Sunday, January 6, 2019

Taking the Skin off a Naked Highlander

The sentence of the court, on having found Taylor guilty, was a fine of £400.Taylor's agent, Mr G. M. Sutherland, lawyer of Wick, proposed, in view of his client's poor circumstances, the fine be reduced to £100, but the court declined any mitigation of the sentence.

Sutherland said: 

“The finding of the unreduced penalty against an asset pauper was the height of Justice’s justice, and justified the remark from the bench that they might as well fine him 400 pence. This is an attempt to take not only the breeks but also the skin off a naked Highlander.”

Imprisoned. —We believe that William Taylor, of smuggling notoriety, was lodged in Wick jail on the 7th ult. during H.M. pleasure, for non-payment of fine of £400 imposed by the Justices of the Peace Court, Wick on the 4th ult.
19 December 1878 - John o' Groat Journal - Wick, Caithness, Scotland

We learn that William Taylor, who was convicted in November last for smuggling in the parish of Latheron, was released the 7th inst., after three months… 
13 March 1879 - John o' Groat Journal - Wick, Caithness, Scotland

So William Taylor spent three months in the Wick Jail and was then released.

In 1978 the John O Groat Journal in a 100 Years Ago feature published a short comment on the ‘Notorious Smuggler William Taylor’ - a bit rich calling poor old Taylor notorious. But he had got the last laugh anyway as Dawe never found the 'worm' nor the head of the still - these essentials were a 'community property', and on the occasion of William Taylor's bad fortune, the missing equipment was in use by a man of the name MacGregor in Badryrie.

An article in the site further discusses ‘smuggling’ in the Badryrie area and mentions both MacGregor and Mackay.

According to David Campbell, born in Rangag, and living in that place all his days, Taylor’s wife had another malting ready for him when he got home.

To Contend With Little

David Campbell also told that as a boy, he was quite frequently sent to a house at Bennecheilt 'on messages'. He carried a basket in which was a note and money - the note read 'one dozen eggs, or two dozen eggs' - which, translated, indicated 'one bottle or two bottles'. These tasks of his youth would have taken place in the 1890s.

The census of 1881 shows William Taylor, aged 60, living in Stemster with his wife Janet, son Alexander, two daughters, Ann and Helen and a baby grandson. Their son James and his wife Catherine McLeod – whose wedding at Halsary had been the occasion of Dawe’s interest, emigrated to New Zealand in 1886 living near to Catherine’s McLeod kin in Martinborough.

The Exciseman Outwitted. 
Source: National Library of Scotland

The Statutory Penalty of £400


FINE OF £400
Wick Sheriff Court

At a Justice of the Peace Court held at Wick on Monday – Provost Rae and Bailie Bruce on the bench – William Taylor, residing at Stemster, in the parish of Latheron, was summoned on an information charging him with being the owner of an illicit still, the seizure of which, on the 13th of September last, has already been reported in our columns. The penalty for being the proprietor of the still is £200, with an additional £200 for the place where it was concealed. There was an alternative charge against Taylor of having the still in his custody, and for this the penalty is also £200, with £200 for the place of concealment. The aggregate penalty set forth in the information was thus £800.

Mr McLennan, procurator-fiscal, prosecuted on behalf of the Board of Inland Revenue, and Mr G. M. Sutherland defended. Taylor did not appear, and a certificate by Dr Burn was produced to the effect that defender was suffering from rheumatism, and was unable to come to Wick. It was explained that the case could be proceeded with notwithstanding Taylor’s absence.

Good on Dr Burn the family physician.
Magistrates and other local officers were often deeply implicated or sympathetic in smuggling cases to the point where, unless a 'smuggler' was actually caught, a conviction was hard to get.

Mr Peter Henderson, excise officer at Lybster, having been sworn, stated, in answer to My McLennan, that he personally served the summons on Taylor on the 19th October.

By Mr G. M. Sutherland – Had seen Taylor on the occasion of the capture of the still on the 13th of September.

The following evidence was then called in support of the information: -

Mr S. S. Dawe, supervisor of Inland Revenue, deponed that on 13th September he saw William Taylor, and previously heard a good deal about him. Heard that Taylor was in the habit of distilling and making malt, and in consequence of that report, witness went to his house at Stemster on the date named, accompanied by Mr Henderson, the officer at Lybster. On the day previous, had seen Taylor’s wife at Rangag, and spoke to her. Rangag is about four miles from Stemster. Reached Taylor’s house about noon on the 13th, and was met at the door by Taylor’s sister. Went into the house, and after some conversation left, but returned soon afterwards to make a search, and met the sister and son and daughter of Taylor, to whom witness explained the purpose of his return. No opposition was offered. Found nothing of any importance in the apartment used as a sitting room. Went afterwards to a bedroom, and found half a dozen jars, some of which smelt of spirits. Taylor came in about this time. On continuing the search, some grains of malt were found under the box-bed.

Provost Rae – About how much? As much as you could hold in your hand?

Witness – Not so much as that. Witness went on to say that he pointed out that several of the grains had germinated, and been thoroughly malted.

Bailie Bruce – Would no vegetation be produced by the grain lying on a damp earth floor?
Witness – No, it would only mildew. Besides, I am able to distinguish grain that has been malted. Witness then told Taylor that he was aware that besides malting, he had used an illicit still, and that further, witness had tasted some spirits made by him in the October of the previous year; also some beer which he had made in 1876. (Laughter.) Taylor said, in reply, that he had never made malt or used a still. Witness reminded Taylor that at his son’s marriage he had lamented that he had not more of the home-made stuff, in consequence of the watchfulness of the excise. In the sister’s house found a bottle full of what appeared to be wort and yeast, but which the sister said was wort and treacle. Next proceeded to search the out-house. Built at the end of Taylor’s house was a windowless house, which was under lock and key, and with the door facing up the hill. It had no common action with the dwelling-house. Taylor was unwilling to unlock the door, but ultimately did so.

By Bailie Bruce – The key was not in his pocket, but was brought to him by his daughter from the house.

Illicit Still room. Source Am Baile

Examination continued – Inside this small house were found two large wooden vessels, one of which appeared to be a mash-tun, and the other a fermenting vat. The mash-tun would contain about 10 gallons, and the other vessel 130 or 140 gallons.

By Provost Rae – If these vessels had been used for barking nets, they would have been coloured inside. They had all the appearance of being used for the purposes for which witness supposed them to be used.

By Mr McLennan – Also found three sacks in one of which were some grains of malt. Called Taylor’s attention to the malt, and also told him that witness knew he had made spirits within six weeks from that time.. Defender admitted that he had made a bushel of malt lately, and said he had need the malt to make a drink for an invalid. He also stated that although he had no still himself, he had used the one seized in Watten belonging to Mackay. He offered witness his hand to certify that this statement was “God’s truth.” Declined to take the proffered hand. Inside this same small house was a stone structure, about three feet high, of the same width, and five feet long. The structure was covered with a large flagstone. Taylor said he used the structure as a bench for doing odd jobs on. Witness proposed that the flagstone should be removed, and on this being done damp clay or mortar was found. On probing this, a hole with a vent, and also a quantity of peat ashes was found, showing that a fire had been recently used. Taylor after some parleying, admitted that this was the place where he heated the still which he got from Mackay. The vent communicated with the chimney of the house, but witness could not specify the means of communication. Witness then told Taylor that he must give up the still and so consider himself a prisoner for illicit malting. Taylor replied that he had a still, but it was a long distance off, and that he would show it in the course of the ensuing night if he was not taken off to prison. He said it was a partnership affair, and that Macgregor of Baderyrie had it. This was between five and six o’clock. The officers then had tea in Taylor’s house, and asked Taylor to join them. 

About seven o’clock witness left Mr Henderson, and after strolling about for half an hour came upon a covered tank. It seemed to be a sunk cask, and was about four hundred yards from the house. Taylor on this discovery being mentioned to him, said this was where he kept the still before it was sent to Macgregor’s. An hour afterwards Taylor said he would now fetch the still, and proposed going himself. Witness, however insisted on accompanying him, and to this Taylor consented, but he said he must wait until it was dark, in order that the neighbours might not see him. Sometime after, Taylor said that the still was not at Macgregor’s, and that Macgregor knew nothing about it. He added that if the officers went away from the house he would bring the still to them, but witness would not agree to this. About ten o’clock Taylor conducted the officers to a covered tank about a dozen yards from his own house, and in this tank the still was found.

Excise men at illicit still near Gairloch late 19th C

Bailie Bruce – Then it was not MacKay’s still?

Witness – How could it be, when Mackay’s still was broken up and sold as copper? Taylor’s still was a smaller one than Mackay’s. It would hold thirty-six or thirty-eight gallons.
Cross-examined by Mr G. M. Sutherland – We smelt whisky in some of the jars found. Could not tell from the smell whether it was lawful or unlawful whisky which was in the jars. Found some grains of malt but did not show them to any other person.

Mr Sutherland said these grains should have been produced.

Cross-examination continued – The grains were in the custody of the Inland Revenue. The grains were lying on an earthen floor in Taylor’s house. Could not say if the malt was of this or last year’s growth. Taylor seemed to be about forty years of age. Had no farm so far as witness knew. The nearest house to his was about a furlong off. Did not see any cornstacks close to Taylor’s house, but there was corn on the other side of the road. Taylor is the tenant of the house in which he lives, but the rent is paid by the Parochial Board of Latheron. He had been informed of this by Mr Nimms, the factor on the estate. Never saw in the same district vessels similar to the two to be found in Taylor’s out-house. They were hooped with iron, but could not say if they were painted on the outside. The vessels could have been used for washing purposes. Did not find the worm and head of the still. A distillery apparatus was not complete without the worm and the head. Believed Taylor said he had not made whisky for six weeks. Taylor admitted that he had a still.

Mr P. Henderson, Inland Revenue officer, Lybster, deponed that on the 13th of September he accompanied Mr Dawe to William Taylor’s house, and was present at a search of the bedroom. Saw grains of malt in Mr Dawe’s hand. But was not in the room the moment they were found.

By Provost Rae – There would be twelve or fifteen grains.

By Mr McLennan – Taylor was present, and denied that it was malt. Searched an out-house at the end of the dwelling house, and found two wooden vessels, and also a concealed furnace with the ashes in it. Taylor owned that he had used the furnace for heating a still, and also that he had malted barley. He said he had no still of his own, but had the loan of one; but afterwards he stated that he had a share of one with Mr Macgregor, Baderyrie. He admitted that one of the wooden vessels was a mash-tun and the other a fermenting vat. Witness then corroborated Mr Dawe’s evidence as to the finding of the still.

By Bailie Bruce – Taylor indicted the place where the still was, saying, “Here it is!” but witness removed the turf and flagstone which covered the hole.

By Mr McLennan – Taylor said, “Yes you will see by the still that it has not been here for a long time.” 

The officers then seized the still, and also the wooden vessels and a bag containing some grains of malt. Taylor added that John Mackay, Watten, had been sent by the supervisor to warn him and that he had not distilled any since that time.

The Capture of an illicit whisky still. The Graphic 29 Sep 1883. As we know Taylor's equipment was not smashed but taken to Wick on Mr Water's cart

Cross examined by Mr Sutherland – Taylor admitted that the still which was found belonged to himself, although his first story was that it was a partnership between him and Macgregor. He also said that he concealed the still where it was found.

Mr McLennan, in moving for judgement, said that there could be no doubt that the still had been found in the possession of the defender.

After a few words by Mr Sutherland on behalf of Taylor. The justices gave their decision, finding it proven that Taylor was in possession of the still, and imposing the statutory penalty of £400. The alternative charge as to the ownership was departed from.

Northern Ensign 7 November 1878

Monday, December 31, 2018

Dawe Pounces On Taylor

I have transcribed the first court report of the visit to the house of William Taylor by the Excise Officer Mr Dawe. It is such a classic story of the task of the Inland Revenue Officers to apprehend the illicit manufacture of whisky, and the efforts made by crofters, with the help of friends and neighbours, to evade them.

The actual trial report (next blog) throws a little more light on Taylor’s story.


Stemster Hill. Now deserted and returning to bog
Loch Stemster

Another important seizure of an illicit still has been made in the Lybster district. On the morning of Thursday, the 19th inst, Mr Dawe, Supervisor of Inland Revenue, left this place on a reconnoitring expedition, with the view of eliciting information as to the working of an illicit still which was known to be in the neighbourhood of the Loch of Stemster. For this purpose, and with the view of guarding against his operation causing suspicion in the neighbourhood, he first took a train to Bower, and from thence pursued a course across the moorlands, striking downwards in a southerly direction till he came to Chapel, where he left one of his officers. Having accomplished this journey he lodged for the night about twelve miles distant from the scene of next day’s operations. During Thursday, Mr Dawe was evidently observed by persons on the watch.

Mr Dawe struck out across the moors

On Friday accompanied by the Lybster officer, Mr Henderson, Mr Dawe struck out across the moors from Lybster to the Stemster Hill, between which and Rangag, is the suspected place, called Ballachyle about four miles from Achavannich to the east. It occupies a kind of gully and it is an isolated and sequestered spot, particularly congenial to such an occupation. Up to that time, however, Mr Dawe only knew the name of the party and neighbourhood but not the house. By a little manoeuvring, however he managed to call at the very dwelling. Here a little natural curiosity was manifested by the inmates which showed the officers that they had struck the proper trail. It is one thing to know where a thing may be found in a general way, and quite another to get it into possession. After going a short distance from the place, and returning again, a search was determined upon with the view of seeing if there were any illegal operations being carried on in the premises. These buildings consisted of two houses adjoining each other, lengthwise, of the ordinary construction. First the search of the living room of William Taylor, labourers and dyker, was begun but with no result. In the next room, leading out of the other, were two beds. Under these, on the floor, were found scattered a few grains of malt, which had been left conveniently handy for the benefit of the officers in their investigation, beside about half a dozen of stone jars, some of which had the smell of liquor. Mr Dawe then left the house for the purpose of rummaging the house of the sister, Mrs Taylor adjoining. In this house there was nothing found with the exception of an ordinary quart bottle or wort. 

Illicit still at the Colbost Museum

Investigation of the fowl house

An investigation was then made of a fowl house and another of the outhouses with no result. At the end of the second house – Mrs Taylors – there was a pendicle construction of a peculiar design, so that it would not be observed by any person coming in the ordinary direction, and which opened by means of a lock and key towards the hill side. The key having been obtained there was found a mash tun, what was evidently used for fermenting, and bags which contained grain, from the remaining grains contained in them. A very important portion of this house was a small piece of dead wall which evidently had been lately rebuilt up, and, on poking with their sticks, they found it to contain a properly built furnace site for the fire, with a hole for the still, and an arrangement by which the smoke would escape to the house vent.

Search the peat stack

The peat stack having been searched, and beyond finding some barrels which were empty, sunk in the ground, covered by a large Caithness flag and a divot, little else was got. It was not till after some ten hours searching that the still was got hold of in a large rectangular cistern which was constructed of Caithness stone, and placed in close proximity to the house. This copper still would hold from 30 to 40 gallons. A considerable number of half threats were used in order to get quit of the officers, one asking Mr Dawe if he knew what Samson was told, that the Philistines were upon him. All this would not do, with tact and determination Mr Dawe held to his purpose and completed his work.

A rough and dark night

Increasing the difficulty and danger of the enterprise it was a very rough and dark night. 

The still was obtained

When the still was obtained it was carried by the officers in the direction of the Stemster farm, occupied by Mr Waters, sheep farmer, who was roused up, and the demand made, in the Queen’s name, for a horse and conveyance. Mr Waters was, we believe, very reluctant to comply with the request to provide horse and cart for the officers; but at last did so. After a number of articles were placed on the conveyance they were driven on to Lybster, and from thence to Wick.

A fine of up to £800

We believe the trial will not take place from some time. A fine of £200 is the fine for malting; and £600 for the possession of a still. It certainly was exceedingly daring for two revenue officers to attempt the seizure and complete it in such a solitary place, without personal violence being used. We believe it is stated that Taylor maintains he has not done anything with the still for twelve months. This will all come out at the trial.
John O Grout Journal 19 Sept 1878

How is Whisky Made?

To help understand some of the terms in the story here is a brief explanation on how whisky is made.

Traditionally there are five stages to the process - malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.

Step 1 - Malting

Barley contains starch and it is this starch which needs to be converted into soluble sugars to make alcohol. For this to occur, the barley must undergo germination and this first part of the process is called 'malting.

The barley is soaked for 2-3 days in warm water and then traditionally spread on the floor of a building called a malting house.

When the barley has started to shoot, the germination has to be stopped by drying it in a kiln. Traditionally peat is used to power the kiln and it is at this point where the type of peat used and length of drying in the peat smoke can influence the flavour of the final spirit. The barley is now called 'malt' and this is ground down in a mill, with any husks and other debris being removed.

Step 2 - Mashing

The ground down malt, which is called 'grist', is now added to warm water to begin the extraction of the soluble sugars. The water is normally from a pure, reliable, local source. The liquid combination of malt and water is called the 'mash'. It is put into a large vessel called a mash tun and stirred for several hours.

During this process, the sugars in the malt dissolve and these are drawn off through the bottom of the mash tun. The resulting liquid is called 'wort'.

Step 3 - Fermentation

The wort is cooled and passed into large tanks called washbacks. These are traditionally made of wood. Here the yeast is added and the fermentation begins. The yeast turns the sugars that are present into alcohol.

Step 4 - Distillation

In Scotland, the wash is traditionally distilled twice.
The stills are made from copper, which has been found to be the best material for extracting impurities from the spirit as it is being distilled and consist of a bowl shape at the bottom that rises up to the neck at the top.
The wash enters the larger wash still and is heated. The liquid vaporises and rises up the still until it reaches the neck, where it condenses.

Step 5 - Maturation

The spirit is put into oak casks and stored.


John O Grout Journal 19 Sept 1878

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Excise Officer

William Dawe comes to the wedding

William Taylor was aware that the stranger in the midst of the wedding party was William Dawe the Excise Officer (on behalf of the Inland Revenue Department monitoring the illicit production of whisky, known as ‘smuggling’). Both Williams were keeping an eye on each other. While the law was on the side of Dawe, he was at a wedding that was full of local people who would defend Taylor, with even the chance of a skirmish breaking out. What was more, if Taylor was going to be successfully charged with making illicit whisky, Dawe had to be very careful that he got the right man and that he had good evidence.

So as the wedding party continued, whisky did indeed run out. William Taylor was not a happy man. Dawe heard Taylor lamenting that ‘he had not more of the home-made stuff because of the suspicious attentions of the excise to the locality’. Dawe made note!

Finally Taylor decided to leave Halsary and get more ‘refreshments’ from home. He returned with more of the ‘home-made’ stuff of which Dawe actually partook, and later used his sampling as evidence against William Taylor.

Both these men used wit and cunning to do what they had to do.

Dawe eventually departed the gathering at Halsary. He kept his records judiciously and spent the next few months vigilantly getting what information about Taylor he could. He knew well enough that Taylor was in the habit of distilling but to succeed in court he had to put his case painstakingly. It was well known that crofters, tenants, landlords and even magistrates often supporting each other’s part in this business and all got some personal reward.

It was not until September of 1878, nine months after the wedding at Halsary that Dawe made his move on Taylor.

In the meantime, James Taylor moved into the Rangag teashop with his wife Catherine, affectionately known as Kitty.

Catherine McLeod in old age (the only photo I have of her) 

The house on the Causewaymire Road at Rangag that had been the home of Catherine’s parents and was now Catherine and James home. 

Not looking very romantic in this picture of the interior of the Rangag house. Shows the back fireplace and Caithness flags on the floor. It was being used as a farm building at the time of this photograph.The house probably originally had Caithness flags on the roof like the Halsary building as they were both built at the same time. This house is now restored. 

To be continued...

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Wedding at Halsary

A Wedding at Halsary

A wedding was announced to be held on December 28,1877. Banns were proclaimed according to the Forms of the Free Church of Scotland.

Young James Taylor, farm hand, of Stemster, was going to marry Catherine McLeod of the Rangag teashop. She had been on her own for a few years since her parents both died, but had stayed living in the Rangag house where her mother had run a grocery business. Tea became fashionable and popular so Catherine became a tea merchant. But James was young and handsome and she said “Aye” – actually, they both spoke Gaelic so maybe she said ‘tha’.

The wedding was to be held in the Halsary meeting house just up the Causewaymire road from Rangag, at Tacher. It was a big building with room for a crowd. Highland hospitality allowed that after a marriage the doors were to be opened to all, be they strangers or not.

The Halsary meeting house in 2011

Welcome Rev David Ferguson

David Ferguson the Free Church minister would have arrived on his horse and put it in the horse yards. David knew the McLeod family well enough as he was the minister for Achreny, Westerdale and Halsary – all places the McLeod family had attended church. David had conducted the marriages of Betsy McLeod and Willie Williamson in 1859, Jessie McLeod and William Burnett in 1863, Alexander McLeod and Jessie Ross in 1868. He was said to be “a man of genial disposition, upright and straight forward in word and deed. He had a strong and well-built frame, indispensable for his work, which extended over an area of many miles of hill and moor” Source: The Achreny Mission – Part 3 – After the Disruption.
The Horse Enclosure at Halsary

Witness William Tait worked for his uncle Benjamin Tait on one of the big Stemster farms

James Taylor was a herd boy in 1871 working for William Waters on a big farm at Stemster next door to where William Tait was working. They were probably boyhood mates.

All went well. The marriage was conducted. A crowd arrived (including a few strangers), and the party began. As was customary, whisky was provided for the guests.

The Taylor family, like many in the district were poor – so poor, in fact, that father William couldn’t even pay the rent for his small house. It was paid by the Parochial Board of Latheron (who granted small amounts of ‘Poor relief’ for paupers).

They might have been poor but William and Janet Taylor wanted a good party for their son and his bride. The only way to do that was to provide ‘home-made’ stuff.

Whisky was an important feature of social life and used as a welcome for guests. Like most Scots, Stemster locals had long had their own stills hidden in the glens and hollows. Problem was, home distilled whisky was illegal. And just who were those strangers at the party?

To be continued 

Note: Re Whisky see also the blog “Smuggling” posted November 30, 2014