Illicit Distilling in Aberdeenshire
At a Justice of Peace Court held at Aberdeen yesterday – before Mr Cook of Ashley (presiding), and Mr James Murray – John Gordon and James Gordon – two elderly men-farmers, Loinveg in the parish of Crathie and Braemar, were charged, on the complaint of Charles France Watson, and at the instance of the Inland Revenue Commissioners, with having , in a house occupied by them, a private or concealed still for making of spirits, which was set up or kept in the house by the said John Gordon and James Gordon, who were not licensed under any law of excise to keep a still; whereby they rendered themselves liable to forfeit the penalty of £200 for the place in which the still was found, and a further penalty of £200 for the still.
They pleaded not guilty.
Mr A. Emslie Smith appeared for the Crown, and Mr John Murray, advocate, defended. Evidence was led at length.
Mr Watson was the first witness. He stated that in consequence of information which he received, he went to Loinveg, accompanied by Mr Brereton, the officer stationed at Ballater. The object of his visit was to discover an illicit still. On reaching the farm they went into the wash-house, and there found a large copper pot (produced) capable of holding about 15 gallons. The pot was full of water. He saw the housekeeper, Mary Gordon, told her who he was, and that he was about to search the house. She at once took him into the house. He saw there the accused James Gordon who was ill in bed. He told him also the object of their visit, and he at once expressed his willingness that the house should be searched.
Placing Mr Brerton at the door to watch the movements of the housekeeper, he went upstairs. The upper part of the house consisted of two bedrooms with a passge between. In the passage two large chests stood, one of them particularly large. He found nothing in the chests or the bedrooms, but on removing a larger chest a trap-door leading to a secret place under the roof fell down. On going into the apartment he found a tin vessel – (produced). It was cylindrical in form, with a sloping top. From the side of the vessel three short pipes, about a foot in length, emerged. Lying near were three loose pipes which fitted tightly into the other pipes.
During the time witness had been upstairs, James Gordon had left his bed. He then searched underneath the bed, and discovered a wooden cover, which was lined with tin. In the cover was a round-hole into which the tin vessel fitted exactly. This cover fitted the copper-pot. The apparatus then formed a complete still.
In the wash-house was a plentiful supply of water brought by gravitation in a v-shaped wooden pipe from a hill stream. He also found a large mash tub of about 60 gallons contents. It had a false perforated bottom, and was between two and three feet deep.
The Gordons declared that the still had belonged to their father, and had not been used since his death 40 years ago. A mash-tub was found in the wash-house and destroyed by the officials under the powers conferred on them by Act of Parliament.
Mr Murray objected to evidence being led on this point, on the ground that the mash-tub was not referred to in the complaint, but the objection was repelled.
Continuing, witness stated that the pot might be very old, but the vessel which formed the head was of very recent date, and had still more recently mended by soldering. The pipes were also blackened apparently by fire. The still was rather a rude apparatus. The chinks between the head and the lid had been filled up with clay, part of which still adhered to the head. Witness also produced what he might be called pieces of consolidated scum which had adhered to the top. The presence of the scum proved that the still had been used within three months.
John Gordon came to the farm some time later. He had been working at a peat moss three miles distant. Like his brother, he expressed profound surprise at the officer’s find. He also declared that it had been used by their father, and had not been used since his death. James Gordon said the still had been found in the house, and there was no use denying it. Witness then removed the whole concern to Ballater. The accused furnished the means of conveyance, and accompanied the officers to Ballater.
While sitting in the officer’s house in Ballater, James Gordon said it was a poor thing to get them into trouble for, and that they had tried to make a run, but were not successful. He afterwards repeated that statement.
Cross-examined by Mr Murray – He had seen several stills, but never one like this. He called it a still because its use was perfectly evident to him. He did not think it could be put to any other use, although the lower half might. There was no ‘worm,’ but the still was complete without it.
By Mr Smith – There would be no difficulty in cooling all vapour that would come from a pot of such a size. The water brought into the wash-house would be quite sufficient.
Mr Brerton, Officer of Inland Revenue at Ballater corroborated.
Mr John Duff, manager, Bon-Accord Distillery, who stated that he had been engaged in distilling for 30 years, said the apparatus could be used as a still, but he would not like to drink the whisky. (Laughter.) Twenty years ago it was common to use clay for stopping leaks.
James Sim, foreman coppersmith with Messrs James Blaikie, stated that in his opinion the soldering had been done within the past year.
For the defence, William Innes, Strathdee Distillery, gave it as his opinion that the still had not been recently used. He could find no trace or smell.
William Ross, foreman with Messrs Shirras, Laing & Company, said that in the soldering, resin had been used as flax, and as this formed a film, the soldering might keep its fresh appearance for many years. The first time it was heated, however, the flux would be destroyed. In his opinion, therefore, it had not been used since the flux was applied. The kettle was an ordinary copper kettle, of which his firm sold dozens.
Mr David McHardy said the kettle was one such as was ordinarily used at farms. He did not think the head had been recently used, but he would not say it had been out of use for years. Asked as to what the apparatus might be used for, he said he had heard a still called “Highlandman’s trousers,’ but he never saw one with three legs. (Laughter.)
Mary Gordon, accused’s housekeeper, said she used the kettle in connection with her washing. It had been used to hold water to dissolve sheep dip. She had never seen the three pipes put to any use, in fact she could say they had never been used during the nine years she had been at Loinveg. They lay for some time in one of the rooms upstairs behind the ‘meal girnal’ till she put them into the place where they were found. She was not told to put them there. Whisky had never been made at Loinveg during the nine years she had been there. Information, witness alleged, was given to the supervisors by a woman with whom she had had a quarrel, and who brought an unsuccessful action for slander against her on the previous day.
Peter Smith, farmer, Strathgirnock, stated that he had been intimately aquainted with the accused all his life. He never heard anything more unlikely than the statement whisky was made at Loinveg. If there had been he thought he would have tasted some of it. He had got whisky there, but not home-made whisky. He knew it was not home-made from the taste of it.
Mr Smith – How do you know the taste of home-made whisky? I have heard it described. I have never tasted it myself, but I have been told it is much better than hotel whisky.
Mr Smith – But do you think that these people would have told you if they had been breaking the law? Witness – Well, yes; I was so intimate with them.
Mr Smith – Smuggling was not looked upon as breaking the law? – One man would not have concealed it from another except that he was an enemy. It was a mutual understanding that if anyone was told or knew of smuggling he should keep it to himself.
This concluded the evidence, and the agents addressed the court. Mr Murray said that the still could not be said to have been set up within the meaning of the Act. He argued that the articles were kept merely as relics of what some people called the ‘good old days,’ and were not intended for use. Mr Smith said that if it were necessary that a still should be in full working-order, convictions would never be obtained.
Mr Cook, in giving the decision of the court, said that old pots and pans would not have been kept as relics; they must have been for use. There was no doubt about that. A penalty of £2.10s for the premises and £2.10s for the still – £5 in all – was imposed on each of the accused, the alternative being thirty days in prison.
The moral of the case of illicit distilling heard yesterday at the Justice of Peace Court, Aberdeen, is that it is unsafe to preserve as relics the apparatus once in use by a progenitor who had a wholesome contempt of the Excise.
Without doubt, the proper quarter in which to store such heirlooms is a museum where they can be duly labelled and set in full view of a curious public.
A couple of elderly farmers from Loinveg, a remote and inaccessible place in the region of Ballater, were charged of being in possession of a set of utensils, which in the view of the prosecution, constituted a complete still. It was pleaded that the articles had belonged to the father of the defenders, who died forty years ago, and that they had not been ‘used’ since that time. That is to say, the only use to which a certain large copper pot, holding fifteen gallons, had been put was for boiling clothes in and holding sheep dip.
That a conviction was obtained shows that the Justices did not accept the defence in its integrity, while it enforces the old lesson to beware of even the appearance of evil.
It is interesting to observe from the evidence that the time is not so remote when illicit distillation and smuggling were not looked upon in the rural districts as constituting an infraction of the moral law. There are districts, indeed, in Ross-shire as well as in Orkney and Shetland, where such practices are even yet winked at by the respectable classes. But it may reasonably be supposed that nowadays, within the civilising radius of large centres of population, public opinion follows and supports the law.
Ireland, it is true, is a notorious exception to this rule in regard to illicit traffic in drink as well as in certain other respects. Poteen may still be had in every district from Donegal and Derry down to Waterford and Cork, and that under the very nose of the Excise. The explanation, however, is that the population, being out of all sympathy with the law, and partial at all times to a ‘drop of drink’ on cheap and easy terms, make no effort to aid the authorities in dealing with the traffic. But these people are not so simple as the Aberdeenshire defenders in the Loinveg case. If by chance a pious ancestor has left a still in the family, they take care not to obtrude it on the view of all and sundry.
The Aultdrachty Rauchle.
Naebody mynds Aultdrachty noo,
though lood it rattles still.
Yet Aultdrachty’s watter wis’nae awas clear,
an it hods a muckle saicret.
Sae hearken, an hear the feech
o’ the packman, shepherd an the whisky smugglers.
An beyont the reevin win’
the toon-folk, michty-me,
brought forth their ceevil brolly –
Fit mare eesless cud there be!
Stapit foo’ wi dram he wis,
oor Packman on’t fairst erran –
oor hapless loon had’nae heed Aultdrachty’s rowt
on such a fearfu’ nicht.
The snaa it came ower the Moonth, a bin-drift,
like nane afore.
Poor loon, asleep aside Aultdrachty,
his lum still a reekin’ was berit.
Linvaig, wis the hame of McAndrew: anither mither’s loon –
lured by Aultdrachty’s cackle.
then risen fae a halla, a sleekit naisty beast,
seelenced by Aultdrachty it pounced.
Aye Aultdrachty saa it’ fearsome.
Aultdrachty’s rauchle had a’ thirst that widnae slack.
Half a’ doozen smugglers naixt tae the slauchter,
theer bellies reed-het wi’ watter distillate,
jeelous Aultdrachty cud’nae hae that!
Aye the watter wis nae awas clear.
An then Aultdrachty reeled its maist keerious,
the hapless, stupit toon-folk,
the umberella makkers:
fit an’ earth tak them tae Aultdrachty, nane will ken,
nane but Aultdrachty.
Fit a spleeter o’ weet,
A shooer like nane
eesless brollies, blan in-bye-oot,
sae they huddled by Aultdrachty.
The watter it fell oot fae the heeven fur days, an nichts,
an fullt the quaich o’ Aultdrachty welt beyont the brim,
Ceevil folk, wi brollies, had nae chance.
That’s how lood wis Aultdrachty’s rattle
an sae its keerious tae think
the glen it ken’t has lang since ceased to roar.
by Dr Peter J. Gordon
Peter’s short films about Deeside [please click on each image to play a different film]