Whisky Heroes: Looking for Ecclefechan Distillery

On 19 January 1829 distillery owner John McVitie is at the court house in Edinburgh. He is accused of having laid the Ecclefechan Distillery in ruins. But the trial takes an unexpected turn that no one could have foreseen. 190 years later, two German whisky nerds go on a quest to find the remnants of his distillery.

Experts for historic bottlings, old distilleries and "brothers in crime": Jens Fahr (left) and Gregor Haslinger, Germany

Ordinary tourists traveling to Dumfries visit the Robert Burns Mausoleum, the Devil's Porridge Museum, the Lockerbie Garden of Remembrance or the Annandale Distillery. But Jens Fahr and Gregor Haslinger are no ordinary tourists. They are whisky history buffs and hunters of the lost treasure. For years, they have been hunting the hidden remains of the rich Scottish whisky history before they are completely gone with the wind and bulldozed.

Not far from Dumfries there is such a treasure. Here, only 7 miles from the border with England and only 6 miles from the new Annandale Distillery, the last remnants of the Ecclefechan Distillery should be somewhere. And Jens and Gregor have set about to find them. 

Ecclefechan Distillery

Ecclefechan Distillery was not granted a long-lasting life. It was in existence for a mere four years, from 1824 to 1828, and not much is known about. Well, almost actually nothing is known about it so far. But after digging extensively in old online archives, Jens and Gregor have brought to light a story as bizarre and peculiar as it can happen only in Scotland.

And such a story has to be told. Because it’s true life. It's not marketing blabla.  It really happened.

Ecclefechan distillery was founded and built in the summer of 1824. At that time there was a euphoric spirit of optimism prevailing among Scottish whisky distillers, which led to an abundance of newly errected distilleries. In a way, it was a bit like today.

But strangly enough, three months later, the owner of Ecclefechan, James Robert Marshall, was fed up with the venture. In October 1824 he offered his distillery for sale. It was fully equipped at that time, with "stills, boilers, coolers and the whole apparatus and machinery". The malting plant included 4,908 bushels of best malted barley at this point of time.

What had happened? Was it private circumstances that made him change his mind? Or did he all of a sudden face financial difficulties? We do not know. It seems that Marshall couldn’t find a suitable buyer, and in December he advertized the distillery again.

The closeness to the English border appearently caused him a headache. He wasn’t allowed to sell his whisky to nearby England, and in the Scottish hinterland the competition had become stronger than expected. For the neighboring Dumfries Distillery, the situation was equally bad.

"The Fechan"
Of necessity, Marshall continued to run the distillery until the summer of 1825. Then he offered it again for sale. Finally, at the end of 1826, 28-year-old spirits trader John McVitie from Dumfries-Hoddam took over Ecclefechan Distillery.

But much to his chagrin, the economic situation didn’t improve. On the contrary. Resulting from a change in the state's monetary policy, from 1825 onward the banks barely issued any small notes and refused small loans that they had generously granted before.

The purchasing power of the population rapidly declined overnight, and many distillers were suddenly sitting on a pile of unsold spirits. To make things worse, there was an overproduction due to the growing number of distilleries. As a result, from the late 1825 or the beginning of 1826 prices dropped dramatically, falling from an average of 16 or 17 shillings per gallon to 9 shillings. The distilleries could barely cover their costs.

The catastrophe

In March 1827, John McVitie stopped his whisky production and tried to sell the distillery. However, he did not find a buyer. In September 1827, the young man was bankrupt and a public roup was scheduled. But still nobody wanted to have the distillery. The economic and financial crisis was  slowing down people's investment will.

Then, on Saturday, October 4, 1828, it happened: the distillery went up in flames at night. By a happy circumstance, the fire was discovered early, and many fearless helpers flocked from the surrounding houses and  courageously fought the fire. Nevertheless, about a third of the plant was destroyed, including the still house. Some neighboring houses also fell victim to the conflagration.

Are these walls part of the old distillery? A village tries to find answers. Picture by Gregor Haslinger.

A few days later John McVitie could feel the ground getting hot under his own feet. A subsequent investigation revealed that the fire had been deliberately laid. More than a dozen piles of combustibles had been discovered from which the fire had spread in no time. John became a prime suspect. He spent Christmas 1828 in prison.

On Monday, January 19, 1829, John McVitie was brought to the bar, on three alternative charges for deliberate arson, the third being that the crime was committed with the intent to defraud the London Phoenix Assurance Company. John pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer made a lengthy plea.

But then the trial came to a halt, and excitement spread in the courtroom. The court clerk had made a mistake: the indictment had a different text from the copy of the indictment that had been given to the defendant. Rather than being accused of setting fire to the premise and houses which were “thereby consumed” by the flames, the charges were that he set fire to the premise and houses which were “already consumed”.

 After some turmoil, the trial came to a sudden end and John McVitie was allowed “to go from the bar and take the chance of escaping”, as a newspaper later reported. What might have become of him?

Only a few months later the long-awaited economic boom began. In the summer of 1828, the demand for whisky rose dramatically. Distilleries that had survived the crisis could barely meet the demand. But for Ecclefechan Distillery the turnaround came too late. Its later fate is lost in the darkness of history, and in 1859, it had been converted into dwelling houses and weaving shops.

But one important question remains: where exactly was Ecclefechan Distillery?

A few weeks ago, Jens Fahr went to Ecclefechan to find out about it and look for some remaining traces of the distillery. Although he has not experienced such bad adventures as Indiana Jones, he has now infected half the place with his curiosity.

With the help of old photographs, the inhabitants of Ecclefechan try to help him to rediscover the possible remnants of the old distillery. And one  resident has even used a camera drone to find some clues from the air.

Will Jens and Gregor solve the last puzzles of Ecclefechan Distillery? I'm actually quite confident ....



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