The main attraction of Tobermory was its natural harbour
Tobermory is a model village – and this has nothing to do with it being chosen to represent Balamory in the successful children’s TV series. Nor does it have anything to do with its picture-postcard situation and gaily painted houses. It was planned by the British Fisheries Society in 1788 – an august body of mainly Scottish aristocrats living in London, supported by Parliament, whose brief was to create new fishing communities in remote parts of North Britain. The B.F.S. had been founded two years previously, with the Duke of Argyll as its first Governor and the Marquis of Breadalbane as its Deputy Governor. The foundation of Tobermory and Ullapool were its earliest projects; later it would create a (short-lived) fishing station at Lochbay on Skye, and ‘the largest herring port in the world’ at Pultneytown, Wick.
The main attraction of Tobermory was its natural harbour, affording shelter in all weathers. Until the new village was planned, the only settlement here was a farming hamlet high above the bay, around the early Medieval church and well of St Mary – ‘Tobar-Mhari’ is ‘Mary’s Well’. This part of the site was owned by the Duke of Argyll, who offered it to the Society at a knock-down rent. His chamberlain in Mull, James Maxwell, became the Society’s on-site agent.
Tenders were invited for building a ‘breastwork’ along the shore – a breakwater was unnecessary, and even the pier only came 20 years later – a large storehouse to hold fishing gear, an inn and a customs house. All these buildings were situ- ated to the south of the Mishnish Burn, laid out in a U-plan, with the storehouse flanked by the other buildings as elegant matching ‘pavilions’. Alas, the storehouse was demolished in 1878 to make way for the Free Church; what remains of the customs house is now well hidden within the post office, and all that’s left of the inn is a port-hole window in the Co-op.
A new community
The designer was Robert Mylne (with adjustments proposed by Thomas Telford, the Society’s Chief Engineer), and the main contractors were Hugh and John Stevenson, ‘the founders of Oban’, who had interests in road, bridge and ship building, as well as house building, civil engineering, quarrying and distilling (they would establish Oban Distillery in 1792). They employed over 100 men on site during the building work, which began in 1790, and by August the following year four customs officers had taken up their posts, soon followed by a trickle of ‘settlers’ from other parts of Mull and from the mainland, encouraged by the Duke of Argyll.
The shore-side Main Street is backed by a steep, wooded brae, so accommodation for the ‘settlers’ was laid out in two parallel streets above, named Argyll Terrace and Breadalbane Street; merchants built houses along the waterfront. By 1797, 49 families had moved to Tobermory, but very few of them were fisher folk. The Society’s purpose in building the town was to encourage fishing, but as early as 1790, James Maxwell, the Duke’s chamberlain, had expressed doubts about the attractions of the harbour: it was too far from the fishing grounds. Similar doubts were expressed by Robert Stevenson, the great lighthouse builder and grandfather of Robert Louis, to Walter Scott during their voyage around the Northern Lights in 1814.
The trading port
Tobermory quickly became the principal trading port on Mull, however, greatly assisted by the enormous increase in the kelp trade from the Hebrides, and by the opening of the Crinan Canal in 1801. The ash from burnt kelp, called soda ash (i.e. sodium carbonate), was a key ingredient in glass-making. Among those whose fortunes were founded on kelp was one John Sinclair, who had arrived at Tobermory in the early 1790s from Glen Kinglass, Loch Etive, and set up as a ‘merchant’. The Marquis of Breadalbane cited him as a fine example of the kind of entrepreneurial settlers attracted by the place: ‘(He) came there as a young man with a very few hundred pounds and is now possessed of a well-stored warehouse supplied by three or four vessels of his own which trade to Greenock and Port Glasgow and he is said to be worth from £5,000 to £6,000’.
In April 1797 Sinclair applied to the Directors of the Society for the lease of 57 acres at Ledaig, to the south of the harbour front, on which he wished to build houses and a distillery. Distilling had been forbidden absolutely by the Government between 1795 and 1797 in order to conserve grain during the war with France, and the Directors at first refused permission, urging Sinclair to undertake a brewery instead.
He managed to persuade them, and built his distillery the following year, as well as a pier, known as ‘Sinclair’s Quay’ and a substantial four-storey rubble warehouse which was used to mature whisky until the 1980s, when it was sold and converted into flats. In the early 1820s, Sinclair bought a clutch of farms across the Sound of Mull in Morvern, established Lochaline Estate and built himself a 20 room mansion at Fuinary – ‘a laird’s seat’. Following the death of his wife in 1825 he seems to have devoted himself to raising his five children and managing the estate, although he remained as licensee of the distillery until 1837 and died in January 1863 – ‘a jolly old man of ninety-three who could still ‘crack nuts with his teeth while others waited for the crackers’ – much mourned by his tenants.
The subsequent history of Ledaig Distillery is patchy, with several owners and even more years of closure. It did not really stabilise until the current owners, Burn Stewart Distillers, bought it in 1993. They have opened an attractive small visitor centre and have rationalised the branding, which had become confused – an earlier owner had bottled ‘Tobermory’ as both a blended whisky and a blended malt, and ‘Ledaig’ (in very small amounts) as a single malt. Now both are single malts: Tobermory made from unpeated malt, and Ledaig heavily peated.
The core expressions of both are at 10 years old, with a couple of limited bottlings, but my favourite is Tobermory 15YO @46.3% – a splendid example of what the distillery can do and a happy mix of original and mature character.
Tobermory 15YO @46.3%Vo Rich and malty on the nose, with ginger cake and sherrymoistened Christmas cake, and later butterscotch. Behind this is a scent of beaches. The taste is viscous and smooth, both sweet and salty, with rum n’raisin toffees and a trace of dark chocolate in the lengthy finish. Very more-ish!
Tobermory Distillery, Isle of Mull Tel: 01688 302645. Open Easter to October by appointment.