case studies

Case Study: Archaeologies of tax evasion - illicit whisky distilling

The archaeological remains of an illicit whisky still, nestled next to a burn on a hillside. Water was necessary for the distilling process and this, in part, appears to determine the landscape location of such stills. However, their location was also conditioned by the need to be within reach of the settled area of the landscape but also hidden from the gaze of the authorities. Distilling sites like this would have been a matter of local knowledge, forming part of a landscape of meaning as well as one of production. © RCAHMS

According to the authorities and to the intellectuals who wrote our sources for the 18th and 19th centuries, the Scottish state was to be a well-ordered and fully-controlled exemplar of Improvement and Enlightenment.  The experience of the people in the towns and townships was, of course, very different.  How did they negotiate attempts to transform their lives and identities?  What about ‘everyday resistance’ – those minor acts of pilfering, sabotage and tax evasion by which people affirm their own agency and power in the face of authority? (Scott 1990)

Archaeology’s concern with ordinary daily practices across the social spectrum, and its unique ability to access them, provides a real opportunity to address these issues.  Caches of alcohol bottles in a prison, hand querns where tenants were obliged to use the estate’s water mill, smugglers’ secret paths and brandy holes – all of these speak not just to personal economic benefit but the negotiation of new identities and the maintenance of pride and self-respect.

A particularly striking example of this is illicit whisky distilling.  With progressive rises in taxes and duties across the 18th century, illicit whisky became cheaper to produce and pleasanter to drink than the legal variety.  It also provided the distillers with the necessary means to pay their rents, now that commercially-mindedlandlords were demanding cash in place of rent in kind.  By the 1820s, the quantities of illicit whisky being distilled were colossal: some 4,000 stills were being confiscated each year in Aberdeenshire alone (Devine 1994, 119-126).

The archaeology of illicit whisky distilling is still in its infancy but, even so, the work which has been done has made it clear that the distillers were creating a social landscape that emphasised sense of community, continuities with past rhythms of daily life, and their own agency and power (Given 2004, 138-166). To the people who used them, the material aspects of distilling – jugs and condensing worms, bothies and kilns, platforms and paths – were intensely important for their sense of self and community.

Contrary to later romantic stereotypes, the stills were not in remote and lonely locations, but typically 20–30 minutes’ walk from the nearest settlement.  They were served by well-used paths and regular patterns of movements between lowland and upland that preserved the daily and seasonal habits of the pre-Improvement landscape.  Their hidden locations in ravines, under outcrops or on islands created a landscape of local knowledge, where community members could tell (often in Gaelic) stories mocking those ignorant outsiders, the gaugers who knew neither landscape nor language.

Return to Section 5.3 Constructing the state: pacification and defence



Case Study: Searching for Scipio

In 2007, the National Trust for Scotland undertook an HLF-funded project entitled This is Our Story to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. As part of this project, a travelling display was developed on the subject of the slave trade and its connections with Trust properties in the west of Scotland, including Greenbank House and Brodick and Culzean Castles. Archaeological research was used to focus attention on this subject by examining the site of Scipio Kennedy's house within Culzean Castle estate.

Volunteers digging on the site of Scipio’s House, Culzean Country Park, © National Trust for Scotland

At the turn of the 18th century, when Scipio was around six years old, he was taken from his home in Guinea and forced onto a slave ship bound for the West Indies. He was intended for the plantations but, instead, was bought by Captain Andrew Douglas of Mains in Dumbartonshire. In 1705 Captain Douglas' daughter, Jean, married John Kennedy who, five years later, inherited the family home of Culzean Castle.

Scipio - still a slave - came to live with the Kennedys at Culzean, taking his new master's surname. During his time Scipio learned to read and write and also learned something of textile manufacture. A contract of 1725, held at the National Archives of Scotland, granted Scipio his freedom and the right to seek employment elsewhere. In the document, signed by John Kennedy and Scipio, the African agrees to remain in Kennedy's employment for a further 19 years. He married a local girl, had eight children and, when he died at the age of 80 in 1774, his son Douglas erected a gravestone to his memory in Kirkoswald graveyard.

One small part of the This Is Our Story project was to undertake an archaeological excavation of the possible site of Scipio’s house at Culzean. The house is shown on Foulis' 1755 map of the estate as a long building with chimneys at either end, surrounded by a small garden, within a larger enclosed field. It is likely that the house was demolished in the 1780s during major landscaping works around the castle and nothing survives above ground today. Five small trial trenches were excavated in the vicinity of the house's location. Local volunteers took part in the fieldwork along with many of the Country Park Ranger staff and other NTS staff.

While the exact site of the house remains unknown, artefacts recovered by the excavations suggest it is close by. Pieces of hand-made bricks, a shield-shaped roof slate, fragments of sandstone, and shards of crown window glass were all found. Given that the house was built in the early 18th century, it might be expected that the roof would have been thatched, but according to the documentary records a good deal of money was spent on its construction. A figure of £90 is quoted for the house which may suggest it was a fine and large house which could have been slated. It was seemingly large enough to have regularly been used to hold meetings, and reputedly the local smugglers met there. Other artefacts include sherds of post-medieval green glazed reduced ware, shards of bottle glass and what appears to be a lead seal perhaps for cloth or a bottle.

Importantly it is was through the process of archaeological excavation that it was possible to tell Scipio's story and to link what was happening in this one corner of Scotland with what was happening the wider world during the 18th and 19th centuries. Further archaeological research on this site, and others like it, has the potential to bring to light the nature of life as a slave in Scotland in the 18th century and to allow connections to be drawn with the nature of slavery elsewhere in the modern world.

Return to Section 4.2 The Individual