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26 Apr 2021

Kegs, cases and jars: a moving tale

Written by Derek Alexander and Daniel Rhodes
A close-up of the top half of an old whisky stoneware jar. It is very shiny and a mustard-yellow in colour. There are a couple of chips in the top spout. Printed on it is the following text: 167 Chivas Brothers. Scotch Whisky Merchants Aberdeen. 5.
A Chivas Brothers stoneware whisky jar in the Trust’s collection at Castle Fraser
There is a wide range of containers in the National Trust for Scotland collections that were used to store and transport whisky.

Stoneware jars were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries for both the storage and transportation of whisky. These jars were usually produced in the potteries of large industrial centres in the Lowlands, such as the Caledonian Pottery Co Ltd (in Rutherglen, Glasgow) or A W Buchan & Co (in Portobello, Edinburgh), and would have been ordered with the information of the whisky/spirit merchant moulded into the ceramic. There are quite a number of these in Trust properties, and fragments of others have been found during archaeological excavations and fieldwalking. Notable examples include ones from George Willsher & Son, wine & spirit merchants, Dundee; James Laurie, wine & spirit merchant, Tynron, Kirk(cudbrightshire); R Toplis, spirit dealer, Glamis; Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd, Perth; and James Gray & Sons & Co, Leith, Edinburgh.

From the point of view of the Pioneering Spirit project, perhaps the most significant example of a stoneware flagon is one in the Castle Fraser collection, which is stamped with the name of CHIVAS BROTHERS, SCOTCH WHISKY MERCHANTS, ABERDEEN. Our project is funded by and working in partnership with The Glenlivet, who are part of the Chivas Group.

In addition to the stoneware jars, there are two small (1922cm high) oak kegs in the Angus Folk Collection at House of Dun. Both are bound with willow and one is flat-sided, the suggestion being it was easier to strap onto a horse. They are thought to date to the first half of the 19th century and are typical of the small containers that would have been used for transporting small quantities of whisky away from illicit still sites. In Edwin Landseer’s c1829 painting, The Illicit Highland Whisky Still, a woman is shown holding a small keg tucked under her arm. We have created a 3D model of one of the Angus Folk Collection small kegs.

View the 3D model of the whisky keg

A small, wooden whisky keg, with bands of willow wrapped around the top and bottom, is displayed against a plain grey background.
A small whisky keg

Until the middle of the 19th century most whisky, even at the large licensed distilleries, was sold straight from the still. After 1860, the larger blenders like Chivas Brothers were selling mature single malts, blended malts and blended whisky. They did this long before the Immature Spirits Act in 1915 which stipulated that whisky had to be matured for three years in oak barrels before it could be sold. For the large quantities produced, huge bonded warehouses were required to hold the thousands of barrels. Barrels were transported by cart, and later by railways and lorries, to the market and spirit merchants.

There are a number of old whisky boxes in the Trust collection (which have often been reused for other purposes) including one wooden crate marked with: HUNTER’S VICTORIA BLEND. OLD SCOTCH WHISKY JAMES & GEORGE HUNTER, GLASGOW. Another is marked with the name of Arthur Bell & Sons, Perth. A wooden cupboard in Moirlanich Longhouse, near Killin, is known as a whisky cupboard but may have been used for the storage of lots of different goods.

By contrast, the movement of illicitly distilled whisky was a lot smaller in scale and had to be kept secret. The whisky was transported by lines of pack ponies (each pony could carry 15 gallons), led by gangs of smugglers. They used the less-frequented hill tracks to avoid confrontations with the excisemen. Indeed, many of the old tracks through glens were used by both drovers taking cattle to market and by smugglers (probably often together). Some of these tracks are known as ‘smuggler trails’ and some are even marked on maps as such!

On approaching a town the smugglers would be met by representatives of the spirit merchants and publicans. These middlemen were called ‘Blethermen’ as they brought leather skins to carry the whisky in. A price was haggled, agreed and paid before the smugglers turned around and headed back to the hills.


We’re continuing to unearth fascinating stories about Scotland’s whisky heritage, and we’d still love to hear your stories too!

Get in touch at whisky@nts.org.uk.

Pioneering Spirit

In partnership with The Glenlivet, we’re uncovering and sharing the history of illicit whisky production in Scotland.

Find out more