Smuggled whisky

Smuggled whisky

In a previous article we talked about various acts of Parliament that stimulated the production of spirit in some Lowland distilleries to never-before-seen levels. All this resulted in punitive taxes being applied to most distilleries and eventually these taxes brought about their demise. Soon after these events (around 1788) rogues and illegal distillers were quick to spring into action. This is a brief account of how smuggled whisky became so rife in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Whisky, taxes and the rogues

The war between commercial distillers in Scotland and England didn't end well for the Scottish distillers. The largest distilleries in the Lowlands such as Kennetpans, Kilbagie and Cannonmills went under, distillation became a small-time activity among craft distillers who produced minute amounts of alcohol. This practise was outlawed in 1814 when pot stills with a capacity of less than 500 gallons were banned. Craft and artisan distillers didn't appreciate this and many of them decided to distill their peat-reek illegally. The Scots were familiar with smuggling. According to some sources, even before the union of the Crowns in 1707, many Scots engaged in the active smuggling of imported goods such as wine, tobacco and brandy. Such activities were not seen as crimes by the wider community. Smuggling arose naturally given that Scotland and England had different rates of taxation for different goods. Scotland had much lower rates and many smugglers were quick to send goods to England illegally. After the taxes were harmonised, 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 reeling with anger. Not only (in their view) they had to pay a 'foreign tax' they now were forbidden from distilling and selling their spirit. Hidden in coves, hard-to-reach glens and in farms, rogues distilled. It wasn't just a sense of injustice which made them distill. Poverty was a major influential factor. Many Scots struggled to make ends meet and saw in smuggling a way to earn cash and feed their families. Smugglers came in handy when it came to moving the illegally distilled spirit across the border with England. Many of them knew the military roads very well and came up with ingenious methods to hide the precious liquid. Stories abound of 'heavily pregnant' women crossing the border on horse back. The smugglers had devised a false belly which contained almost a gallon of spirit. Men with prominent hunches would travel with these heavily pregnant women. We can only imagine what their hunches contained.

The Excise men

The government was losing lots of revenue money 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. Little did these men know about the complicity and sympathy of the entire local population towards the rogues and the smugglers. We'll talk more about them in our next article.
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