• 8 mins

What was Islay like in the late 1820s?  What else was happening in the world then? We imagine the context in which Port Charlotte, a new model village for the island, was built.

A couple of miles from Bruichladdich Distillery, in the Rhinns of Islay, a village of white houses looks out across a wide sea loch. Tarmac streets follow the contours of the coast and radiate up the hill, while grassy lanes run behind the houses and between allotments. A wide shallow burn flows under a bridge; on its eastern bank stand some substantial distillery buildings, with their sequences of tall peaked roofs. On the shore, there’s a central hooked stone pier. Rising behind the houses, an old school with a small belfry tries to command the view. It’s been described as a “showy village” [Lord Teignmouth 1836] and “one of Islay’s prettiest calendar villages” [Margaret Storey 1980.]

It's no accident that there is uniformity of design. Like Port Ellen, Portnahaven, and Bowmore, like half of Edinburgh, it was a planned “new town”. Building began in 1828, on the road down the Rhinns which had been constructed by the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford and his taskforce in 1813. The "Loch Indaal Distillery" was central to Port Charlotte's raison d’être - to provide employment away from the land and the townships where the locals had tenancies, into crafts, services, distilling, fishing. 


The village was built on the site of an older hamlet, where a ferry had run across Loch Indaal to the Bowmore side. The land was originally part of Glassans, or Classans Farm. The Gaelic name Port Sgioba, with “Skiba” literally translating as "teams", could be a reference to ploughing the land, or to sailing ships. Its English name, Port Charlotte, is a tribute to a celebrity in the court of George IV, a lady of letters, whose connection was that she was the Laird of Islay’s mother. 

Lady Charlotte Campbell, after whom the village is named, was one of the Duke of Argyll’s daughters, of Inverary Castle not far away on the mainland. She and Colonel John Campbell of Islay, a soldier and latterly a politician, had nine children together. He died young, in 1809; she lived for another 52 years and published somewhere between 13 and 25 books, not all publicly bearing her name. 

After being widowed, she became a lady in waiting to Queen Caroline of Brunswick in an era of royal scuffles and scandals that attracted intense popular interest. The writer and critic William Hazlitt reported in the 1820s that the “queen’s business…struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house or cottage in the Kingdom.” Lady Charlotte herself caused ripples when she married her children’s tutor, the young Reverend Bury, to whom she bore two more children, then again outlived. Lady Charlotte knew the writers Walter Scott and William Blake. In 1828, while the foundation stones of Port Charlotte were being laid, Lady Charlotte herself published “Flirtation” - her fourth popular novel. George IV’s famous trip to Scotland in which he blessed and ratified the Scotch Whisky industry had taken place in 1822.


Where had the “improving landlord” impetus come from? In 1828 It was Lady Charlotte’s son, Walter Frederick, who triggered the planning and building of Port Charlotte (he gave plots of land and handed out building specifications but houses were paid for and constructed by their new owners). He had already overseen Port Ellen, begun in 1821, and the redevelopment of Portnahaven as a fishing-crofting settlement. It has to be noted that the 1820s were the middle of the Highland Clearances. Walter Frederick had inherited Islay from his grandfather, who was also empowered to build, having devised Bowmore in order to rehouse a community there in 1768. 

Walter Frederick was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh at the age of 24, the same year he became an MP. Edinburgh had been significant for a few generations for its role in the Scottish Enlightenment. Back before the French Revolution in the 1760s, the Encyclopaedia Britannica had been started in Edinburgh. That decade, the construction of the New Town with its insistent proportions and salubrious street plans had begun, and Voltaire had written “today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.” Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations (published in 1776) in which the fundamental principles of capitalism and meritocracy over aristocracy were set out, had been active in Edinburgh and its university. By the late 1820s, Scotland was capturing the romantic imagination, as Hector Berlioz set Scott’s Waverley to music, and Mendelssohn toured the Hebrides.


The 1820s were busy industrially and politically. While Islay was still essentially feudal (it could be argued fractions of it still are!) 1818 had seen the first shipyard open in Glasgow. The Scottish iron industry was revolutionised by Neilson’s invention of hot blast smelting in 1828. The first locomotive-powered trains ran in greater Glasgow from 1826. Cotton was a massive industry in the West of Scotland; an establishment like New Lanark Mills is an interesting precedent because it was a planned settlement built around a successful business, housing for the workers intrinsic to the design.

Could this have been something of an inspiration to Walter Frederick? At New Lanark, the incumbent owner Owen became the utopian socialist leader of a working class movement, opening the first infant school in Britain there in 1817. Industrialisation stirred up social change; there was unrest among the educated artisan weavers in Paisley with the “radical wars” of 1820.


Walter Frederick was a politician. He would have been acutely aware of the potential forces both good and bad for his own position and for the fortunes of his fellow men being put in motion by the electoral reforms of 1832. The population of Scotland at this time was 2.3 million. The situation in 1831 was that only 4,500 men in Scotland had the vote. After the reforms of 1832, this number rose to 65,000. It was the value of your property that determined whether you had the franchise “householders of £10 value in the burghs and property owners of £10 or tenants of £50 rental in the country seats”. The residents of new Port Charlotte had property by the time this new law took effect. Though they probably weren’t remotely in charge of their own destiny, what the encyclopaedia Britannica calls a “seismic shift in the location and exercise of political power” had begun. 

In 1831, Islay had a population of 15,000 - four and a half times what it is today. Wholesale emigration to North America had been common for decades, though made more difficult by a levy on international travel during the American wars of Independence and made more dangerous by the Napoleonic Wars (Islay Info reports a boom in beef on the island during the Napoleonic Wars as there was extra demand for feeding the soldiers).  Loch Indaal Distillery in Port Charlotte opened in 1833, bringing direct and connected work opportunities into play. By 1841, and the first census, 400 residents were recorded in Port Charlotte. 

Into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries...

Between then and now, many things have changed. The Campbells went bankrupt, having spent £800,000 on “improvements” to Islay. They left the island in 1847, not 20 years after the building of Port Charlotte. The distillery closed in 1930. Port Charlotte has become something of a holiday village, a lot of the original properties now rather valuable, and empty for much of the year.


The landscape of the whisky industry has changed, but Bruichladdich Distillery is proud to still provide a significant number of local jobs. Many of our workforce went to school in Port Charlotte Primary. It's our whisky that matures in the historic Port Charlotte warehouses; we own the empty site and in 2010 had plans to reopen it. The name Port Charlotte resonates on every bottle of our heavily-peated, iconically "Islay-style" single malt range.

We have a deep connection with this place and a vibrant working distillery at the heart of it; who knows what the next 200 years in our history will bring?