Scottish industry is synonymous with shipbuilding, steel, ironworks and coal. The heavy industry that dominated the central belt is, in reality, long gone. The mines are all closed, the steelworks are derelict and the Clyde shipbuilders that once employed thousands are a now in reality final fabrication yards kept alive by government defence contracts.
One industry, though is thriving and that is the whisky industry. Scotch Whisky is known throughout the world and is Scotland’s greatest export by a long long way. But what is the history of uisge beatha and its production in Scotland? Where did it begin?
All through history humans have fermented alcohol for drinking and someone somewhere discovered that distilling the brew made it much more potent. The process reached Scotland in the late medieval period and given the lack of grapes for wine or Brandy, and the poor quality of grain for beer, whisky became more common in the north of the country. In the 17th century, two families came to dominate the process and in doing so started Scotland’s industrialisation. The Haigs and the Steins.
Three things are needed to produce spirit: water, grain and fuel and West Fife had these in abundance. The area was a fertile flood plain of the River Forth and stood on rich coal seams. Seams which had been exploited to produce Scotland’s other early industry; salt. Off the village of Culross is Preston Island on which was a pithead and salt panning complex
built onto the small island a km or so off the coast. The Island is surrounded now by reclaimed land using slag and waste from Longannet Power Station but it has been preserved. Unfortunately the walls and mine-workings make it dangerous so it is fenced off to the public.
Just a couple of km away, past the port of Kincardine was the Stein’s Whisky manufacturing complex at
Kilbagie. Unfortunately this complex, though no longer anything to do with whisky, is still used for local industries and any original buildings have long since disappeared under modern facilities. However, the Stein family built a canal about 2km long to Kennetpans, on the shore of the River Forth that had a small harbour. Here was the second whisky distillery and warehouses with easy access to the river for export to the continent and to the
lucrative London market. This was the beginnings of commercial and industrial distilling and some may say of large-scale industry in Scotland. The Stein’s had invented a quicker and cheaper process that could produce thousands of gallons of cheap grain spirit that the rapidly industrialising population could use to forget their troubles. The Shallow Still in 1786 and then the Continuous Still in 1826 were introduced. The latter was the invention of Robert Stein of Kilbagie and meant that the distillery here could produce 150,000 gallons a year of spirit; for comparison, a traditional pot still could produce no more than 5000. The same process is still used – with a few modern modifications – today by manufacturers of mass-produced spirits.
Of course, what was produced here was not the fine golden liquid we know today, but course clear grain spirit for consumption by the labouring classes in quantities that could help them forget the dire lives most of them led. Unfortunately, producing whisky in these quantities made price so cheap that many distilleries could not compete and Kilbagie and Kennetpans were among them, closing their doors in 1852. That the buildings are still standing a testament to their endurance but they are deteriorating fast as the pictures show.
I’d recommend anyone who wants to explore further to check out the website http://www.kennetpans.info/ which has lots of details on the place and the history of the families.