Whisky and excise


The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurs as long ago as 1494, when an entry in the Exchequer Rolls listed "Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae" (water of life). This was sufficient to produce almost 1500 bottles. Thus, it is clear that distilling was already a well-established practice. It became an intrinsic part of Scottish life - a reviver and stimulant during the long, cold winters, and a feature of social life, a welcome to be offered to guests upon arrival at their destinations.

An unpublished letter of February 1622, written by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy to the Earl of Mar, reported that certain officers sent to Glenorchy by the King had been given the best entertainment that the season and the country allowed. It stated: ‘For they wantit not wine nor aquavite.’ This ‘aquavite’ was no doubt locally distilled whisky.

This increasing popularity eventually attracted the attention of the Scottish parliament, which in 1644 passed an Excise Act fixing the duty at 2/8d (13p) per pint of aquavitae or other strong liquor - the Scots pint being approximately one third of a gallon. Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following The Act of Union with England in 1707, when England set out to tame the rebellious clans of Scotland. The distillers were virtually driven underground.

A long and often bloody battle arose between the excisemen, or gaugers as they were known, and the illicit distillers, for whom the excise laws were alien in both their language and their inhibiting intent. Smuggling became standard practice for some 150 years and there was no moral stigma attached to it. Ministers of the Kirk made storage space available under the pulpit, and the illicit spirit was, on occasion, transported by coffin - any effective means was used to escape the watchful eyes of the exciseman.

Clandestine stills were cleverly organized and hidden in nooks and crannies of the heather-clad hills. One undetectable location channelled the smoke from the peat fire underground for 70 yards to a cottage so that it could be released up the chimney without arousing suspicion.
Smugglers organized signalling systems from one hilltop to another whenever Excise officers were seen to arrive in the vicinity. By the 1820s, despite the fact that as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being swallowed painlessly and with pleasure, without benefit of duty. This flouting of the law eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose extensive acres some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being produced, to propose in the House of Lords that the Government should make it profitable to produce whisky legally.

In 1822 the Illicit Distillation (Scotland) Act greatly increased the penalties for illicit distillation and the flexible powers of magistrates were revoked ensuring a consistent level of penalties was applied, the excise service was given greater authority and its manpower increased.

After a lengthy Royal Commission, the Act of 1823 sanctioned legal distilling at a duty of 2/3d (12p) per gallon for stills with a capacity of more than 40 gallons. There was a licence fee of £10 annually and no stills under the legal limit were allowed. The first distillery came into ‘official’ existence in the following year and thereafter many of the more far-sighted distillers came over on to the side of the law. Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by smugglers of old.

Two letters to Breadalbane

That those in authority were inconsistent in their dealings with those dealing in illicit whisky is exposed by two letters written to Breadalbane and separated by a mere seven years. In those years the 1822 act gave excise men the power to act without first securing a warrant from a justice of the peace and to destroy illicit stills, wash and spirit. They were also able to confiscate all equipment and even the barrels and carts in which illicit goods were removed.

Patrick Crerar, one of the signatories to the first was the father of Donald Crerar referred to in the second (On 9th March 1801 ‘Pat.Crerar and Janet McLaren in Caolvellach had a son baptized and named Donald’. Caolvellich was a small farm in the portion Glenquaich that was in the Parish of Weem).

In places like Glenquaich, tenants would have been unable to pay their rent without augmenting  their income by distilling and smuggling whisky.  Breadalbane, their landlord, would have known this and tried to tread a fine line between upholding the law and colluding with those that funded his lifestyle.

1. Unto The Right Honourable the Earl of Breadalbane. The Memorial and Petition of the people of Glenquaich, at least many of them hereto subscribing.

Humbly Sheweth
That on Saturday last the petitioners troubled your lordship with a representation regarding the severe behaviour of the excise officer at present stationed among them by which the people of that country have been brought to much loss and trouble and informing that in place of being stationed at Amulree House as the excise men were wont to be the present officer and his immediate predecessor was lodged in the house of Donald McTavish your Lordship's Ground Officer, whose wife went about for information against those guilty of dealing in whisky, which could be for no other end than to give notice to her said lodger, craving therefore that your lordship might be pleased to get said excise officer namely Walter Watson, removed from his said station, or at least, from his present quarters which is so situated as to render it impossible for any in that country to do anything in that line without his notice.
That the petitioners are informed that said Donald McTavish and other assistants  have been endeavouring to persuade your lordship that said representation was void of truth, and that none but young men who had no possessions were guilty of distilling and buying and carrying whisky to other markets, but the petitioners are not only ready to prove that all that they have stated to your Lordship’s satisfaction but also to prove that all the bankruptcy that this happened in their country was chiefly owing to the severe behaviour of the said excise man, who vows that he will yet to bring the inhabitants of Glenquaich to ruin and want and they are further ready to prove that the horses of said Donald McTavish is employed by the excise officer in pursuing after and detecting whiskey carriers and dealers they therefore humbly hope that your lordship will see the absolute necessity of the former and present application being attended to and the alteration taking place.
That an order for convincing your Lordship that nothing but truth was put forth  in the former complaint they this day sent notice to said Donald McTavish that they were to come before your Lordship and requested him to accompany them so as nothing would be said or done without his knowledge.
May it therefore please your lordship to consider this and the former application and to grant the relief craved and the Petitioners shall ever pray.
George McCallum, John Stewart, Duncan Hay, Peter Crerar, Thomas Cameron, Duncan Anderson, John Crerar, John Stewart, John Livingstone, William Crerar, John McTavish, Duncan McFarlane, Patrick Crerar.
9 January 1818

A note was appended to the letter;

That in order to preserve the peace in the country and prevent the clamour of the tenants Lord Breadalbane desires that the ground officer of Glenquaich  will not harbour the excise man any longer in his house
Taymouth Castle 8th January 1818

2. Unto The Right Honourable the Earl of Breadalbane. The petition of Jannet Crerar present tenant in Murthly, Parish of Weem, County of Perth

Humbly Sheweth
That your petitioner’s forefathers have been tenants in your Lordship’s estates for ages past and during the time your Lordship’s petitioner has been capable of judging she has felt herself completely happy until late events have made her as unhappy as she was formerly happy.
Her eldest son Donald Crerar was committed to Perth jail in January last charged with the crime of beating Alexander Munro excise officer in Aberfeldy. His father dying two days after his commitment to jail he being the only support that they could depend upon they are now deprived of by the cruel sentence that has been put upon him which was to be publicly whipped through the streets of Perth and to be afterwards transported for the period of 14 years. The first part of his sentence he has already undergone and he is now lying in the hulks at Woolwich previous to his being sent abroad to undergo the last part of his sentence.
May it is therefore please your Lordship to take your petitioner’s case into consideration and by an intercession with your Majesty or by any other means you may in your wisdom think fit endeavour to get a remission of the last part of his sentence at it is the only crime that ever was alleged against him and Your Petitioner as is duty bound will ever pray.
Jannet Crerar
her X mark
Murthly June 4th 1825

The case was reported in the Perthshire Advertiser;

Circuit Court of Judiciary 22nd of April 1825
Donald Crerar was indicted for the most desperate and brutal assault on the person of Alexander Munro, officer of excise at Aberfeldy, to the effusion of his blood, and imminent danger of his life, while in the lawful discharge of his official duty, in a still house there, on the second November last, – to all of which the panel pleaded Guilty.

Lord Meadowbank asked the prisoner whether he was aware that by the unlimited admission, he confessed the charge to the utmost extent stated in the indictment, and that an adequate degree of punishment must be awarded accordingly. The panel still had it in his power to retract his plea either in whole or in part. When asked again, however, in presence of the jury he still adhered to his former declaration.

Mr Neaves stated on the part of the panel, that in consequence of a fracture of his skull, the prisoner was incapable to undergo the punishment that might be awarded by the court.

Lord Meadowbank would not be satisfied with any bare assertion on such a point; and therefore remanded the prisoner for inspection by Dr McFarlane and Dr Malcolm, previous to giving sentence. In course of the afternoon these two medical gentlemen came into court, when the former delivered to the judge a verbal statement of some length, the purport of which we could not hear. The prisoner was afterwards brought up in the evening, when his Lordship addressed him and the court upon the peculiarly atrocious nature of the assault as depicted in the indictment. He was afraid that in cases of assault by smugglers upon excise officers, too much lenity had hitherto been shown, which might account for the frequency of attacks of this nature. He had even to blame himself for extending such lenity too far. He considered the necessary duty of excise officers at all times dangerous duty, and he and his brother judges were now convinced of the necessity of visiting such offences in many instances, with the utmost severity of the law. He was sorry for the situation of the culprit, and particularly for his relatives, under such circumstances; but these he could not in strict justice allow to bear with him in mitigation of punishment. Sentence was then pronounced ordaining the prisoner to be publicly whipped through Perth on Friday, 13 May next and thereafter banished beyond the seas for the period of 14 years.

His sentence of whipping through the streets of Perth was duly carried out and on 27 May he was received into the prison hulk Justitia in Woolwich. The record states that he was transported to Bermuda on third of November 1825. On 1st December 1832 he was received into the prison hulk Hardy in Portsmouth 'Per Hyacinth from Bermuda'. He was described as well behaved but it is not clear what happened to him thereafter - he was 'disposed of' on 16 April 1833 but the abbreviation before that entry is difficult to interpret. After what must have been a terrible seven years in the hulks in Bermuda he was probably pardoned .

Alexander Munro survived his assualt and in 1851, as a 60 year old retired former exciseman, he was lodging in the Bank Street Inn, Aberfeldy.

Page last updated - 20/3/17