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Issue 32 - Smuggling

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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It's been called the national vice of Scotland, and smuggling is ingrained in the country's history. Dominic Roskrow seeks out some smuggling hotspots

You feel it most acutely on the hills close to The Glenlivet Distillery in Speyside.

Climb up here on a spring day, when the sun is up and casting watery light over the glimmering crags and bullish grass, and the wind, chilled by the last cries of winter, tingles the skin and ruffles the hair; stare out over the valley, with the Spey snaking through its heart; feel the timelessness of the landscape, the permanence of the geography, and you’re there, back with the whisky smugglers, back in a time of danger and romance, of drama and heroism.

When you’re here, close to Josie’s Well, the water source of the Glenlivet, or making your way along one of the trails that the smugglers would have used to bring their precious aqua vitae to thirsty mouths in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and further still, it’s hard not to be touched by the romance of it all.

It shouldn’t really be this way, should it?

After all, smuggling covers a multitude of sins. Gun running, for Scottish rebels 500 years ago or Loyalist paramilitaries in recent times; trafficking of people and often children, hard drugs, tobacco even – these are heinous crimes that have all been committed under the banner of smuggling.

And yet when it comes to whisky, there’s something honourable about it all, a case of correcting an iniquity in the form of punitive English taxes, providing a small income for those that needed it most and providing pleasure for the whisky enthusiast. It is, if you will, the Rabbie McHood scenario, a victimless crime where the rich are robbed to feed the poor.

The battle between the gauger and the whisky maker is nearly as old as whisky itself, and you don’t have to dig very hard to find examples of it in Scotland. But the area between The Spey and stretching down to the Dee was the frontline between the authorities based in Edinburgh and the Highland whisky makers living in the remote glens.

Whisky had become the currency of crofters living hand to mouth in these regions. When a tinker came to the villages, whisky was exchanged for clothes and shoes.

It was sold to local publicans and to complicit Lairds, who turned a blind eye to its production because they knew that it was the source of their rent. And it was smuggled into the cities where drinkers who knew their business lapped it up with alacrity.

Indeed, rarely has a black market been so organised and defined. And as the authorities stepped up their attempts to stamp out illicit distilleries, there were two immediate consequences. One was that the smugglers became better at covering their tracks. The other was that somewhat ironically the quality of illegal Highland whisky improved.

The two outcomes were related. Small stills, designed to be dismantled quickly so they could be sunk in the nearby loch, produced heavy, oil-rich and flavoursome whiskies that were in stark contrast to the thinner, lighter whiskies made from the huge Lowland stills. And as a result the demand grew for the tastier malts, particularly those around the Speyside valley.

Illegal stills were sited in caves and hillsides and the more remote the better. And there was no limit to the cunning of the whiskymen. Tunnels hundreds of metres long were built so that the smoke from the still fires exited in to the air far from the source; elaborate warning systems were introduced.

In one valley they say you could only get caught distilling illegally on a Monday. When the hated exciseman was spotted in the glen each house would hang out washing, sending a semaphore message across the valley to warn the distillers. But the system failed on a Monday because that was washing day.

The smugglers even turned the law around to work for them. At one time the taxmen introduced a reward for the recovery of a still. So the smugglers would tip the authorities off about an old still that had worn through, take the reward money and invest it in new copper.

Smuggling was dangerous and often bloody work, and as the incentives got greater and the penalties harsher, smugglers travelled in convoys and armed themselves, often fighting pitched battles with soldiers and gaugers.

The whisky smuggling trade reached its peak in the second half of the 18th century and into the 19th century, with the whisky known as ‘The Glenlivet’ the most soughtafter prize. And when George Smith registered the name Glenlivet for his licensed distillery in 1824, he was forced to sleep with two pistols to protect himself from furious smugglers who saw the bottom falling out of their market.

Today some of the old smugglers’ trails can be reached as part of the Speyside Way walk which stretches from the north coast and through the heart of whisky-making territory. And Pernod Ricard, which owns The Glenlivet distillery, will this summer launch a series of smugglers walks in and around its estate, and offer visitors the chance to retrace the smugglers’ journeys either in the company of a guide or on their own with audio equipment.

Smuggling wasn’t just confined to whisky.

Spirits of all sorts, cattle, tea, and salt were all smuggled, both into and out of Scotland.

With different tax regimes in England and Scotland, the incentives were there and the rewards were great. So much so that smuggling was big business, with large ships and gangs of men employed.

Down on the Borders at the village of Kirk Yetholm, for instance, it is thought that 20 per cent of the local population was involved with smuggling in one form or another. Tales of great smugglers are commonplace.

One such story concerns Will Faa, a gypsy living in the area and not just a notorious smuggler but a wonderful violin player before a tangle with an exciseman brought an end to his playing. Escaping on horseback he jumped over a wall where the horse became trapped. Rather than surrender straightaway he grabbed the exciseman’s sword, cutting his hand to shreds. The incident is immortalised in song: “There is a canny Will Faa o’ Kirk Yetholm He lives at the sign o’ the Queen He got a great slash i’ the hand When coming frae Boulmer wi’ gin” Here, too, cunning was the order of the day, with women wearing salt pouches across their backs, or in containers designed to look like pregnancy bumps. Smugglers carried leather-made ‘passengers’ to ride behind them on their horses, each one full of contraband.

You can still walk the smugglers’ trail from Kirk Yetholm up the valley to Bowmont Water, and following a route through Elsdonham, College Valley, Kirknewton and to Boulmer.

Smuggling was also prevalent from the Scottish side of the Solway Firth at the most south western point of Scotland. It has been estimated that most if not all of the population were involved.

Goods including brandy, tea, tobacco and silk handkerchiefs were smuggled first onto the Isle of Man and then into Scotland, where the customs officers were less efficient and more corruptible, before being distributed into Scotland or across to England. Wherry boats, chosen for their speed and built on the Isle of Man, were often employed for the purpose. And as income rose and the demand for luxury goods went up accordingly, so too did smuggling.

Ironically the result was an increase in populations in the Scottish border villages as people flocked to benefit from the smuggling business, and this in turn raised incomes across the region, improved the standard of agricultural farming, and boosted the economy, provoking an increase demand for the very luxury goods that were being smuggled in.

It still goes on of course, and much of what passes for smuggling these days is unpalatable and unpleasant. But if you’re visiting Scotland then setting out on one of the old smuggling routes from yesteryear is a great way of mainlining history.

Up at places such as The Glenlivet your glasses tend to be rose-tinted. And buoyed by a drop of fine Speyside malt, it’s easy to travel back to the smuggling days of old.