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8 Dec 2020

Pioneering Spirit: Illicit whisky stills at Mar Lodge Estate

Written by Dr Daniel Rhodes
A man in wet weather gear stands in a rocky area beside a stream. Behind him are the almost covered stone remains of a walled structure. Tall pine trees grow in the area.
Trust archaeologist Dr Daniel Rhodes photographing an illicit still site at Creag Phadruig, Mar Lodge Estate
Some stories require time to be brought to life. Others, like Pioneering Spirit, demand to be told because the narratives that they reveal are so inextricably linked to our human journey and our connection with place.

As work begins on Pioneering Spirit, a project delivered in partnership with The Glenlivet using archive and land research to reveal the scale of illicit whisky production in Scotland, it’s clear that there is still much to be told.

There’s a rich history of townships and farms on what is now Mar Lodge Estate. Now uninhabited, these areas were once places where people went about their rural lives, producing and exchanging the things they needed to see them through each year. Many of these places have been mapped, but for the first time the National Trust for Scotland and The Glenlivet are investigating how whisky (both its making and smuggling) formed a part of life in this region.

There are currently eight known illicit still sites on Mar Lodge Estate. Through archaeological investigation led by Dr Daniel Rhodes, we’re learning more about how these sites were used and the history of local whisky production. We’d like to discover who was producing the whisky and how it was made. Was it being smuggled out of the region and sold illegally? Are there more illicit whisky making bothies that remain as yet undiscovered?

Two men work on a heather-covered landscape. One man sits in the heather, smiling. The other man, closer to the camera, holds a sketch pad. In front of him is a taped area with two red marker depth poles.
The illicit whisky still sites at Mar Lodge Estate have been hand-drawn by the archaeology team.

In 1824 Samuel Morewood wrote An Essay on the Inventions and Customs in the Use of Inebriating Liquors. In it he described the discovery of an illicit whisky still:

‘Perceiving, however, some brambles loosely scattered about the place, he proceeded, to examine more minutely, and on their removal, discovered some loose sods, under which was found a trap door leading to a small cavern, at the bottom of which was a complete distillery at full work, supplied by a subterranean stream, and the smoke conveyed from it through the windings of a tube that was made to communicate with the funnel of the chimney of the distillers’ dwelling-house, situated at a considerable distance.’

The first law pertaining to the production of whisky in Scotland was the Excise Act of 1644, which meant tax had to be paid on any whisky put up for sale. However, private production that was not destined for sale was legal and exempt from tax. It was estimated that, by the 1760s, private distillers were producing around 500,000 gallons a year – about 10 times the amount of taxed production! In 1781 distilling for private consumption was banned.

However, approximately 300,000 gallons were smuggled across the border into England in 1787 alone. By 1815 the law had got tougher and made it illegal to produce whisky in small stills (less than 500 gallons) in the Highlands. In 1823 a new Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of just £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. This turned the production of whisky into a potentially profitable activity, and many former illicit distillers now could work legally. This included the first licensed distillery under the new act: The Glenlivet.

A man in wet weather gear photographs a small stone structure on a heather-covered hillside.
Like this site at Tomnamoine, many of the still sites are located near historical townships but are well hidden.

The Trust’s archaeology team have now conducted the first phase of fieldwork at Mar Lodge Estate, and have begun to record the still sites in detail. The next stage of our study is to turn the photographs into 3D computer models to better understand the locations of the illicit still sites. Then, we hope to work with volunteers and the local community in spring 2021, excavating areas that will give us evidence of exactly how people went about the clandestine production of Scotland’s most famous drink. These findings will be used to inform a multi-dimensional public engagement programme, incorporating trails, events and exhibitions to be rolled out later in 2021.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite further, The Glenlivet are offering an exclusive 10% discount off their range to Trust supporters up until Christmas.

Visit The Glenlivet website and apply the discount code PIONEERINGSPIRIT20. A further 2% on all sales will be donated to the Trust, in addition to The Glenlivet’s donation to support the delivery of the Pioneering Spirit project.

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