In the late 18th and early 19th century, smuggled whisky became a popular illegal activity in Scotland. This was largely due to the punitive taxes imposed on most distilleries, which eventually led to their demise. The largest distilleries in the Lowlands, such as Kennetpans, Kilbagie, and Cannonmills, were hit the hardest, and distillation became a small-time activity among craft distillers who produced very small amounts of alcohol.
In 1814, pot stills with a capacity of less than 500 gallons were banned, which outlawed the practice of craft and artisan distillers. Many of them decided to distill their peat-reek illegally. Smuggling had been a familiar activity in Scotland, even before the union of the Crowns in 1707. Many Scots engaged in smuggling imported goods such as wine, tobacco, and brandy. Smuggling arose naturally because Scotland and England had different rates of taxation for different goods, with Scotland having much lower rates.
After the taxes were harmonized, many distillers saw the new, higher rates as a "foreign imposed" tax. The outlawing of small-batch distillation, together with the disappearance of the major distilleries after the 1786 and 1788 acts, left smaller distillers angry. Not only did they feel they had to pay a "foreign tax," but they were now forbidden from distilling and selling their spirit. In response, hidden in coves, hard-to-reach glens, and on farms, rogues began to distill. Poverty was a major influential factor, with many Scots struggling to make ends meet and seeing smuggling as a way to earn cash and feed their families.
Smugglers were crucial in moving the illegally distilled spirit across the border with England. They knew the military roads well and came up with ingenious methods to hide the precious liquid. Stories abound of "heavily pregnant" women crossing the border on horseback. Smugglers devised a false belly which contained almost a gallon of spirit, while men with prominent hunches would travel with these women. It is unclear what their hunches contained.
The government was losing a lot of revenue due to the activities of the rogues. Teams of excise men were sent to the remote Highlands to try to recover either the goods or the money from the rogues. This was a difficult and often dangerous task, as the local population was complicit and sympathetic towards the rogues and smugglers. In our next article, we will talk more about them.