Illicit Scotland: Smuggling & Distilling

"The Highland Whisky Still", an engraving by Robert Graves after a painting by Sir Edwin Landseer

When it comes to classic Highland scenes, you can usually rely on Sir Edwin Landseer to capture it in all its romantic glory. Above is my rather battered engraving of Landseer's painting The Highland Whisky Still which can be found in Apsley House, London. It was painted in 1829, which makes it quite an early work from the artist born in 1802. Landseer had first visited Scotland in 1824, in the company of the painter Charles Leslie, and the trip was said to have made a deep impression on the young man.

Two years earlier (1822), George IV had made his notable visit to Scotland, an event that in many ways initiated the whole concept of the Romantic Highlander that painters like Landseer then bought into and developed. A huge effort was made to present the King with a truly Scottish event, and this included the culinary experience, as Elizabeth Grant explains:

   "Lord Conyngham, the Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whisky; the King drank nothing else. It was not to be had out of the Highlands. My father sent word to me - I was the cellarer - to empty my pot bin, where was whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband gout in it. Much as I grudged this treasure, it made our fortunes afterwards, showing on what trifles great events depend. The whisky, and fifty brace of ptarmigan all shot by one man, went up to Holyrood House, and were graciously received and made much of, and a reminder of this attention at a proper moment by the gentlemanly Chamberlain ensured to my father the Indian Judgeship." (Memoirs of a Highland Lady, Murray 1898).

It was no secret that the whisky distilled illegally was much to be preferred to that produced legally. Catherine Sinclair, in Scotland and the Scotch stated simply that "the most popular whisky is made clandestinely, without a government license, and goes by the name of 'moonlight', while that which pays duty is called 'daylight', and is considered so contemtibly inferior, that even His Majesty George IV, during his residence in Edinburgh, drank the 'mountain dew', in preference to the 'Parliamentary whisky.' "

Illicit stills could be found all over the Highlands - it was one of the few ways that the impoverished Highlander could make some money. Sinclair recorded that one had been discovered "with the boiler buried beneath a stone-gate post, which had been hollowed out for the chimney; and another was detected within the precincts of a Roman Catholic Chapel, where the priest conived at the trick, and sold whisky...under the name of 'holy water.'"

"The Highland Whisky Still", a sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer.

"The Whisky Still." A sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer.

It wasn't just whisky, though: James Hall, on his tour in 1803, reported that "the greater part of the northern coasts of Scotland are swarming with them [smugglers], and foreign spirits of all kinds, of an excellent quality, are everywhere to be found." He himself enjoyed a fine wine when given hospitality at the house of an excise officer near Cape Wrath. It had come from a shipwreck.

Efforts were made to halt the practice. Kirkwood's splendid Travelling Map of Scotland (1804) shows a line dividing the Highlands from the Lowlands, and another nearby named "Boundary of the Highland Distillery." An initiative on the part of the government in 1786 had created a two-tier tax system: those distilling legally to the north and/or west of this line paid a lower tax than those to the south and/or east - the Lowland areas. The move was designed to reduce the attraction of illicit distilling, but all it really achieved was resentment on the part of those areas that had to pay the higher tax.

Moves were made by the landowners, too. The Statistical Account of Gairloch in 1845, the work of the Rev James Russell mentions that "to the honour of one of the heritors,...he has erected a licensed distillery, for the sole purpose of giving a death-blow to the smuggling on the estate."

Kirwood's Travelling Map of Scotland, 1804. As well as the Highland/Lowland line, and the Highland Distillery line, the paths of various travellers are marked.

Kirwood's Travelling Map of Scotland, 1804. As well as the Highland/Lowland line, and the Highland Distillery line, the paths of various travellers are marked.

Excise Officers scoured the land for any sign of these hidden distilleries. Sinclair reported that sometimes cows gave the game away, attracted to the site by the pleasant smell! On Arran, the geologist Necker de Saussure writes that "the inhabitants, little accustomed to strangers, took us for customs-house officers; thus we saw men flying before us, and shutting up, at our approach, all their huts in which they had established private distilleries of whisky, which is prohibited by law."

"Smuggling in the Highlands - the Capture of an Illicit Whisky Still." From The Graphic magazine, 1883.

There is no better description of the whole thing than that found in the Diary of Thomas Guthrie (1803 - 1873): 

     "When a boy in Brechin, I was quite familiar with the appearance and on-goings of the Highland smugglers. They rode on Highland ponies, carrying on each side of their small, shaggy, but brave and hardy steeds, a small cask, or 'keg', as it was called, of illicit whisky, manufactured amid the wilds of Aberdeenshire or the glens of the Grampians. They took up a position on some commanding eminence during the day, where they could, as from a watch-tower, descry the distant approach of the enemy, the exciseman or gauger: then, when night fell, every man to horse, descending the mountains only six miles from Brechin, they scoured the plains, rattled into the villages and towns, disposing of their whisky to agents they had everywhere; and now safe, returned at their leisure, or often in a triumphal procession.....I have seen a troop of thirty of them riding in Indian file, and in broad day, through the streets of Brechin, after they had succeeded in disposing of their whisky, and, as they rode leisurely along, beating time with their formidable cudgels on the empty barrels to the great amusement of the public, and mortification of the excisemen...."

Guthrie concludes that "everybody, with a few exceptions, drank what was in reality illicit whisky - far superior to that made under the eye of the Excise - lords and ladies, members of Parliament and ministers of the Gospel, and everybody else."

"Only a drachm!" An early 20th century postcard.

Such illicit behaviour wasn't confined to alcohol. Salt was a crucial  requirement in the herring business, and Dr Garnet, touring in 1800, noted that the iniquitous salt tax led to a lot of smuggling of that substance. By 1819, Robert Southey indicated that the government was allowing it duty-free for the Highland fisheries. "The people are not content with obtaining it for this purpose, and for their own domestic use.; they carry on an extensive contraband trade in it with the Lowlands, and this will probably render it necessary to deprive them of an indulgence which, being reasonable in itself, is thus grossly abused."

But it is whisky that dominates the trade in smuggling in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who better to illustrate it than Landseer. His painting is full of what was to become his trademark subjects: animals of all sorts, especially dogs, children with appealing gazes, and Highlanders, maybe rough, but always proud. He delights in this truly romantic concept.

"The Highland Whisky Still" after a painting by Sir Edwin Landseer, 1829.

Two early views of the Talisker distillery on Skye at Carbost, one postcard sent in 1905. Thoroughly licit whisky!