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Towser and Barley
Scottish distillery cats
I enquired how this very exact figure of mice caught had been arrived at surely no one had been keeping count for 24 years? It seems the adjudicators for the record claim went to Crieff to observe the cat's prowess for a period of some days, and the total was extrapolated by a statistical technique from their observations. Even if the number might not be totally accurate, it's a pretty impressive performance and works out at an average of some three mice every day!
By the way, the story goes that Towser's amazing mousing prowess was the result of a 'tiny wee dram' being added to her milk each night; but Glenturret says, 'We don't have any scientific proof to back this up, and we certainly wouldn't advise it to anyone whose cat is underperforming in terms of rodent control!'
Towser's pawprints and a logo decorated bottles of one of the distillery's products which has been discontinued: Fairlie's Light Highland Liqueur. As it's no longer available it took a while to obtain images of a Fairlie's bottle, but we're pleased to be able to show them now, with our thanks to Dan. We've also discovered that there were Fairlie's liqueur glasses with the same Towser and pawprints theme.
We came across a couple more artefacts commemorating Towser, both offered on eBay during 2013: a pottery figurine by Wade, which has details of her mousing achievement around the base and was made in a limited edition of 1500; and a circular lapel pin badge, thought to date from the 1980s. Both items were described as 'rare', and we hadn't come across either before.
Following Towser's death a new cat was appointed, called Amber. Unfortunately she didn't seem to have her predecessor's skills, and as far as is known she never caught a single mouse! But she remained as the resident feline until she too died of old age in late 2004. It was felt that spring would be a better time to take on a new cat, and so the quest began in March/April 2005 and was reported in the national press. Scottish branches of Cats Protection, the UK's largest cat charity, were invited to help with the search.
The requirement was for a cat that would be outgoing enough to welcome visitors from all over the world (some 120,000 annually) and enjoy being the centre of attention and certainly not camera-shy. Mousing ability would be considered an advantage, but distilleries these days are much more mouse-free than in earlier times, so it was not regarded as essential. A cat psychologist was even consulted, as it was felt it wouldn't be easy to find the right animal . . . but eventually nine finalists were chosen, from Perth, Forfar, Dundee and Cardyke (Glasgow) CP rescue centres. They were all cats that for one reason or another had fallen on hard times, and each was described as a 'real character'.
Staff at the distillery were looking forward to having a new resident after several catless months, but following the 'interviews' they found it very difficult to make a choice from among so many worthy candidates! In the end they found it impossible to choose between Dylan, a ginger tomcat from Forfar, and Brooke, a black-and-white female from Cardyke so it was decided to take them both on. Glenturret therefore had two worthy successors to the famous Towser. And, following the extensive refurbishment and opening of the 'Famous Grouse Experience' in June 2002, they had their own cat-flap so that they could come and go as they pleased to and from their base in the still house which is always pleasantly warm.
And there was a happy ending for the seven other cats not selected by Glenturret all found good new homes, either with distillery staff or as a result of the publicity that took place at the time of the search.
Sadly Brooke died in 2011 and Dylan sometime before that. Latterly Brooke had evidently had her own Facebook page, but we learned of this only retrospectively after it had been removed. Following her death the distillery expressed their intention to take on a new mouser.
By mid-2012 the search for a new feline resident was under way, again with the help of Cats Protection, and it lasted some three months; but in the end (or maybe having heard of the search) it seems a local farmer donated a young male ginger kitten. There are no longer the same problems with mice that distilleries used to have in the past, so what was required was not so much a mouser as a cat with a big personality to 'meet and greet' the roughly 100,000 people who visit the distillery annually.
In September 2012 'whisky fans and animal lovers' were invited to submit ideas for the kitten's name to Glenturret, with the lucky person submitting the winning name being invited for an expenses-paid overnight visit with accommodation and a VIP tour of the distillery. In the interim we believe the kitten's temporary name was Simba. From hundreds of names suggested, three were short-listed Ginger (not too original! Ed.), Barley and Glen with the final decision, following a vote on those three by fans, being that the kitten would be called Barley. He was soon reported to be settling in well and to be 'a great character'. We wish him a long and happy tenure at Glenturret.
Warm thanks to Carol McLaren of the Glenturret Distillery for kindly providing photographs and much of the information on which our account of Towser was initially based, and to Natasha Monroe for further assistance later. You can find out more about the whisky at the website linked below. An acknowledgement also to Nigel Cole at Flickr for one of the photos of Brooke.
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Barley was a cat of character who was the resident mouser at the Highland Park Scotch whisky distillery in Kirkwall, capital of the windswept Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland. 'Was' because unfortunately, at the age of 15, Barley died as a result of a road traffic accident, the distillery announced in March 2006. Furthermore, bosses decided that he would not be replaced, thus ending a tradition of some 200 years (Highland Park was founded in 1798). The reason I was given is that this is one of only four distilleries in the whole of Scotland to retain traditional floor maltings, and apparently this has health-and-safety implications as far as the keeping of cats is concerned. It does not mean that cats are banned from all Scottish distilleries.
Over the years Barley had become well loved by staff, tourists and locals alike, and each Christmas was said to have received a 'sackful of presents and cards'. Many tales are told of his exploits; one concerns the manager's dog. Although friendly to people, the cat disliked dogs, and on one occasion terrorised this poor animal so thoroughly that it became too frightened to move and had to be physically carried to safety! However, Barley was a great companion to the night-shift workers, while in the daytime his favoured sleeping spot was actually on top of the cash till in the Highland Park shop. Visitors would often think he was a toy till they touched him! Artist Jane Gardiner made a lovely drawing of Barley based on the photograph take the link to see it full-sized at Flickr.
So the long tradition of Highland Park cats came to an end; but staff were hoping to commission a local artist to create a memorial statue that would stand in the entrance courtyard. The plan was that it would feature not only Barley, but also his two immediate predecessors, Malt and Peat, and serve as a tribute to all the mousers that had formed part of the distillery's heritage. In response to an enquiry in 2013, it was confirmed that unfortunately the plan did not materialise, but the reply went on to say that 'His [Barley's] memory has been very much kept alive by the team at the distillery who remember him fondly.'
Visit the informative Highland Park website. Very many thanks to Louise Nicoll of Highland Park for supplying initial photos and information about Barley for our account. Our thanks also to Dave Werner for the photo of Barley patrolling at the distillery: see it full-sized.
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