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Smuggling in the Highlands
Highland Whisky


BY this time you are wondering what has become of the smugglers and Highland whisky. Although I did not expect to find that Adam, who, of course, spoke Gaelic and was no doubt a thorough Highlander, had engaged in smuggling outside the walls of Eden, or that the plucky Maclean, who sailed a boat of his own at the Flood, had an anchor of good old Highland whisky on board, yet, when I innocently and rashly undertook to write this paper, I must admit that I was under the impression that there was some notice of Highland whisky long before the 12th century. I had in view Ossian, sometime in the third or fourth century, spreading the feast and sending round the "shell of joy" brimming with real Highland uisge-beatha, "yellowed with peat reek and mellowed with age." After some investigation, I am forced to the conclusion that the Fingalians regaled themselves with ale or mead, not with whisky. There is nothing to show that they had whisky. The "shell of joy" went round in stormy Lochlin as well as in streamy Morven, and we are told that ale was the favourite drink of the Scandinavians before and after death. "In the halls of our father, Balder, we shall be drinking ale out of the hollow skulls of our enemies," sang fierce Lodbrog. The scallop-shell may seem small for mighty draughts of ale, but our ancestors knew how to brew their ale strong, and, as to the size of the shell, we learn from Juvenal that in his time shells were used by the Romans for drinking wine. Egyptian ale was nearly equal to wine in strength and flavour, and the Spaniards manufactured ale of such strength and quality that it would keep for a considerable time. However anxious to believe the contrary, I am of opinion that Ossian's shell was never filled with real uisge-beatha. But surely, I thought, Lady Macbeth must have given an extra glass or two of strong whisky to Duncan's grooms at Inverness, when they slept so soundly on the night of that terrible murder. I find that she only " drugged their possets," which were composed of hot milk poured on ale or sack, and mixed with honey, eggs, and other ingredients. At dinner the day after the murder Macbeth calls for wine,— "give me some wine, fill full;" so that wine, not whisky, was drunk at dinner in Inverness 800 years ago. There is no mention of whisky in Macbeth, or for centuries after, but we may safely conclude that a knowledge of the process of distillation must have been obtained very early from Ireland, where whisky was distilled and drunk in the twelfth century.

I am surprised to find so little reference to whisky and smuggling in our modern Gaelic poetry and literature. There is no reference in earlier writings. In fact, both are more indebted to Burns for their popularity than to any of our Highland writers. Dugald Buchanan (1716-1768) has a reference to drinking in his celebrated "Claigeann." Rob Donn (1724-1812) has "Oran a Bhotuil," and "Oran a Bhrann-daidh." Allan Dall (1750-1829) has "Oran do'n Mhisg," Uilleam Ross (1762-1790) has "Moladh an Uisge-Bheatha," and Mac-na-Bracha; and Fear Strath-mhathaisidh has "Comunn an Uisge-Bheatha." But their songs are not very brilliant, and cannot be compared with Burns' poems on the same subject. Highland whisky and smuggling do not appear to hold a befitting place in Highland song and literature.

At a very remote period Highlanders made incisions in birch trees in spring, and collected the juice which fermented and became a gentle stimulant. Most of us, when boys, have had our favourite birch tree, and enjoyed the fion. The Highlanders also prepared a liquor from the mountain heath. Lightfoot, in his Flora Scotica (1777), says— "Formerly the young tops of the heather are said to have been used alone to brew a kind of ale, and even now I was informed that the inhabitants of Islay and Jura still continue to brew a very potable liquor by mixing two-thirds of the tops of heather to one-third of malt." It is a matter of history that Britain was once celebrated for honey, and it is quite probable that, when in full bloom and laden with honey, a fermentable infusion could be obtained from heather tops. Alcohol cannot, however, be obtained except from a saccharine basis, and I fear that any beverage which could have been extracted from heather itself must have been of a very teetotal character. Mixed with malt something might be got out of it. Now, heather is only used by smugglers in the bottom of their mash-tun for draining purposes. I have often wondered whether Nature intended that our extensive heaths should be next to useless.

The earliest mention of the drinking and manufacture of whisky in the Highlands is found in the famous "Statutes of Icolmkill," which were agreed to by the Island Chiefs in 1609. The Statutes, as summarised in Gregory's Western Highlands and Islands, are quoted in Mackenzie's History of the Macdonalds. "The fifth Statute proceeded upon the narrative that one of the chief causes of the great poverty of the Isles, and of the cruelty and inhuman barbarity practised in their feuds, was their inordinate love of strong wines and aquavit, which they purchased partly from dealers among themselves, partly from merchants belonging to the mainland. Power was, therefore, given to any person whatever to seize, without payment, any wine or aquavit imported for sale by a native merchant; and if any Islander should buy any of the prohibited articles from a mainland trader, he was to incur the penalty of forty pounds for the first offence, one hundred for the second, and for the third the loss of his whole possessions and moveable goods. It was, however, declared to be lawful for an individual to brew as much aquavitae as his own family might require; and the barons and wealthy gentlemen were permitted to purchase in the Lowlands the wine and other liquors required for their private consumption."

For some time after this claret appears to have been the favourite drink. The author of Scotland Social and Domestic states that notwithstanding the prohibition of 1609 against the importation and consumption of wine, the consumption of claret continued, and the Privy Council, in 1616, passed an "Act agans the drinking of Wynes in the Yllis," as follows:—

"Forsamekle as the grite and extraordinar excesse in drinking of wyne commonlie vsit amangis the commonis and tenentis of the yllis is not onlie ane occasioun of the beastlie and barbarous cruelties and inhumaniteis that fallis oute amongis thame to the offens and desplesour of God and contempt of law and justice, bot with that it drawis nvmberis of thame to miserable necessite and powertie sua that they ar constraynit quhen they want of thair nichtbouris. For remeid quhairof the Lords of Secret Counsell statvtis and ordains, that nane of the tenentis and commonis of the Yllis sall at ony tyme heir-efter buy or drink ony wynes in the Yllis or continent nixt adiacent, vnder the pane of twenty poundis to be incurrit be every contravenare toties quoties. The ane half of the said pane to the King's Maiestie and the vther half to their maisteris and landislordis and chiftanes. Commanding hoirby the maisteris landislordis and chiftanes to the sadis tenentis and commonis euery ane of thame within their awine boundis to sie thir present act preceislie and inviolablie kept, and the contravenaries to be accordinglie pvnist and to uplift the panis of the contravenaries to mak rekning and payment of the ane halff of the said panes in Maiesteis exchequir yierlie and to apply the vther halff of the saidis panes to thair awne vse."

In 1622 a more stringent measure was passed, termed an "Act that nane send wynes to the Ilis," as follows:—

"Forsamekle as it is vnderstand to the Lordis of secreit counsell that one of the chieff caussis whilk procuris the continewance of the inhabitants of the Ilis in their barbarous and inciuile form of leeving is the grite quantitie of wynes yeirlie caryed to the Ilis with the vnsatiable desire quhair of the saidis inhabitants are so far possesst, that quhen their arryvis ony ship or other veshell thair with wynes they spend bothe dayis and nightis in thair excesse of drinking, and seldome do they leave thair drinking so lang as thair is ony of the wyne rest and sua that being overcome with drink thair fallis out money inconvenientis amangis thame to the brek of his Maiesteis peace. And quihairas the cheftanes and principallis of the clannis in the yllis ar actit to take suche ordour with thair tenentis as nane of thame be sufferit to drink wynes, yitt so long as thair is ony wynes caryed to the Ilis thay will hardlie be withdrane from thair evil custome of drinking, bot will follow the same and continew thairin whensoeuir they may find the occassoun. For remeid quhairof in tyme comeing the Lordis of Secreit Counsell ordains lettres to be direct to command charge and inhibite all and sindrie marsheantis, skipparis and awnaris of shippis and veshells, be oppin proclamation at all places neidful, that nane of them presoume nor tak upon hand to carye and transport ony wynes to the Ilis, nor to sell the same to the inhabitantis of the Ilis. except so mekle as is allowed to the principal1 chiftanes and gentlemen of the Ilis, vnder the pane of confiscatioun of the whole wynes so to be caryed and sauld in the Ilis aganis the tenour of this proclamatioun, or els of the availl and pryceis of the same to bis Maiesties vse."

"These repressive measures," the author continues, "deprived the Hebrideans of the wines of Bordeaux, but did not render them more temperate. They had recourse to more potent beverages. Their ancestors extracted a spirit from the mountain heath; they now distilled usque-beatha or whisky. Whisky became a greater favourite than claret, and was drunk copiously, not only in the Hebrides, but throughout the Highlands. It did not become common in the Lowlands until the latter part of the last century. The Lowland baron or yeoman who relished a liquor more powerful than claret formerly used rum or brandy."

Whisky was little used among the better classes for upwards of a hundred years after this. "Till 1780," says the same author, "claret was imported free of duty, and was much used among the middle and upper classes, the price being about five-pence the bottle. Noblemen stored hogsheads of claret in their halls, making them patent to all visitors ; guests received a cup of wine when they entered, and another on their departure. The potations of those who frequented dinner-parties were enormous; persons who could not drink remained at home. A landlord was considered inhospitable who permitted any of his guests to retire without their requiring the assistance of his servants. Those who tarried for the night, found in their bedrooms a copious supply of ale, wine, and brandy to allay the thirst superinduced by their previous potations. Those who insisted on returning home were rendered still more incapable of prosecuting their journeys by being compelled, according to the inexorable usage, to swallow a deoch-an-doruis, or stirrup-cup, from a vessel which was commonly of very formidable dimensions."

That claret was the favourite drink among the better classes to the end of last century is remarkably corroborated by Burns's song of "The Whistle"—

"The dinner being over the claret they ply,
And every new cork is a new spring of joy.'

The competitors having drunk six bottles of claret each, Glenriddle, "a high-ruling elder, left the foul business to folks less divine." Maxwelton and Craigdarroch continued the contest and drank one or two bottles more, Craigdarroch winning the whistle. Burns is said to have drunk a bottle of rum and one of brandy during the contest. There is a Highland story which would make a good companion to the foregoing Lowland picture. The time is much later, perhaps sixty years ago, and the beverage whisky. The laird of Milnain, near Alness, visited his neighbour the laird of Nonikiln. Time wore on, and the visit was prolonged until late at night. At last the sugar got done, and toddy is not very palatable without sugar. In those days no shop was nearer than Tain or Dingwall, and it was too late to send anywhere for a supply. Convivialities were threatened with an abrupt termination when a happy thought found its way into Nonikiln's befogged brain. He had beehives in the garden, and honey was an excellent substitute for sugar. A skep was fetched in, the bees were robbed, and the toddy bowl was replenished. The operation was repeated until the bees, revived by the warmth of the room, showed signs of activity, and stung their spoilers into sobriety. Dr. Aird, Creich, I understand, relates this story with great gusto.

There can be no doubt that till the latter part of last century, wine, ale, rum, and brandy were more used than whisky. Ian Lom, who died about 1710, in his song, "Moch's mi 'g eirigh 'sa Mhaduinn," mentions "gucagan fion" (bubbles of wine), but makes no reference to whisky. Lord Lovat having occasion to entertain 24 guests at Beaufort in 1739, writes— "I have ordered John Forbes to send in horses for all Lachlan Macintosh's wine, and for six dozen of the Spanish wine."—(Transactions, Vol. XII). Colonel Stewart of Garth, writing about 1820, says—"Till within the last 30 years, whisky was less used in the Highlands than rum and brandy, which were smuggled from the West Coast. It was not till the beginning, or rather towards the middle of last century that spirits of any kind were so much drank as ale, which was then the universal beverage. Every account and tradition go to prove that ale was the principal drink among the country people, and French wines and brandy among the gentry. Mr. Stewart of Crossmount, who lived till his 104th year, informed me that in his youth strong frothing ale from the cask was the common beverage. It was drunk from a circular shallow cup with two handles. Those of the gentry were of silver, and those used by the common people were of variegated woods. Small cups were used for spirits. Whisky house is a term unknown in Gaelic. A public-house is called Tigh-Leanna, i.e., ale-house. In addition to the authority of Mr. Stewart, I have that of men of perfect veracity and great intelligence regarding everything connected with their native country. In the early part of their recollections, and, in the time of their fathers, the whisky drank in the Highlands of Perthshire was brought principally from the Lowlands. A ballad composed on an ancestor of mine in the reign of Charles I., describes the laird's jovial and hospitable manner, and, along with other feats, his drinking a brewing of ale at one sitting. In this song whisky is never mentioned, nor is it in any case, except in the modern ballads and songs." Here is a verse of it:—

Fear Druim-a'-charaidh,
Gur toigh leis an leann;
'S dh'oladh e 'n togail
M' an togadh e 'cheann.

All the evidence that can be gathered goes to show that the manufacture and use of whisky must have been very limited until the latter part of last century. This is clearly shown by the small quantities charged with Excise duty. On Christmas day, 1660, Excise duty was first laid on whisky in this country, the duty in Scotland being 2d., 3d., and 4d. per gallon, according to the materials from which the spirits were made. No record exists of the amount of duty paid until 1707, when it amounted only to 1810 15s. 11d., representing about 100,000 gallons, the population being 990,000. No record of the quantity charged exists until 1724, when duty was 3d. and 6d. In that year 145,602 gallons were charged, the duty amounting to 3504 12s 10d., the population being little over one million. Last year year the population was 3,866,521, the gallons of whisky charged 6,629,306, and the duty 3,314,680 10s. Since 1724, 160 years ago, the population of Scotland has increased nearly four times, the quantity of spirits charged for home consumption forty-five times, and the amount of duty over nine hundred and forty-seven times. In proportion to population, the people of Scotland are now drinking eleven times as much whisky as they did 160 years ago, so that our forefathers must have been much more temperate than we are, must have drunk more foreign wines and spirits or ale, or must have very extensively evaded the Excise duty. Although much of the whisky manufactured at this time must have been distilled on a small scale within the homes in which it was consumed, there is early mention of public distilleries. In 1690 reference is made to the "Ancient Brewary of Aquavity," on the land of Ferin-tosh, and there is no reason to doubt that Ferintosh was the seat of a distillery before the levying of the Excise duty in 1660. The yearly Excise of the lands of Ferintosh was farmed to Forbes of Culloden in 1690, for 400 merks, about 22, and the history of the privilege is interesting. As in later times Forbes of Culloden sided with the Revolution party, and was of considerable service in the struggle which led to the deposition of James II. He was consequently unpopular with the "Highland Rebels," as the Jacobites were termed by the loyalists, and, during his absence in Holland, his estate in Ferintosh, with its "Ancient Brewary of Aquavity," was laid waste in October, 1689, by a body of 700 or 800 men, sent by the Earl of Buchan and General Cannon, whereby he and his tenants suffered much loss.

In compensation for the losses thus sustained, an Act of Parliament, farming to him and his successors the yearly Excise of the lands of Ferin-tosh, was passed as follows:—

"At Edinburgh, 22nd July, 1690. "Our Sovereign Lord and Ladye, the King and Queen's Majesties and the three Estates of Parliament:—Considering that the lands of Ferintosh were an ancient Brewary of Aquavity; and were still in use to pay a considerable Excise to the Theasury, while of late that they were laid waste of the King's enemies ; and it being just to give such as have suffered all possible encouragement, and also necessary to use all lawful endeavours for upholding of the King's Revenue : Therefore their Majesties and the Estates of Parliament for encouragement to the possessors of the said Lands to set up again and prosecute their former Trade of Brewing and pay a duty of Excyse as formerly; Do hereby Ferm for the time to come the Yearly Excyse of the said lands of Ferintosh to the present Heritor Duncan Forbes of Culloden, and his successors Heritors of same for the sum of 400 merks Scots, which sum is declared to be the yearly proportion of that annuity of 40,000 sterling payable for the Excyse to his Majestie's Exchequer. The brewing to commence at the term of Lambas next to come, and payment to be made to the ordinary Collector of Excyse for the Shyre of Inverness."

Another Act was passed in 1695 continuing and confirming the privilege, after the Excise was "raised off of the Liquor and not of the Boll?" The arable lands of Ferintosh extended to about 1800 acres, and calculating 5 bolls of barley to the acre, and a profit of 2 per boll, the gain must have been considerable. Mr. Arnott states that more whisky was distilled in Ferintosh than in all the rest of Scotland, and estimates the annual profit at about 18,000. Such a distinguished mark of favour, and so valuable a privilege were sure to raise envy against a man who was already unpopular, and we find the Master of Tarbat complaining to Parliament, inter alia:

"That Culloden's tack of Excyse wrongs the Queen's Revenue in 3600 merks per annum.

"That his tack of Excyse wrongs his neighbours, in so far as he can undersell them, and monopolise the brewing trade.

"That his loss was not above a year's rent."

In answer Culloden states:—

"That he understands the meaning of the Act to be for what grows on his own lands.

"That whatever grain shall be carried from any place into his land (except it be to eat or sow), shall be lyable to Excyse.

"That the amount of the loss sustained by himself and tenants was 54,000 Scotch, as ascertained by regular proof."

After the establishment of a Board of Excise in 1707, frequent representations were made to the Treasury to buy this right, in consideration of the great dissatisfaction it created among the distillers, who did not complain without cause, as in 1782 the duty paid was 22, while according to the current rate of duty 20,000 should have been paid, (Owens.) 44

These representations prevailed, and the Act 26, G. III., cap. 73, sec. 75, provided for the purchase as follows:

"Whereas Arthur Forbes of Culloden, Esq., in the county of Inverness, is possessed of an exemption from the duties of Excise, within the lands of Ferintosh under a certain lease allowed by several Acts of Parliament of Scotland, which exemption has been found detrimental to the Revenue and prejudicial to the distillery in other parts of Scotland enacted That the Treasury shall agree with the said Arthur Forbes upon a compensation to be made to him in lieu of the exemption and if they shall not agree, the barons of Exchequer may settle the compensation by a jury, and after payment thereof, the said exemption shall cease."

In 1784 the Government paid 21,000 to Culloden, and the exemption ceased after having been enjoyed by the family for nearly a century. Burns thus refers to the transaction in "Scotch Drink," which was written in the following year—

Thou Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland laments frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips and barking hoast
May kill us a';
For loyal Forbes' chartered boast
Is ta'en awa!

The minister of Dingwall, in his account of the parish, writing a few years after the abolition of the exemption, tells that during the continuance of the privilege, quarrels and breaches of the peace were abundant among the inhabitants, yielding a good harvest of business to the procurators of Dingwall. When the exemption ceased, the people became more peaceable, and the prosperity of attorneyism in Dingwall received a marked abatement. (Dom. An. of Scot., Vol. III.)

Colonel Warrand, who kindly permitted me to peruse the Culloden Acts, stated that the sites of four distilleries can be still traced in Ferintosh. An offer of 3000, recently made for permission to erect a distillery in the locality, was refused by Culloden, who feared that such a manufactory might be detrimental to the best interests of the people. Although there is no distillery, nor, so far as I am aware, even a smuggler in the locality, an enterprising London spirit-dealer still supplies real "Ferintosh," at least he has a notice in his window to that effect. This alone is sufficient to show how highly prized Ferintosh whisky must have been, and we have further proof in Uilleam Ross' " Mo-ladh an Uisge-Bheatha" (1762-90):

Stuth glan na Toiseachd gun truailleadh,
Gur ioc-shlaint choir am beil buaidh e;
'S tu thogadh m' inntinn gu suairceas,
 'S cha b'e druaip na Frainge.

And again in his "Mac-na-Bracha"—

Stuth glan na Toiseachd gun truailleadh,
An ioc-shlaint is uaisle t'ann;
'S fearr do leigheas na gach lighich,
Bha no bhitheas a measg Ghall.
'S toigh leinn drama, lion a' ghlaine,
Cuir an t-searrag sin a nall,
Mac-na-brach' an gille gasda,
Chu bu rapairean a chlann.


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