WHISKY YOU’RE THE DEVIL
Comrie, and a large part of Scotland for that matter, abounded with illicit distilling and smuggling. At the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries most folk in our area were busy earning a living mainly by working as weavers or in the flax industry labouring on local farms by day, other activities occurred by night. Some, to supplement their meagre wages, took up distilling their own spirits and smuggling. This activity was called the “ewie wi’ the crookit horn.” For many it became a favourite evening pastime and developed into a rare art form involving creativity and imagination. It provided hard-needed cash, and, as a by- product, was a constant source of delight and pleasure to all when the stories were told about those who had been able to hoodwink the local Excise officers.
Stills were established throughout the area and distribution was organised with the principal traders coming from Stirling and known as “the Stirling Band.” They were a fearless lot, well-mounted, and not to be trifled with easily, and the Excise men learned to their cost, that they should not be taken lightly.
On one occasion a company of dragoons who were stationed in Auchterarder, “the Lang Toun,” rode into Comrie accompanied by some Excise officers. The villagers immediately suspected that something was in the wind. Those in the village, “in the know,” knew that a party of smugglers with a quantity of contraband whisky were coming down Glen Lednock just at that time. At once a number of the younger weavers left their looms and took the road past Comrie House and headed towards the glen. There they met a well known smuggler, Donald Garrow, who was carrying two small casks of whisky over his shoulders. The weavers told him what was afoot in the village and at first Donald was somewhat disbelieving. However, when he realised they were in earnest he said that the main party of smugglers were behind further up the glen.
The young weavers hurried on and, at Kingarth farmhouse, they met the smugglers. This merry band were pushing and pulling two carts loaded with full casks of whisky. At that time there were several clumps of trees growing nearby with several hollows in the ground, and the smugglers decided to hide the whisky in these hollows concealing them as best as possible. The weavers then returned towards Comrie and on the way met the dragoons who were proceeding up the steep slope from the Deil’s Cauldron. The dragoons, for fun and some amusement, started to beat the weavers with the flat blades of their swords, and the lads fled into the woods. However, they still kept a watch on the movements of the dragoons who continued up the glen past the place where the smugglers and the whisky were concealed. Once the coast was clear, and the dragoons out of sight, the weavers helped the smugglers bring their contraband down to the village where it was taken into Elder Ferguson’s public house (subsequently it became Mr. Burnett’s bakery).
When the dragoons returned to Comrie after their fruitless ride up the glen they were chagrined to see the smugglers and the weavers hobnobbing together and evidently laughing up their sleeves at them. They initiated a vigorous search and when they came a little bit too close to finding the whisky, it was removed from the Elder’s house and carried to the garret of the Reverend Samuel Gilfillan’s manse which was close by. The manse was attached to the Church and there was a small opening between the garret and the Church where young Mrs. Gilfillan used to sit and hear her husband preach while nursing her bairns. The smuggled whisky was removed from the garret through this opening into the Church and put into a cupboard recess that was under the pulpit where it remained until the search was abandoned. Rather than retrieve it immediately, the “treasure” was left there for some time with the good Reverend preaching over the top of it, Sabbath after Sabbath! What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over!
One of the noted smugglers from our area, Peter M’Arthur, was a married crofter who lived at Montillie on the Aberuchill estate with his wife and family. Known to be involved in the “business,” the Excise men were always out to catch him in the act and led several raids on his home. On one occasion a party of Excise men surrounded his house one night and was spotted just before the raid occurred. At the time there was a fair amount of whisky in the house and Peter and his family were in a pretty fix. They had been caught out...redhanded, no less!
It so happened that Peter’s brother, Arthur, was visiting the house at that time. Realising the situation, he grabbed an empty cask which he hoisted on his shoulder and bolted outside. Seeing him dash out the house with the barrel on his shoulder, and watching him run towards the Aberuchill Mountains at the back of the house, the Excise men gave chase. Arthur was young and strong and as fit as a fiddle and led the Excise men a merry dance over the hills, taking them well away from the house. In the meantime Peter and his family gathered up their illicit stock and hid it. Arthur was eventually captured, complete with the empty barrel, and, of course, could not be charged. The Excise men feeling and knowing they had been done could only grin and bear it!
On another occasion Peter was caught red-handed and taken prisoner. He was tied with a rope and pulled behind a horse. In this fashion he was conveyed from Aberuchill along the Ross. When the party passed the Ross wood he complained that they were travelling too fast, and that he could not keep up with them. The leader of the party ordered one of his men to pull his horse up at the side of a dyke and ordered Peter to mount behind him. Once on top of the dyke, and although his hands were still tied Peter leapt to the other side. Although the Excise unslung their carbines, and called to him to surrender, he made good his escape.
Later on in his “career” he was caught again and this time the Excise managed to get him as far as Crieff. There, his escort halted for refreshments in a house at the west end of the town and while they were being served, Peter bolted into the street. He ran down Tannery Street and into the tannery which was open. Through the tannery he ran and out the back door and made his way to where the Turret Burn meets the Earn, and once there he plunged in. Although the river was in spate he swam to the other side with his pursuers standing watching him impotently, and made his way home safely. Eventually he was caught and brought to the bar, was sentenced and spent some time in prison. Thereafter, he lived to a ripe old age, and was liked by his neighbours who knew him to have a kind and obliging disposition.