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Smuggling in the Highlands
Smuggling Stories and Detections


AS might have been expected, there has gathered round the mass of lawlessness represented by the foregoing list of detections a cluster of stories of cunning and daring, and wonderful escapes, which casts a ray of interest over the otherwise dismal picture. From a large number that are floating about, I can only give a few representative stories, but others can easily supply the deficiency from well-stocked repertories.

After a School Board meeting held last summer, in a well-known parish on the West Coast, the conversation turned on smuggling, and one of the lay members asked one of the clerical members, "Did not good, pious men engage in these practices in times gone by?" "You are right, sir, far better men than we have now," replied the Free Kirk minister. This is unfortunately true, as the following story will prove. Alasdair Hutcheson, of Kiltarlity, was worthily regarded as one of the Men of the North. He was not only a pious, godly man, but was meek in spirit and sweet in temper—characteristics not possessed by all men claiming godliness. He had objections to general smuggling, but argued that he was quite justified in converting the barley grown by himself into whisky to help him to pay the rent of his croft. This he did year after year, making the operation a subject of prayer that he might be protected from the gaugers. One time he sold the whisky to the landlord of the Star Inn, down near the wooden bridge, and arranged to deliver the spirits on a certain night. The innkeeper for some reason informed the local officer, who watched at Clachnaharry until Alasdair arrived about midnight with the whisky carefully concealed in a cart load of peats. " This is mine," said the officer, seizing the horse's head. "O Thighearna, bhrath thu mi mu dheireadhl" (O Lord, thou hast betrayed me at last!) ejaculated poor Alasdair, in such an impressive tone that the officer, who was struck with his manner, entered into conversation with him. Alasdair told the simple, honest truth. "Go," said the officer, "deliver the whisky as if nothing had happened, get your money, and quit the house at once." No sooner had Alasdair left the Inn than the officer entered, and seized the whisky before being removed to the cellar. I would recommend this story to the officers of the present day. While they ought not to let the smuggler escape, they should make sure of the purchaser and the whisky. There can be no doubt that "good, pious" men engaged in smuggling, and there is less doubt that equally good, pious men—ministers and priests— were grateful recipients of a large share of the smuggler's produce. I have heard that the Sabbath work in connection with malting and fermenting weighed heavily upon the consciences of these men—a remarkable instance of straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel.

John Dearg was a man of different type, without any pretension to piety, and fairly represents the clever, unscrupulous class of smugglers who frequently succeeded in outwitting the gaugers. John was very successful, being one of the few known to have really acquired wealth by smuggling. He acted as a sort of spirit dealer, buying from other smugglers, as well as distilling himself. Once he had a large quantity of spirits in his house ready for conveyance to Invergordon to be shipped. Word came that the officers were searching in the locality, and John knew his premises would receive marked attention. A tailor who was in the habit of working from house to house happened to be working with John at the time. Full of resource as usual, John said to the tailor, "I will give you a boll of malt if you will allow us to lay you out as a corpse on the table.'' "Agreed,'' said the plucky tailor, who was stretched on the table, his head tied with a napkin, a snow-white linen sheet carefully laid over him, and a plate containing salt laid on his stomach. The women began a coronach, and John, seizing the big Bible, was reading an appropriate Psalm, when a knock was heard at the door. "I will call out," said the stretched tailor, "unless you will give me two bolls," and John Dearg was done, perhaps, for the first time in his life. John went to the door with the Bible and a long face. "Come in, come in," he said to the officers, "this is a house of mourning—my only brother stretched on the board!" The officers apologised for their untimely visit, and hurried away. "When did John Dearg's brother die?" enquired the officer at the next house he called at. "John Dearg's brother? Why, John Dearg had no brother living," was the reply. Suspecting that he had been out-witted, the officer hurried back, to find the tailor at work, and all the whisky removed and carefully concealed.

A good story is told of an Abriachan woman who was carrying a jar of smuggled whisky into Inverness. The officer met her near the town and relieved her of her burden. "Oh, I am nearly fainting," groaned the poor woman, "give me just one mouthful out of the jar." The unsuspecting officer allowed her the desired mouthful, which she cleverly squirted into his eyes, and she escaped with the jar before the officer recovered his sight and presence of mind.

The following story, told me by the late Rev. John Fraser, Kiltarlity, shows the persistence which characterised the smugglers and the leniency with which illicit distillation was regarded by the better classes. While the Rev. Mr. Fraser was stationed at Erchless, shortly before the Disruption, a London artist, named Maclan, came north to take sketches for illustrating a history of the Highlands, then in preparation. He was very anxious to see a smuggling bothy at work, and applied to Mr. Robertson, factor for The Chis-holm. "If Sandy MacGruar is out of jail," said the factor, "we shall have no difficulty in seeing a bothy." Enquiries were made, Sandy was at large, and, as usual, busy smuggling. A day was fixed for visiting the bothy, and MacIan, accompanied by Mr. Robertson, the factor, and Dr. Fraser of Kerrow, both Justices of the Peace, and by the Rev. John Fraser, was admitted into Sandy's sanctuary. The sketch having been finished, the factor said, "Nach eil dad agad Alasdair?" ("Haven't you got something, Sandy?") Sandy having removed some heather, produced a small keg. As the four worthies were quaffing the real mountain dew, the Rev. Mr. Fraser remarked, "This would be a fine haul for the gaugers—the sooner we go the better." It was the same Sandy who, on seeing a body of Excise officers defile round the shoulder of a hill, began counting them—aon, dha, tri, but, on counting seven, his patience became exhausted and he exclaimed, "A Tighearna, cuir sgrios orra!" ("Lord, destroy them!")

A Tain woman is said to have had the malt and utensils ready for a fresh start the very evening her husband returned home from prison. Smugglers were treated with greater consideration than ordinary prisoners. The offence was not considered a heinous one, and they were not regarded as criminals. It is said that smugglers were several times allowed home from Dingwall jail for Sunday, and for some special occasions, and that they honourably returned to durance vile. Imprisonment for illicit distillation was regarded neither as a disgrace, nor as much of a punishment. One West Coast smuggler is said to have, not many years since, suggested to the Governor of the Dingwall jail the starting of smuggling operations in prison, he undertaking to carry on distillation should the utensils and materials be found. Very frequently smugglers raised the wind to pay their fines, and began work at once to refund the money. Some of the old lairds not only winked at the practice, but actually encouraged it. Within the last thirty years, if not twenty years, a tenant on the Brahan estate had his rent account credited with the price of an anchor of smuggled whisky, and there can be no doubt that rents were frequently paid directly and indirectly by the produce of smuggling. One of the old Glenglass smugglers recently told Novar that they could not pay their rents since the black pots had been taken from them.

Various were the ways of "doing" the unpopular gaugers. A cask of spirits was once seized and conveyed by the officers to a neighbouring inn. For safety they took the cask with them into the room they occupied on the second floor. The smugglers came to the inn, and requested the maid who was attending upon the officers to note where the cask was standing. The girl took her bearings so accurately that, by boring through the flooring and bottom of the cask, the spirits were quickly transferred to a suitable vessel placed underneath, and the officers were left guarding the empty cask. An augur hole was shown to me some years ago in the flooring at Bogroy Inn, where the feat was said to have been performed, but I find that the story is also claimed for Mull. Numerous clever stories are claimed for several localities.

An incident of a less agreeable nature ended fatally at Bogroy Inn. The officers made a raid on the upper end of Strathglass, where they discovered a large quantity of malt concealed in a barn, which the smugglers were determined to defend. They crowded behind the door, which was of wicker-work— dorus caoil—to prevent it being forced open by the gaugers. Unable to force the door, one of the officers ran his cutlass through the wicker-work, and stabbed one of the smugglers, John Chisholm, afterwards called Ian Mor nan Garvaig, in the chest. Fearing that serious injury had been done, the officers hastened away, but, in the hurry, one of them fell over a bank, and was so severely trampled upon and kicked by the smugglers, that he had to be conveyed to Bogroy Inn, where he died next day. Ian Mor, who only died a few months ago, showed me the scar of the wound on his chest. He was another man who had gained nothing by smuggling.

One of the most complete detections and seizures made in my time took place in Achanalt deer forest. The Beauly officers discovered a quantity of malt and a bothy in course of construction in Coulin forest, between Kinlochewe and Torridon. On an early return visit they found that the malt had been removed, and that the bothy was still unfinished, the inference being that the smugglers had become aware of their first visit and had taken alarm. Careful searching failed to discover the malt, and the officers suspected that it had been conveyed across the hills to Achanalt, a considerable distance. The Dingwall officers, under pretence of fishing, visited the locality, and, after two days' searching, discovered the bothy in full working order in a very lonely spot high up in Achanalt forest. There being only two officers, one said to the other, "Is it quite safe to enter the bothy? There may be several smugglers, perhaps the worse of drink; they may murder us and bury us in the moss!" " Well," replied the other bravely, "I am quite prepared to go." To prevent escape a rush was made to the bothy, where two men were found busy, the still being on the fire running low-wines. Addressing the more elderly man, one of the officers said, "Bha sibh fad' an so! " "Bha, mo thruaighe, tuilleadh is fada!" was the sad reply. ("You have been long here!" "Yes, alas, too long!") Pretending help was near, the officers requested the smugglers to get ready for proceeding to Dingwall. But this they resolutely refused to do, evidently guessing, as time passed, that more officers were not forthcoming. Seeing they were only man for man, and that friends might at any moment come to visit the smugglers, the officers concluded that discretion was the better part of valour, demanded the men's names and addresses, which subsequently proved to be altogether false, placed all the utensils and materials under seizure, and allowed the smugglers to go. They fled like deer over the bogs and rocks, and were soon out of sight. The bothy contained a copper still, stillhead and worm, and a complete set of the usual utensils. There was no whisky, but the receiver connected with the still contained a quantity of low-wines, and there were several vessels containing worts ready for distillation. The smugglers had actually cut and dried peats for their own sole use, erected a kiln with perforated iron plates to dry their malt, and set up rollers to crush it. They had a sleeping bothy, with bags full of dried grass for beds and some blankets. Small quantities of tea, sugar, bread, butter and "crowdie" (dried curds) were found, and several herring hung up drying in the smoke of the still-fire. At some distance from the bothy was a heap of draff, to which the deer had a well beaten track. Having demolished all that could be destroyed, the officers conveyed the still, head and worm to Auchanalt Station, where they arrived in the gloaming, tired and wet, but quite pleased with their exploits, regretting only that they were not able to bring the smugglers also. The smugglers must have been at work for months in their extensive establishment, and the officers afterwards learned that on their way to the station they had passed close by the spot where a cask of whisky was buried in the moss.

Melvaig and Loch Druing smugglers, on account of their remoteness and the difficulty of visiting the localities without being seen, caused the officers much trouble and anxiety. The Gairloch staff planned a raid on the latter place, and leaving Poolewe soon after midnight, searching suspected places at Inverasdale on the way, arrived very early in the morning at Loch Druing, where the smugglers were in the habit of working in the barns and outhouses which rendered detection very difficult. Clear evidence of distilling having taken place during the night was found at one of the dwelling-houses, but on entering the officers discovered that the still had been removed just before their arrival. In spite of their precautions the officers had been observed passing one of the crofting hamlets on the way, and a friendly messenger was despatched to Loch Druing to warn the smugglers. All the brewing utensils were discovered in a remote outhouse, but the most careful search failed to discover the still. In course of the search, however, fresh marks of excavation in the moss were noticed, and after close examination a cask containing about fifteen gallons of whisky, distilled during the night, was found buried in the moss about 200 yards from the dwelling-house. On account of the size and weight of the cask and the distance to Poolewe, four or five miles, being only a very rough track across the moor, the removal of the cask by the officers was impracticable, and no help could be expected from the smugglers. It was therefore decided to destroy the cask and its contents. After a sample had been secured, the cask was set up on end in the hole where it had been found buried, and as one of the officers was in the act of smashing in the head with a large stone, half a dozen men rushed from the houses with a terrifying yell that would have done credit to Red Indians on the warpath! The officers held their ground, although at some risk of personal violence, and the precious contents of the cask were destroyed, to the great sorrow of the angry smugglers and their friends. Although only two families reside at Loch Druing, nearly a score of men and women, several of them from considerable distances, were assembled to assist at the smuggling, and it is evident that much whisky must have been consumed during the operation. The smugglers being in fairly comfortable circumstances, legal proceedings, were taken against them and a substantial penalty was imposed. After some delay the fine was duly paid, the cheque being actually issued by a neighbouring Justice of the Peace ! Another proof of the tolerance with which even the better classes regard these illegal practices.

The Loch Druing smugglers are said to have frequently sunk their still in the loch, attaching a cord and small float, by which it could be hauled out when required.

The following is a good example of the daring and resource of the Inverasdale smugglers. Pressed and practically driven by the officers from their own local haunts, they ventured to start operations on the opposite side of Loch Ewe. While collecting the cattle in the dusk the Inverewe herd came accidentally on their bothy. Aware of the strong aversion of the laird, a strict temperance man, to smuggling, they became alarmed. Pretending to give a warm welcome to the herd, they plied him with strong whisky until he was dead drunk. They then bundled him into a corner of the bothy, removed all their materials and utensils, and boated them back across the loch to their own side. A party from the farm searched all night for the missing herd, who did not waken from his drunken sleep till next morning, when he returned and related his experiences which fully accounted for his sudden and unexpected disappearance. Long before then the smugglers and their belongings were safe on their own side of Loch Ewe.

Another notorious smuggling district is Alligin, on Loch Torridon. This is the only place where the Gairloch staff was deforced. Late in the evening they discovered a bothy near the base of Ben Alligin, and on attempting to enter one of the smugglers rushed to the door with a spade and threatened to cleave the head of any one who dared to come in. Knowing the desperate character of the men, the unfriendly feeling of the whole township, the probability of help for the smugglers being near, and the risk of serious personal injuries, the officers desisted and duly reported the incident, having recognised the smuggler who threatened them. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but on a surprise visit by the Revenue and Police Officers to his home, he could not be found. When the search was over the aged mother, quite overcome, knelt at the door, and in eloquent Gaelic fervently thanked the Almighty for having protected her dear boy. It was an impressive, pathetic scene, which will not be readily forgotten by those who witnessed it. It was afterwards ascertained that the son had not dared to sleep at his own home for upwards of six months. Several detections and seizures have been made in the Alligin district. A recently used bothy was discovered on the margin of a small hill-loch in which there was a heather-clad little island. Close search was made for the still, which could not be found anywhere, although the worm was found concealed among rough rocks at some distance. Suspecting that the still might be concealed on the island, the shallowest part of the water was selected, and one of the officers waded across some twenty yards to the island, where he found a fine copper still buried in the moss and carefully covered with heather. The articles were carried away in triumph, and it was said afterwards that this clever detection caused much surprise and disappointment among the smugglers.

On one occasion a bothy was found within two hundred yards of Alligin Schoolhouse. Unfortunately the operations had been successfully completed before discovery. What struck the officers was the low moral tone which permitted of smuggling being carried on in such close proximity to the school, where the children must have been fully aware of what was doing, and the callous indifference which exposed the children to the evil example and influences of such illegal practices and of the debasing scenes which generally took place in and around these bothies.

Across the hills from Alligin is Diabaig, another troublesome place. An important seizure of a large new copper still, with materials and brewing utensils, was made near this place in a seaside cave which has been frequently used for smuggling. A concealed channel was cut from a stream on the hill-side leading water over the cliff to the cave, to which access can only be obtained on one side. Another important seizure was made at Upper Diabaig, where the bothy was neatly built in an old sheep "fank." The still had been removed before the officers arrived, but all other utensils were found and destroyed. These Diabaig smugglers are very persistent, the locality being wild and remote and difficult of access. Their own local saying is—"Is fada Diabaig bho lagh." (" Diabaig is far from law.") The Tarvie and Garve smugglers have been very active for years. A large seizure was made in Tarvie plantation, where the bothy contained a complete set of brewing utensils and fermented worts. A concealed channel conveyed water from a rivulet at some distance. When the officers arrived no one was in the bothy, but the fire was burning, ready for beginning distillation. In this bothy, which was not far from the dwelling-houses, were found several domestic articles among them what had never before been seen by the officers in a bothy, a bellows for blowing the fire. Careful search failed to find the still, and when the bothy was set on fire the young plantation had a narrow escape from burning, several trees having to be cut down to prevent the fire from spreading. Soon after a bothy took fire near Loch Achilty, and a large extent of wood and heather was burning for nearly three weeks, when the fire was extinguished with some difficulty. The damage and expense were considerable, and the occurrence directed the attention of the Laird and of the shooting tenant to the smugglers, who were warned and threatened, and this has led to less activity on their part in this district.

It has been stated how frequently the officers failed to find the stills. This is explained by the importance and value of that utensil, especially when made of copper, and the great care taken to remove and conceal it when not in active use. It is the invariable practice of smugglers who generally distil at night to remove the still from the bothy to some secure place in the morning. The following story, told to me by Rev. Dr. Aird of Creich, is a good illustration of the ingenuity exercised to secure the still from seizure. The Nigg smugglers were frequently at work in the caves of the Northern Cromarty Sutor, which are difficult of access, and the officers could never succeed in finding the still. "Where think you," asked the Doctor, "did the rascals hide the still?" I replied I could not guess, knowing how cunning and resourceful smugglers were as a rule. "Under the pu'pit!" chuckled the doctor. But, I asked, how did they obtain entrance to the Church? The beadle must have been in collusion with them. "Of course he was, the drucken body! " answered the doctor. Before the abolition of the Malt Tax all mills and kilns had to be visited periodically by the Excise officers with the view of malt being dried and ground for the smugglers. One of the Glenurquhart millers used to tell of his narrow escape on one of these visits. The local officer came to the mill as a parcel of malt was being ground. The miller, though much upset, calmly engaged in conversation with him for a little, but suddenly remarking that "the hopper was running empty," rushed upstairs and quickly emptied a bag of oats which was standing close by on top of the malt in the hopper. The officer followed leisurely and examined the contents of the hopper, remarking to the miller, "Oh, you are grinding oats to-day." So the miller narrowly escaped not only the loss of his good name for honesty, but also the forfeiture of the malt and a heavy penalty.

Another of the Glen Urquhart millers was actually engaged in distillation in one of the outhouses connected with the mill when the officer, after a long tramp, arrived late in the day, looking tired and weary. Having been observed coming, the miller met him near the house, which was situated between the road and the mill, and with Highland hospitality invited him to have a cup of tea after his long journey. While the tea was getting ready the bottle was produced and the officer was pressed to take a stiff glass of whisky, the miller apologising for the slowness of his housekeeper in bringing the tea. By the time the tea was over, the miller's smuggling friends had removed all the smuggling materials and utensils to a safe place of concealment, and on his visit to the mill and kiln the officer found everything regular, never suspecting that he had been so neatly and cleverly outwitted.

Mr Paterson, Foulis Mains, tells a good story of a smuggler and his daughter, Moll. In the days before the Malt Tax was abolished, they were both in the barn putting malt into bags to be conveyed to the kiln for drying, when an officer arrived. Failing to force the door, which was strongly barricaded, he removed a small window and inserted his head, when Moll seized him by the beard and held him fast. The father, doubling his efforts to secure the malt, called to Moll, "Cum greim cruaidh air a bheist!" (Haud a hard grip of the beast!), but shouted in English, "Let the gentleman go, Moll!" He repeated these contradictory orders until the malt was removed and concealed, when the redoubtable Moll loosed her grip, and the struggling, breathless gauger was only too glad to escape.

The neatest smuggling story I know is one I read somewhere. An officer came unexpectedly on a bothy, and on entering the smuggler, who was sole occupant, calmly asked him, "Did any one see you coming in?" "No," replied the officer. Seizing an axe, the smuggler said, "Ah, then no one will see you going out!" The officer made a hurried exit.

When I was a boy there were stories, which I have not been able to verify, of smuggling being carried on in the vaults and dungeons of Urquhart Castle, which we youngsters were afraid to enter and explore. Similar stories, and better founded perhaps, have been told about Castle Campbell, the haunted Castle Gloom near Dollar. These and numerous stories show over what an extensive area of Scotland, and in what diverse places, smuggling was at one time prevalent.

Time would fail to tell how spirits, not bodies, have been carried past officers in coffins and hearses, and even in bee-hives. How bothies have been built underground, and the smoke sent up the house lum, or how an ordinary pot has been placed in the orifice of an underground bothy,

so as to make it appear that the fire and smoke were aye for washing purposes. At the Falls of Orrin the bothy smoke was made to blend judiciously with the spray of the falls so as to escape notice. Some good tricks were played upon my predecessors on the West Coast. The Melvaig smugglers openly diverted from a burn a small stream of water right over the face of a high cliff underneath which there was a cave inaccessible by land, and very seldom accessible by water. This was done to mislead the officers, the cave being sea-washed, and unsuitable for distillation. While the officers were breaking their hearts, and nearly their necks, to get into this cave, the smugglers were quietly at work at a considerable distance. On another occasion the Loch-Druing and Camustrolvaig smugglers were at work in a cave near the latter place, when word reached them that the officers were coming. Taking advantage of the notoriety of the Melvaig smugglers, a man was sent immediately in front of the officers running at his hardest, without coat or bonnet, in the direction of Melvaig, The ruse took, and the officers were decoyed past the bothy towards Melvaig, the smugglers meanwhile finishing off and removing their goods and utensils into safe hiding.

After dinner, Tom Sheridan said in a confidential undertone to his guests, "Now let us understand each other; are we to drink like gentlemen or like brutes?" "Like gentlemen, of course," was the indignant reply. "Then," rejoined Tom, "we shall all get jolly drunk, brutes never do." A Glen-Urquhart bull once broke through this rule. There was a bothy above Gartalie, where cattle used to be treated to draff and burnt ale. The bull happened to visit the bothy in the absence of the smuggler, shortly after a brewing had been completed, and drank copiously of the fermenting worts. The poor brute could never be induced to go near the bothy again. Tom Sheridan was not far wrong.


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