Historic Events

The story of prohibition in Wick, Caithness

We tell the little-known story of prohibition in the Caithness fishing port of Wick between 1922 and 1947

Words by Gavin D Smith

Mention the word ‘prohibition’ to most people, and it conjures up images of New York speakeasies, mobster Al Capone versus the Untouchables, and press photographs of revenue officers taking axes to seized casks of illegal alcohol.

But prohibition was far from being just a US phenomenon. In the unlikely setting of the Caithness fishing port of Wick, in the far north of Scotland, another much less well-known period of prohibition took place. Not only that, but it lasted for 12 years longer than US Prohibition, which was in place from 1920 to 1933.

As the late Caithness historian Iain Sutherland wrote in Vote No Licence, “For a quarter of a century, between 28 May 1922 and 28 May 1947, there were no public houses or licensed grocers in Wick open to the public for the sale of alcohol. They had been closed as the result of an election which had been held on 10 December 1920, under the terms of the Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913.”

Modern-day Wick harbour. Credit: Dave Ashwin/Alamy

As Britain had become increasingly industrialised during the 19th century, the problem of drunkenness and its effects on families was magnified by swelling urban populations, with the British Association for the Promotion of Temperance being formed in 1835. The Association promoted abstinence from spirits and though it did not object to the consumption of beer or wine, soon more radical ideas of total abstinence from alcohol gained traction, and it has been estimated that by 1900, 10 percent of the adult population of the United Kingdom were teetotallers.
Wick was one of the world’s leading herring ports in the 19th and early 20th centuries and became associated with the drunkenness and violence rife among some of the fishermen and seasonal workers who had followed the herring fishing fleet through the summer.

During the 1840s, there was a combined 41 licensed premises in Wick and the adjacent fishing centre of Pulteneytown. It has been estimated that in excess of 800 gallons of whisky – or some 5,000 bottles – were consumed every week.

It is recorded that more than 1,000 vessels were based in Wick for the 1862 season, meaning that the population of the town had tripled or even quadrupled, so it was hardly surprising that strong drink was taken and fights often occurred during this time.

The drunken behaviour drew many local people to support Temperance, and as in the United States, the term ‘Prohibition’ was regularly used to describe the situation in Wick, appearing in the publicity material of both ‘wets’ and ‘drys’, who battled for and against restrictions on alcohol sales in the port.

As we know, the ‘drys’ won the day, and only bona fide travellers could legally purchase alcohol in Wick, and even then only as an accompaniment to a meal.

In Victorian times the workforce and residents of Wick and nearby Pulteneytown consumed over 5,000 bottles of whisky every week. Credit: KGPA Ltd/Alamy

But, as in the US, there were ways around the ban on drink, with Iain Sutherland writing that “Unfortunately for the prohibitionists the same effect which had been seen in America began to show itself in Wick after a short time. By 1922 doctors in Chicago were prescribing 200,000 gallons of spirit for medicinal purposes a year, and while Wick could not reach that level, it was beginning to discover a variety of ailments which required treatment by alcohol.”

Read the full feature in the July/August 2020 issue of Scotland.

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