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