Pioneering Spirit

We’ve partnered with The Glenlivet to uncover the stories and sites of illicit whisky production across Scotland.

Pioneering Spirit began in 2020 and is the first project of its kind – a nationwide archaeology and research programme seeking to unearth stories old and new, and ground both the knowledge and mythology of illicit whisky making back to the very places it happened.

This ambitious project is made possible thanks to a unique partnership between The Glenlivet – the original Speyside malt whisky – and the National Trust for Scotland. Our findings deepen our understanding of the origins of Scotch whisky, those who made it and sought to stop its illicit production, and its effect on our country’s rich cultural heritage.

Digging for Scotland’s illicit whisky history

Pioneering Spirit: Digging for Scotland’s illicit whisky history


Three voices: Daniel Rhodes (DR); Derek Alexander (DA); Alan Winchester (AW)

Pioneering Spirit is all about unearthing stories and peeling back the layers to find the clues for these illicit distilling places.

The Highlands and the islands were areas where it was more difficult to track down illicit whisky making.
Some of them were hidden in the hills. Some of them would have been in farm buildings and outbuildings, and were quite easy to be discovered by the Excise men.
There are thousands of them out there.

Pioneering Spirit is the project that we're doing between the National Trust for Scotland and The Glenlivet whisky distillery.
They have quite a long tradition of historic whisky making.
They were first established by a guy called George Smith in 1824, and he in fact is a bit of a poacher-turned-gamekeeper.
He started off his business making whisky as an illicit whisky smuggler and maker.
He applied for a licence in 1823 to make whisky on a larger scale.
He set up one of the first licensed distilleries in the area: Glenlivet.

Illicit distiller is something that was just said as the industry passed through an illicit distilling phase, and then it became the legal phase.

This is really unearthing real stories behind that -- how extensive was the illicit distilling?
We're looking at things today and we wonder why that's like that, why is that there?
Where's the water coming from? Where were they taking the barley in?
Were they detected in this site?
And this has been the fun of this project -- finding something else that leads into that story.

We can discover these hidden stories using traditional archaeological methods, but now we can apply modern technology. We can use aerial photography; we can use 3D modelling and mapping in order to add all of this evidence together and build a bigger, wider landscape story.

It's a great project from a history and archaeological point of view because archaeology is all about understanding and finding hidden artefacts and hidden stories of the past.
It doesn't get much better than illicit whisky for stories about hidden things in the landscape.

Across the landscapes in the care of our charity, in every part of Scotland, we know that illicit whisky production once happened. So far, we have identified 30 sites and we are confident there are more! Our archaeologists have uncovered illicit stills across Scotland, including at Torridon, Kintail, Grey Mare’s Tail and Mar Lodge Estate, and we have been exploring the beginnings of licensed whisky production at the Glenlivet’s home in Speyside.

Our team have found a range of fascinating whisky artefacts – from an exciseman’s padlock to small personal items like clay pipes. We’ve delved into the stories the land holds and learned how people secretly produced Scotch whisky in years gone by.

Whisky stories

Pioneering Spirit has also been discovering how the ‘water of life’ still shapes our culture today. From artists’ creative responses to personal anecdotes, these powerful stories bring history to life.