Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer


The paths smugglers took through the hill can still be seen

Whisky Smuggling in Glenlivet

Wednesday 21st of February 2018 12:08:38 PM

Whisky has been made in Scotland for a very long time though the earliest written records date back only to 1494 when it was noted that Friar John Corr was commissioned to buy 8 bolls of malt (a quantity of grain) to make aqua vitae for King James 1V.

In those days, whisky making was very much a cottage industry. In wintertime, when sodden fields kept farmers off the land, they would turn to other work, making use of any excess barley, to produce Uisge Beatha, the so-called ‘water of life’.

When taxation was introduced by the Scottish Government in 1644 the whisky distillers were distraught but did pay up grudgingly. The tax system seems to have been fairly complicated with farmers being taxed at different rates – the size of the farm, or the size of the still on the farm determining how much money had to be paid.

That system lasted until 1707. On the 16th January in that momentous year Scotland signed the Treaty of Union.

By 1713, the power of government had moved from Edinburgh to London and when finance was needed to keep British soldiers fighting wars all over the world, it was decided the best way to do this was to raise the tax on Scotch whisky. However, taxes were raised too high and whisky makers refused to pay them.

As if this hardship was imposed only yesterday, the tour guides at Aberlour Whisky Distillery on Speyside tell groups of visitors, “at that(taxes being raised too high) we were driven into the hills, forcing us to make our whisky illegally!’’

There were many bloody battles in these hills between the gaugers, (customs and excise men) and the illicit distillers. It got so bad that the Red Coats, soldiers of the English Army were ordered to rid the hills of illicit stills, of which there were hundreds.

“But we fought back to save our amber nectar,” the guide relates as if he had been there, personally wielding a sword.

This battle raged on for over 100 years.

In 1822 King George 1V visited Edinburgh. He came dressed in full highland regalia – kilt and sporran with a Tam o’ Shanter bonnet on his head. He demanded Glenlivet whisky knowing full well that the output was illegal. Of course, this caused the Government great embarrassment – even though they knew where to find a supply.

“Everybody,’’ an observer noted, ‘‘including lords and lairds, members of parliament and ministers of the gospel, drink what is in reality, illicit whisky. It is far superior to that made under the eye of the Excise’’.

But now the matter was out in the open and everyone was aware of it. The Government now offered a reward to anyone who would give them information on the whereabouts of illicit stills. The reward offered was £5.00.

With this chance of easy money the illicit distillers would keep working on their product until their whisky stills had burnt out. When that happened, they would report the whereabouts of their burnt out still to the government officers and claim £5.00 reward. A government agent would come and inspect the burnt out evidence before handing over the money that enabled the distillers to buy new equipment and carry on making more whisky.

It wasn’t always so easy. The smugglers’ bothies (secreted dens) were dark, smoky, unhygienic places. Camouflaging a site was crucial as the work places had to be difficult to find. A story is told of how one smuggler was shocked at finding a local gamekeeper reclining on the heather topped roof of his still house! Another smuggler constructed his chimney in such a way so the issuing smoke blended with the spray of a nearby waterfall.

Great ingenuity was shown, not only in carrying out the various distilling processes, but in warning other whisky makers of the approach of the excisemen.

Even as late as 1904 it was written, ‘In Strathspey and neighbouring localities where a mutual bond of protection exists, it is the practice, when the exciseman is seen approaching, to display immediately from the house top, or a conspicuous eminence, a white sheet which, being seen by the people in the next ‘town’ or farm steading, would indicate a similar signal should be hoisted. Thus, the alarm passes rapidly up the glen. Before the officer can reach the transgressor of the law, everything will have been carefully removed and so well concealed that even when positive information has been given, it frequently happens that no trace of the work can be found.’

Because the actual still represented an expensive item of equipment, much trouble was taken to hide it when the distilling operations were completed. Some distillers would tie a cord and a float to their equipment then throw the lot into the waters of a nearby loch. Others would hide their equipment in the pulpit of the Kirk. For his help in this skulduggery the church officer would expect a good dram.

These nefarious activities were commonplace until the Duke of Gordon, owner of the Glenlivet Estate at the time and a powerful man in government circles, decided to do something about this illegal activity. He knew there were hundreds of men and women on his land making whisky illicitly, but he didn’t want to stop this work completely. Otherwise, how would his tenants be able to pay the rent he demanded?

The Duke went to the Government and made a case for his tenants for the reduction of their taxes. He also asked for a reduction in the cost of a licence and in the legal size of a still. At that time, the legal size of a still was 400 gallons.

After much deliberation, the cost of a licence was set at £10.00. The legal size of a still was reduced to 40 gallons and taxes were cut in half. This was a much more viable proposition. The bootleggers could now consider making their product legally. .

The Duke went back to his Glenlivet estate and tried to persuade his tenants that whisky making within the law was best.

The very first tenant the Duke managed to convince was a man called George Smith from Upper Drumin Farm. Mr. Smith was granted a licence to make whisky legally on 1st November 1824. He could now produce and sell his whisky openly. However, at the same time, to those yet to be convinced, he became the most hated man in the glen.

George Smith had a ready made customer base – King James 1V had made sure of that.

“The rest of us,” the guide at Aberlour Distillery will tell you, “kept on making our whisky by dead of night and we felt that George Smith was a threat to our livelihood!”

“So much so, we tried to get rid of him, to burn his premises down with George Smith inside.”

“On a number of occasions, we even tried to stop him as he delivered whisky to his customers.”

But Smith was made of stern stuff. With the help of a pair of pistols he had received from his great friend, the Laird of Aberlour, Smith used the weapons to great effect – not only to save his whisky still, but also his own skin.

As Smith began to prosper, more and more of the illicit distillers came to realise he had made the right decision. Eventually they began to make the trip to Elgin and pay for this new licence which allowed them to produce whisky legally.

By the 1840’s, it was believed there were no illicit stills left in the glens. Whisky was still sold in casks holding eight and a half imperial gallons and as yet there was no bottling. When the bottling process did appear in the 1850’s, George Smith took an interest. His agent, Andrew Usher from Edinburgh, was the first to brand and bottle Old Vatted Glenlivet.

This was the beginnings of the huge Scottish whisky industry that reaches round the world today.

Glenlivet lies between the Ladder and Cromdale Hills in the Cairngorm National Park in North East Scotland. Nowhere in Glenlivet is lower than 600 feet and winter snows can last into the spring. The estate is managed to provide opportunities for sustained employment in agriculture, farming, sporting and tourism.

As part of the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in May, there are a number of guided walks. One of the walks follows tracks taken by the whisky smugglers who made their way with their precious cargo, perhaps being harassed by excise men, to customers as far away as Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

Wildlife watching from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle also gives an insight into the lives of the whisky smugglers. An estate tour guide will drive to the best places where visitors may spot roe deer, red deer, brown hares, red and black grouse as well as smaller birds. These creatures were a necessary food source for the smugglers.

Knowledge of grasses and other plants, such as heather, was also important. As well as camouflage, heather could be made into ropes or a belt to sling a couple of small kegs of whisky over each side of a pack horse.

Close up, smuggling was hardly a romantic lifestyle. It was more of a necessity, as was the ability to make use of whatever materials were available.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

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Take the Train

Tuesday 16th of January 2018 11:20:12 AM

Sestri Levante in Liguria in north-west Italy is a coastal town on the lyrically named Riviera di Levante. An especially lovely part of the town overlooks the curve of the Bay of Silence where moored yachts and work boats of a few fishermen add to the picture postcard seascape.

A relaxing way to reach this corner of Italy is to go by train. Two hours after leaving London St. Pancras you can be stepping down from a Eurostar onto a platform at Gare du Nord, Paris. An overnight stay, or even better, a few days exploring Paris might be a delightful option before continuing your journey.

From Gare du Nord it takes only a few minutes by Metro, the city’s extensive underground train system to reach Gare de Lyon and a train bound for Venice. On any train journey there may be a few anxious moments on boarding and getting settled but on this long distance train the seating is comfortable with plenty of leg room, individual reading lights and a table.

From Gare de Lyon, the train crosses an expanse of rural France where fields of flat farmland appear to stretch for miles before meeting distant uplands. Further south in Switzerland the train passes through tunnels and alongside lakes and grey green rivers. On the terraced slopes of nearby hillsides, precisely spaced rows of vines grow in every available space. In the background, jagged mountain peaks pierce the sky.

Our first stopover was in Geneva, Switzerland. When we arrived in the late afternoon it was already growing dark so we didn’t manage to see a whole lot of the city. But while exploring quiet streets near the Hotel Edelweiss where we stayed overnight, we came across a busy restaurant serving typical Swiss dishes including fondue and local wines. It proved to be a good choice.

From Geneva we travelled to Milan where we changed trains again, this time within the same station before heading to Sestri Levante.

In late autumn, at the end of the main tourist season, Sestri Levante is pleasantly quiet with a restrained air of confidence. The town offers a choice of stylish hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, upmarket shops and hard - to - resist gelaterias selling variously flavoured ice creams.

With one of those ice creams to hand, it’s a delight to join the passaggiata, the early evening procession, as dog walkers, pram pushers, strollers dressed to be seen and those on mobility scooters or in wheelchairs make their way slowly along Via Roma.

In the restaurants, fish and sea food dishes including lightly battered anchovies, sea bass, hake and octopus are some of the specialities on the menus. If pasta appeals there’s plenty of choice especially as Liguria is known for its varieties of pasta and for being the home of pesto sauce made with locally grown basil, believed to be particularly pungent and flavoursome due to the area’s combination of salty air and sunshine.

While some visitors may not stray far from the beach loungers placed a few metres away from the gently breaking waves of the Bay of Silence, thousands of others head further south to the Cinque Terre, to explore the five colourful villages - Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore that sit dramatically on cliffs above the deep blue sea.

Not so long ago, these villages were emptying. Young people were moving out in search of further education and employment opportunities but now year round tourism keeps each village busy. They can be reached by road though a less stressful option might be to arrive aboard one of the ferry boats which leave from Sestri Levante and from other towns further down the coast.

Walking the coastal path between the villages is popular and though guide books suggest the14km will take between 2.5 and 5 hours, it is a strenuous walk in places and for many people of a certain age would not be a mere stroll in the park.

The Cinque Terre was hit by a flash flood on 25th October 2011which caused a lot of damage. In mid-October 2017, the coastal path was closed between, Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia due to landslides. However, should these parts of the path be closed long term, it is well worth taking the train to Riomaggiore, exploring the village and the coastal path as far as the National Park safety barriers allow, then heading north on a train to Manarola to spend some time there.

For our next day of walking the coastal path, we took a train from Sestri Lavante to Corniglia. From the station, it’s a stroll along the pavement before starting up the zigzag staircase of 382 steps, the ladarina, which leads walkers on to the coastal path to Vernazza. Along the way there are other similarly steep sections though thankfully with fewer steps. Other lengths of the path have been paved with flat rocks while on some corners, larger, rougher rock serves as steps between levels.

On one side the terraces are contained behind dry stone walls that were built and repaired over centuries. On the seaward side there are wooden railings in place where the path runs along particularly precipitous parts of the hillside sloping down to the sea.

Over the years as people moved away from the area, these terraces were farmed less and soil erosion and landslides added to the environmental damage. However, in 1997 this area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been given further protection through its National Park status. Behind the miles of dry stone walls there are rows of productive vines and groves of lemon and olive trees. To help the full time workers, a small army of volunteers from many parts of the world are given the opportunity to help in the maintenance of this beautiful land.

From many points on the path the views of the colourful villages, out to sea and along the coast, are stunning and vast. In the villages, the narrow lanes and squares appear timeless though a few premises now house shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. When conditions are fine, sunbathers and swimmers head down to the shore to enjoy the sea and sunshine.

With hindsight, should we visit the Cinque Terre again, we would walk just one section per day, say, between Corniglia and Vernazza and allow ourselves more time to stand, stare, and find the perfect spot where we would sit in the shade with a picnic.

On heading home on the train journey north we stopped off in Turin. As darkness fell, we joined the crowds mingling in the impressive city centre squares lit with coloured light. Large numbers of people, out for the evening, strolled by the attractive shops along the length of the covered passageways. Other groups watched the proficient buskers playing music ranging in style from pop to classical. Having enjoyed our short time in Turin, we would definitely like to visit the city again.

This trip by train was a relaxed affair allowing us to people watch and enjoy the passing scenery and ways of different countries. Definitely recommended.

Further information: Ferries sail between Siestri Levante and the 5 villages between April and mid-October

There is a ticketing system allowing walkers access to the coastal path and other parts of the National Park.

Railbookers.com organised our train travel and hotel bookings.

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A Glasgow Mural on a gable end off George Street

Glasgow Murals Trail

Friday 4th of August 2017 09:54:07 PM

Though some areas of our towns and cities are blighted by unsightly graffiti when artists with talent are given scope to create outdoor art the results, on a grand scale, can be spectacular.

In Glasgow, some of these art works are huge, covering whole gable ends of tenement buildings. A few of the images commemorate people who have made their mark in various diverse fields, including astronomy, music, and in the case of Billy Connolly, comedy and film.

Walking the City Centre Mural Trail may take you to parts of the city you’ve never explored before. Pick up a booklet containing a map from one of the city museums and head east along George Street to find Mural No1.

Some of the art installations are temporary. More information can be found at www.citycentremuraltrail.co.uk

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Chatelherault was used at different times as a summer palace and dog kennels


Thursday 6th of July 2017 01:33:28 PM

Have you ever noticed road signs on the M74 pointing the way to Chatelherault near the town of Hamilton? Like thousands of others you may have wondered where the unusual name came from.

It’s derived from the French town, Chatellherault. The Duchy of Chatellherault was a gift from King Henry 11 of France to the 2nd Earl of Arran, a Hamilton, for his part in the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to the French heir in 1548.

Later, the 5th Duke of Hamilton used the similar name for a building that has served as a hunting lodge, a summer palace and a dog kennel. Essentially though, Chatelherault, which is only one room deep, was especially designed as a sort of ostentatious terminus to catch the eye at the end of the tree-lined Grand Avenue stretching south from Hamilton Palace which was once the largest non-royal residence in Britain, possibly even in Europe and the main residence of the Dukes of Hamilton from at least 1591 until 1919.

Unfortunately, Hamilton Palace is no more. It became a casualty of Lanarkshire coal mining operations and had to be demolished in the 1920’s. Chatelherault meanwhile, was also falling into disrepair.

Today however, after extensive restorations, it has been brought back to its former glory and now forms the impressive centre-piece where visitors usually begin their explorations of Chatelherault Country Park.

Let’s start from the front door with a turn along the paved path that edges the borders on three sides of the pink sandstone building. These borders contain some trees and ornamental bushes but it was mainly herbs that were grown here.

The Duke’s table in the 18th century would have been fairly dull without them. In fact, flowers rarely got room in his garden unless they were edible. Among the herbs for use in his kitchen were parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil. Some plants were also cultivated for drying before being spread on the floors to mask the smells of everyday living. Others were used to scent the air. There’s nothing new in today’s pot pourri!

Herbs were also grown for medicinal purposes. Rosemary twined in your hair was thought to be an aid to better memory. Lemon balm, it was believed, given every morning, ‘will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature’. If only it was that easy!

At a gap in the border there is a low gate in the garden wall. Behind it, patterns have been created in the grassed area with low box hedging.

Continue along the path and the views stretch all the way to the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell with the distant hills of Ben Lomond and Drumgoyne beyond.

From the lawn area at the back door it’s a steep drop down to a much lower green sward. This different level is the result of quarrying in the past. In fine weather the space is enjoyed by children playing and picnicking. What, I wonder, would the Hamilton aristocracy have made of all this fun and games? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the local populace were seen merely as a source of income while they dug out sand and mined the coal on the Duke’s estate.

The women in this collier population were serfs or slaves like their husbands, fathers or brothers and worked with them in the mines. ‘Muscular strength in a female, not beauty was the grand qualification by which she was estimated and a strong young woman was sure of finding a husband’. If the women attempted to escape, they were liable to be seized and brought back to servitude.

However, in a letter written to the Duchess of Hamilton dated January 2nd 1851, the Duke’s factor, Robert Brown, who must have been more enlightened, described how an Act of Parliament passed on 13th June 1799 changed a way of life. In his letter he was attempting to persuade the Duchess to finance the education of these young women. Education, he pointed out, would be their saving. Their refinement would benefit the whole country and prosperity would follow.

Off to one corner at the rear of Chatelherault stands a small, square red sandstone building. Over the years it has served many purposes. Most times it was just a posh garden shed but along the way it became known as the Leopard House where the Palace leopard was kept. On other occasions it housed the 6th Duke’s polar bears! Other animals known to have used the facility included a monkey, wolf, eagle, peacock and peahen.

Before completing your walk of the square and returning to the front door of Chatelherault, look out for a small herd of Cadzow cattle. They may be seen grazing amongst the sheep in the distance. The estate is one of only a few places in the country where this rare breed with white coats and long, black - tipped horns are kept. They are possibly the descendants of wild cattle that roamed the ancient Caledonian Forest which once covered large areas of Scotland.

Wild white cattle were the sacrificial beasts of the Celtic Druids and the Romans. When the Romans left Britain, large numbers of these beasts were turned loose to roam the forests. Tradition has it that King Robert the Bruce hunted wild bulls around here in 1320 as did James 1V of Scotland two centuries later.

But never fear! As you wander the woodland paths, keep in mind that the cattle of old were rounded up and driven into parks more than three hundred years ago during the time of the enclosure of the great estates. Wild things to look out for now include bluebells, butterflies and birdlife. Stroll out to the Duke’s Bridge and you may spot, far below, a grey heron standing stock still studying the slow flow of the Avon Water.

This twisting path runs past the remains of Cadzow Castle and further on, the venerable Cadzow Oaks. Some of these trees are thought to be up to nine hundred year old remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Although they are hollow they still support a vast amount of insects and other wild life.

Chatelherault Visitor Centre has a wealth of information in the display area covering the natural history of the Clyde Valley and work that took place here on the estate.

In the banqueting room and Duke’s room you’ll have to crane your neck to appreciate the marvellously restored plaster work on the ceilings and walls.

Now try and imagine what life was like here for the bright young aristocrats who charged on horseback through the Chatelherault woods by day and danced at parties in these rooms by night. A dog’s life in the dog kennels? Not a chance

Further information: The visitor centre has a shop and a café/restaurant and information on the various woodland walks. At the entrance to the Country Park there is a play area for children.

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