Digging up secret history

Archaeologists are hoping to shed light on farmstead distilling
By Rob Allanson
Researchers are hoping to dig up evidence of Scotland’s whisky-making past with an archaeological excavation at one of the earliest legal whisky distilleries in Scotland.

The dig is thought to be the first excavation of a traditional small-scale farm distillery, and it’s underway at Blackmiddens, a ruined steading in the Cabrach on the border between Moray and Aberdeenshire. This was one of the first farms to be granted a licence to produce whisky following the Excise Act of 1823 which effectively formalised the small-scale distilling of whisky (previously an illicit black market activity), leading to the global success story we know today.

The archaeological dig is being led by the Cabrach Trust, established to preserve the history of an area notorious for illegal whisky distillation and smuggling.

The excavation is especially exciting for 66 years old Joan Harvey whose great, great uncle, James Sharp, was the tenant farmer at Blackmiddens and the ringleader of a gang of whisky smugglers based there.

She said: “I was always told that my great, great uncle was the head of the gang at the time. We were the ‘freebooters’ who took the whisky to Aberdeen to sell in the pubs. Stories about their adventures were passed down my family.

“Apparently my great, great grandfather had a white stallion and when the excisemen were billeted locally he would ride his white horse, alerting everyone that the excisemen were in the area so that the whisky smugglers could go to ground.

“I was also told that, one time, the excisemen were trying to catch the smugglers and had set up barricades all around Aberdeen. My great, great uncle hired a horse-drawn hearse and loaded the coffin with whisky. When he reached the excisemen, they all took off their hats as a mark of respect for the dead, and the whisky went through!”

Chief executive of the Cabrach Trust, Anna Brennand, said: “The farm would have had a small 40 gallon (180 litre) still compared to whisky stills today which hold many thousands of litres. However, despite the fact that farms like this were famous for their fine quality spirit, whisky production at Blackmiddens stopped just eight years after it began and the farm fell into ruin. We hope to uncover some of the secrets of early whisky making in the Highlands with this exciting dig.”