Friday, November 22, 2013

Whisky wars, riots and murder most foul...


I am very pleased to welcome a guest blogger this week, the great writer and  extremely entertaining lecturer Malcolm Archibald.  I sat through a lecture of his recently, taking notes  for this blog but I  realized I couldn't do the subject justice, so I asked the man himself to write it.
He is a man  of many talents, currently  lecturing  at  Inverness College, part of the  University  of the  Highlands and Islands. He was born in Edinburgh  but saw sense and moved. His interests, as you will see are  19th Century Crime... and there seems to be a lot of it for  him to write  about...

A long queue at the book signing....a welcome sight for any author.

Malcolm  is the one on the left. Defo.

Scotland is a strange place. A small country at the uttermost fringe of Europe, it has an image of romance that is not always balanced by reality. The misty hills and serene lochs are often storm-battered, barren and bleak while the tartan-bedecked clans spent much of their energy butchering each other in merciless battles for scant resources. The history of the nation is of constant struggle for independence against much more populous and relentless enemies, while the people toiled to wrest a living from acid soil. Given this unforgiving background it should be no surprise that the 19th century provided a plethora of interesting events.
                                                       West Bow, Edinburgh

   Crime, like anything else, is dynamic. It alters with time and place, yet surely there is no country that can provide such a variety of different crimes within such a small compass as 19th century Scotland. Edinburgh, the capital, had the Burke and Hare murders, body snatchers who suffocated some seventeen victims and sold the bodies for medical research. For a while they haunted the West Bow and Grassmarket in the shadow of the castle, until one medical student recognised the corpse he was dissecting. Hare turned King’s Evidence and Burke was hanged.
  Dundee, fifty miles north up the east coast, had the theft of a whale. Dundee was a major whaling port with men who were not averse to twisting the law to suit themselves. When a ship from a rival port harpooned a whale, the Dundee men pounced, outfought their rivals with long flensing knives and towed the whale away. The case came to the High Court and went against Dundee.  Aberdeen saw a riot in an industrial school and the theft of the body of a long dead aristocrat that eventually involved Scotland Yard, a private detective and filled feet in local and national press.
  Glasgow, the industrial giant and once the leading shipbuilding centre of the world, saw the theft of an entire ship. The vessel was taken south, its appearance and name altered and it cruised the seas under forged documents, taking on cargoes and sailing away without paying a penny so the proceeds were pure profit. Only the sharp eyes of an Scottish emigrant in Australia stopped her career and some of the culprits were caught. The mastermind behind the scam was never discovered.
  But all these cities pale compared to the crime in the Highlands. There may be a perception that the north of Scotland was quiet, people by soft spoken Highlanders who spent their time crofting and singing songs about the old days. Nothing could be further from the truth.  In the 1820s the Highlands were riven with violence as the government cracked down on illicit whisky distillation. At one time every area made its own whisky, but little revenue rattled into the maw of the government’s coffers as the Highlanders sent convoys of ponies from their glens toward the cities, with each pony porting panniers of whisky, ‘peat reek’ in the parlance of the period. Glenlivet alone was reputed to export some 2000 gallons a week.

   In return the government sent military garrisons north, manning long abandoned castles such as Corgarff beside the Lecht Pass in the Cairngorms, and mounted patrols through the whispering hills.  Given the stubborn nature of the Highlanders, the results were predictable. Whisky smugglers carried arms and there were clashes between both sides in the Wild North of Scotland. Excisemen, soldiers and smugglers fought bloody battles in remote glens. One such was at Cabrach on the border between Aberdeenshire and Moray in February 1827 when a band of twenty smugglers ambushed a patrol of Excisemen, shooting Peter McIntyre in the groin and threatening to burn the rest alive. ‘Shoot the whole of the bastards!’ somebody shouted. Following the hurried retreat of the forces of authority, the police eventually transported two men to Australia for the term of their natural lives.
                   A still. There is a saying up here - never drink whisky poured out a lemonade bottle.

   Other cases were less clear cut. There was Malcolm Gillespie, an exciseman who was allegedly wounded forty-two times in his long career. He used his own methods, had a specially trained dog and became a sort of bogey man in the north east of Scotland. At a time when the Excisemen made up their wages by a bonus for every gallon of whisky they captured, Gillespie was notoriously efficient, but eventually his luck turned and he was hanged for forgery. His memoirs are a fascinating insight into the times.
                                                                 The hills around Tarbet

   But the Highlands had more troublemakers than just whisky smugglers. Away up in the far north east is a town called Wick. In the 19th century Wick was a major player in the herring fishing, with thousands of fishermen and hundreds of boats arriving as the fleet followed the silver shoals around the coast of the British Isles. Unfortunately, with so many men from different ports congregated in one place, there was invariably friction and Wick was often the centre of fierce riots as men from the Western Isles battled with men of the East Coast. In one major riot in 1859, the fighting lasted days as the fishermen rushed over the Bridge of Wick to get to grips with each other. That riot ended in an epidemic of stabbings, the recruitment of 150 Special Constables and calls for the Royal Navy and the army to help restore order. In the Highlands riots were  a way of life; they rioted over cholera, grain shipments, the franchise, evictions, land grabs and religion.  But there was a softer side as well and that will be the subject of the last piece in this blog.
   There is romance in every community, and occasionally a man and woman fall in love despite the disapproval of their parents. Such an event happened in the Isles in the early months of 1850. Donald MacDonald of Baliloch had fallen deeply in love with Jessie MacDonald of Balranald in the Island of Harris. Donald worked as a factor in North Uist, the next island to the south. However, Jessie’s family had another man in mind for her; Patrick Cooper, who was Lord MacDonald’s factor in Harris.
                                                      Caught in the ice
   When Cooper was absent in the Island of Skye, Donald and Jessie eloped, riding a dog cart from Baliloch Lodge to the Lochmaddy and then sailed to the town of Tarbert where they were stormbound. Unfortunately the Balranald MacDonalds were also there, together with Cooper, who carried two brace of pistols.  The Balranalds and Cooper boarded the vessel and physically wrestled Jessie away from Donald. They took her to Rodel House at the southern tip of Harris and left her there in the care of her uncle and aunt. 
   Returning to North Uist, Donald planned his next move. Rather than leave things as they were, or try and persuade Jessie’s family to change their mind, he chose direct action. He gathered a fighting tail of his friends, chartered a boat and sailed the twenty stormy miles to Rodel. They carried sticks and staves, and when the Kenneth Macdonald of Rodel lifted a pistol, Donald Mackenzie knocked it out of his hand. The operation was as complete a success as any commando raid. Although they had to break a dozen laws, they won Donald his wife and life continued as before. Things in the Highlands were never quite the same as elsewhere in Scotland.

Malcolm Archibald 

Caro Ramsay 22/11/2013



  1. Yikes! You make the American West sound tame by comparison. Thanks for the column, Malcolm!

    1. That would be the same American West peopled by such characters as Davie Crockett [of Scots extraction]; Chisholm [part Scottish] MacPherson who fought the Indians, General Grant who led the Union armies. . . we probably caused half the trouble there!

  2. well Everett a combination of tall thistles and wearing the kilt is bound to give the average highlander a somewhat errr....jaded outlook on life....

  3. Fascinating post Malcolm. I literally did a double take when I read your description of Scotland "at the uttermost fringe of Europe" for it so reminded me so much of the character of a place at Europe's southernmost fringe, Greece's "The Mani" on the Peloponnese, a place where blood feuds ran into the 20th Century, the Turks never conquered, and the rest of Greece feared. Perhaps Caro hit upon an explanation for their behavior as well, for the Greeks had their "skirt like" combat fustanellas and more than enough thistles to go around...and under... and ...

  4. We have midges as well; tiny wee flies with a bite like a tiger; they hunt in the millions and seek tender areas to chew. Now try wearing a short kilt when they are one the prowl and see how fast you can run. . .

  5. So the message of your blog is that if the Scots vote for independence in the upcoming referendum, the traditional countrywide bloodbaths will resume, and the vibrant Scottish crime fiction genre will be swamped by a red tide of gory, thrilling nonfiction?

    1. Hi Lenny: if anything, Scotland was less bloody than England in the 19th Century. If Scotland votes for a return to national independence, then hopefully the Scottish government will be more inclined to support the Arts than the government[s] in Westminster. Only time will tell.