'Whisky villages' empty as stills go high-tech

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The Independent Online

A new Highland Clearance is under way, robbing Scotland's distilleries and their workers of the tied cottages that have housed whisky families for generations. Distilleries, many owned by multinationals, have made so many staff redundant because of new computer-operated stills that whole villages, once full with distillery workers, are emptying fast.

A new Highland Clearance is under way, robbing Scotland's distilleries and their workers of the tied cottages that have housed whisky families for generations. Distilleries, many owned by multinationals, have made so many staff redundant because of new computer-operated stills that whole villages, once full with distillery workers, are emptying fast.

At Glenlivet, home of the world-famous single malt, the distillery estate of 26 houses for brewers' families has been almost entirely depopulated. Only three houses are still inhabited. Several have been sold as holiday cottages.

In Tormore distillery, further along the river Spey, only a few workers remain in its hamlet of 12 cottages. Allied Distillers, the owner of Tormore, says more than 50 cottages have become vacant in its holdings across Scotland.

Eric Weddell, head postmaster in Ballindalloch, a district which includes many distinguished malt whisky appellations on Speyside, said: "It is happening all over. Whole communities are being destroyed as the distilling industry changes. New technology in the distilleries is having a huge impact on the local economy ­ this whole area has collapsed."

Louise Logan, who recently left the Glenlivet village with her husband, Jimmy, after he lost his job at the distillery, said: "I was glad to move ­ there was no one left to talk to. Nearly all the workers moved out in one go. It was the saddest of days."

Ian Stewart, a former still man at the Glenlivet distillery, is one of the last people to remain in the village because he has bought his former tied cottage. "What has happened is tragic. I am one of only three people still living here ­ the rest have all left. There are more visitors than locals here now."

Whisky analysts say the closure and sell-off of traditional "whisky villages" is like "a new Clearance". Peter Carew, an Elgin-based expert on the subject, said the pattern was being repeated throughout Speyside. "Distilling is all computerised now. One man can run it at the press of a button, whereas 20 years ago there would have been between five and eight men working on each shift. There are lots of people pushing paper, but they travel from executive houses ­ they don't live in tied cottages," he said.

Multinational ownership of some makers of traditional scotch whisky is also seen as a factor, with the need to drive down costs and maximise profits. "The empty villages at Glenlivet and elsewhere are a warning that multi-national ownership could see many more distillery workforces consigned to the history books," said Mr Carew.

Staff who used to work as stillmen, brewers and mash room attendants in the traditional craft industry have now been forced to find alternative jobs as drivers, security guards and caretakers in Elgin, Dufftown or further afield.

But staff made redundant have few complaints about their treatment by the distilleries ­ most have been allowed to continue living in the cottages while they look for other work. However they regret the passing of an era. In 1971, Glenlivet employed 36 staff. According to Mr Stewart, it now employs six.

In Glenlivet, eight of the cottages have already been bought by a property company. Of these, six have been sold as holiday cottages, and two will be permanent residences ­ but not for distillers.

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