Cows, Cash, Whisky and Steam. Craigend Distillery 1798

Do you know what James Watt has to do with whisky? Well, actually, a lot. I tiny little drawing on a map from 1798 tells us a lot about distilling in Scotland more than 200 years ago. And what James Watt had to do with it.

I'm always excited about  hidden treasures that can be found in old archives. One of my recent finds is  the map of Craigend Distillery of 1798. The map is available online, and below you will find a link to this map.

In the upper right corner there is a small drawing, a "vignette",  that is especially interesting. At first glance, it may seem that this drawing is just for decoration, to make the map a little prettier. And the cows on the roof are also very funny. Did the artist drink too much whisky when he made the map?

However, if you look more closely, you will quickly realize that a story is being told here. By 1798, most people in Stirlingshire, Scotland could read and often they could write. The educational system was very advanced in Scotland. But the art of picture-narration and picture-reading, which people had developed during the centuries before, is still alive in 1798.

The image is an allegory of the importance of the distilling industry, which the owner of this map wants to highlight here. He is proud of the distillery and wants to express that in this picture. In his opinion, the distillers provided an important basis of life for many people at that time.

At the center of the picture can we see a small kind of a boiler or oven, which is attached to some sort of strange looking dark box and a red wheel. What could that be? Let's have a closer look at this. We can see a lot of dark smoke coming from the boiler, and there is also a smoking chimney in the background. 

The boiler is probably fired with coal. The early distilleries of the Lowlands were all in the immediate vicinity of vast coal fields. This abundant source of energy made it possible to fire more and more stills more quickly - with hydropower alone, the enormous output of that time could not have been achieved. It was coal that provided the energy they needed. 

But clearly, this is not a still that the picture presents. There must be something even more interesting at a distillery in 1798, which deserves the full attention of the painter and the viewer alike. 

It's neighter the stillhouse nor the water mill that we can see. It's the engine house. From a newpaper clip I know that Craigend Distillery purchased a Watt and Boulton Steam Engine with 8 Horse Powers, probably around 1790. Later, in 1805, they upgraded to a 14 Horse Power Engine. You can see the early steam engine very nicely in the centre of the picture. We can clearly identify the boiler, where water is heated inside over a coal fire, invisible to our eyes. Right next to it, there is the separate condenser, which moves the red flywheel attached to it. This was the core of the distillery, where everything had its beginnings.

The engine house was the "heart" of the distillery, where everything was set in motion

The steam engine was  literally the engine for a whole chain of developments. In 1776, James Watt began selling his new steam engine, which should change the world forever, and some time later, Craigend Distillery erected this marvel of civic engineering in its engine house. It was the steam engine that helped the distilleries to be transformed from small farmstead operations into big enterprises on an industrial scale.

James Watt was a Scottish engineer. He didn't invent the steam engine, but he developed a modell that was more reliable and much more efficiant than the previous model invented by Thomas Newcomen. Supposedly, James Watt had the idea for his improved steam engine during a walk in one of Glasgow's parks. So, it's not really surprising, that his steam engine sold well in Scotland right from the beginning.

The first steam engines by Watt and his business partner Boulton were developed for the mining industry, to pump the groundwater from the deeper levels of the coal pits. But soon, Boulton realised the potential of their engine in the textile as well as in the brewing and distilling industries. Consequently, Watt developed a rotative engine like the one we can see here in the vignette.

The huge distilleries at Kennetpans, St. Clemens Wells and Craigend were some of their first customers of this new steam engine, which was probably a so-called "Sun-and-Planet"-Gear Engine.
In 1776, James Watt begann selling his steam engine. As we can see in the drawing, Craigend Distillery used a  Boulton and Watt steam engine in 1798. We can easily identify the seperate condenser. And the distillery owner was probably very proud of it.

But why are there cows on the roof? And why does the roof look like a hillside meadow? For a better understanding of the importance of the engine house and what is going on in this picture, we have to delve a bit deeper into the production of whisky. 

What is often overlooked today is a by-product of distillation, which was very important in earlier times: draff. Since it is very rich in protein, it was used as animal feed. Most distilleries had cowsheds and pigsties. The engine house not only made sure that people got enough whisky to drink, but also made sure that the cows were well-fed and happy, so that people had juicy steaks on the plates. Often, they would raise pigs rather than cattle. Craigend distillery had at least 150 heads of cattle in their stables, which were usually sold once a year, when they had become fat enough.

In the foreground we see a farmer working in the field and a cart with a small frolicking dog. The farmers and carters of the region also benefitted from the distilleries. The farmers could increase their yields by spreading the nutrient-rich dung of the distilleries onto their fields, and the distilleries were important buyers of the grain that the farmers had harvested. Many carters could earn a living by delivering the whisky to customers throughout the region. We know that Mr Millar, the owner of Craigend distillery had a dog, and he paid five shilling taxes for him. Maybe it is Mr Millar's dog that we can see on the cart. 

The message of this painting is obvious: the distillery supplies a lot of valuable products to the people around it, thus contributing to the local economy and the engine house is the driving power behind it all.

With so many good things the distilleries are doing for the economy and the people of the region, one's heart warms to them ... But the picture is more than just a nice illustration of the economic importance of distilleries. It also has a strong propaganda purpose. The reality at that time was not nearly as peaceful and harmonious as this picture would lead us to believe.

At the beginning of the 1780s, a veritable whisky boom began in Scotland, accompanied by the increasing industrialization of the country and the development of the textile industry. The production volumes of distilleries skyrocketed within a few years. The four distilleries of the Stein-Haig family alone produced just under 270,000 gallons of whisky for domestic consumption and 427,000 gallons for the English market in 1784. That was an enormous amount at the time, which devoured many resources accordingly.

However, bad harvests in the same year led to bottlenecks in the food supply of the population. In June 1784, enraged citizens stormed the Cannonmill distillery in Edinburgh because there were supposedly large quantities of potatoes and grain stored, while people had to suffer terrible hunger. Only with difficulty and with the help of soldiers did Haig succeed in protecting his distillery from looting.

Whisky and Meat go well together....

At the beginning of the 1790s, the situation improved again, but the public image loss during the years of hunger made things difficult for the distillers. In addition, they were increasingly targeted by the English distilling lobby, which went to great lengths to keep down the unpleasant competition from Scotland. A growing oversees spirits production further enlarged the problem of competition. With the help of rapidly growing tax burdens, attempts were made from London to limit the production of Scottish distilleries. The Lowland distillers responded with ever more sophisticated fuel technologies over the next 10 years.

In 1797, there was a mounting pressure for a change in the method fo charging duty on the industry. By now, all the Highland distillers had dropped out of business, and illegal Highland whisky was flooding the market. Things began to look grim. Consequently, in the summer of 1797, the Government in London set up a committee to examine the situation of distilleries in Scotland.

Stills at Craigend Distillery. They were famous for being the fastest stills in Scotland.

We know from these reports, that Craigend distillery was famous for its development of "rapid distillation". In fact, it was said to have the fastest still in Scotland, and at one point, the owner, James  Millar, was able to charge and discharge his special still in only three minutes! His still did not look half as romantic as the funny cows on the roof of his engine house, as we can see in the picture above. It was designed for maximum production output with minimal time. This was the only way to continue working with huge profits despite the enormous tax burden.

But strange enough, it is not Mr Millar, the owner of Craigend Distillery who is mentioned in this map. In the centre of the map, there is a piece of land very prominently enhanced and decorated with the words: "This Figure shaded bloom is the property of Dr Jaffray". And if you look closely, you can see that this Dr Jaffray owned some more land adjacent to Mr Millar's Craigend Distillery. In fact, Dr Jaffrey's land kind of embraced Craigend Distillery. Or maybe we should say, Dr Jaffray had Craigend in a firm grip.

Who was Dr Jaffray?
So, who was this Mr Jaffray? Well, we don't have to look far and beyond to find him, and he is mentioned to some considerable extend in the Parliamentary Papers of 1799. Mr Jaffray or Jeffrey, as his name is alternatively spelled, was the "Superintendance of the Scots Distillers". He was not a distiller himself, and not everybody respected Mr Jaffray's expert opinion on distilling as much as the latter might have liked. But he was very influential and extremely enthusiastic about the distilling business. I think that it was Mr Jaffray who had commissioned this map. We can clearly see how enthusiastic he must have been about Craigend distillery. I think he really liked this distillery a lot. 

We know that Craigend Distillery was one of the earliest licenced distilleries in Scotland. James Millar's uncle was manager of the distillery from 1780 to 1795, and he probalbly had founded it in 1780 together with his brother William. 

In May 1797, William's son, James Millar, was facing some financial troubles, and he offered his distillery in a newpaper for sale. But in November 1798, his business was on the upturn again, and he was looking for an extra hand for mashing and fermentation at his distillery. My guess would be, that in the summer of 1797, Millar was forced to sell or rent a piece of land from his distillery to Mr Jaffray, who commissioned this map in April 1798. Maybe Dr Jaffray had also invested in the distillery and had become a share-holder. If we look at this reddish coloured piece of land, we can see how proud the "Superintendance" must have been of his property  right in the centre of Craigend distillery.

Unfortunately, inspite of Dr Jaffray's efforts, the situation did not improve for the Scottish distillers. On the contrary, it got worse, and a lot of distilleries went bankrupt the following years. In 1811, it also hit Craigend Distillery. Its owner, Mr James Millar, filed for bankruptcy, his debts amounted to 13,500 pounds. If you consider that the average annual salary for a distillery worker was about 30 pounds, you can guess how huge the loss was.

It should take till 1823, before the Scottish whisky industry could recover from this collapse and a completely restructured tax policy laid the foundation for a fresh start. They all had learned their lesson - including the government.

To date, whisky has remained an important factor within the overall economy and has been an engine for many economic sectors. The pride of the Scottish distillers in their profession is still very big today. This has hardly changed over the last 200 years. In Scotland, whisky is so much more than just a drink. And who knows how things might have developed without Watt's steam engine.

map of Craigend Distillery

written by ©margaretemarie

major sources:

Moss and Hume, The Making of Scotch Whisky, 1981
Reports from Committees of the House of Commons on Distilling, Band 11, 1799

thanks a lot to the Archives of Scotlands Places for sharing this map ...
..and to Jens Fahr and Gregor Haslinger for their patience, their expertise and precious advice


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