makalanga, who had been discovered as a child, abandoned in Matabeleland (now part of Zimbabwe), Africa in 1894 by Major James Grant of Glen Grant distillery, who was on a hunting trip at the time.
Biawa returned with the Major to Scotland, serving as his butler, and when he died in 1972, he was buried in the village cemetery, close to Glenrothes distillery. All was well until eight years later, soon after a new Glenrothes stillhouse opened, when a stillman noticed a ghostly apparition, which was unmistakably that of Biawa.
The story of the apparition was picked up by Cedric Wilson, Professor of Pharmacology at University College, Dublin, and an expert in paranormal phenomena. He visited Glenrothes and declared that the distillery was situated on an important ley-line, which the creation of the new stillhouse had damaged.
ABOVE: Biawa Makalanga
His solution was to hammer two iron stakes into the ground to restore the flow of energy along the ley-line. Wilson announced that the earthbound spirit of Biawa had agreed to depart, and it has never been seen since.
Speyside seems to be a rich area for distillery ghosts, as Aberlour claims a ghostly dog, while Cardhu is said to be haunted by a former mashman and Glen Spey in Rothes by the ghost of a soldier, electrocuted while billeted in the distillery during the Second World War.
Glen Ord, Glenkinchie and Glengoyne also apparently host ghosts, with Glengoyne being haunted by Victorian manager Cochrane Cartwright, while Glenkinchie boasts no fewer than three spectres. In Orkney, the spirit of Highland Park founder Magnus Eunson also makes his presence felt from time to time.
Glenmorangie distillery is another to have experienced ghostly spectres. There, the former floor maltings are reputedly haunted by the White Lady, whose presence is noted by a sudden fall in temperature or the tearing of wallpaper. This apparition was a useful tool for generations of distillery managers who would warn new recruits to the maltings that a sight of the lady in question had been known to drive men mad. Their work of turning ‘the piece’ was hard and repetitive, and the manager’s warnings helped to ensure that none of the maltsters, particularly working the night shift, went to sleep on the job.
GlenDronach distillery at Forgue, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire, is renowned for its use of sherry casks, so it is only appropriate that GlenDronach is haunted by The Sherry Lady. The señora is said to have arrived in a sherry cask from Jerez and taken up residence in the distillery’s Glen House.
From the north-east of Scotland to the remote south-west, where in Campbeltown, Glen Scotia distillery is allegedly haunted by the ghost of former owner Duncan MacCallum, who committed suicide by drowning himself in Crosshill Loch on 23rd December 1930.
PICTURED: Bowmore distillery and the tale of the headless horseman
It is said that MacCallum’s ghost occasionally appears in the distillery he once owned, though oft-repeated stories that he killed himself after being bankrupted in a dubious business deal are certainly not true, as his estate was valued at £284,000, making him a very rich man indeed.
Meanwhile, across in the Hebrides, two distilleries have taken inspiration for specific bottlings from local ghostly legends. At Bowmore on Islay a crofter named Lachlan was heading home one wild and stormy night when he saw the silhouette of a headless horseman riding away from his cottage.
On arrival, he found the door open, the recently-lit fire extinguished, and an opened bottle of Bowmore single malt on the kitchen table, with a generous dram missing. Fearing that drinking from the bottle left by the apparition was sure to bring misfortune, Lachlan threw the bottle away.
The tale was subsequently told at the local inn, but an earthly explanation was forthcoming the following week, when Lachlan’s brother met him and revealed that he had called at the cottage to share a dram or two with him, only to find that the wind had blown open the door and extinguished the fire. Unable to wait for Lachlan to return, his brother took a dram from the bottle to fortify himself for the stormy journey ahead, then left.
Apparently, this explains why an Ileach, or Islay native, will always open a new bottle of whisky for a guest, though it doesn’t really explain why Lachlan’s brother appeared to have no head. Nonetheless, Bowmore duly produced a limited edition ‘Legend of the Phantom Horseman’ bottling, distilled in 1997.
ABOVE: Glenrothes distillery
ABOVE: Jura distillery
Across the Sound of Islay, on neighbouring Jura, a bottle of whisky is reputedly employed to ward off the presence of a ghost. The story goes that back in the late 18th century, the ghost of an old woman appeared to landowner Archibald Campbell in his sleep, admonishing him for banning whisky-making on the island.
Such was Campbell’s fear that he subsequently built a distillery on the site of an old smuggler’s still, to ensure his sleep was never again disturbed by the terrifying apparition. According to who you listen to, a bottle of Jura single malt is either buried at the site of the old distillery or hidden in a cave on the island to prevent further appearances by the old lady. Jura used the story as the basis for naming its Prophecy and Superstition bottlings.
Distillery ghosts are not peculiar to Scotland, and Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland is haunted by the Grey Lady. She is thought to be the wife of a local man who one night many years ago took the family dog for a walk and never returned. His wife searched for him until she died, and now makes her presence felt in the distillery by opening secured windows and creating a sudden cold atmosphere from time to time.
South of the Irish border, Kilbeggan distillery in County Westmeath, is said to be haunted by a Cistercian monk and by distillery founder Matthew McManus, who likes to make sure all is well with the whiskey-making process, walking through walls and leaving the sound of footsteps behind him.
And all of this is before we even consider travelling to Kentucky to examine the renowned ghostly goings on at Buffalo Trace…