The Scotch

Chapter 3


Freedom an' whisky gang thegither!
Tak aff your dram!
The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer
Robert Burns

Cottage Stills

'Down round the southern corner of the dun there was a field of barley all ripened by the sun. In a small wind it echoed faintly the sound of the ocean; at night it sighed and rustled as the earth mother thought over things, not without a little anxiety.

'It was cut and harvested and a sheaf offered in thanksgiving; flailed and winnowed; until the ears of grain remained in a heap of pale gold: the bread of life. . .'

In 1935, Neil Gunn, former Highland excise officer, celebrated whisky writer and philosopher, tried to reconstruct the moment when whisky was first made and described his image of it: 'In simple ways the grain was prepared and ground and set to ferment; the fermented liquor was then boiled, and as the steam came off it was by happy chance condensed against some cold surface.

'And lo! this condensation of the steam from the greenish-yellow fermented gruel is clear as crystal. . . When cold, it is colder to the fingers than ice.

'[And] in the mouth - what is this? The gums tingle, the throat burns, down into the belly fire passes, and thence outward to the fingertips, to the feet, and finally to the head. . .

'And then - and then - the head goes up. . . the eyes glisten. He abruptly laughs and jumps to his feet; as abruptly pauses to look over himself with a marvelling scrutiny. He tries the muscles of his arms. They are full of such energy that one fist shoots out; then the other. A right and left. His legs have the same energy. He begins to dance with what is called primitive abandon. Clearly it was not water he had drunk: it was life.'

Or, more precisely, what Scots christened uisge beatha, the Water of Life. Gunn's poetic idea was fanciful, but perhaps not far from the truth. From the first attempts to make whisky until the 19th century, distilling was largely a cottage industry, closely tied to the cycle of the seasons. The Highlander would sow his hardy barley seeds in spring, harvest his crop in late summer and dry the grain throughout the winter. The discarded straw was used for his animals and to insulate his cottage floor. By March, when ice had disappeared from the streams, distilling began.

A small copper pot still often stood in the corner of the cottage, heated by a fire of glowing peat blocks. The fermenting mixture of home-grown barley and stream water was heated and the vapour passed down a tube immersed in water. Distillation in crude pot stills was something like simmering beer in the kettle and cooling the vapour.

The raw, condensed spirit was not matured but decanted into jugs and small casks for immediate use. Whisky was a communal, convivial spirit, believed to have medicinal properties, and often exchanged with clan neighbours for rent, goods or services rendered. It became a cornerstone of community life. At one time it was used for barter, almost as a form of currency. In the 16th century, for instance, a farm in Kintyre paid six quarts of whisky as rent.

Barley used for making whisky was also paid as rent to clan chiefs. On occasions, when they received more than was required for distilling, the surplus would be used by the clan for brewing ale. However, it was whisky that remained central to community life. There was scarcely a farmer who did not convert his surplus grain into whisky, which was a more negotiable currency than gold or silver.

The influential Scottish church, always keen to exert its authority, disapproved of Sunday drinking and launched an attempt to curb whisky as early as 1579, when restrictions were placed on its manufacture to encourage sobriety.

Parliament, equally concerned about drunkenness and lawless behaviour, tried to confiscate whisky in the Western Isles in 1609 after riots and feuds by drunken gangs. But the only effect of seizing local whisky was to stimulate smuggling.

Whisky was tightly woven into the fabric of everyday existence. When unjust attempts were made to regulate its manufacture, restrict its distribution and tax it out of the reach of ordinary people, the rebellious blood of every good Scot was roused.

Whisky Taxes

It was an historic moment when Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced the tax on whisky by 27p a bottle in his 1995 budget - the first time in 100 years that whisky duty had been lowered.

The first levy on whisky was made by the Scottish parliament in 1644 to raise revenue to back Oliver Cromwell's impoverished London parliament in the civil war against Royalist forces. The duty of two shillings and eightpence per Scots pint (which was three times the size of an English pint) sparked widespread anger in Scotland. Within months almost the entire country turned to smuggling.

'Virtually everybody joined in,' says whisky historian Steve Sillett. 'Over the whole country only a fraction of the whisky manufactured was entered for duty.'

As excisemen embarked on the formidable task of collecting duty in a country with few proper roads, efforts stepped up to evade them. Although bloody skirmishes were reported, in the main the natural wit and cunning of the Highlanders won through.

'Kirkwall Town Hall, for instance, was the scene of many a lavish reception in honour of visiting excisemen,' Steve Sillett adds. 'The sole purpose was to afford the local councillors an opportunity to glean as much information as they were able about the officers' plans for seizing smuggled goods.'

Steve's interest in whisky's secret history began when he worked as an excise officer responsible for 27 distilleries in the Highlands. Seven years of research were spent writing his history of whisky smugglers, Illicit Scotch, which became a standard work.

More excise Acts were introduced to tax a spirit which, by the end of the 17th century, had become so popular that it was accepted by some workmen as wages. In 1681, malt tax was imposed everywhere. By 1695 a duty of 2s per pint had been placed on spirits. In the same year, malt tax was dropped but, before anyone had time to celebrate, duty per pint was raised by another 3d.

'On the Isle of Lewis, off the far north-west of Scotland, smuggling was carried out quite openly and landlords gladly accepted whisky in payment of rents. The tacksman, or lessee, of a farm would issue oats to sub-tenants for use in distillation,' Steve explains.

'The illicit distiller, tenant and landlord were entirely interdependent. And as long as magistrates made a point of imposing moderate fines, there was no earthly reason why they should not continue to reap a worthwhile return.'

Magistrates were clearly on the side of the smugglers. Indeed, many had a vested interest in outlaw distilling and imposed face-saving fines of only &163;2 or &163;3 in cases where profits ran into hundreds. At least one landowner magistrate, William Murray of Tain, supplied distillers from a wide area with barley. Many lawyers received their fees in whisky and magistrates were often rewarded in spirits for their leniency. As one Campbeltown woman protested to the Sheriff when he arrested her: 'I have nae made a drop since that wee keg I sent you.'

In 1707, excise duty was harshly stepped up when the Scots and English parliaments amalgamated to try to price whisky out of the reach of the working class. English revenue officers poured across the border in a determined effort to collect tax. Ninety years later, they were still trying.

Further taxes were levied in 1725, this time a duty of threepence a bushel on malt. As this would have netted the government only &163;20,000, it is generally accepted that Prime Minister Walpole was thinking more in terms of asserting English authority in Scotland. Indignant Scots responded by going on the rampage in Glasgow and maltsters flatly refused to allow excisemen to check their stocks. In 1777, there were 408 stills in Edinburgh alone and only eight of them paying duty. By this time, whisky was so popular as a national symbol that the middle and upper classes were even drinking it for breakfast.

In those days, Scots drank huge quantities of whisky and wine, far more than anyone today would contemplate. In 1770, the French traveller Louis Simond wrote that the average Highlander consumed about a quart (roughly a litre) of whisky a day. 'To be able to bear that quantity of ardent spirits,' he observed, 'he must have practised much and often.' And indeed he had. Heavy drinking was common in the 16th and 17th centuries.

'Some hosts had the stems struck from wine glasses to ensure continuous drinking and round-bottomed bottles, which had to be passed from hand to hand, were in continuous use,' says Steve Sillett. 'Toasting was a popular after-dinner entertainment, and in Perthshire a rule applied that if any guest failed to empty his glass to a toast, he had to drink the same toast a second time from a full glass.'

Whisky, easily made from local grain and water, remained cheap in rural areas where duty was often ignored. In 1770, for example, the best whisky from Ferintosh and Glenlivet cost 1s 10d (about 9p) a Scots pint.

In 1782, about 1,940 stills were seized with little effect on whisky production. Distilling became an act of patriotism and Scots saw no good reason for paying for the privilege of making their own national drink.

Ardbeg distillery on Islay, a keynote malt in Ballantine's 17 Years Old, was situated in a remote bay and built like a fortress. Rebel whisky-makers had a fearsome reputation for defending it. In the end, it was captured only when excise officers waited until the gang sailed to the mainland with a shipment, leaving the distillery empty. The duty men moved in, smashing the stills and destroying the building. Ardbeg later took out a licence and was rebuilt.

Some of the finest illicit whisky came from Speyside, which now has the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland. More than 200 stills operated in Glenlivet alone, hidden in caves, concealed by branches or packed up and moved from place to place at night on horseback. When the water supply was considered too precious to move the still, the site was hidden deep in the countryside and the burn diverted to supply it.

Rebel distillers near Dufftown, on Speyside, diverted a stream from Ben Rinnes, which currently supplies several famous distilleries, by digging a ditch for almost a mile under cover of darkness.

'The first run of whisky was set aside for a hill-top celebration,' says Steve Sillett, 'and quite a night it turned out to be. Few of the smugglers got home much before lunchtime the following day.'

The busiest highways in Scotland were whisky roads over the hills, used by smugglers hauling barley or malt to hidden stills, or lined with ponies carrying kegs of spirit. On some whisky trails convoys of up to 150 pack-horses carried bulk supplies to the cities in the south.

These old routes, with names like The Beatshach, The Ladder, Jock's Road and The Fungle, still exist - part country road, part cart track, and seldom used except by hikers. As whisky roads have never been mapped, no one is sure how many miles they cover. Distances vary from one hour's walk cross country to journeys of eight hours, covering some of the most scenic views in Scotland.

'In the Highlands, nearly every farmer had his own still and the greatest ingenuity was shown, not only in carrying out the various brewing and distilling processes, but in warning one another of the approach of the itinerant exciseman,' Steve Sillett says. 'When the farmers saw the gauger approaching on horseback, they made haste to raise the alarm by hoisting sheets or flags on the top of peat stacks, so as to give everyone a chance to hide their precious whisky utensils.

'In the early years of the 19th century, a prominent Stirling hotelier used to despatch a funeral cortege into the Highlands of Perthshire whenever his stock of whisky needed replenishing. Consignments of contraband whisky were frequently conveyed 20 miles from the Braes of Glenlivet to Dufftown under the same melancholy guise whilst the local excise officials stood by at a respectful distance.'

Even the lure of rewards had little effect. The government, fighting a rearguard action, offered &163;5 to anyone reporting an illicit still. With characteristic wry humour, the distillers turned it to their advantage. The costliest item in a home-built still was the coiled 'worm' of copper tubing submerged in water, which condensed the vapourised raw spirit, enabling it to be run off into jars and casks. When a 'worm' became too worn for further use, illegal distillers would take it to the exciseman, claim &163;5 for 'discovering' it, and use the cash to purchase a copper replacement.

In the 1740s the English imposed some of their harshest restrictions on the Scots, largely brought about by the actions of one of Scotland's most famous characters, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Prince Charles Edward Stuart sailed from exile in France in 1745 to claim the throne on behalf of his father James, the only surviving son of King James II. Charles pawned his jewels to raise funds for the journey. Despite landing in Scotland with only seven men after a second ship carrying soldiers was wrecked in a storm, he set out to raise support amongst Highlanders.

For five months the Prince and his loyal rebels wandered the Highlands, meeting clan chiefs. He marched with a whisky bottle tied to his belt - as much for sustenance as a symbol of Highland culture. There was no doubt of his fondness for whisky. At one meeting, he drank for three days and nights with two Macdonald chiefs. 'He had the better of us,' Macdonald of Baleshare admitted.

Support for the Prince increased. He raised his standard at Glenfinan in 1745 and, by September of that year, captured the capital, Edinburgh, and won a decisive victory at Prestonpans. With a growing army of followers, who saw him as Scotland's saviour, he boldly crossed the border for a 250-mile march on London. On the way he captured Carlisle and was almost in the Midlands when sheer weight of opposing English numbers forced his retreat.

The English pursued Charles, who managed one last glorious victory at Falkirk before facing crushing defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. It was the last battle to be fought on British soil.

Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in disguise to the Isle of Skye, where he was hidden until he sailed for France in September 1746. The Prince, who never saw his beloved Scotland again, died disillusioned in Rome in 1788.

After Culloden, the English were determined that the embarrassment and political upheaval caused by the Jacobites, supporters of James, would never be repeated. Scots were forced to hide their traditional clothing in fear of punishment under the 1747 Act of Proscription. The Act outlawed by name the kilt, plaid, tartan, trews (tartan trousers) and any kind of 'Highland garb' associated with clan warriors, even the bagpipes. In effect it backfired, boosting Highland solidarity by identifying traditional Scottish wardrobe as a military threat.

Under this climate of harsh restriction, London also imposed further punitive taxes on whisky, forcing many distillers out of business. Illicit whisky distilling, like the secret wearing of the tartan, became an act of rebellion. To Highlanders, whisky-making represented a way of life as important as the right to gather fuel, grow grain or keep cattle. Distilling came to be regarded as an heroic act of proud defiance against the English. 'Freedom an whisky gang thegither,' Robert Burns wrote. And rebellious Scots took up his battle cry in their thousands.

The quotation, from Burns' 'The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer', was a plea to Scots politicians in London to safeguard whisky. Burns, like many Scots, believed that predatory whisky taxes, the imposition of extra duty to bring Scotch in line with gin, and the general suppression of Scottish culture by the English, placed whisky in grave danger.

Arouse, my boys! exert your mettle,
To get auld Scotland back her kettle,
he begged Scots politicians in the poem.

The government, however, seemed determined to apply the teachings of economist Adam Smith, who had pontificated: 'It has for some time been the policy of Great Britain to discourage the consumption of spirituous liquors, on account of their supposed tendency to ruin the health and corrupt the morals of the common people. According to this policy, the abatement of taxes upon the distillery ought not to be so great as to reduce the price of those liquors.'

But nothing, especially government, could stem the tide of illicit distilling. Even the church had little influence.

'I allow nae swearing in ma still,' one illicit distiller insisted when taken to task by his local parish minister. 'Everything's done decently and in order. I canna see any harm in it.'

Optimistically, the government stepped up its efforts. New roads were laid to help gaugers move quickly on lawbreakers and collect revenue. In 1820, a typical year, more than 14,000 raids were carried out, but the authorities still struggled to collect taxes.

Demand was so heavy that whisky was sold straight from the still, without having time to age. The advantages of maturation had been discovered only by a few aristocrats and Highland gentlemen who kept their whisky in wine and sherry casks. Herbs such as thyme, mint, sugar and spices were added to blunt the hot, raw taste of newly-distilled spirit. Often, it was drunk in cordials, punches or toddies to disguise the rough smoky pungency.

But the outlaw life turned out to have unforeseen advantages. Fleeing deeper into the hills to avoid the exciseman led to the discovery of water sources of great purity, in addition to ample supplies of peat and barley. Meanwhile, bureaucratic regulations governing the size of stills and strength of washes badly affected the quality of whisky at licensed Highland distilleries. They found it difficult to compete with a hand-crafted product lovingly produced in secret by men who slept alongside their stills.

Eventually, licensed distilleries had to choose between breaking rules or losing sales to superior whisky made by smugglers.

By the early 1800s, whisky was fast becoming the most important industry in Scotland. Half the quantity sold was made illegally, often by skilled distillers bankrupted by excise duty. Harsh taxes had put some of the best whisky-producers out of business. Five companies, who supplied 50 per cent of all legally-produced Scotch, ceased trading in 1788, owing the exciseman a combined total of &163;700,000 (in excess of &163;150 million at today's prices).


The revival of Scottish culture was officially endorsed when George IV visited Scotland in 1822 and publicly tasted a glass of whisky, which had also been effectively outlawed. The King entered Edinburgh with great ceremony in an attempt to heal the rift between the two countries and wore a kilt at a grand reception, to the great amusement of both English and Scots.

The King's taste for whisky, flamboyantly taken in public in full Highland regalia, revived a fashion for the tartan, whisky and all things Scottish. Indirectly, the raising of a royal dram helped to heal the rift between the two nations.

That same year, one of Scotland's largest landowners, the Duke of Gordon, persuaded the House of Lords of the sense in encouraging legal distilling. Whisky, he argued, was the traditional drink of the Highlands and ultimately no one could be prevented from distilling it. Far better to bring the smugglers in from the cold.

Aware that trying to collect whisky duty was draining its resources, the government concluded that the only way to curb illicit distilling was to encourage whisky-making under controlled conditions. As a result of the Duke of Gordon's words of wisdom, it finally capitulated and introduced a reasonable licence fee for distilling in 1823.

The Act enabled distillers to operate without fear of prosecution by paying a licence fee of &163;10 on all stills with a capacity of 40 gallons or over. Skilled craftsmen welcomed the opportunity to work without risking imprisonment. Many who came in from the cold selected the same sites and water sources to keep up the high standards of their smuggling days.

Two of the first distilleries to apply for licences were Balblair and Miltonduff, previously flourishing centres of whisky smuggling, now both important malts in Ballantine's 17 Years Old.

Miltonduff, surrounded by rich fields of barley, was a great smuggling centre where production ran uninterrupted. The waters of the Black Burn, which still supply the distillery, fed scores of small illicit stills in the Glen of Pluscarden.

The Black Burn was regarded as a sacred water source, used by Benedictine monks from nearby Pluscarden Priory for brewing and distilling. Whisky writer Alfred Barnard, on his famous distillery tour in 1886, told of how the monks blessed the water one New Year's Day in the 15th century before using it for making whisky and ale.

'Attended by his priors, palmers and priests, an aged abbot proceeded to the banks of the stream where, kneeling on a stone with his hands outstretched to heaven, he invoked a blessing on its waters, and ever after the life-giving beverage distilled therefrom was christened "aqua vitae".'

The venerated stone on which the abbot knelt was built into the wall of Miltonduff's malt mill, Barnard observed.

Another of the earliest distilleries to go legitimate was Glendronach, a smooth, buttery malt which has been in production since 1826. Operating within the law was regarded as a realistic measure and many hillside distillers took up the opportunity. Whisky-making made its first step from a cottage craft to a major international industry.

Some smugglers, however, chose not to move with changing times, but retired quietly when their outlaw days were over. One of the most celebrated illicit distillers was James Smith, known locally as 'Goshen', from Huntly, near Glendronach.

'Goshen was without peer as an illicit distiller,' Steve Sillett believes, 'not only with regard to the quality of his product, but in terms of sheer quantities distilled. Countless visitors paid glowing tribute to his unfailing generosity and there is no doubt that he begrudged no one a dram, provided they were prepared to maintain a discreet silence.'

When Goshen was finally arrested and convicted after a raid by excisemen, he was fined only the modest sum of &163;10. The real punishment was having his beloved still confiscated and broken up. It was the last time he made whisky and, with his equipment gone, he quietly retired to his job as a local village pharmacist.

With peace returned to the industry, whisky entered an era of expansion and innovation in which entrepreneurs like George Ballantine made an important contribution.
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original copyright (c) Allied Distillers Limited, 1996