Case Study: A possible 18th century distillery site at Mulchaich Farm, Ferintosh

Meryl Marshall

A project of measured survey and recording of two archaeological sites at Mulchaich Farm (MHG54319) on the Black Isle was carried out by the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) in 2009 (Marshall 2011a). The sites are remarkable survivals in a landscape which has seen intensive agriculture. Oral tradition has it that at least one was involved in the production of Ferintosh whisky in the 18th century.

The lands of Mulchaich lay within the property which became known as Ferintosh (‘land of the thane/toiseach’) and an outlying portion of the shire of Nairn (Watson 1904, 114). The Roy military map drawn around AD 1750 depicts a number of settlements in Ferintosh: one of them was probably Mulchaich but it is not named. In the early 19th century Mulchaich comprised two farms known as Upper and Lower Mulchaich.

Duncan Forbes of Culloden acquired the lands of Ferintosh and in 1690 the Scottish Parliament made a special grant to him of the privilege of distilling whisky on his estate largely free of duty as compensation for the laying waste of his estates by the Jacobites (Mowat 2003).  In the Act of Parliament, Ferintosh was described as “an ancient brewery of whisky”.

In the 18th century, distilling of whisky for home consumption was carried out in the Highlands though there were few if any legal 18th century distilleries other than those in Ferintosh. The privilege was enjoyed by the Forbes family without interruption on payment of 400 merks annually (about £22) rising to £73 by AD 1781, and the whisky was renowned for its quality and price. The growth of production in the second half of the 18th century and the vast profits made attracted a good deal of discontent. The government withdrew the privilege through the Distillery Act of 1784 which took effect two years later although Forbes was amply compensated (Mowat 2003, 58–59). The Old Statistical Account of 1791–92 for the Parish of Urquhart noted that while ‘the houses in Ferintosh are extremely numerous’ the ‘buildings erected for the purpose of distilling (are) now lying unoccupied’. Distilling, however, did not altogether cease in Ferintosh but continued certainly into the 1820s.

The sites at Mulchaich comprise two townships: a lower one at West Mulchaich (MHG54319) (Figure 1) and an upper one at East Mulchaich (MHG9062; Figure 2) 400m to the northeast which had been spared from ploughing in the 1950s and was later scheduled by Historic Scotland (SM3146).

Figure 1: Aerial view of the chambered cairn and township remains at West Mulchaich. © NOSAS JS Bone Collection
Aerial view of area with remains of houses, surrounded by a field.
Figure 1: Aerial view of the township remains at East Mulchaich. © NOSAS JS Bone Collection

Removal of the scrub at West Mulchaich revealed the substantial foundations of seven buildings, platforms and enclosures. How much of the settlement has been lost to ploughing is unknown. Two of the buildings had large kilns with barns attached and a further two buildings had opposing entrances There was a probable dammed pond (now a marsh) below which was situated a building with several compartments.

East Mulchaich comprises the turf and stone footings of nine buildings arranged in two parallel ranks; many with multiple compartments, some had outshots, and most had associated small enclosures. The buildings were smaller than those of the lower site, averaging 11m in length x 6m in breadth and 0.3 to 0.5m high overall. At the north end of the site there was an unusual building close to a former watercourse with a small central compartment and two complex outshots of roughly similar size on raised platforms.

Figure 2: The survey plan of the settlement remains at East Mulchaich. ©NoSAS

Local tradition suggests that distilling took place at West Mulchaich. While a great deal of distilling clearly took place in Ferintosh, no documentary evidence has been found to confirm or dispute the local tradition. But although the remains at West Mulchaich might appear to be merely those of a township, there are several factors that have led to its interpretation as a possible distillery site or, at the very least, a township where distilling took place. A distillery would have needed running water, and the structure near the pond was possibly a still house. Kilns would have been required for drying the grain and in the production of malt. The solid, uniform nature of the structures suggests that they had been constructed to a plan and at the same time. The platforms and enclosures would have provided possible storage or working areas. The subsequent excavation of a kiln at West Mulchaich by NOSAS (to prepare it for presentation to the public under the Adopt-a-Monument scheme) suggested that it might be a malt-kiln (Marshall 2013b).

Further work at the sites could obtain better dating evidence, helping to elucidate the relationship of the two sites and their possible functions. The marshy area at the proposed distillery site also holds out potential for environmental analysis.

Further information

Marshall, Meryl 2011 ‘A project to identify, survey and record archaeological remains at Mulchaich Farm, Fermintosh, Ross-shire’.

Marshall, Meryl 2013 ‘A project to prepare the kiln at the West Settlement, Mulchaich Farm, Ferintosh, Ross-shire for presentation to the public’.