Keith is a town of two fairly distinct parts, divided by the River Isla. "Old Keith" lies on the west side of the river and is known to have existed as far back as 1180, though possibly called "Geth". Old Keith grew as a centre for the cattle trade where drovers from the highlands sold cattle on to dealers from further south.
Early Keith rapidly expanded its activities into milling and brewing, and the first bridge over the River Isla was built in 1609. The "Auld Brig" still survives, just south of the bridge carrying the modern A96 Aberdeen to Inverness road over the river. It is wide enough to carry pedestrians, ponies or mules, but could not have taken a cart or carriage.
In 1755 the Earl of Findlater laid out "New Keith" on the ground rising from the east bank of the River Isla. This is a much larger settlement, set out in a very distinctive grid pattern. Its twin points of focus are the large Reidhaven Square, past one end of which runs the A96 as it heads south out of Keith, and Mid Street. This is the main shopping street in the town and has an attractive old world feel, complete with a good range of distinctive shops.
Textiles remained an important source of wealth for Keith until quite recent times. Indeed, the Isla Bank Mills to the north of the town were a centre for the tweed industry from the 1850s until the 1990s and are now home to a successful business park.
The town remains very active with textiles and is home to the Keith Kilt and Textile Centre, the only school of its kind in the world, where students are trained in the art of kiltmaking. In addition, the centre runs a variety of courses from creative textural embroidery to clay silver workshops and through its retail arm, hand make bespoke kilts and a range of exciting tweed and tartan accessories.
The banks of the River Isla also formed the focus for a more enduring industry for Keith: distilling. There are four distilleries in Keith or in its immediate area. Glen Keith Distillery is found in Station Road on the River Isla close to the much larger and better known Strathisla Distillery; both are owned by Chivas. It was built in 1960 on the site of an earlier corn mill and is a gas-fired, high-tech distillery.
Strathmill Distillery lies on the southern side of Keith, again on the River Isla, and is located in a converted corn mill. It has been in operation since 1891. Glentauchers Distillery lies a few miles west of Keith, near the village of Mulben, and dates back to 1898. Neither Strathmill nor Glentauchers have visitor centres and neither are especially well known as single malts.
Keith's fourth distillery is by far its best know, Strathisla. This is well signposted both within Keith and for miles around: you could be forgiven for thinking it is the only distillery in the area. What you find is the prettiest distillery in Scotland. It is also the oldest legally operating distillery in the Highlands, having been in operation since 1786. And Strathisla certainly does offer a visitor centre.
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