The Octomore Story by Mark Reynier

Mark Reynier, MD of Bruichladdich Distillery takes a look at the troubled history of the farm distillery that once stood above the village of Port Charlotte.

View from Octomore towards the old Port Charlotte distillery with a lady standing proudly in front of the stooks of corn.

In a wood in Bridgend, tucked away off the road, there is the damp, verdant, almost forgotten graveyard of Kilarrow. The gravestones are covered in ivy and the stone slabs are overgrown with moss and grass. Near a stone monument encrusted in a vibrant orange lichen there is a grave. Scrape away the slab’s grass covering, and there is the engraved name: ‘George Montgomery, Distiller at Octomore’.

Octomore farm sits on a commanding position on a hill over looking the village of Port Charlotte near Bruichladdich. There are dramatic views over the whole island, away to the Northern Irish coast twenty-five miles away, around to the Paps of Jura. A peaceful place with a tragic story. The name Octomore originates around 1300, from the division of common ground into eight workable, self-sustaining units. In this case the ‘Large Eighth’ was divided into three tenancies; lower, middle and upper.

It is on Octomore that Dirty Dotty’s Well, James Brown’s invigorating spring is found, producing the crystal clear water that Bruichladdich Distillery uses at bottling to reduce their whisky from cask strength to 46%. The gravestone at Kilarrow tells us that Octomore was also once home to a distillery. John Montgomery, took over the middle Octomore tenancy around 1815. He had three sons – George, William, and Alexander. The younger brothers, William and Alexander, farmed their father’s previous tenancy at ‘Gartfad’ and ‘Laginstral’ farms. Continue reading....In 1816 John’s eldest son, George, built a small distillery on Octomore Farm along with John MacVorran, a fifteen year old lad (probably George’s brother-in-law) from the neighbouring lower Octomore tenancy, whose father had just died. John Montgomery, his son George and the teenager John MacVorran became co-partners in the enterprise. Sadly, the short-lived partnership was to become a tragic story of stubborn sibling rivalries resulting in hunger and death.
The distillery was a small scale set up, probably only a single still operation with a capacity of a mere 270 litres, not much more than a hogshead - just about the right size to utilise the barley that could be grown on the two Octomore tenancies. After a slow start, by 1826-1827, the records show the distillery was at its full annual production of about 65 hogsheads. But about then, 1830 or so, John Montgomery died and it all started to go horribly wrong. The distillery business passed to George. but in 1833, he too dropped dead at the age of only 44. His twelve year old son Donald was his heir – but the family started to argue about who owned what.
George’s younger brother, William, claimed the tenancy of the farm, and thus the distillery. But the distilling business was in George’s name, and now belonged to the adolescent Donald. Or did it? William and Alexander believed their father had a third share and that they were entitled to it - and so they tried to muscle their way in.

By 1839 matters had got out of hand. There was ‘a misunderstanding’ between William, Alexander, Donald and John MacVorran about the running of the business as well as ‘several other transactions relating to our accounts’. Finally, on 28th December 1839, it was agreed that arbitration should be sought. Eight months later, on 7th August 1840, in order to ‘effect a complete settlement of all matters of a doubtful nature amongst us and to prevent litigation’, the three Montgomeries again sought arbitration, but this time over John’s will.
Donald clearly had the right to his father George’s share of the business. William and Alexander claimed their father John’s third share. But in the days of prima genitor, had John already given it to George, who after all had put in all the hard work…
We don’t know the result of this adjudication. Clearly no satisfactory resolution was reached. A stalemate – ‘it may be your distilling business, but it’s my land’ – Intransigence, envy and bloody mindedness meant the distillery shut down in the autumn of 1840, just twenty four years after it started. A year later, September 1841, twenty year old Donald married an older Octomore girl, Ann Campbell, and with his mother, three brothers and two sisters in tow he seems to have had enough and departed for Canada, emigrating to Collingwood, 100 miles north of Toronto, in 1842. His brother, John, was to name his Canadian farm Octomore.

Back home on Islay there were now an incredible 175 people living at the original Octomore in 30 houses including twenty-seven Montgomeries. This dramatic rise in population came about largely because the dreaded smallpox had been contained, and together with the mild climate and the relative land fertility (compared to other Hebridean islands) Islay’s population had exploded from 5,000 in 1800 to an amazing 15,600 in 1841. This rise was unsustainable however, and for the remaining Montgomerys things were about to go from bad to worse.
Farming had always been tough in the Hebrides. With such rapid population growth and the lack of good quality farming land, a dangerous monoculture soon developed based on the potato. Potatoes yielded the highest amount of sustenance per square yard in the impoverished, sandy soils but when the potato blight struck in 1846, it resulted in a series of famines that lasted a decade. Alexander, with nothing to keep him, emigrated to Mara, Ontario (far enough away from Donald) in 1848.

In 1849, the island’s benevolent landlord Sir Walter Campbell, facing greatly reduced farm rental incomes due to the potato famines, went bankrupt. Islay was in administration for four years as no buyer could be found. Eventually the entrepreneurial Charles Morrison bought the island at a reduced price. Morrison was keen to regain control of Octomore, now derelict and in ‘great disrepair’ fourteen years after the distillery had closed. Depopulation meant that the farm was now home to a ‘mere’ 51 people in 12 houses, just a third of those that had lived there a decade earlier. William, now 61, and a widower, was ‘starving’. With his three sons and a daughter, they were the only Montgomeries left out of twenty-seven. Despite this William refused to relinquish the tenancy claiming he was owed money from Donald and compensation for the distillery. John MacVorran, now a forty year old ‘labourer’, supported the claim. But there was to be one final twist to the tale.

Upon examining the Octomore lease it became clear that after all this time, bitterness and sorrow, the distillery had been illegally built. No permission was sought or given, and according to the terms of the tenancy any buildings erected belonged the landlord. Legally, there had never been anything to bequeath, there had never been anything to inherit. Despite this, in 1854 Morrison agreed to a pay off, the sum the equivalent of £9,782 in today’s money, if William would agree to relinquish the tenancy. He promptly emigrated to Eldon, 20 miles east of lake Simcoe, 100 miles north-east of Toronto where he died in 1885 at the ripe old age of 84. He is buried there with Alexander who had died in 1861. The Montgomeries had left Islay for good.

So we now know that Octomore distillery was originally built to use the barley grown on Octomore farm - and in 2008 barley was once again grown for distillation in Montgomery’s old fields for the first time since 1839. The Octomore name is on the most heavily peated whisky ever produced - with the initial bottling now in the hands of six thousand eager enthusiasts around the world. The story of Octomore is at last moving towards a happy ending.

Mark Reynier

This article was prepared from information from Islay Estate records held at Glasgow City Council’s Mitchell Library. Subsequent valuable additional information was provided by Diane Myers ( a descendant of John Montgomery which I have put together along with some additional research. There are still a few loopholes that folk may be able to help out with: where is John Montgomery buried and the precise date of his death? Where was Gartfad & Laginstral farm? What did John’s will say? There are a couple of possibilities, but can anyone say who were John’s parents?

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

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