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Glenora Single Malt Whisky

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Smuggling in the Highlands
Causes which led to and encouraged Smuggling


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. 11d. 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
On Aqua-vit,
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,
Colleaguing join,
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. 7d., 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 1 4s. 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 2 minutes, 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. 0d. per gallon of the still's content and 6s. 7d., 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. 4d. 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. 4d.
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.


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