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Smuggling in the Highlands
Moral Aspect of Smuggling

BUT the physical injury caused by drinking an impure, immature whisky and the pecuniary loss sustained by purchasing a whisky of inferior quality and unknown strength at the price of good, honest spirit, are nothing compared to the moral aspect of the case. Let me quote again from Stewart of Garth (1821): "I must now advert to a cause which contributes to demoralise the Highlanders in a manner equally rapid and lamentable. Smuggling has grown to an alarming extent, and if not checked will undermine the best principles of the people. Let a man be habituated to falsehood and fraud in one line of life, and he will soon learn to extend it to all his actions. This traffic operates like a secret poison on all their moral feelings. They are the more rapidly betrayed into it, as, though acute and ingenious in regard to all that comes within the scope of their observation, they do not comprehend the nature or purpose of imports levied on the produce of the soil, nor have they any distinct idea of the practice of smuggling being attended with disgrace or turpitude. The open defiance of the laws, the progress of chicanery, perjury, hatred, and mutual recrimination, with a constant dread and suspicion of informers— men not being sure of nor confident in their next neighbours—which result from smuggling, and the habit which it engenders, are subjects highly important, and regarded with the most serious consideration and the deepest regret by all who value the permanent welfare of their country, which depends so materially upon the preservation of the morals of the people." [Dealing with the subject of real smuggling, Buckle, in his "History of Civilisation," says: —"The economical evils, great as they were, have been far surpassed by the moral evils which this system produced. These men, desperate from the fear of punishment, and accustomed to the commission of every crime, contaminated the surrounding population, introduced into peaceful villages vices formerly unknown, caused the ruin of entire families, spread, wherever they came, drunkenness, theft, and dissoluteness, and familiarised their associates with those coarse and swinish debaucheries which were the natural habits of so vagrant and so lawless a life."]

This is a terrible picture, but I am in a position to vouch that it is only too true. The degradation, recklessness, and destitution which, as a rule, follow in the wake of illicit distillation are notorious to all. I know of three brothers on the West Coast. Two of them settled down on crofts, became respectable members of the community, and with care and thrift and hard work even acquired some little means. The third took to smuggling, and has never done anything else ; has been several times in prison, has latterly lost all his smuggling utensils, and is now an old broken-down man, without a farthing, without sympathy, without friends, one of the most wretched objects in the whole parish. Not one in a hundred has gained anything by smuggling in the end. I know most of the smugglers in my own district personally. With a few exceptions they are the poorest among the people. How can they be otherwise? Their's is the work of darkness, and they must sleep through the day. Their crofts are not half tilled or manured; their houses are never repaired ; their very children are neglected, dirty, and ragged. They cannot bear the strain of regular steady work even if they feel disposed. Their moral and physical stamina have become impaired, and they can do nothing except under the unhealthy influence of excitement and stimulants. Gradually their manhood becomes undermined, their sense of honour becomes deadened, and they become violent lawbreakers and shameless cheats. This is invariably the latter end of the smuggler, and generally his sons follow his footsteps in the downward path, or he finds disciples among his neighbour's lads, so that the evil is spread and perpetuated. Smuggling is, in short, a curse to the individual and to the community.

The decrease in illicit distillation since 1823, concurrent with the large increase in the spirit duties, is a remarkable proof of the great improvement which has taken place in the morals of the Highland people. The change has been due to various causes, but mainly to the spread of education, and the influence of enlightened public opinion. In some cases the landlord and clergy used their influence direct, the former embodying stringent clauses in the estate leases against illicit distillation, and the latter refusing church privileges to those engaged in smuggling, as in the Aultbea district of Gairloch parish by the Rev. Mr. Macrae and the Rev. Mr. Noble. In a few localities the smuggler's means were exhausted by the frequent seizures made by energetic officers.

I admit that some are driven to engage in smuggling by dire poverty. Necessity has no law, and constant grinding poverty leads a man to many things of which he cannot approve. "My poverty, and not my will, consents," was the apology of the poor apothecary of Mantua when he sold the poison to Romeo.

"These movin' things ca'd wives and weans Wad move the very heart of stanes," pleaded Burns when forced to allow "clarty barm to stain his laurels." Agur prayed to be delivered from poverty, "lest I be poor and steal, and take the name of my God in vain." The hardships and temptations of the abject poor are terrible, and God forbid we should at any time become so inhuman in our dealings with them as to shut up the bowels of our compassion, or forget to temper justice with mercy. I state frankly that the highest sense of duty would hardly sustain me in suppressing the smugglers on the West Coast, unless I had also a strong and deep conviction that if I could dissuade or prevent them from engaging in smuggling, I should be doing them the greatest possible service. When arguing with one of these smugglers, as to the evil and dishonesty of his ways, he replied, "The village merchant has kept my family and self alive for the last twelve months, and would you blame me if I made an effort to pay him something? There is no fishing and no work, and what am I to do?" Here was an appeal to the common feeling of manhood which no one could answer. This year another smuggler, whose wife is physically and mentally weak, and whose children are quite young, said to me in touching tones, "If we are to be hunted like this, either get something for me to do or cuir an gunna rium— shoot me." This was bad enough, but I can tell you something that affected me even more. The officers were passing a certain township just as a brewing was in operation.

They noticed movements which aroused their suspicions, but as the evening was growing dark they made no search for the bothy, and walked on as if they had observed nothing. On passing by an old woman with a creel, sitting on a stone, they heard sounds, half sighs, half groans, which were doubtless inarticulate expressions of gratitude and thankfulness that the gaugers had not observed the bothy. Poor, old, deluded woman! Little did she know that the gaugers had quietly taken their bearings and laid their plans. Having given the smugglers time to get into full working order, they returned and destroyed the bothy with its full compliment of brewing utensils and materials. These things grieve me much. However deluded and wrong a man may be, we cannot help respecting a determined effort to make the best of things, if they cannot be altered; and the circumstances of the poor people on the West Coast are not easily changed for the better. Their abject poverty, their enforced idleness during a long inclement winter, the wildness and remoteness of the localities where they reside, are all temptations to engage in anything that may be profitable and exciting. There can be no doubt that smuggling, when successful, is profitable in a pecuniary sense. Barley can be this year bought for 23s. a quarter, from which can be obtained some 14 or 16 gallons of whisky, which can be sold at 18s. or 20s. a gallon. Allowing for all contingencies, payment of carriage, liberal consumption during manufacture, and generous treatment of friends and neighbours, some 8 or 10 can be netted from an outlay of 23s. This is no doubt a great temptation. In addition to the very poor, two other classes engage in smuggling, with whom there can be no sympathy whatever. The ne'er-do-well professional smuggler, who is entirely regardless as to the right or wrong of the illegal traffic, and well-to-do people, who engage in the traffic through sheer wantonness, just for the romance of the thing, on the principle that "stolen waters are sweet." I know a few of both classes. Their conduct is highly reprehensible, and their example most pernicious to their poorer neighbours.

With the smuggler I class the purchaser of the wretched stuff. He aids and abets, becomes a partner in guilt, and is equally tainted. Without a ready market the smuggler's occupation would be gone, and no small share of the dishonesty attaches to the purchaser. Whoever buys for gain, or to gratify a debased sentiment, is encouraging the smuggler in his lawless ways at the risk of loss and penalty. David would not drink the water brought from the Well of Bethlehem at the risk of his three mighty men's lives, but the drinkers of smuggled whisky are actually draining the moral and physical life-blood of the poor smuggler. Both the legitimate trader and the Revenue suffer by this illegal traffic. The trader has no remedy, but the taxpayer must make up every penny of which the Revenue is defrauded. If the general community would engage in frauds of this kind, the whole country would become demoralised. Integrity and honesty, the very foundation of society, would be sapped, and the whole would collapse into chaos. Something like this on a small scale actually occurs in some of the townships on the West Coast. A few successful "runs" cause envy and jealousy, and whenever a detection is made some one is blamed for giving information. Mutual confidence and friendliness disappear, and every one distrusts and suspects his neighbour, until the little township becomes a sort of pandemonium. Even families are victims of dissensions. I know a case where father and mother are opposed to a son who engages in smuggling, and two cases where wives disapprove of their husbands engaging in smuggling, but entreaties and warnings are disregarded.

Some six years ago we were hoping such a deplorable state of things was fast passing away, but since the abolition of the Malt Tax in 1880, there has been a marked revival of smuggling in the Highlands. Prior to 1880, the manufacture of malt, which occupied from 14 to 20 days, was illegal except by licensed traders, and during the manufacture the smuggler was liable to detection. Malt can now be made openly, or be bought from brewers, distillers, or malt dealers, so that the illicit distiller is liable to detection only during the four, five, or six days he is engaged in brewing and distilling. This very much facilitates illicit distillation, and increases the difficulty of making detections and arrests. This has doubtlessly been the direct and principal cause of the revival, but it has been indirectly helped by the injudicious and indiscriminate reduction of the Preventive Force in the Highlands immediately prior to 1880. During some years previously few detections had been made, and, for economical reasons, the staff was reduced, so that in 1880, on the abolition of the Malt Tax, those who engaged in smuggling had it pretty much their own way. The reduction of the Preventive Staff was not only a short-sighted policy, but a serious blunder. The old smugglers were fast dying out, and if the Preventive Force had been kept up, neither they nor younger men would have attempted illicit distillation again. Since 1880 a fresh generation of smugglers has been trained, and time, hard work, and money will be required to suppress the evil. Indeed, in some places it will only die out with the men. The fear of being removed from their holdings has had much influence in limiting illicit distillation, and I very much dread a reaction when security of tenure has been obtained under the Crofters' Act. I feel so strongly on this point that, with all my objection to landlord restrictions, I would gladly have seen a stringent prohibition against smuggling embodied in the Act.

We need not look for complete cessation until the material condition of the people is improved. It is to be hoped the day of deliverance is now near at hand. But much can be done in various ways. The hollow-ness and falsity of the mischievous sentiment which has been fostered round about smuggled whisky can be exposed. Its necessarily inferior if not deleterious character can be pointed out. All interested in the material, physical, and moral elevation of the Highland people should seriously consider that the habitual evasion of law, whether statue or moral, has an influence so demoralising, so destructive to the best and highest feelings of a man's nature, that smuggling must be utterly ruinous to the character of those who engage in it or connive at it. Teachers, clergymen, and indeed all, can do much to present illicit practices in their true light, and render them unpopular and distasteful. Much can be done by educating the young and giving their thoughts a turn and taste for honest work, and when chance offers, providing them with situations. We could almost afford to let the old smugglers die in their sin, but the influence of their example on the young is simply awful. I very much regret having to state that the Highland clergy, with one exception, are guilty of the grossest neglect and indifference in this matter. Like Gallio, they care for none of these things. I understand that smugglers are formally debarred from the Communion Table in one Highland parish, but this is the extent of clerical interference, and the clergy cannot be held guiltless as regards smuggling. Highlanders have many things laid to their charge which require to be explained and justified. The Gaelic Society has among its objects the vindication of the character of the Gaelic people, and the furtherance of their interests, and I make no apology for appealing to them individually and collectively to use their influence and efforts to free the Highland people from the stigma of lawlessness and dishonesty, and from the inevitable demoralisation which are inseparable from illicit distillation, alias smuggling.

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