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Chapter 1: Part Two - Wars and Prohibition; “Heavenly Peated"

By 1902, there were at least 40 homes at Ardbeg with "most of the employees having been born and bred about the place." In July of that year, Alexander MacDougall & Co became a limited company. The company's shares were owned by two members o f the Hay family, two members of the Gray Buchanan family and three members of the Lawson family. While the Gray Buchanans had been financing Ardbeg from the outset and the Hays had been managing the distillery for over 50 years, the Lawson family's association in terms of share ownership only dated from 1896, when David Lawson, originally a clerk with Buchanan, Wilson & Co, took a financial interest in Ardbeg. Ultimately, his niece, Kathleen, was to become the largest individual shareholder in Ardbeg Distillery Ltd.

From 1900 to 1914, long time employee Alex Campbell served as head brewer, effectively running the distillery. During this time a reference was sought for a former member of staff who was seeking work at Clynelish distillery in Sutherland. The reference as supplied read "He left me in temper because I had reason to find fault with him over a small matter and he took it so hot that I had to let him go... I may as well be frank and tell you that he had taken a drop too much the day I challenged him and that is a fault that I am very severe on."

In 1909 Prime Minister David Lloyd George increased the distillers' licence fee, while duty on spirits rose by 3s 9d per proof gallon, taking the retail price of a bottle of whisky above half a crown (12.5p) for the first time. As a devotee of the temperance movement he went on to increase duty year on year, which, predictably, had a major effect on consumption. The situation began to improvebetween 1911 and 1914, but in the latter year the First World War broke out, and so began a period of severe shortages, restrictions and temporary distillery closures.

Aged in his late 40s, Alex Campbell went off to the war with a number of men from the Kildalton area. Unfortunately, Colin Elliot Hay's weakness as a manager resulted in the loss of Campbell's job while he was away fighting for his country, despite the fact that he had put in more than 34 years of service at Ardbeg. The position was given to Hay's cousin, a MacDougall.

In 1915, Lloyd George introduced legislation prohibiting the sale o f whisky less than three years old, and two years later there were only eight distilleries still working in Scotland, none of which were producing malt spirit. In 1918, export of whisky was stopped, in order to conserve the meager stocks available for the home market. The end of the war in 1918 did not bring an end to the difficulties faced by the Scotch whisky industry, however, with the government electing to continue the policy of progressively raising levels of duty. Prohibition was implemented in the USA during 1920, which caused significant hardship for many Scottish distillers, and another decade of economic instability and recession was to follow. Despite still shipping to Canada, Ardbeg distillery suffered as much as anywhere else, and stocks of maturing spirit were low. Interestingly, the distillery received a letter from Laphroaig, complaining that Ardbeg was paying its employees too much compared to the other distilleries on the island!

Ardbeg also received a flurry of letters from private individuals requesting a replenishment of their own supplies. Around the same time, the business had been strengthened, with Ardbeg’s capital being increased to £40,000, and the distillery and its lands were purchased from John Ramsay for the total sum of £19,000 in 1922. 650 shares in Ardbeg were acquired by the Distillers Company Ltd and James Watson & Co, signifying the start of corporate involvement with Ardbeg. Katherine Lawson's shareholding increased, making her the largest single shareholder,although she appears to have had no direct involvement in the running of the distillery.

In 1928 Colin Elliot Hay died virtually bankrupt, and his 580 Ardbeg shares were sold to Colonel George McNish, in order to settle his debt with the bank. The Colonel was a son of Robert McNish, founder o f the Glasgow blenders Robert McNish & Co Ltd, which ultimately became absorbed into the Hiram Walker empire. While the Gray Buchanans remained the major shareholding family in Ardbeg, their shares were largely held by trusts, and the family had little practical involvement, though Janet Edith, Mary Rose and Kate Farie Gray Buchanan did hold shares in their own right. However, the Lawson family's interest was to continue to increase with the passing of 50 shares to Daniel Lawson in 1929. He would eventually become chairman of the board.

Ardbeg was more fortunate than many of its fellow Islay distilleries during the troubled inter-war years, when several closed down. Although most eventually reopened, one permanent casualty was Lochindaal in Port Charlotte, which fell silent in 1929. Production levels at Ardbeg had risen by 1928, but this was at the expense of heavy price cutting and was followed by an economic crisis in 1931.The following year just three members of staff were on the payroll.

Happily for the Scotch whisky industry, US Prohibition ended in 1933, ushering in a period of optimism and growth, which continued for the rest of the decade. The lifting of Prohibition led the large, Canadian-based Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts corporation t o acquire George Ballantine & Son and two Speyside distilleries; going on to construct their own vast grain distillery at Dumbarton, near Glasgow during 1937/38.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 precipitated the next downturn in Scotch whisky distilling, with barley and coal becoming scarce and taxes once again being raised to help finance the conflict. In 1940 distilling continued at Ardbeg, but output was less than half that of the previous year. Records show, however, that by this time Ardbeg was supplying whisky to The Distillers Agency Ltd, John Haig & Co, John. Dewar & Sons, Robert McNish & Co Ltd, William Grant & Sons, Long John Distilleries Ltd and Rutherford & Co. The distillery was also filling for George Ballantine & Son, John Walker & Sons, Stewart & Son of Dundee Ltd and Macdonald & Muir Ltd. The last named company would eventually become outright owners of Ardbeg, changing their name to Glenmorangie plc in 1996.

1941 and 1942 saw the virtual closure of Ardbeg, with the distillery running for just a few weeks of the year, and no whisky at all was produced in1943. With thecessation of hostilities two years later, Ardbeg's stills were fired up once again, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill's far-sighted acknowledgement that Scotch whisky was a great, dollar-earning export asset heralded a period of tremendous growth, serving to re-establish Scotch whisky as a highly desirable commodity all over the world. Although the US consumed as much whisky as it could obtain, the older colonial countries, such as Australia and South Africa, suffered as a consequence of high import duties.

The British economy was notably weak as a result of the war, despite the crucial foreign currency being earned abroad by whisky, and it was not until 1953 that restrictions on production were fully lifted. Even then, the shortage in maturing stocks meant that normality did not return for some years. Nonetheless, justified optimism was the order of the day, and the Scotch whisky industry embarked on another period of amalgamation and investment, with silent distilleries reopening, existing plants undergoing upgrading and enlargement, and entirely new distilleries being built from scratch.

As the industry began to gear up for the good times, Alexander McDougall & Co, went into liquidation in 1958 and the Ardbeg Distillery Ltd was formed on 5th January 1959. A new chapter in Ardbeg's lengthy history was opening.


Dorothy Dennis is a retired general practitioner who now lives on Islay. Her grandfather was Alexander Campbell, distillery manager at Ardbeg during the early years of the 20th century, when some 40 families were resident there, including the Hays, MacDougalls, and two excise officers.

According to Dorothy, "Alexander Campbell was born in Port Ellen and went to school there. When he left school he went to work in the office at Ardbeg distillery, and by the time the First World War broke out in 1914 he was distillery manager. He was in the territorials, so was called up at the start of the war, and went off with the boys from Kildalton as a captain in the 8th battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland. Highlanders.

"Colin Elliot Hay owned Ardbeg at that time, and he promised my grandfather his job back when the war was over. However, Hay was an alcoholic and under pressure from his domineering wife, gave the job to one of his cousins, known as ‘Wee McDougall.’ The manager's house had a window that looked across to the house lived in by the Hays, and Mrs Hay insisted that the window was glazed so that nobody could look out and see into their house! Grandfather's family were turned out of the manager's house and went to Glasgow, like so many Islay folk. There they stayed with relatives and finally got a flat. After the war, grandfather joined them, but he was unemployed for a long time, and finally got a job in the docks as a security man. He died in the 1930s."

Alexander Campbell's son, also Alexander, studied to become a doctor, and returned to Islay in 1928 as a medical officer. Not long before his death in 1998, he recorded some early memories of Islay, and in particular of Ardbeg.

"I was born in Ardbeg on 17 August 1901, in what was then the distillery manager's house, my father being the manager. The house was a somewhat unusual one. I t was old and was physically attached to part of the distillery - in fact a wing built out from the stillroom consisting of three storeys. Between the wall of the house and the sea with the wee pier, was a road, and in stormy weather the sea sprayed bits of seaweed onto the windows.

As far as I can remember there was electricity in the house because it was used in the distillery, but it was variable and not always available. It was fitted in the houses of the managing director, the manager, and the two excise officers, and gave light only. The power for the generator was from a water wheel. The water was led in a covered stone built lade from the dam at the top of the village which first supplied a water wheel at the farmhouse threshing mill. The dam in turn was fed by a burn coming from Loch Iarnan, some miles away in the hills and good for trout. We had cold water in the house, but were better off than the distillery workers who had to draw their water from standpipes. Even worse, however, was that while we had a flush lavatory, the only ‘conveniences’ in the village were horrible, filthy, dry closets. Absolutely disgraceful.

My principal friend was Dougie McIntyre who years later was distillery manager during part of the time when I was GP. The older boys (including me) and some of the girls, got jobs in summer as part of the peat squad, our job being mostly barrowing and spreading the peats out to dry immediately they were cut. Some of the village wives were also employed in this capacity. The gaffer's wife was also one of the squad, and when we stopped work,about midday to boil our tea cans and eat our pieces, they both retired to a small hut which stood on the bank above the loch. We could soon hear their snores.

A track led up the hill to a ‘bothan’ in which lived a man called ‘Done’ (Duncan McCuaig) with his unmarried sister Tabby' (Barbara). When I was a boy I thought he was a wild, fierce individual because he used to come to the village occasionally and have a drink of caochan, or wash, which was the crude fermenting liquid before it was distilled into whisky. He used to sneak into the tun room and drink this stuff from a vat. He would then become roaring drunk and stagger off home. I saw him once being elbowed along by my father as he helped to get him quickly on his way home.

On most summer evenings three or four boats would be out from each village fishing till dark. Saithe, lythe and mackerel were the common catches, and when fish were plentiful, some of the catch was shared with old people, widows, or any others unable to fish for themselves."



Ardbeg distillery from the north, c1920, showing the various farm building

Letters from the 1920s

‘My father is staying with me at present. After subsisting for some years on weak and inferior spirits he craves for some good stuff. Neither he nor I are capitalists so shall be glad if you will send us as soon as possible as small a cask of Ardbeg as you can supply, while at the same time we should like the strength to be as great as possible.’

W Fraser

‘I thank you for your offer to send a cask of pre-war quality whisky, and I shall of course not mention it...’

Major Wilkinson

‘Kindly make sure that I get your own whisky as I cannot drink these whiskies that are all mixed together. I have been so accustomed to drink your good whisky that I cannot favour any other.’

Hugh MacDiarmid

‘I do not know the meaning of a small octave but think it sounds very tempting. Procuring whisky in Edinburgh is literally a hand to mouth business so that I can literally take as much as you can give and I can afford!’

F Graham Robertson

‘We have absolutely been relying upon you to supply our customary Christmas requirements of whisky and would therefore look upon it asa special favour if you could manage to supply us with say at least 18 to 20 cases.’ (First recorded reference of Ardbeg bottling their whisky.)

Crown Preserved Coal Co, Cardiff

‘Dear Archie I have had a very poor new year as I have had pleurisy some time ago and had to stay at home lately and take care of myself and I had no keg of Ardbeg. Please see Colin Hay and talk him nicely to send me a ten gallon cask of old Ardbeg.’

John Blackley

‘I spend lots of time every day writing certificates to show that various influenza patients require it (Ardbeg).

Dr Fraser of Chasetown

Cutting Peat for Ardberg and the Ardberg Filling Store, c1910

Two views of Ardberg from the east and from the southwest, c1940. The tall chimneys were knocked down in 1966/7, just after an oil-fried boiler had been installed


Written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace


The text is an excerpt from "Ardbeg: Heavenly Peated" (pp. 21 - 31), written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace, published 2018 by Hogback Publishing.