The whisky stills of Arran – illicit and legal

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Arran man Gregor Adamson was the speaker at the March meeting of the Arran Historical Society.

The subject was the history of whisky production on Arran, with the emphasis on the illicit manufacture of ‘Arran Water’ as the product was known. The first written reference records that King James the fourth granted distilling rights to Lindores Abbey in 1491! Legislation in 1781 and 1784 outlawed the distilling as a cottage industry- an important source of revenue. The country was split into the Highland area and the Lowland area (the boundary passed between Arran and Ayrshire) with higher taxes levied in the Lowlands!        

Gregor captivated his audience with a brief history of distilling of ‘uisge-beatha’, made using barley yeast water and heat. The whisky bore no resemblance to modern whisky as it was crystal clear, fiery and could be undrinkable! By 1797 there were 50 illicit stills ‘sma’stills’ at the south end alone, Distilling was moved to remote areas in bothies- the remains of one can be seen at Smuraig.

Often the whisky makers were economically vulnerable tenants, widows, the elderly etc.- their only income to pay the rent. Traditionally women were the distillers. It is recorded that five women were fined in 1802 and another in 1806. The whisky could be very profitable, and the men involved in smuggling took risks – three men were drowned in 1822. Whisky smuggling was a desirable occupation, indeed a Kilmory minister of the day classed it as an honorable occupation. The smugglers ran the gauntlet of the Revenue Cutters, and the excisemen.

The good reputation of Arran whisky was obtained by using copper stills. The source of copper stills was Robert Armour of Campbeltown. It is recorded that one William Jameson of Torrylinn had his confiscated but was able to return the following day for a replacement.  

There was a clampdown on illicit stills between 1815-1817 due to the Duke of Hamilton’s land reforms. The tenants were pressurised to stop distilling as it was a hinderance. This resulted in the ‘The whisky killing’ at Shannochie in 1817. A search found four illegal casks then William McKinnon,  his son Donald and Isobel Nicol were shot dead when a crowd threatened the armed crew of the revenue cutter.

This was followed by the Excise Acts of the 1820’s which played a critical part in eradicating illegal distilling.  

Gregor followed with the legal production by licensed distillers such as the The Old Lagg Distillery set up by three locals who formed The Arran Distillery Company. In 1840 it went out of business as it couldn’t compete with the larger distilleries based in Campbeltown. Now 170 years later the south end will once again be involved in the distilling of whisky when the new Lagg Distillery opens for business.

The next speaker is Robert Barclay from Ayrshire, an expert on Robert the Bruce, especially on his base Carrick and Arran, on Monday April 15 at 2pm in Brodick Hall. At that meeting members will be given details of the field trip to Skipness in May.

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