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The Influence of Orkney Peat

by Gavin D Smith, 2010

Part II

Exports of peat from Orkney to the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh, are recorded in 1840, though this practice generally ended when coal became cheaper and more plentiful as the 19th century progressed. The Orkney Herald newspaper even reports 10 tonnes of peat being transported to Australia in 1893!

The small island of Eday lies to the north-east of the Orkney mainland and was the source of a great deal of the peat exported from Orkney. It was home for many years to the Eday Peat Company, and correspondence between company directors suggests that in 1928 Eday had available deposits of around 1.5 million tonnes of peat. Large scale peat extraction was undertaken on the Red Head area at the northern edge of the island, and the fuel was then shipped from the nearby Calf of Eday.

According to company records, the Inverness distilleries of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor were both customers, as was Glenmorangie, where the peat was unloaded onto Morangie beach from small cargo vessels. Glen Mhor continued to import Orcadian peat until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

Records for 1937 show 185 tonnes of peat sold to 'Inverness', with no distillery being specified but with a value of two hundred and sixty-three pounds, twelve shillings and six pence, while 130 tonnes were dispatched to 'Tain,' - ie to Glenmorangie - with a value of one hundred and eighty-nine pounds, one shilling and eleven pence.

Surviving letter books include a copy of a circular which was clearly sent out to former customers in the hope of attracting repeat business, and the names of Glenugie distillery at Peterhead and Banff distillery appear in this connection, with the company noting that the latter had placed an order for 1,100 tonnes of peat in 1925.

The 1930s were not a period of great prosperity for the Eday Peat Company, with profits either being non-existent or modest. Losses were recorded in 1931 and 1935, and a net profit of only fourteen pounds, two shillings and two pence was made during 1936.

However, in March 1939, Scottish Malt Distillers (the malt distillery-operating subsidiary of The Distillers Company Ltd) placed a substantial order with Eday. It included a requirement of 80 tonnes for Royal Brackla distillery, the same for Millburn and Dallas Dhu, 85 tonnes for Teaninich and 120 tonnes for Ord. These sites were all classified by SMD as 'North Country Distilleries.'

   That same year, the recently re-opened Scapa distillery on Orkney was also ordering peat from Eday, and as late as 1943, Scapa requested 120 tonnes of Eday peat, and it seems that the Eday Peat Company only planned to cut a total of 150 tonnes that year. With distilling in Scotland virtually at a standstill as the Second World War raged there could have been little demand for the product, and Scapa may well have been the last customer of the Eday Peat Company.

Although it now utilises unpeated malt, brought in from the mainland, Scapa was still using peat in its on-site maltings as late as 1965, shortly before the malting were closed down. Along with the former Orkney peat-consuming Speyside distilleries of Strathisla and Miltonduff, Scapa is now owned by the Pernod Ricard subsidiary Chivas Brothers, and the company's Group Distilleries Manager Alan Winchester has taken a personal interest in the story of Orkney peat and its unlikely role in firing the kilns of mainland distilleries.

"You have to ask why they imported peat all the way from Orkney when there was usually plenty of local peat in the area around these distilleries," he muses. "But the owner of Miltonduff also had a share in Highland Park, which might help explain it, and also the peat could have been easily delivered into any of the mainland distillery sites by rail. Strathisla used local peats along with the Orcadian peat, and Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor took peats from Dava Moor, near Grantown-on-Spey, as well.

"As the Eday peats appear to be called 'inkies by the locals,' it sounds like they're black, and when dried out would burn well. Peat from the northern end of the island was said to be denser and therefore possess a much higher calorific value than that from the south. In other words, they would burn with good heat. It's still a bit of a mystery why they were used, but with my commercial hat on, I'd say that even then, the benefit of using them would be carefully weighed with the commercial one."

Perhaps next time someone mentions peat in relation to whisky we will think not just of Islay, but of Orkney too.

Go to PART I.

(This article first appeared in Whisky Etc.)

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