Glen Mhor 1893 Distillery Plans by Charles C. Doig Part 1

When I arranged a half-day of research in the Inverness Archives, I really didn’t know what the visit would offer. I knew from initial discussions that the document on Glen Mhor New A New System of Malting, would be of huge interest and a first. Beyond the obvious headline act, it was very much a closed book, waiting to be pulled from the shelf and opened for the first time in decades.

In reality, I didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate what awaited me. For instance, a Distillery Logbook requires at least several further days of study and further contemplation. Then, further digging through the records as to what else is hidden, waiting to be revealed. What did become abundantly clear is I had to prioritise my time efficiently. The Archive is fortunate to have the comprehensive records of the Inverness Dean Guild Plans and Valuation Rolls. Focusing specifically on Telford Street, this materialised as a sizeable stockpile of plans, sitting on the desk, waiting for me to venture through the contents. This undertaking would take up the majority of my time.

This collection of documents provided a journey through the history of Telford Street. A variety of companies were included within; from retailers to stadium improvements at the Caledonia ground (that sat behind Glen Mhor) and of course, the distilleries. These requests to the Dean Guild underlined what a thriving area Muirtown was and that distilling was at the heart of the community.

I'm pleased to report that there are present sizeable plans for Glen Albyn within the records. These are not the current focus of my research, but they do exist for future reference. That’s something for a distant project, perhaps. The jewels were the variety of plans for Glen Mhor that allow us to track its foundation, then stepping through various amendments over the decades. Thanks to these documents, we’re able to track and document everything prior to the Second World War. The level of detail is fantastic and gives us new insight into the distillery site and the changes that were made (or at least, requested for planning acceptance) for a variety of reasons.

When you consider architect plans and Scottish distilleries, you immediately think of Charles C. Doig. He was and remains Scotland's, most widespread and influential distillery architect. We know from an 1894 newspaper article, he was the lead architect for Glen Mhor and involved in the build from the invoices that we've so far discovered. His legacy is highlighted on the Scottish Architects site which sadly doesn't even list Glen Mhor amongst his projects - just confirming how overlooked this distillery is by the wider audience. Interestingly, they have Charles in 1893 as working on extensions at Glen Albyn; two for the price of one?

The holy grail for any distillery is the original plan. Distilleries as such have been extended, bulldozed and quite often, changed beyond comprehension during their existence. Glen Mhor is, as we'll see, no different.

I'm delighted to confirm we do have sight of these original plans for Glen Mhor. Amongst the pile of plans was a particular set that was a distinctive tanned colour - the rest were mostly original dulled white. The plans were brittle and had seen much better days and I'd speculate, had not been opened for some time. Needless to say, I was extremely methodical and restrained when laying these 128 year old plans out on the table. Hence why I've not flattened these out or even attempted to flatten any folds or creases - this is a valuable document.

Dated 1893, these are signed by Charles C. Doig of Elgin. Laying these out on the table was a real thrill, which probably confirms my whisky geek status if it hadn't been diagnosed previously. Charles C. Doig's original vision for the distillery and of historical importance. On a side note, it did cross my mind that these need to be saved and preserved. They are of importance not only to whisky enthusiasts and a hugely profitable industry but to Inverness and Scotland as a whole. That's another topic, but I was privileged to unfold these plans and then take in their contents.

What was immediately noticeable was the fact that Charles calls these plans 'Distillery Inverness', there is no mention of Glen Mhor as the project name. This is hugely interesting, as you'll note from our Timeline page, there's an entry in 1886 that a new distillery was granted permission and was to be called Glen Mhor. An initial ambition of this visit was to unearth hard material relating to this application. Sadly, so far, none has been found, which does call into debate the entry itself. Who made this application? Why did it not proceed? And given these plans, was Charles even aware of the name? Had the decision to formally christen the distillery been taken in 1893? It would suggest that the project was indeed just that less than a year from the build.

This is backed up by our Newspaper archive, which confirms from various sources the project did not have an official name in late 1893 or early 1894.

Let's also consider the placement of when these designs were drawn up by Charles. Our aforementioned Timeline page is a great diagnostic tool; giving us a sense of what was happening around this period. Very little is known about John Birnie's departure from Glen Albyn, other than he was refused a stake in the distillery. This catalyst prompted his desire to seek out a new venture and partner, which arrived in the form of the Mackinlay's and Glen Mhor. Yet his departure from Glen Albyn was only made public on 16th November 1893, when he was named as the owner of the new Inverness distillery.

What's clear now is that his departure wasn't a sudden reaction, followed by the search for a new partner. The seeds were sown sometime before. Charles C. Doig's services were in demand and came at a premium (in 1898 he was paid £1000 to design the Ardmore distillery, equivalent to £135k in 2021), so the outlay for his skills was considerable and there would be a queue. These plans would have been submitted much earlier in 1898, meaning John was so confident of the new venture that he could leave Glen Albyn without the council approving the plans until the turn of the year. Perhaps word got out and he was forced to leave? Hopefully, one day we'll find out, but his influence on the Glen Mhor design - as an experienced distiller - will be interesting to debate.       

An interesting find is that the above entry confirms that they were approved on 8th January 1894 - subject to the smoke shaft being not less than 60 feet. This reflects the growing urbanisation, or perceived trend of, Muirtown. From our Maps, to our Photograph Section, you can appreciate how rural Glen Mhor was at its foundation and then over time how it was swallowed up by an expanding Inverness. Interestingly, referring to our Newspaper Archive once again, the press was reporting the acceptance of the plans by the end of the week, on Friday 12th January. 

It seems a huge push was on to build and establish the distillery not only physically but in the minds of the public. The manipulation of the press and public opinion was a staple tactic of the blending powerhouses and no doubt the Mackinlay's were behind it. This was a period of blends and not single malts. Acquisitions and investments in new distillery projects that would assist in the creation of further blends. With John Birnie onboard, the team also had a co-owner with an impressive distilling pedigree. Also included in these Doig drawings are the original site layout and here we'll start our journey into the original Glen Mhor. The second article will discuss the actual distillery plans, which form 2 sets for the ground and first floors. 

The shape of Glen Mhor changed over the decades. The final evolution, seen in the 1970s, is a cluster of additions and extensions that morphed into a jumbled assortment of buildings when viewed from the canal. We're about to solve those mysteries, put a definitive purpose into each construct and throw in a few surprises - a couple I didn't anticipate! But let's start with the original site design.

My thanks to Rose for assisting with these photographs and we've watermarked the plans with the site logo as access to these materials (including photography) was on a non-commercial basis. 

When you see the outline of the 1893 Glen Mhor, there's a simple elegance to it. The prominence of the canal is highlighted by being at the top of the page. This isn't compass-specific with north being at the top of the plan, rather this is a north-west alignment, but it does demonstrate that the canal was a major focal point. 

The land to the left and below of the site is described as unfeuded, which refers to the feudal land ownership that was prevalent at the time. Many of the businesses, or individuals occupying the land at this time, would have been on a tenant agreement from the local laird. I believe the original laird would have been a Sir K.J Matheson, who is named on the 1898 warehouse building plans. My thanks to Adrian and Dave from the Inverness Local History Forum for shedding more light on this individual:

'The 2nd Baronet of Lochalsh, Kenneth J Matheson. Sir Kenneth was Justice of the Peace for Ross-shire and Deputy Lieutenant for that county. Though Sir Kenneth married he had no children, so when he died in 1920 at the age of 65 the title passed to Sir Alexander’s (the 1st Baronet) next son (by his third wife Eleanor Perceval): Alexander Perceval Matheson. 

His father, the 1st Baronet of Lochalsh, Sir Alexander Matheson, made large purchases of land, and it is thought that at one point he owned more than 85% of Ross-shire. He bought the Balmacara Estate in Lochalsh and built Duncraig Castle in Plockton as his home, and also built Ardross Castle in Easter Ross and Duncraig Castle in Wester Ross. So, land, was in the family - the Matheson dynasty would have owned all the land from Inverness Cathedral out to the Caledonian Canal 

This system of landownership blighted Scotland for generations and still does to a certain extent, with individuals owning vast estates and islands; enforcing (in some cases) very restrictive conditions. For instance, the Duke of Sutherland, founder of the Brora distillery, is still despised by many local families who remember the suffering and hardship he inflicted upon many descendants.

Briefly, the political backdrop is an interesting one, as the ability of landlords to impose ridiculous conditions or forcibly remove tenants (as seen in the Highland Clearances), was no longer an option. The introduction of the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act in 1886, protected tenants and ended the ability of landlords to treat their tenants worse than cattle. The land sitting unused would be a financial drain, meaning landlords would see out new opportunities... pure speculation on my part, but the introduction of the Act also is the same year of the mysterious first mention of a Glen Mhor distillery, coincidence?

It seems highly unlikely that there was another landowner involved in the establishment of Glen Mhor. Small parcels of rural land ownership were not the norm. I am yet to find the Dean of Guild Court Copy Petition relating to this specific area of land in 1892 or thereabouts, but discovering the 1898 variant (a future article), gives me hope it might still exist. And our 1898 Deed also confirms that Sir Kenneth Matheson owned the land to the left and below the distillery - a mystery solved even before it began!

In essence, I believe the adjoining land didn't matter to Charles C. Doig. We know that the land to the left was indeed rural, our photograph from 1894 hints that the land was yet to be put to any purpose and in our 1928 aerial photograph on the same page, it is being used for farming purposes. 

The land at the bottom of the page would eventually become the additional warehousing and at this time had no purpose, with only the Caledonian Telford Street Park football stadium (itself formed in 1885), becoming a famous landmark that adjoined the distillery. What these arrivals underline is the sudden burst of activity in the Muirtown area, which was expanding and Mackinlay & Birnie had acquired use of a prime site with immediate access to the canal. 

Distilleries of this period did have a courtyard at the heart of their design. Glen Mhor does indeed have this feature and the open side faces the canal. I've discussed previously how the artistic flair of the Glen Mhor label doesn't make for reality, and this layout underlines that point. 

We'll delve into the actual rooms and layout in our next article. It'll be worth the wait I promise, after all, how long have these plans waited for us to be seen again?

All of our distillery plans will be added to our new Plan Section as and when.