The Secret Still: Scotland's Clandestine Whisky Makers

The Secret Still: Scotland's Clandestine Whisky Makers

The Secret Still: Scotland's Clandestine Whisky Makers

The Secret Still: Scotland's Clandestine Whisky Makers


"The Secret Still is the most comprehensive book ever devoted to Scottish illicit distilling. It examines the historical events and legislation that gave rise to and sustained its boom years, during which the Scottish countryside, and even city centres, teemed with 'sma' stills' and were awash with whisky which had been distilled without payment of excise duty. Using an innovative blend of formal documentation, apocryphal tales and oral history, acclaimed whisky writer Gavin D. Smith follows the fortunes of the illicit distillers as successive governments tried to prevent them from plying their trade, describing their manufacture, transportation and eventual consumption of the product of Scotland's clandestine stills. The book covers all areas of Scotland in which illicit distilling took place, and also looks at legal distilleries which had their origins in the illicit trade, including famous names such as Highland Park and Lagavulin. The result is a fascinating glimpse into an activity that was a major factor in Scotland's black economy until the second half of the nineteenth century." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


A great deal of romance has grown up around the figure of the noble Highlander, distilling without benefit of a licence in order to feed and clothe his family. Stories of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the whisky-makers are legion, as are those concerning the brutality and incompetence of their opponents, the excisemen. The reality, inevitably, was less simplistic than the myth suggests. Not all 'home' distillers were motivated by family values, and by no means everyone in the Highlands approved of the trade in illicit whisky.

Nonetheless, this trade was, at times, vast. Successive generations of Scottish historians have failed to stress just how significant it was to the 'black' economy of the country during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and particularly to the black economy of the Highlands and Islands.

Scottish illicit whisky-making was practised from Shetland in the north to the Borders in the south, where distilling is documented at Wester Buccleuch in Selkirkshire during the late nineteenth century. As in so many areas of Ireland and North America, illicit distilling was feasible, particularly in the Highlands, due to the remote and impenetrable nature of much of the countryside. Local availability of barley, pure water, and peat to fire the stills, also tended to influence location, yet there are also many accounts of illicit operations boldly turning out whisky in the very heart of Scottish towns and cities.

The Scotch Whisky Association notes that 'Taxation in the UK is extremely high, accounting for as much as 70 per cent of the retail price of a typical bottle of standard blended Scotch whisky', but in real terms whisky is more affordable to most British drinkers today than it has been for most of its 'civilised' history. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in Smuggling in the Highlands, 'the extent of illicit distillation depended in a great measure on the amount of duty, and the nature of the excise regulations. The smuggler's gain was in direct proportion to the amount of the spirit duty; the higher the duty the greater the gain and the stronger the temptation.'

In Scotland the term 'smuggler' rather confusingly referred not just to those who traded in illicit whisky, but also to the people who . . .

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