In the part of north Scotland where I live, there are many distilleries. They seem to sprout from the ground like miniature factories, each with that strange little triangular pointy-thing that seems to be essential to the production of perfect whisky. They are all legal, with evocative names such as ‘Ben Romach’ or ‘Glen Moray’ or ‘Glen Livet’ and every so often great tankers roar in and out with cargoes of the amber nectar. It is a busy area.
Yet a couple of hundred years ago this area was a battleground as hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal distillers huddled in caves and peat bogs, cottages and castles, moors and mountain glens, each making a few score gallons of whisky and cheating the excise. Whisky didtilling has been known in Scotland since Eve and MacAdam walked bare bummed in Eden, and as the River Even flows through Fife, then it all started here. After all, whisky means the Water of Life, that portion of the Scottish nectar which escapes the distilling process is the Angel’s Share and the angels speak Gaelic, arguably the oldest language in Europe. . . this is God’s country in more ways than one.
The government, however, did not agree and slapped huge taxes on this necessity for life in a cool, harsh and unforgiving climate. The people disgreed and the process of distilling went underground. From cottar to laird, the men and women of rural Scotland distilled so that one glen alone, Glen Livet, sent two thousand gallons of whisky a week to the cities on the back of garrons, the sturdy sure footed Highland pony. Other glens were nearly as busy.
The government retaliated with military patrols and there was blood in the glens as armed whisky smugglers clashed with government officials and the army. There were gun fights that would make the Wild West seem tame, casual murders and bitter dislike as the implacable force of authority clashed with the immovable rock of tradition and sheer bloody-minded Highland stubbornness. Legends were born: Malcolm Gillespie was an exciseman – a customs officer – who was wounded more than 40 times in his decades long war with the whisky smugglers. Eventually he was hanged, for forgery of all things.
Old castles were garrisoned and legal distilleries founded, although the smugglers burned some to the ground and the owners of others had to be armed as they walked abroad through the wild hills of the Highlands. Eventually the smugglers were ground away by force and persuasion and time. Now Scottish whisky is export by the thousands of gallons, the fields of the north grow barley and the exchequer is enrichened by whisky revenue.
I have put a sniff of the story in my book: Whisky Wars, Riots and Murder.
And what of the smugglers?
Are they all gone?
Now come on! This is Scotland. Of course they are not! It is not long since I was sampling a home distilled bottle of the water of life and – it could have lifted paint. The distiller drank it like water but it was something you would drip feed to your mother in law or a politician. It was vile stuff.
I much prefer Aberlour or Glen Moray!
Slainthe – good health