Illicit whisky distilling in the Highlands

The illicit whisky trade was well suited to the Highland life. In traditional farming communities, families had to work with each other to be able to grow enough to support themselves.

This fellow feeling meant that it was unlikely that anyone would report someone to the law. Many turned to making whisky as it became harder to survive as farmers.

"the lower orders almost breed their children to it as a sort of profession;.....they must do it or starve," Sir George MacKenzie of Coul's letter, used as evidence for a Revenue Commissioner's report in 1822.

Sons would work in the Lowlands for a few months until they had earned enough for an illegal still, then return home. People made deals with local farmers to supply the barley on account; once they sold the whisky, they divided the profits with the farmer.

Small-scale whisky distilling was a traditional part of Highland life, and once the law changed, even those who enforced the law saw little wrong in the practice and often turned a blind eye.

"There is not a justice of the peace who can say, that he does not, in his own family, consume illegally made spirits"
Sir George MacKenzie of Coul's letter  

Landowners benefited from the trade, as it helped their tenants to pay their rents. Many landowners were also the judges that decided the fate of those who broke the law.

Sir George Mackenzie wrote that to "sit in judgement" meant that any penalty or sentence given to the tenant would mean he could not pay his rent.

Whiskey making process

First the barley had to be malted.  In very simple terms this involved soaking it in water and then heating it under specific conditions.

The process created a mix called mash, which was put in the copper pot and heated to boiling point.

The vapours containing the alcohol were then cooled down in a coiled pipe, called a worm, which was attached to the pot. Here it turned back into liquid, whisky.

The common still was quite small, as it needed to be easily packed up and hidden should the law arrive.