Smuggling in the Highlands Causes which led to and
THE duty had been 3d. and 6d. per gallon from 1709 to
1742. It had been raised gradually until in 1784, when the Ferintosh
exemption ceased, it was 3s. 11¼d. and 15 per
cent., the gallons charged in that year being 239,350, and the duty paid
£65,497 15s. 4d., the population being 1,441,808. Owing to the difficulty
and cost of collection in the thinly populated portions of Scotland, the
duties, while low, had been farmed out for periods not exceeding three
years. Mr. Campbell of Islay farmed the Excise Revenue of that Island for a
small sum as late as 1795, and even so late as 1804 the Commissioners were
wont to receive lists of the names of persons recommended by the heritors of
the Highland parishes, from which they elected two persons for each parish,
to supply the parochial consumption from spirits distilled from corn grown
in the vicinity. But, prior to these dates, the general farming of the
duties had ceased, the Commissioners took the management in their own hands,
and, as the duty was gradually increased, it was levied and collected by
their own officers, much to the inconvenience and discontent of the people.
A graphic picture of the state of matters caused by the high duties and
stringent regulations is given by Burns, in. his "Earnest Cry and Prayer,"
written in 1785, a year after "Forbes' chartered boast was ta'en awa"—
Tell them wha hae the chief direction,
Scotland an' me's in great affliction,
E'er sin' they laid that curst restriction
An' rouse them up to strong conviction,
An' move their pity.
Paint Scotland greeting owre her thissle;
Her mutchkin stoup as toom's a whistle
An'---------Excisemen in a bussle,
Seizin' a stell,
Triumphant crushin't like a mussle
Or lampit shell.
Then on the tither hand present her,
A blackguard Smuggler * right behint her
An' cheek-for-chow, a chuffie vinter,
Picking her pouch as bare as winter
Of a' kind coin.
[* "Smuggler" is here used in its proper sense—one who
clandestinely introduces prohibited goods, or who illicitly introduces goods
which have evaded the legal duties. Although popularly used, the term
"Smuggler " is not correctly applicable to an illicit distiller.]
Tell yon guid bluid o' auld Boconnock's,
I'll be his debt two mashlum bannocks,
An' drink his health in auld Nanse Tinnock's
Nine times a week,
If he some scheme like tea and winnocks, Wad kindly seek.
No doubt the poet's strong appeal helped the agitation,
and before the end of the year the duty was reduced to 2s. 7½d.,
at which it remained for two years. Matters, however, were still
unsatisfactory as regards the Revenue. The provisions of the law were not
inadequate, but the enactments were so imperfectly carried out that the duty
was evaded to a considerable extent. With the view of facilitating and
improving collection, Scotland was divided in 1787 into Lowland and Highland
districts, and duty charged according to the capacity of the still instead
of on the gallon. When we are again about to divide Scotland for legislative
purposes into Lowland and Highland districts, it is interesting to trace the
old boundary line which was defined by the Act 37, G. III., cap. 102, sec.
6, as follows:—
A certain line or boundary beginning at the east point of
Loch-Crinan, and proceeding from thence to Loch-Gilpin; from thence along
the great road on the west side of Loch-fine, to Inveraray and to the head
of Lochfine; from thence along the high road to Arrochar, in county of
Dumbarton, and from thence to Tarbet; from Tarbet in a supposed straight
line eastward on the north side of the mountain called Ben-Lomond, to the
village of Callendar of Monteith, in the county of Perth ; from thence
north-eastward to Crieff ; from thence northward along the road by Amblereo,
and Inver to Dunkeld; from thence along the foot and south side of the
Grampian Hills to Fettercairn, in the county of Kincardine; and from thence
northward along the road to Cutties Hillock, Kincardine O'Neil, Clatt,
Huntly, and Keith to Fochabers; and from thence westward by Elgin and Forres,
to the boat on the River Findhorn, and from thence down the said river to
the sea at Findhorn, and any place in or part of the county of Elgin, which
lies southward of the said line from Fochabers to the sea at Findhorn.
Within this district a duty of £14s. per annum
was imposed upon each gallon of the still's content. It was assumed that a
still at work would yield a certain annual produce for each gallon of its
capacity. It was calculated that so much time would be required to work off
a charge, and the officers took no further trouble than to visit the
distilleries occasionally, to observe if any other stills were in operation,
or if larger ones were substituted for those which had been already gauged.
The distillers soon outwitted the Excise authorities by making improvements
in the construction of their stills, so that instead of taking a week to
work off a charge, it could be worked off in twenty-four hours, afterwards
in a few hours, and latterly in eight minutes. These improvements were
carried so far that a still of 80 gallons capacity could be worked off,
emptied, and ready for another operation in three and a half minutes,
sometimes in three minutes. A still of 40 gallons could be drawn off in 2½minutes, until the amount of fuel consumed and consequent wear and tear,
left it a matter of doubt whether the distiller was a gainer— (Muspratt.)
To meet those sharp practices on the part of distillers, the duty was
increased year after year until, in 1814, it amounted to £7 16s. 0¼d.
per gallon of the still's content and 6s. 7½d.,
two-thirds additional on every gallon made. This mode of charging duty made
it so much the interest of the distiller to increase the quantity of spirits
by every means possible, that the quality was entirely disregarded, the
effect being a large increase of illicit distillation consequent upon the
better flavour and quality of the spirits produced by the illicit distiller.
In sheer desperation, the Government, in 1814 (54, G. III., cap. 173, sec.
7), prohibited the use of stills of less capacity than 500 gallons, a
restriction which increased the evil of illicit distillation. Colonel
Stewart of Garth clearly shows how the Act operated.—
"By Act of Parliament, the Highland district was marked
out by a definite line, extending along the southern base of the
Grampians, within which all distillation of spirits was prohibited from
stills of less than 500 gallons. It is evident that this law was a complete
interdict, as a still of this magnitude would consume more than the
disposable grain in the most extensive county within this newly drawn
boundary; nor could fuel be obtained for such an establishment without an
expense which the commodity could not possibly bear. The sale, too, of the
spirits produced was circumscribed within the same line, and thus the market
which alone could have supported the manufacture was entirely cut off.
Although the quantity of grain raised in many districts, in consequence of
recent agricultural improvements, greatly exceeds the consumption, the
inferior quality of this grain, and the great expense of carrying it to the
Lowland distillers, who, by a ready market, and the command of fuel,
can more easily accommodate themselves to this law, renders it impracticable
for the farmers to dispose of their grain in any manner adequate to pay
rents equal to the real value of their farms, subject as they are to the
many drawbacks of uncertain climate, uneven surface, distance from market,
and scarcity of fuel. Thus hardly any alternative remained but that of
having recourse to illicit distillation, or resignation of their farms and
breach of their engagements with their landlords. These are difficulties of
which the Highlanders complain heavily, asserting that nature and the
distillery laws present unsurmountable obstacles to the carrying on of a
legal traffic. The surplus produce of their agricultural labour will
therefore remain on their hands, unless they incur an expense beyond what
the article will bear, in conveying to the Lowland market so bulky a
commodity as the raw material, and by the drawback of prices on their
inferior grain. In this manner, their produce must be disposed of at a great
loss, as it cannot be legally manufactured in the country. Hence they resort
to smuggling as their only resource. If it be indeed true that this illegal
traffic has made such deplorable breaches in the honesty and morals of the
people, the revenue drawn from the large distilleries, to which the
Highlanders have been made the sacrifice, has been procured at too high a
price for the country." Matters became so grave, that in 1814 and 1815
meetings of the county authorities were held in the Highlands, and
representations made to the Government, pointing out the evil effects of the
high duties on spirits, and the injudicious regulations and restrictions
imposed. Among other things, it was pointed out that the Excise restrictions
were highly prejudicial to the agricultural interests of the Highlands. In
face of so many difficulties, the Government gave way, and in 1815 the
distinction between Highlands and Lowlands, and the still duty were
discontinued, but the high duty of 9s. 4½d. per
gallon was imposed. In 1816 stills of not less than 40 gallons were allowed
to be used with the view of encouraging small distillers, and next year the
duty had to be reduced to 6s. 2d., but illicit distillation was carried on
to such extent, that it was considered necessary, as the only effective
means of its suppression, to further reduce the duty to 2s. 4d. in 1823. In
that year there were 14,000 prosecutions in Scotland for illicit
distillation and malting; the military had to be employed for its
suppression, and revenue cutters had to be used on the West Coast. Later on,
riding officers were appointed.
It is difficult to conceive the terrible amount of
lawlessness, of turbulence, of loss and injury connected with such a state
of matters, and cases are known where not only individuals but communities
never recovered temporal prosperity after successful raids by the military,
cutters, and gaugers. But matters had fortunately reached their worst, and
illicit distillation has since gradually decreased until very recently. The
reduction of the spirit duty, the permission to use smaller stills, and the
improvement in the Excise laws and regulations removed the principal causes
which led to illicit distillation. The high duty operated as a bounty to the
illicit distiller, and its reduction reduced his profits. The permission to
use smaller stills encouraged farmers and others with limited capital, who
could not erect large distilleries, to engage in a legitimate trade on a
small scale, which afforded a ready market for barley of local growth, and
provided whisky for local consumption. The relaxation of the Excise
regulations led to an improvement in the quality of the whisky made by the
licensed distiller, and the quality was further improved by the permission
in 1824 to warehouse duty free, which allowed the whisky to mature prior to
being sent into consumption. These and minor changes led to the decrease in
smuggling in the Highlands shown in the following list of detections :—
In 1823 there were 14,000 detections, duty 6s. 2d. to 2s.
In 1834 there were 692 detections, duty 3s. 4d.
In 1844 there were 177 detections, duty 3s. 8d.
In 1854 there were 73 detections, duty 4s. 8d.
In 1864 there were 19 detections, duty 10s.
In 1874 there were 6 detections, duty 10s.
In 1884 there were 22 detections, duty 10s.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.