History

Daylight robbery

Dave Broom retraces an old smuggling trail and discovers why so many brigands got away with pedalling their illicit hooch.
By Dave Broom
I once killed a horse with whisky.” It was the casual way that John Christie, former blacksmith of Glenlivet, dropped this nugget of information into the conversation that made it so disturbing. The fact that he was eyeing up Starsky and Katie our two Highland ponies while divulging it just heightened my sense of dread, especially since Starsky had already tried to drink my first dram of the day. “Aye, we'd collected a pail of the white stuff when we were emptying barrels. We turned round and the horse had drunk it. Next day he was dead.” I'd met John the previous day when he’d regaled me with stories of the wild old days. When I’d mentioned that three of us were heading off on a 40-mile trek to retrace an old smuggling route it was clear he would not miss the chance of being in at the start of this ridiculous escapade. Some tourists were shuffling around, cameras poised. You can understand why. The last thing you expect to see in a distillery courtyard is three men dressed in kilts and walking boots, loading up two white ponies with casks of whisky and camping gear. Actually one man was doing the work – Jim Cryle, guide, distillery manager, Glenlivet brand ambassador, pony breeder. The two hacks, myself and Chris Orr, did what hacks do best, flap around the fringes trying to look efficient. “Why are you doing this?“ asked the tourists. At that point on a chilly, smirry (drizzly and misty) morning, I was asking myself the same question. The stimulus was an interest in marginal history, the acts of the forgotten people. The smuggling era is glossed over in most histories of whisky, yet the bulk of whisky sold in Scotland and England prior to 1825 was illicitly distilled and had been smuggled out of the Highlands by men with ponies.Who were they? Why did they do it? What was it like? Was there any resonance today? That was the serious bit. We were also doing it because it was a gloriously, absurdly stupid thing to do.We headed uphill from the distillery and out of the hard, hilly farmlands of Glenlivet, slipping away from visitors’ centres, large stills and massive production, back into a time when every farm had its own still, and when this remote glen produced what was regarded as the finest whisky in the Highlands. Joining the Speyside Way on Carn Daimh we plodded through a damp and boggy wood before the trees parted like a curtain. Before us spread a deep sea of purple heather and, on the horizon, the gloomy wall of the Grampians with the serrated summit of Ben A’an dead ahead – our marker for the next day and half. First we had to make camp in Tomintoul. The path was blocked by a succession of gates, forcing us to take a huge detour, wandering about through the heather like bewildered sheep. I was hoping no-one was following us and seeing what must have looked like a Highland version of City Slickers, with Jim as Jack Palance. Passing a farmhouse with a ‘Pets will be shot’ sign hanging outside made us pick up the pace and swagger into Tomintoul, much to the bewilderment of the locals.Over pints of locally brewed Wildcat beer I found myself in an animated discussion with a man who would only reveal himself as The Professor. “They’ve perfected peat essence you know,“ he told me conspiratorially, “they just add it to the washbacks. Wish I could get hold of some, I’d paint my house in it.“ Clearly it was time for bed.The ponies seemed remarkably pleased to see us the next morning as we struggled with the complicated mess of straps that secured the deer skin saddles. We were heading due south along the banks of the river A’an (Avon) through a mix of beech and birch woods, the trees festooned by beards of grey lichen, small blue flowers sparkling in the hedgerows. But it wasn’t until we started heading into the hills that we began to understand what went on in those days. Across the hill, five miles to the east was the old military road that linked Tomintoul to the garrison at Corgarff. No great surprise that the bands of smugglers used tracks like this that linked their way through small glens and high passes to the main towns in the south. Remote roads, known only to locals, were difficult to patrol. It swung the balance away from the gaugers (excise men) back in favour of the smugglers. Even so there was little incentive to catch smugglers. The gaugers may have been paid a percentage of what they seized, but they rarely made any profit. Result? Even the most insanely dedicated eventually succumbed to bribery and corruption and the river of illicit hooch flowed on, barely checked. It flooded into the southern markets from every corner of Scotland. Quite what made Glenlivet so special is a matter of conjecture. It was probably less to do with the quality of the ingredients and more to do with geography. Glenlivet was remote enough to have virtually permanent stills (and better quality whisky) while also being close to a network of smuggling routes. Was it any good? We stopped our mobile hairy bar, as Katie was christened, and consulted a bottle of The Glenlivet 18-year-old for inspiration. “It certainly wouldn’t have been like this,“ mused Jim. “The smugglers would have been carrying rough stuff, aged for as long as it took to get from still to the market.“ We were far from habitation now. The A’an was shallow and rapid running, the hills covered in a purple haze of heather, golden eagles soared above, deer were on the hill. The odd larach (ruin) gave a clue to the fact this part of the glen was once used extensively for summer grazing. Now it’s empty – and kept that way by landowners who use it for “sporting pursuits”. In smuggling times, these landowners were the same men who turned a blind eye to the smuggling, not only so they could get a decent dram but so they could ensure that the whisky sold by their tenants would pay the rents.We left the A’an as it swung west to its source in the Cairngorms and followed the Builg burn upstream to Loch Builg. As the path climbed, we began to pick our way through huge granite boulders, veins of quartz threading through them like drifts of snow. It was slow going. The sun had come out, we could feel the first lashes of sweat on our backs and our feet began to ache.The burn cascaded into a deep brown pool shaded by old rowan trees, the perfect spot for salmon. Jim then revealed that Loch Builg was one of the few lochs where you could catch Arctic char. Having survived on sandwiches and whisky, the thought of hot fresh char was almost too much to bear. We should have thought less about char and more about the Arctic and taken it as a sign. The horses were brushed down and put in their corral while we set about putting up our tents, much to the amusement of some mountain bikers who were also camping there. Cheerily telling us it would be “a bloody cold“ night they disappeared into their polar sleeping bags, clad in the sort of gear that Arctic explorers wear. We looked at our exposed knees, thin sleeping bags and opened a bottle of champagne. What the hell. The arctic char were huddled at the bottom of the loch, too cold to be interested in Jim’s lure, so we retreated into the tents to spend a night of fitful sleep. This was August, the smugglers would have done the same trip in late autumn and winter.The early sun thawed us out quickly. It also brought out the midges which flew straight up our kilts and got us racing along the track in double quick time leaving Loch Builg, steaming in the morning sun, behind us. The high hills and crags of the previous day had given way to a gentler landscape as we headed east beside the meandering river Gairn. Just before Corndavon Lodge we passed by the ruins of a clachan (small settlement). A heavy smell hung in the air, a cluster of beehives in the tiny glen the only remaining human touch in what once would have been an extensive crofting community. Gairnside, like the rest of the Highlands, is depopulated and in many ways the smuggling era was the last, defiant flurry of Highland culture. Most crofter-farmers found that illegal distilling was the only way they could survive. Barley from the less fertile soils of Glenlivet, or Gairnside didn’t command as high a price at market, it was also easier to transport liquid than barley. When demand increased for the illegal stuff, so production increased, as did the rents, which meant that farmers were compelled to distil and smuggle. By 1814, Highland farmers were almost wholly dependent on distilling for their livelihood. Illegal it may have been, but at least making whisky allowed them to stay on their land. The 1823 Act, which permitted production of malt whisky from small stills and the licensing of distilleries, rang the death knell for the crofter-diltiller. The landowners and richer tenant farmers moved in and started making whisky in large new legal distilleries. The crofters now had no way to pay the rent and left the land (or were forced off it). It would be over-exaggerating the case to say that today’s distillers are embarking on another clearance, but John Christie could remember 50 people working at The Glenlivet. Now three of Seagram’s eight distilleries are one-man operations. It’s the same across the industry. Perhaps it’s inevitable, perhaps the spirit is more consistent, but it’s the local population who are once again at the sharp end. We left the Gairn and headed due south once more, towards the vast indigo wall of Lochnagar and the gentle woods of Deeside. A flash of sun off a car windscreen on the Lecht road told us the end was in sight. We had walked 40 miles, had approximately four hours sleep, had eaten nothing but sandwiches and drunk more whisky than water. We were unshaven, unwashed, crazed and strangely sad that this steady contemplative rhythm would soon disappear. We’d had an insight into the reality behind one of the myths that bedevil the industry, we’d glimpsed into the past and uncovered some strange ghosts, some that still haunt whisky today. As we descended into Deeside, an ironic thought struck us. Today’s smugglers driving white transit vans would be shipping illegal whisky into Britain from France.