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Malt Whisky - Taxation

In 1644 whisky was taxed for the first time. Taxes were also imposed on the stills, barley, malt & wash. Lowland distillers had to abide by these laws and pay the taxes because there was nowhere to hide.

However, It was when the British Parliament in 1713 decided to impose a proportion of the English malt tax in Scotland that the great age of illicit stills and smuggling really began.

It ensured that illicit whisky was of superior quality to that distilled legally since the legal distillers, to keep the malt tax to a minimum, used a high proportion of raw grain. And it was chiefly the Highlands, with its remote glens and hillsides where whisky could be made undetected, that became the centre for illicit distilling.

The unenviable task of closing down illicit stills fell to the revenue officers - the excisemen or 'gaugers'. Highlanders defied the excisemen by smuggling their illicit whisky into the Lowlands and into England. Thousands of gallons were transported in pigs' bladders and tin panniers hidden in the voluminous dresses of the smugglers' womenfolk.

Among the greatest of the smugglers' wives was Helen Gumming, whose husband John founded Cardhu distillery in Knockando, Moray shire. She was more than a match for the excisemen. There were no inns for many miles, so officers on a visit to Knockando used to lodge at the farm. According to local tradition, as soon as she had prepared their meal and set them down at table, she would steal into the backyard to hoist a red flag over the barn. This was a signal to warn neighbours that the enemy had arrived. The whole area was a nest of illicit distillers.

Tales of outwitting the excisemen have become part of Scottish folklore. In one such tale from Ross-shire, a party of excisemen captured a large cask of whisky which they took to a nearby inn. However, in the room below, smugglers bored up through the ceiling into the cask and drained off all the whisky into a cask of their own. The excisemen were left without a sample! Stills were discovered in the most unlikely places, from land-locked caves on the west coast, to under the Free Tron Church in Edinburgh's High Street.

Sometimes violence was used against the excisemen: they were bound and gagged, bribed, even killed. But illicit distilling was not considered a serious crime in itself. Magistrates would often impose only a nominal fine on an offender. Government attempts to control illicit distilling only made matters worse - the duty on whisky destined for England reached such a level that it finally damaged the trade of legal Lowland distillers.

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