Scotch Whisky (Contribution to Tourism)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th February 2018.

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Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

As we always say after Stewart Stevenson has spoken, that is a difficult act to follow.

As other members have done, I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing to the chamber today’s motion, which has provided us with the opportunity to celebrate the significant contribution that whisky makes to Scottish tourism. I am particularly delighted that the motion comes from a fellow member who represents the south of Scotland. It is all part of our long-term plan for the south of Scotland to take over from the Highlands and Islands as Scotland’s whisky capital. Joking aside, the Lowlands, where we have Scotland’s most accessible distilleries, have always played an important role in Scotland’s whisky heritage. After a decline in Lowland distilleries in the 18th and 19th centuries, that contribution is growing once again—and not just in the production of traditional Lowland light, unpeated whiskies. Rachael Hamilton highlighted the really exciting plans for Hawick, where the Three Stills Company is constructing the first whisky distillery in the Scottish Borders—having listened to Stewart Stevenson, I should say the first legal one—since 1837.

I would like to take members on a Lowland whisky trail slightly further west, into my home region of Dumfries and Galloway, where tourism is crucial to the local economy, attracting £300 million a year in visitor spend and supporting over 7,000 local jobs. It is an inspiring region whose unique towns and villages, unspoiled beauty, truly contrasting landscapes and mesmerising history offer visitors so much. We have an abundance of rare wildlife in our stunning forests, fantastic sandy beaches along our coastline and some of the clearest skies in Europe to gaze up to from the dark skies park in Galloway. We also boast the highest village in Britain in Wanlockhead, the food town in Castle Douglas, the artists’ town in Kirkcudbright, Scotland’s national book town in Wigtown, the marriage capital in Gretna Green and, of course, the football capital of the world in Palmerston Park, where Queen of the South play. Okay—maybe the final one of those is not true. However, whether visitors are into ice cream, mountain biking through a forest or flying along one of Europe’s longest zip wires, Dumfries and Galloway has a wonderful and growing tapestry of attractions, which I am delighted to say now includes Scotland’s first whisky distillery across the border: the Annandale distillery.

The rebirth of the Annandale distillery is a wonderful story that deserves to be shared. It was originally established in 1836 and its doors were closed by the then owner, Johnnie Walker, in 1918, seemingly forever—until Professor David Thomson and his wife Teresa Church happened across the derelict distillery when they were walking in the Annandale countryside. Fascinated by the history and potential of the distillery, David and Teresa rescued the ruins in 2007. After a significant investment of nearly £11 million, the distillery sprang back into life on 3 November 2014, complete with visitor shop and cafe. I had the pleasure of meeting David and Teresa for the first time around five years ago, when I was the chair of Dumfries and Galloway Council’s economy committee and the council was supporting the rebirth of the distillery, recognising the huge contribution that it could make to the local economy. Since then, I have followed closely the fascinating story of Annandale, including the careful development of its distinctive logo: a ship’s sail, which pays tribute to Annan’s rich maritime history and shipbuilding heritage.

On 15 November 2017, I had the pleasure of attending the breaching of the first barrel at the restored Annandale distillery, and I can tell members that the 99-year wait since Johnnie Walker closed the doors was very much worth it. Annandale distils two whiskies, whose names derive from two famous Roberts. Man o’ Swords is a smoky, peated whisky that is named after the seventh Earl of Annandale, Robert the Bruce. The mellow, fruity, unpeated Man o’ Words celebrates Scotland’s national bard and local hero Robert Burns, who famously penned “The De’il’s awa wi’ th’ Exciseman” while he lodged in Annan. Indeed, given that Annandale was probably an illegal distillery at the time that Burns was a local exciseman, Professor Thomson speculates, in conducting his owner’s tours, that he might well have visited the distillery. Of course, there is no guarantee that he did, but it is a cracking story nonetheless.

That is what makes Annandale distillery the perfect example of why distillery visits are so popular. Each is distinctive, with its own fascinating history and stories. They often display stunning craftsmanship. Annandale has been painstakingly restored, with many unique features that have been crafted locally to the highest standards, blending tradition with the demands of a modern distillery. It is little wonder that it is attracting visitors from right across the world, including from Annandale in Virginia, while making a major contribution to the local economy of a relatively small rural town in a highly competitive tourism market.

Annandale joins Dumfries and Galloway’s other distillery, Bladnoch, the history of which dates back to 1817. After a recent period of closure, it is once again producing whisky, is undergoing significant investment and will soon reopen to visitors. Together, Annandale and Bladnoch continue the fine tradition of producing delightful traditional whiskies in the Lowlands. I highly recommend both to all members.