Charles Doig: the greatest of Scotland’s distillery architects

Visitors to Scotland’s many distilleries may well be unfamiliar with the name of architect Charles Chree Doig. However, despite this lack of recognition, the familiar pagoda topped kiln, the most famous of his designs, is often a talking point on a MacLean and Bruce whisky tour.

The Who was Charles Doig?

Charles Chree Doig was born in Alyth, near Blairgowrie in 1855. In 1882, by this time married, he moved to Elgin, a small town in what is today’s Speyside Scotch Whisky Region, to join a surveyor’s practice. 

Within a few years he became a partner in the business and by 1890, he had his own practice – a master of his own destiny. While his portfolio included a range of municipal buildings which remain largely forgotten, this talented designer will forever be known for his design of over 50 Scotch whisky distilleries and in particular the ubiquitous pagoda roof

What is a pagoda roof?

His creation, not a pagoda but a cupola say some, including Historic Environment Scotland (HES), is more properly known as a Doig Ventilator – a more prosaic designation perhaps but nonetheless a more efficient way to draw off peat smoke from the fires that dried the malted barley below.

Today as few distilleries still malt their own barley, most are now redundant. Despite this, pagoda roofs continue to provide an important visual reminder of an earlier time.

Ventilated pagoda roof from a scottish whisky distillery

Dailuaine Distillery

Alfred Barnard author of The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, written between 1885 and 1887, wrote effusively of Dailuaine Distillery and its surroundings. “The whole place is dainty enough for a fairy’s palace,” he said. 

In 1889, Dailuaine Distillery, tucked between the foothills of Ben Rinnes and the glorious River Spey became the first distillery in Scotland to be fitted with a pagoda roof. 

Charles MacLean writing in Whiskypedia: A Gazetteer of Scotch Whisky noted in the entry for Dailuaine Distillery that, “The pagoda roof, which has since become the ‘leitmotif’ of a malt whisky distillery was destroyed by fire in 1917…”

Doig’s reputation and influence spread quickly, with other designers and distilleries anxious to embrace his work. Indeed, fellow architect John Alcock from Keith, went one step further designing not one but two pagoda tops for Strathisla Distillery, one of the oldest and certainly one of the most picturesque in Scotland.

Doig and Alcock later worked together at Glentauchers another of the distilleries in the Speyside Scotch Whisky Region.

Built in 1899, Charles Doig was the architect of the Dallas Dhu Distillery, originally Dallasmore, on the outskirts of Forres. 

The then owners, Distillers Company Limited (DCL) mothballed the distillery during the 1980s and subsequently sold it to Historic Environment Scotland which now operates it as a historic museum. Today it’s one of the sites on Speyside’s Malt Whisky Trail.

The HES Statement of Significance for Dallas Dhu Distillery describes its architect as a man, “who has a reputation for designing attractive and efficient distilleries.” Although you can’t argue that he indeed designed such distilleries, the statement certainly does not do him justice. 

His work was seen not just in Speyside but much further afield too – Highland Park on Orkney, Talisker on Skye, Caol Ila, Laphroaig on Islay along with distilleries in Northern Ireland.

A century of change

Doig operated in a century which saw immense change in the fortunes of Scotch whisky distilling. Before 1823 for example, when the Excise Act sanctioned whisky distilling for a licence fee of £10, much of the production was small scale and illicit.

George IV had taken a liking to whisky during his visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and later Queen Victoria was known to enjoy a dram or two. 

Towards the end of the 19th century the Scotch whisky industry was thriving. Of course, there’s a certain sense of inevitability that after boom comes bust. And that’s exactly what happened. 

Although a range of events contributed to the industry’s decline, the Leith based Pattison brothers, Robert and Walter played a substantial part in the process. To take advantage of rising demand they employed a whole range of dubious business practices and ‘creative’ accounting methods, only two of many charges subsequently laid at their door. All had a significant knock-on effect among suppliers and fellow whisky blenders. The Scotsman newspaper described the whole debacle as a, “sordid business.”

The Charles Doig designed Glen Elgin Distillery was one of the most notable casualties of the downturn, closing its doors in 1901. Fearing a long-term impact, this remarkable distillery architect predicted that it would be 50 years before anybody built another distillery on Speyside. 

And he was right. The next one was the traditionally designed, complete with pagoda topped kiln, Glen Keith, where production started in 1958.

The man who changed the face of Scotland’s distillery architecture died in 1917. However, despite numerous distilleries throughout Scotland that still stand as a testament to his vision and skill, he almost certainly lacks the wider recognition he deserves.

Thankfully for the modern researcher and other students of his work, Moray Council’s Local Heritage Centre keeps a record of his endeavours.