The Rivers of Iron

The Rivers of Iron

Whisky and the railways on Speyside

Travel | 24 Apr 2015 | Issue 127 | By Mark Newton

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Many parts of whisky history have vanished from the forests around the River Spey. From Aviemore to Dufftown and on to Elgin, there are paths that cut through the woods where rivers of iron once flowed. These lanes were once the domains of the whisky trains, and the network of railway lines that cut through the heart of Speyside for more than a century.

The 1860s saw something of a perfect storm for the whisky industry. Andrew Usher's pioneering work into the arts of blending led to a surge in popularity of Scotch whisky. The phylloxera disease hit the French grape harvest, meaning brandy and wine declined in supply. Whisky became the drink of choice across the nation, and more distilleries needed to be constructed to meet the demand. Although Speyside was already an established whisky region, this area had another factor for becoming the most obvious choice for the location of new distilleries: the railway was about to be extended through the region.

Prior to the railways, distilleries depended upon slow, horse-drawn carts to transport whisky. Now Aberdeen, Inverness and Perth could be reached easily. The distilleries had access to Glasgow and Edinburgh, where single malts could be blended with Lowland grain whiskies and distributed globally. It was the distilleries of Speyside that were well-positioned to meet that rising demand.

A notice in the Elgin Courant appeared in 1845 calling for promotion of a Morayshire Railway. It was signed by James Grant, co-founder of the Glen Grant distillery. James Grant had become interested in railways as transport had always been a problem for the Highland distilleries. He worked hard to get the railway laid between Lossiemouth and Elgin, and between Elgin and Rothes. Grant even gave loans to the companies involved, one in 1860 being to the sum of £4,500. Almost two decades later his wishes became reality. His relationship was only one of many between the railways and the distilleries, and several Speyside distillers would go on to become railway company directors or substantial shareholders.

The Great North of Scotland Railway was consolidated out of the new independent lines in August 1866 - in particular the Keith & Dufftown Railway and Strathspey Railway. These lines met many needs of the whisky distilleries over the coming decades. According to former distillery manager of Glenmorangie, Mr M Read, in correspondence with the Highland Railway Society Journal, in particular came "barley, malted barley, coal, coke, empty casks and yeast". Draff for cattle food, a byproduct of whisky production, was also redistributed by rail to the Speyside farmers.

As soon as the lines were constructed, the entrepreneurial George & J. G. Smith of The Glenlivet applied for permits to build a supply store at Ballindalloch station. By 1887, the Glen Grant Distillery was producing 4,000 barrels a week. In 1875 Glenglassaugh distillery was built close to the Elgin-Portsoy line, and Inchgower was relocated to be close to the Highland Railway at Rathven station. During the 1890s alone, 21 new distilleries were built in the region, each exploiting the new network.

With progress came a mix of private and public sidings. Some distilleries, such as Dailuaine and Balmenach, were too far from the main line and built their own. The engines that puffed through the workyards and along branch lines were mostly 0-4-0 'puggy' engines, though other more unusual variants could be found at distilleries such as at Glenlossie, whose eponymous engine was know for its strange 'squat' appearance and large flywheels.

The most common design was a small, four-wheel saddletank made by Andrew Barclay, a well-known firm of locomotive builders in Kilmarnock. Other engines included 2-2-0 and 2-4-0 tank engines, one of which was aptly called Glen Grant. Much bigger workhorses that thundered along the mainlines included the Caledonian Railway Engine 'Caley' 812 class, 0-6-0 steam tender locomotives, designed by John F. McIntosh, an example of which is currently in service on the modern Strathspey Railway.

Over the decades, the romantic steam trains had been replaced on many sites by more functional diesel engines such as four-wheel Ruston Hornsby locomotives. The Rustons endured well into the 1980s at BenRiach, where they hauled casks around internal workyards and to the nearby Longmorn distillery. By the time nationalisation came in 1948, 44 of the Great North of Scotland engines were handed over to British Railways.

Upstream from Aberlour the railways crossed farmland through to Dailuaine. Home of the Doig pagoda roof, Dailuaine distillery expanded massively during this period. First mooted by owner William Mackenzie in the 1880s, it took a decade for track to be completed, but soon enough the 0-4-0 Barclay saddletanks were outfitted in distillery livery. Eventually Dailuaine Halt was built in 1933 for the distillery owners and their families, and from there locals could thumb a lift around the region. One of the original Barclay puggies ended up serving the distillery well into the 1960s.

William Mackenzie's son constructed a new distillery on other side of the river at Carron. Thomas Mackenzie's Imperial distillery opened in 1897, with a substantial halt. Both branch and mainline shared the track across the nearby bridge. The Imperial distillery, now the site of the brand new Dalmunach distillery, was situated next to an enormous railway goods yard, resulting in huge production levels for both.

Not every relationship ran smoothly. The Grants of Glenfiddich fought the Great North of Scotland Railway company over contracts, shunting or stray livestock. The Grants' prime concern was not only the increasingly higher rates, but that the blossoming of lines and sidings around Dufftown would lead to tracks slicing through their distillery. The Grants even claimed that the shuddering vibrations from the trains had a 'disturbing effect' on the whisky as it matured in the cellars.

The railways also become social centres. At, Cragganmore Distillery in Ballindalloch, the Granary Ball would see a thousand party-goers descend from as far as Aberdeen on special trains. The locals would gather around the station and the banks of the River Spey to party late into the night and, naturally, some locals were said to have tapped the whisky casks in order to supply drinks for the evening.

Trains laden with whisky, however, were tempting targets for thieves to supply the black market. Distillers accounted for a certain amount of loss, but the trains were very slow, and might take a day or two to get from Dufftown down to Glasgow. Casks would have sat in distant, moonlit sidings, vulnerable to predation. Intrepid criminals, with or without a tip-off from railway staff, came in darkness to siphon off the whisky. Maurice Shand, a former stationmaster who worked in Speyside, was quoted as saying: "They were most ingenious fellows, some of the porters at the distillery stations. They broached the whisky casks and then covered up the penetration of the cask with a material which made it well nigh impossible to distinguish that it had been interfered with."

For decades newspapers were full of reports of criminals raiding the whisky trains, many of whom were eventually up in court to serve a light sentence. In the post-war market, with whisky going abroad and Excise Duty making 70 per cent of a standard bottle, the thefts became significant. Trains carrying exclusively whisky travelled twice weekly from Dufftown and were reported to be under armed protection. The crimes did not limit themselves to Speyside alone and, south of Glasgow, trains crammed with crates of whisky were weekly targets.

With the expansion of roads, lorries were beginning to provide a safer way to transport whisky. Then the famous axe of Dr Beeching came down, his railway cuts reducing lines around the UK. Speyside was not immune. First to go were any passenger services, but it wasn't until the 1960s when the goods routes began to shut down in the region. The workhorse engines and lines have faded into time, but what remained was an entirely different whisky landscape.

One of the rare places to see how a typical station looked is at Tamdhu distillery at Knockando. In 1977 it became a visitor centre, and is a shining example of railway heritage. Visitors can take a train from Aviemore to the Boat of Garten on the Strathspey Steam Railway; or walkers can hike along the wooded avenues of the Strathspey Way, following the whisky routes. Sadly tourism remains all that's left for these old lines.


The Strathspey Railway provides visitors with a rare opportunity to travel along the old whisky routes. Some of their vintage engines include the Braeriach, a 0-6-0T engine built by Andrew Barclay in 1935. The oldest engine they own is the Caledonian Railway Engine 828 - this is a rare example of the 0-6-0 812 class, and was built in 1899.

The railway operates stations at Aviemore, Boat of Garten and Broomhill. It runs round trips three times a day, whereupon visitors can split their journey or remain on board for the 20-mile round tour. Among their numerous events, visitors can take part in tastings of single malt whiskies associated with the Speyside line.
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