It was the wretched English who started it.
It was they who wantonly provoked the widespread distillation of whiskies of great individual distinction in the Highlands. It was they, the bloodsucking, violent, kleptomaniac English who imposed unreasonable taxes on a home-made nectar, the lifeblood of a proud, god-fearing breed, hell-bent on minding their own business.
It was the English, the cunning avaricious Empire-building English, who imposed the tax on the very raw material that made whisky possible, the barley malt. If they had not been so blinded by jealousy, the power-hungry Hanoverian government of 1713 would have taxed the babbling waters, too, that lend Scotland’s national drink its character and a velvet charm that is smoother than the rump of a young gelding in fettle.
It was the English who spitefully stabbed at the very heart of a timeless Gaelic tradition, in a fit of twisted pique, as the demand for whisky grew and wine and brandy lapsed in popularity.
In defiance, the private still proliferated in every barn and every hole in the ground that Highlanders could find. To these people, the farmers and crofters, it was against reason to put a tax on the fruits of the earth and sea which were, after all, god-given, to be enjoyed by all, rich and poor. They should not be subjected to the laws of man. It was an heroic age. To outwit the excise man, the gaugers and the English army, who supported them, became a matter of honour. ‘Freedom and Whisky gang thegither,’ wrote Robert Burns, a poetic excise officer, giving the Scots a battle-cry steeped in the springs of moral indignation and the knowledge of a clear difference between simple law-breaking and a genuine sense of wrong. The inaccessibility of the hidden stills of Glenlivet and the secret hill-pony trails to the Lowlands led to heady intrigue and forged brave hairy men of traditional pedigree, and a drink with as many styles as there were stills.
The Excise Man (illustrated above). Many unkind things have been written about this official and I have no business trying to protray him unless I have something new to add. Much of the criticism has been unfair but much of it is justified. And it’s more than my job’s worth to leave him out. He will remain an irresistible figure of fun who could, nevertheless, strike terror into the hearts of those who would persist in breaking the law.