Home Page John Wilson Related Sites Acknowledgements Send a message Email about the diary Start from January 1st

October 19th 1825

Previous day Next day

The Illicit trade

Alexander Stewart was a shoemaker who lived all his working life at Woodend in Glenlyon. He was intensely interested and knowledgeable concerning the history of the people of the area and in addition was a Gaelic scholar of some distinction. In 1928 he published ‘A Highland Parish’ which is a history of Fortingall, Glenlyon and Rannoch. Not only is it a history but it also details traditions, myths and old customs of the area which might otherwise have been completely lost. His daughter Alexandra Stewart wrote ‘Daughters of the Glen’.

In Glenlyon, like most Highland glens, whisky was illicitly distilled. Alexander Stewart recounts how the war between the distillers and the excise men had been fought in earlier times.

“In the early part of the nineteenth century it (smuggling of whisky) revived again and attained extensive proportions ……Illicit stills increased and almost a regular trade in conveying Highland whisky to the southern towns became established. In those days the people stood loyally by each other. If an excise officer appeared in any glen, messages were sent to the neighbouring hamlets to warn the occupants of the stone and turf bothies that were dug in the sides of the mountain burns for distilling of the illicit spirits. The result was that the captures of men and materials were few and far between. In transporting the products of their labours to market, special precautions had to be taken to prevent discovery. For this purpose women, being less liable to be suspected than men, were often employed. They carried the whisky in tin vessels on their backs. These they covered over with shawls, and, in order to obviate suspicion, they usually carried some light baskets with some lace or ribbons in them. On many occasions the carriers travelled by night and wended their way through unfrequented highland passes. On other occasions spirits were concealed in wool bags or in the bottom of carts, covered over with other goods. In one instance the device was used of carrying the whisky in a cart in which was placed an apparently feeble old man lying on a bed of straw, as if he were in the last stages of illness. On the road to Perth the conveyance was met by a party of excise officers. The latter suspected nothing, and, moved with pity for the old bed-ridden man, asked the driver of the cart what ailed him. To this he replied that he was suffering from the duibh-leisg, which they took to be the name of some dreadful malady, but which in reality is the Gaelic phrase for ‘black laziness’.

On another occasion a large body of excisemen had been sent to intercept any smugglers who might be proceeding towards Crieff or Perth. At the same time a large body of smugglers proceeding southwards with their prohibited wares combined into one band, so that they might be able to overpower the officers of the law should they happen to meet them. The two bodies met at Corriemuckloch, near the entrance to the Small Glen, and the result was a conflict in which several men were injured.

The smugglers not only contrived ingeniously to keep themselves and their stills and other distilling utensils out of the hands of the excise officers, but some of them even made daring attempts to recover their utensils after they had been seized by the excisemen. Donald C - one of the boldest of smugglers, had his bothy at the side of a burn behind Schiechallion. It was discovered by the excisemen, and they removed his whole distilling plant to the little inn at Foss, where they decided to put up for the night. In order that the booty might be perfectly secure, it was deposited in the bedroom where they were sleeping. Then with locked doors and as they supposed well secured against any would-be intruder, they slept soundly. But Donald was determined that they should not get away with his gear. They occupied an upper room, but it had an end or gable window. To this window, Donald in the dead of night, made his way with the aid of some planks. He quickly unfastened it, entered the room, threw the excisemen’s shoes through the window, and with a jingling noise made off with his wares. The gaugers, as the excisemen were usually called, though wakened by the noise, spent some little time searching for their shoes, so that Donald was some distance ahead of them. The search for their shoes proving vain, they gave pursuit in their stockings’ soles, but Donald proved too fleet for them. Before his pursuers could make up on him, he was able to reach a peat hollow, where he hid his gear, and the excise officers were never able to find it. When he took them out of this hiding place, he sold them to another man and forsook the illicit trade once for all.” 

Previous day Next day

Perthshire Diary Home | Author | Perthshire Links | Reference | Contact Us | Tell a friend | Browse