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The Highland Whisky Smugglers


Scots had long had a reputation for being inveterate smugglers even before the 18th century began. But in 1707, parliaments of Scotland and England were united and thereafter the English system of customs duties and excise was introduced into Scotland. Not only was this regarded as an imposition by most Scots, it also saw a period of inefficient application of the English system. The result was that, especially with the lucrative English market to the south, smuggling boomed, with many from the highest to the lowest in the land either actively participating or happy to take the benefits of it. It was widely regarded as no crime and the resultant political corruption supported it. Since the major goods smuggled were imported tobacco, wine, or spirits like brandy, basically this was a nation in the grip of drug smuggling, a condition that even today proves difficult to remedy in a modern nation.


An Illicit Highland Whisky Still


An Illicit Highland Whisky Still

The Scots seem to be the only nation in the world who have a major, internationally consumed drink named after them, namely Scotch whisky. The word itself comes from the Gaelic phrase “uisge beathat”, meaning “water of life.”. And yet Scotch whisky as we know it did not evolve until the mid 19th century, indeed, the British courts did not decide, exactly what Scotch whisky was until the London Borough of Islington case in 1906! The case centred on whether Scotch whisky had to be only malt whisky or whether it could be mixed with grain spirit, now generally spirit distilled from maize, a crop not normally associated with Scottish agriculture. In fairness, they also decided that Scotch could only be Scotch after a minimum three years of maturation.

A Highland Whisky Smuggler  

A Highland Whisky Smuggler


It was the introduction of a tax on malt, an essential ingredient in the making of whisky that helped spur on the illicit distilling of whisky – that is the distilling of whisky without a licence, which cost a lot to purchase. As much as anything, the driving force behind the trade, as in some countries today that grow marijuana or other drugs was poverty. Much of the Highlands, where hundreds of illicit stills operated, had and have low agricultural productivity. Even the landless who could equip themselves with distilling equipment could enter into the trade, sending their goods south in barrels, hung on long strings of ponies, over the hill tracks and roads.

Corgarff was a major centre of distilling as were the glens to the north of it such as Glenlivet, now the source of a famous malt whisky from its legal distillery.

A watcher on the military road and bridges would have seen many a long string of pack animals passing secretly by at night carrying locally illegally distilled whisky. The government officials charged with the responsibility to suppress the illegal trade and collect the revenues due on the whisky, the “excise men”, were not idle. Fierce fights developed between smugglers and the excise men they encountered and the bridges and military road would have been the scene of some of these. The road system, built to suppress the local population, was now actively if illegally, used by them to support their needs. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the system of military roads built by Wade and Caulfeild was falling into disrepair and disuse. It was the communications built by thegreat Scots civil engineer Telford, who constructed some 705 miles of new road and 1,000 bridges that then aided the distribution of the smuggled goods.

But the activity did not meet with everyone’s approval. As the minister of Strathdon put it in 1801, “The inhabitants of Corgarff, the glens and not a few in the lower part of the parish were professed smugglers, The revenue officers were set at defiance. To be engaged in illicit distillation, and to defraud the excise, was neither looked on as a crime, nor considered as a disgrace. As may be supposed, such a system of things proved most pernicious, productive of the grossest demoralization, irreligion, and sin, destructive of every habit of regular industry.”

Undoubtedly, the profitability of illicit distilling helped maintain the populations of remote parts of the Highlands such as Corgarff and Strathdon where our military road is situated. The Statistical Account of Scotland of 1843 declared,” While  this infamous  and  demoralizing  practice  prevailed,  population


A Modern Whisky Distillery today.


A Modern Whisky Distillery today.

increased through the facilities by which families were maintained in the hills and valleys by its profits.”

By mid 19th century however, the practice was dying out. What stopped it? Undoubtedly, the activities of the excise men had its effect. In 1827 for example, Corgarff castle was restored at a cost of £1,200, a huge sum in those days, and a body of government troops, light dragoons, (mounted infantrymen) were stationed there to suppress the smuggling. They became known as the “terror of the smugglers” and presumably earned their reputation.

However other measures were probably more effective. The Duke of Gordon of the day pointed out that whisky was the natural beverage of the highlander and distilling was in their blood. A more effective way to control the practice was to make it cheaper to do it legally by lowering the cost of a licence to distil whisky legally. The degree to which this illegal drug was widely supplied made effective control impossible. Even George IV reportedly limited his consumption to Glenlivet whisky after being offered it by a local Laird! Legislation legalising the distillation of whisky was introduced in 1823. Also, pressure was brought to bear on the landowners who could evict tenants who distilled illegally and this perhaps had more impact than anything.

Today, no whisky smugglers pass this way (we think!). Whisky has evolved from a rather ill-defined and often not very fine drink that the smugglers carried into the high quality “Scotch” that the world enjoys and which is one of Scotland’s main exports. But there are fewer, far fewer people in the glens.


By John A Duncan of Sketraw FSA Scot. adapted from an article on "An 18th century military road in the Scottish Highlands."

The Whisky Roads of Scotland D Cooper and F Goodwin, Pub Jill Norman and Hobhouse Ltd, 1982
The Smugglers, Duncan Fraser, Pub Montrose Standard Press, 1971
Corgarff Castle booklet written by Iain MacIvor and Chris Tabraham, edited by Chris Tabraham, drawings by David Simon - 1993


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