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7 Jun 2022

Tales from the stills

A woman stands in a gorge-like area on a hillside, holding a spade. Branches and tree roots grow horizontally out from the mossy hill, and there appears to be a kind of cave to the left of the woman.
An illicit still site at Ben Lomond
Last year, we asked for people to share their stories about whisky production in Scotland so that we could find out more about the illicit stills at our places. Here are some of the highlights.

Story 1: Ben Lomond

Alasdair Eckersall

I can’t remember if it was 1992 or 1993, but I can still remember the first time I scrabbled along into the hidden gorge and came across this strange wee stone wall.

In my first couple of seasons working for the Trust at Ben Lomond, the main priorities were the footpath repair, and recording what habitats and species were present across the property. The latter involved a lot of exploring of the ground, particularly the places that grazing animals found harder to reach. This is where some scarcer plants might have been able to survive the threats of the centuries of human settlement and land use. The little gorge that the wall was in didn’t look too promising at first: it had a worn, narrow sheep track into it, and dark rhododendrons had colonised the top of the opposite bedrock face.

It was obvious, though, that the wall (or, more properly, revetment) was the feature of interest here. Why would somebody build these stones up in this completely enclosed, narrow gorge? With the damp dripping down the mossy banks and rock faces, it didn’t feel like the sort of place you’d choose to build a rough bothy, and the midges soon put paid to any notions of it being good because it was sheltered from the wind.

The wall itself was puzzling. Barely visible under moss and grasses, it was only about 2ft high and maybe 4ft long. There was a flat area in front of it; was this where some activity took place, for which the wall was part of a shelter? The ground was relatively level extending back from the top of the stones as well, but apart from those features there was nothing to give any clue as to what this place was about.

Nothing, that is, apart from the dark and hidden nature of the gorge. What went on here was surely something that had to be kept from prying eyes ... whisky sprang to mind!

A man stands in a rocky gorge, with large trees growing out of the sides.
Alasdair at the still site at Ben Lomond

Story 2: Island stills

Information gathered by Emily Wilkins

A colleague on Mull suggested the cave on Burg, near the fossil tree, was used for distilling whisky. The cave, known as Uamh nan Eas (the cave of water), sits at the base of a waterfall.

On Iona, the place name Lon na Poit Dhubh refers to the ‘gulley of the black pot’ (usually taken to be a copper pot still).

On Pabbay, one of the Bishop’s Isles, Trust ranger Jonathan Grant reported that the place name ’Sloc Glancy was named after a guy who had a still situated there. The story is he also fell to his death there. Possibly after a tasting session?

On Canna, a ruined cottage close to the shore on the island of Sanday has been pointed out as the traditional place of a still.

But what about St Kilda? Did the St Kildans enjoy a tipple? Well, there’s no clear evidence for a still site, although with over 1,000 cleits on Hirta alone there were plenty of places to hide one. We do know, however, that the island of Berneray in the Sound of Harris, which has very close ties to St Kilda, was a hotbed of illicit distillers.

A waterfall tumbles over a cliff to the boulder-strewn beach below. Beside the bottom of the waterfall is a small cave. A group of people walk along the beach towards the cave.

Story 3: Gladstone’s Land

Kate Stephenson

Whilst we don’t have any stories of making whisky, we have plenty of tales about drinking it! There has been a succession of taverns, dram shops and pubs in Gladstone’s Land, including a fairly unbroken run between the mid-19th and mid-20th century. We have quite a lot of information about these (and some images/objects) including a reference to the Ross’s Dram Shop being a haunt of sex workers in the 1860s and a painted mirror from the Rabbie Burns pub in the 1950s.

1817–18 – J Baston

c1829–30 – William Campbell

1833–37 – Alex Cameron

c1838–39 – Charles Hardie

1848 – Robert Hill
The Scotsman recorded the sale of the shop belonging to ‘tea and spirit dealer’ Robert Hill. Although we don’t know exactly what Hill was selling, based on the inventories of other spirit dealers it’s likely that he (and his predecessors) were stocking whisky as well as brandy, wines and ales.

1857–78 – William and Jane Ross
William and Jane ran a dram shop here. William died at the property in 1858 and Jane continued to run it by herself until 1878. She died in 1880 at her residence at 8 Lauriston Park, and left her property to her children from both her marriage to William Ross and her previous marriage to John Urquhart. Her eldest son, William Urquhart, was left the Lawnmarket premises.
It seems that spirit dealing ran in the family: Jane’s sister Isabella ran a premises in the Cowgate after her husband died in 1854.
During the 1880s, one of their neighbours was convicted of illegally selling whisky without a licence. This was reported in the Edinburgh Evening News, 6 October 1874:

Illicit Traffic in Whisky in Lawnmarket
A man named William Wheelan, was charged, at the City Police Court, with selling whisky in his house in the Lawnmarket on Sunday morning, without having the necessary license. It appeared from the evidence that a printer, named McKay, who had been on the spree all last week, went as the magistrate subsequently remarked, to get “a hair of the dog that bit him,” to the prisoner’s house. He drank two glasses of whisky on the premises, for which he paid 6d. He went away, but returned for more, which he carried off in a bottle. Determined to get entirely rid of his thirst, he again went back, and paid 1s for half-a-mutchkin. As in the previous instance, he was sent outside the door until the liquor was put into his bottle, and while he was waiting the police, who had been watching the place for some time, appeared. On questioning him, he stated that he had brought drink in the house, and on the officers searching the house, they found a gallon jar containing whisky. The prisoner kept a small green-grocery shop, and the officers saw about 20 persons go out and in while they were watching. In answer to Mr Dundas Grant, who appeared for the defence, the officers stated that only two or three came out with vegetables, the rest seemed to be carrying nothing. In connection with this case, a charge of assaulting the constables against Wheelan was also brought, and the magistrate found both charges proven. The penalty for the first offence was $15 of a fine, failing payment imprisonment for three months; and for the second, the prisoner was fined 10s with the alternative of ten days imprisonment. He had been convicted of assault and of illegal traffic on former occasions.

1878–84 – James Stuart (rented from Jane Ross/William Urquhart)

c1884–97 – Dougall McColl (rented from William Urquhart)

1897–1904 – James Sinclair (rented from William Urquhart)
Sinclair transferred the liquor licence into his own name in October 1897 (listed in Edinburgh Evening News, 8 October 1897 under ‘list of applications for certificates for the sale of exciseable liquors’)

1904–21 – James and John Oliver (rented from William Urquhart)
James Oliver appeared in The Scotsman, 13 April 1904, when he applied for a new licence for the premises, which was referred to as a ‘jug bar’ – this was because people supplied their own jugs. It’s likely that it was during this period that the public house became known as the Robbie Burns Bar.

1921–c1925 – Andrew Crosbie Brown (sub-let from the Olivers)

c1926 – James Twiss
He appears in a listing for the Robbie Burns Bar as a stockist of Dalkeith Ale.

1929 – Henry George Stuart
Stuart featured on a list of applicants for the sale of excisable liquors in The Scotsman, 2 October 1929, and was listed as a new tenant at the property. His occupation was given as ‘wine and spirit merchant’ and 479 Lawnmarket was designated a ‘Public-House’.

1935 – Alexander Speir Kennedy
The Robbie Burns Bar was renamed the Rabbie Burns Bar around 1940 and continued to trade until at least 1956, well after the National Trust for Scotland took ownership.

A black and white line drawing of an Old Town tenement in Edinburgh. It has six storeys above the street. Beside it stands a 4-storey building named Ross's Tavern. Several men walk along the pavement in front, or sit on the stone steps.
A line drawing of Gladstone’s Land

Story 4: Killiecrankie prints

Derek Alexander

As I was checking through online catalogues, I came across a D O Hill print of the Pass of Killiecrankie in the National Galleries of Scotland, which has an illicit still in it. David Octavius Hill (1802–70) was a Scottish artist and a pioneering photographer.

The print shows a flat-roofed bothy built leaning against a natural slope and open on the uphill side. Within the interior a wide-bellied pot still sits on a fire and it feeds into a still work in a large tub to its right. A larger barrel sits in the right-hand corner and could be a mash tun or for wash. A small whisky barrel lies on its side outside the entrance. The still is being watched by a woman who is seated with her back to the viewer and is wearing an apron and possibly a linen cap. The shadowy outline of a kilted figure is striding just to her right.

A strange cross-hatched rectangular frame sits at the far left of the image and may represent a wattle-work screen that was used to close off the entrance to the bothy and to hide the equipment inside when it wasn’t being used. What remains unclear is whether this scene at Killiecrankie was an actual still site or just added by the artist to give a bit of ‘typical’ Highland flavour, but certainly it is quite detailed.

The second print I discovered was from Aberdeen University’s Macbean Collection, which includes a print of the Pass of Killiecrankie that has the depiction of an illicit whisky still in the foreground. Although quite dark, it shows a rough shelter built out of un-dressed tree limbs with a low heather-covered roof. It sits at the base of a waterfall that feeds into a large barrel, presumably to cool the still worm. Smoke emits from a chimney on the right-hand side and fire blazes in the interior of the bothy. There is a suggestion of a pot still on the fire. Two figures with bonnets and plaids are positioned to the right.

Story 5: Loch Luichart

Rhona Jack

There is an illicit still near the Loch Luichart dam that my brother-in-law swears he discovered. While scrambling up the heather-strewn hillside, he came upon an unusual looking rock – a great monster of a thing perched precariously on two others. It seems to defy gravity, too large and heavy to be stable in such a place. Something feels quite perilous about climbing down the hole in the side, sliding your body beneath this behemoth. But below the rock lies a surprisingly comfortable space: part natural cave, part man-made construction. Gigantic hunks of stone seem to grow from the hillside, stabilised by a mosaic of drystane construction.

I visited this spot in the summer of 2018, at a time while I was the artist-in-residence at the Glenfiddich distillery, creating an outdoor stone sculpture inspired by the architectural craftsmanship of the distillery site. As an artist, my practice focuses heavily on craftsmanship. I am drawn to techniques that take time and repetitive action, requiring the kind of concentration that allows me to lose myself in the act of making. This way of working is ancient, and has created so many artefacts that are central to our culture and sense of how we are.

This fine craftsmanship is prevalent in the distilling of whisky, often romanticised but utterly undeniable. You feel it upon visiting the large distilleries dotted around Scotland, where recipes are passed down orally and generations of the same family hone the craft of distilling the perfect bottle of whisky. And even in the tiny illicit still by the Loch Luichart dam you feel the embedded history of the space in the carefully built walls and well-trod earthen floor.

I love to imagine the men that worked in these spots, huddled over a fire and still, hiding their craft from the exciseman. Their presence is evidenced by the structures that they built and items that they made, giving some answers and throwing up a thousand more questions about the ways in which they lived. Now there is little left behind, just the odd shelter in the hillside or tumbling croft, a copper still from time to time. And of course the stories; there will always be the stories.

Tales of the illicit distillers have been told and retold through the years, many of them passing into local legend. I remember my mother telling me stories of the distillers in Caithness, tales that she had heard during her childhood there. The rebellious spirit of the Wickers is apparent, and personified in the tale of Willie Thompson, a local hero of the highest order. A tricker of the excisemen who bagpiped them out of town after a failed raid on his illicit still, Thompson had the community rallied around him. What could be more noble in a small Scottish town than the evasion of the authorities to bring joy (in the form of a burning amber liquid) to your neighbours?

When I first heard of the concept of an illicit still in the bleak Caithness landscape, I imagined men working underneath the Flow Country. A hole cut in the peat bog, where men would crouch in dense smoky air, presiding over their craft. I envisaged a hot and sticky spot, filled with the rich sent of peat, the walls made of the stuff.

Now that I’m an adult, this construction seems impractical, and having seen an illicit still site made from stone, my imaginings of a peat-lined hole in the ground seem all the more improbable. However, the magic of these spaces will never be lost for me. My life may be a far throw from the lives of those who toiled under the stone ceiling at Loch Luichart but as I sit in my studio, methodically working with my hands, I feel a connection.

Story 6: Two pot stills

Gavin Tavendale

I got in touch because I have two copper pot stills in my possession.

Still 1 [seen below on the left]

I believe that this antique copper 7-gallon spirit still, with its twin lyne arms [the leading from the still head to the condensing worm], dates from the late 18th or early 19th century. If this still is indeed from before the Act for the Prevention of Frauds by Private Distillers of 1779, which reduced the permitted size of stills for domestic distilling from 10 gallons to 2, then at the time of use prior to the 1779 act, it was not illicit in nature at all. 1782 saw nearly 2,000 illicit stills captured by excise officers, although it must have seemed like a losing battle with an estimated 21,000 illicit stills believed to be in operation in the Highland area alone. Perhaps this is one of the survivors.

Still 2 [seen below on the right]

This 3.5-gallon copper still, with its single lyne arm, is certainly illicit in nature as it was made in the early to mid-19th century. It is unique in that the maker, namely a John McEuen Gray, an ironmonger based in Perth, had embellished the pot with an oval brass plaque with his name and business address on it! He was based at 7 George Street from 1828 until his death in 1869/70. The still has been drilled in several places, which is consistent with it having been ‘made legal’ for owning or indeed selling. The Perthshire Courier from February 1870 advertises the sale of former Perth town councillor John McEuen Gray’s chattels by public roup, conducted by Auctioneer Duncan MacFarlane on 15 February 1870. Perhaps this still was part of the estate and sold in that auction some 150 years ago.

Pioneering Spirit

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

Find out more