The Tale of Two Towns

Taste Review # 116 – Banff 1974 CC / Glen Deveron

When you go to a whisky distillery or read the rear of the packaging, there is usually some story or legend connected to the distillery. For this review I manage to review two Highland whiskies from the North East of Scotland. One distillery has been wiped from the face of the earth, while one continues producing almost anonymously. One has the sad epithet of perhaps being the unluckiest distillery in Scotland and the other seems to have little story at all. But in the absence of an industry created legend, there is a story which connects the two communities associated with these whiskies. These distilleries were part of two towns on either side of the mouth of the River Deveron, namely Banff and Macduff. This tale not only connects both these towns, but also the Badenoch area in which I currently live, and later involves Scots literary titan Robert Burns. It is a tale of illegitimacy, prejudice, outlaws, treachery plus a hanging. It will also include a fiddle and a well known Scots folk song.

So, if you are intrigued, pour yourself a dram, put your feet up and let me tell you a story.

For over 300 years, Macduff residents don’t tell people from Banff the time.

While there is only a river that separates the two towns, Banff and Macduff are very different places. Both fishing towns, for over three centuries there has been a now largely forgotten feud that has been part of Scottish folklore ever since. For if you are to look at the tower of the Doune Church in Macduff which houses the town clock, you will observe that there is a face to the east side, and one facing out north to sea. There can’t be one to the south due to the building construction but unusually there is no clock face on the west side for the people on the Banff side to see. The reason that Macduff people traditionally do not give people from Banff the time is all down to the hanging of Jamie Macpherson on the 16th November 1700.


Doune Church, Macduff (Stanley Howe)

The link to Badenoch area which happens to be the southernmost reaches of the Speyside whisky region comes from the illegitimate birth of James MacPherson (Jamie), the product of a tryst between one of the land owning Invereshie MacPherson clan and an attractive gypsy traveller woman. When his father died, the young Jamie returned to his mother’s travelling folk and soon became the Scottish equivalent of Robin Hood, embracing the vagrant lifestyle and robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Tales attest to his popularity and his skill with a sword and a fiddle, but he had a few powerful enemies – namely Lord Braco.

The Lord Braco was a rich landowner that had property around 5 miles east of Keith, in the region of Bracobrae. He’d have plenty of reasons to be vexed by Jamie Macpherson when his livestock or that of his tenants was robbed, as there is evidence that Macpherson was a reiver, a Scots word for Bandit. Being a traveller or a gypsy made it worse as since 1573 it was illegal to be a Gypsy (called Egiptians / Egyptians) in Scotland and when he was captured by Braco at the St Rufus fair in Keith, this was the charge to be put against him. At the fair, there was a skirmish to capture Jamie, and the legend was that a woman threw a blanket over him from an upstairs window ledge disabling his fighting ability for long enough that he could be captured.

Unfortunately for Jamie, the blanket was only the start of the treachery against him. The jury for his trial in Banff courthouse was never going to be unbiased, as the jury was full of people sympathetic to Braco. Judge Dunbar, also a friend of Braco, quickly found Macpherson guilty. For the charges of being an Egiptian and a vagabond the penalty was death and MacPherson was scheduled to be hung on the gallows tree along with three others.

The story goes that MacPherson played a lament on his fiddle before he was hung and once he was finished, he offered his fiddle to his fellow clan members. Nobody took it as it would betray them as being part of MacPherson’s band of vagabonds, so he smashed it over his knee, proclaiming nobody else shall play it.


Banff Town Clock Mechanism in Clan MacPherson’s Museum, Newtonmore

It is now we come to the part where the issue of the time comes. Upon the sentence being pronounced, a friend of MacPherson rode to Aberdeen to the High Court to get the sentence overturned. Prior to the hanging, Braco saw the rider coming with the pardon, so had the town clock advanced 15 minutes so the hanging could legally take place. And this is why people in Macduff traditionally never give people in Banff the time, as they remember the injustice served to Jamie MacPherson.

The remains of the fiddle were recovered and returned to the MacPherson clan at Cluny Castle, between Newtonmore and Laggan on the A86. The fiddle is now on display in the Clan Macpherson museum in Newtonmore.


The fiddle of James Macpherson in the Clan Macpherson Museum, Newtonmore

To cement the place this story has in Scots folklore, the words of the lament Macpherson played before he was hung were worked into a song by Robert Burns in 1788, known as MacPherson’s Farewell.

MacPherson’s Farewell

Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong,
The wretch’s destinie!
McPherson’s time will not be long,
On yonder gallows-tree.

Chorus (after each verse)
Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play’d a spring,
and danc’d it round,
Below the gallows-tree.


O what is death but parting breath?
On many a bloody plain
I’ve dar’d his face, and in this place
I scorn him yet again!


Untie these bands from off my hands,
And bring me to my sword;
And there’s no a man in all scotland.
But I’ll brave him at a word.


I’ve liv’d a life of sturt and strife;
I die by treacherie:
It burns my heart I must depart,
And not avenged be.


Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright
And all beneath the sky!
May coward shame distain his name,
The wretch that dares not die!


Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play’d a spring, and danc’d it round,
Below the gallows-tree.


I remember it from the popular Scots Folk singers The Corries. This was a regular tape that was played in the family car which formed at the time what I imagined to be the forerunner to modern child abuse by music, but in what may be a case of Stockholm Syndrome, I find myself tapping my foot to this. Here’s a link to the song on YouTube – MacPhersons Rant


View of Macduff from Banff (Xavier Laffitte)

And back to whisky!

The whisky distilleries in Banff and Macduff are also very different. One has sadly fallen silent and now no longer exists whereas the other is a more modern distillery and is still in production.

The original Banff distillery was situated at Mains of Colleonard just to the south west of Banff. In 1823 the Excise Act was passed and the first distillery at Banff was established by Major James McKilligan, who lived at Mains of Colleonard, along with two others, Mr Alex McKay and Mr William Hodge. The distillery was known as the Mill of Banff distillery and in 1826 was producing 3230 gallons of spirit.

The 2nd Banff distillery from which my sample comes from was built closer to the village of Inverboyndie and had a more reliable water source from springs on Fiskaidy Farm. Also the recently built Great North Of Scotland Railway built a branch line to Banff which passed the distillery site which made it easy to get raw materials in and whisky out. James Simpson built the new distillery in 1863, but this distillery had a very unfortunate existence involving fire and explosions. The distillery had a major fire that destroyed much of the distillery in May 1877. The distillery was rebuilt by October that year, and a fire engine was then stationed at the distillery. In 1921, a portion of the distillery was sold to Miles End Distillery Company, but by 1932, DCL bought the distillery outright for £50,000 and closed it immediately.


Banff Distillery (unknown photographer)

On the 16th of August 1941, a Luftwaffe Junkers JU88 bomber operating from Sola (now called Stavanger airport) attacked the distillery, suspecting it to be a military target associated with the nearby RAF base at Boyndie, which destroyed warehouse 12. Much stock was lost and spirit flowed into the local streams which resulted in reports of very intoxicated livestock in nearby fields. RAF Banff would be an important target as Mosquito fighter bombers based there were used for the hunting down and destruction of German shipping in the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast. In 1943, 248 Squadron moved into the distillery and remained there until the end of the war.

After the war, the distillery resumed production but its relationship with catastrophe was reignited when in 1959 an explosion happened when a coppersmith was repairing one of the stills. DCL were fined £15 for safety breaches but thankfully nobody was seriously hurt.

But by 1964, the adjacent branch line stopped carrying passengers and by 1968 had also closed completely to freight, making transport costly as at the time the distillery was still coal fired. In 1963, the coal fired stills were converted from being fed by hand to a mechanical feed. In 1970, the distillery stills were converted to oil firing.


Site of Banff Distillery 2011 (Anne Burgess)

One can only guess why DCL selected Banff for closure during the 1980’s whisky glut. Being a small distillery of a single wash still and two spirit stills, possibly needing investment and higher transport costs, the distillery closed its doors in 1983. By the late 1980’s much of the site had been dismantled with only some warehouses being left. It’s kind of appropriate for such an unlucky distillery that the last of the warehouses were destroyed by fire in 1991. Pretty ironic don’t you think? The site is now derelict with limited remains of the former buildings, and is a site begging for development. Sadly this will likely be housing. So we should maybe have a moment of remembrance as we move to take a sample of Banff whisky.

Banff 1974 Connoisseurs Choice

Banff 1974, Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice

Region – Highland Age – VINTAGE Strength – 40% abv Colour – Burnished (1.1) Cask Type – Not known Colouring – No Chill Filtered – Not Stated Nose – Nutty, malty, green apple, pineapple, runny honey Palate – Medium mouthfeel, apples, honey, hazelnuts, slight woody notes with a fizz on the tongue. Finish – Not as short as I thought it would be. Honey, Ginger, Malt, hint of oak spices. After leaving in the glass for a while, there was a spirit burn on swallowing.

This whisky opened up quite a bit over the evening. It took me three hours to drink and by the end I could say that with the burn that developed, it was hard to believe that this sample had been so evaporated.

Macduff Distillery

Macduff distillery was one of a few of ‘new’ distilleries that appeared in the early 1960’s, slightly after Tormore and Glen Keith and just before the mini boom in the mid 60’s. Unlike its closest rival, it has never suffered any similar catastrophes.

Founded by brokers that included Brodie Hepburn who also had involvement with Deanston and Tullibardine, the distillery eventually came into the ownership of William Lawson, which is the whisky making arm of Martini & Rossi. The distillery eventually expanded to have 5 stills by 1990 and two years later, Martini merged with Bacardi. This resulted in the distillery becoming part of the Dewars stable in 1995.

Traditionally, the original bottlings from the Macduff distillery have been labelled as Glen Deveron or Deveron. Independently bottled spirit is normally named Macduff. The output from this distillery is normally unpeated, with a large majority of it destined either for blending or to export. It’s apparently quite popular in Italy.

Glen Deveron 12

Glen Deveron 12 1980’s distillation

I took the opportunity to put the remains of the sample into the fridge to see if there was any Scotch Mist that would appear. None did, so chill filtering is effectively confirmed.

Region – Highland Age – 12 y.o Strength – 40% abv Colour – Amber (0.7) Cask Type – Not stated, likely Bourbon Colouring – Not Stated, probably Chill Filtered – Yes Nose – Nutty, almond like marzipan, custard, pear, salty air Palate – cream crackers, apricot, unsalted potato crisps, stewed fruit, brine. Really watery mouth feel. Finish – Short and disappointing. Brine, bitter. Stewed fruit with wood spices. Slight burn.

I have no idea of the age of this bottle but it’s contents are not that attention grabbing. I’d go as far as say this whisky tastes flat.

Conclusions

This was never a taste comparison. Both were whiskies from distilleries of different eras and was a good way of killing two samples in one review. It was also a good opportunity to tell a wee story of the area both distilleries originate from. Great tales are often told while nursing a dram and I hope that I be have done these stories justice.

I doubt I’ll ever own a full sized bottle of Banff whisky. It may happen if I see one at the right price but as the years go on, the remaining spirit will be diminishing as bottles get drunk. I would be amazed if there are many more complete casks in existence so this will be more and more a unicorn whisky. It made no sense to keep my sample in its bottle only to evaporate to nothing, so the best thing to do was drink it. A dram has finally made its destiny and whisky history has been drunk. And the world’s stock of Banff has decreased by 40ml or so. Another true moment of whisky history consumed.

When it comes to the Deveron I have to say that I got a shock at how flat the dram was. Of course the purpose of the distillery is mainly to provide malt whisky for blends but the dram had no strong character. It was almost as though I’d drunk an alcohol free whisky. Despite the bottle being properly sealed and no sign of evaporation with a good fill level, there was just something missing. I suppose you can’t like everything.

Without a doubt the evaporated Banff which was originally bottled at 40% also was the far superior dram.

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

Doune Church – Stanley Howe – (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY SA 2.0)

Doune Church, Macduff – Xavier Laffitte (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY SA 2.0)

Banff Distillery– unknown photographer/ public domain

Banff Distillery Site – Anne Burgess (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY SA 2.0)

All other photos – Authors Own

ALL PHOTOS ARE SUBJECT TO COPYWRITE AND SHOULD NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION

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