Whisky –Uisge Beatha- the Water of Life and Crieff’s Distilling Heritage

The Glenturret Distillery on the edge of Crieff is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland It  was officially established in 1775  when  it  began to pay taxes to the Government but in fact  was  run  by illicit distillers as far back as 1717 . Whisky is known in the Gaelic  as “ uisge beatha “ pronounced oosky ba and meaning the water of life ! Please remember  that we Scots spell it “ whisky whilst our Celtic brethren in Ireland spell it “ whiskey “ !!

Although Glenturret  - home of the Famous Grouse brand is  a  major  tourist  attraction locally here in Strathearn , it  should not  be forgotten that distilling was carried on here for many years with more than a few distilleries scattered about the area . Porteous in his “ History of Crieff “ published  in 1912  gives a detailed account of how  it became  such an important part of the local economy . I replicate his writings below :


Crieff was long famed for the superior quality of whisky which was produced in and around it , and from the later  years of the eighteenth century down to about  the year 1837 , the various distilleries gave employment  to a large number of persons . In 1792 there were two distilleries  in the town – on of them carried on by David Porteous, the brewer . One used 500 bolls of bear ( barley ) annually and the other  250.

About the year 1812 three distilleries were working in the town , and there were eight malting houses . One of these distilleries was the one carried on  by David Porteous , as above. Thomas M’Comish carried on one at the top of Meadow Lane , where the Drill Hall now stands , and a lane running down the east side of it to the Meadow was known as Distillery Lane . After he died , it was carried on by his heirs for  some time , and thereafter by Peter M’Owan & Company . This firm got into trouble with the Town Council for creating a nuisance , and at a meeting of the latter  on 14th May 1823 , they resolved to “ take advice whether or not the Town have good grounds  to apply to the proper authorities for removing the distillery in the vicinity of the Meadow or bleaching green , and that they act in regard to this matter  as they shall see cause, by calling a general meeting of the inhabitants , to obtain their sentiments at any future period  or otherwise .” The minute of the next meetin held on the 9th June , records that “ at last general meeting it was understood that the distillery belonging  to Peter M’Owan & Co should  be removed , on the ground that it was of the utmost detriment to the bleaching green or common property  belonging  to the town of Crieff .

This minute meant that the nuisance arising from the distillery should be  removed  by the Company and that they should take immediately the necessary plan for burning the smoke of the distillery , or raising the chimneys of the distillery in such a way as is prescribed  by Act of Parliament , so as the same may not injure the public property .Should the Company not agree to comply with the law upon this subject without delay , this meeting , as representatives of the town , consider it their duty to take the proper steps  to enforce obedience to the Acts of Parliament in regard to buildings of that description .“ The Company refused to comply with their request , and the Committee resolved  to apply to the Sheriff in order  to have the evil removed . Whether this was ever done does not appear , and about 1828 the distillery was sold Mr William Philips . He died very  soon after and the business came into the possession of his widow , Mrs Elizabeth Philips , and sons . This distillery was so well conducted that it was said  to have been the “ rendezvous  for all that was bright in intellect in Crieff “  . They had a small distillery at the Hosh , and about 1835  all the distilling apparatus was carried down to Dallerie, where on the site of one of the old paper mills , a new distillery was erected, which at the time was the largest in this part of the country .It is told that when the new big distilling copper kettle was placed in its position , a dinner was given inside it to twenty two , all “ nobs “ of Crieff , with Hugh Gillies  playing the bagpipes outside the feast . Many of the guests got so helplessly drunk that they could  not get out of the kettle till next morning . The building was  then erected around it .

A third distillery in Crieff , about 1812 , was situated in the corner of what is now the Academy Park, and opposite Coldwells House .This was carried on by Mr D .Halley , familiarly known as “ Provost Halley “ . Later on another  distillery was in operation , worked  by J. Johnston and afterwards  by William Hamilton . In or before 1831, this distillery  was converted into a brewery , conducted by the Drysdales .

Besides these distilleries in the town itself , numerous others  were at work in the district round  about – at Pittentian and Lochlane , Muthill , Fowlis , Dargill, Tullybannocher , Tullibardine and the Hosh . At the latter place there were two , worked  respectively by John Drummond and William Graham , the latter of whom had his malt barns , of which there were many others in the town , in the Back Road , now Duchlage Road .

All the distillers and maltsters fell into pecuniary difficulties about the year 1838 , and most of them became bankrupt , the rest stopping their works  and thus saving  their  credit . Of them all , the Hosh Distillery , then of small dimensions and carried on by Mr Drummond , is the only one which has survived to the present day . Mr Drummond  was succeeded in 1845 by Mr John M’Callum , who enlarged the distillery very considerably .

Mr M’Callum carried on the business for many years . His successor in 1873  was Mr Thomas Stewart  who further greatly enlarged the distillery and improved the means of production . Thereafter it became known as the Glenturret Distillery and is  still in full working order .

In 1835 just before the general collapse , 1400 gallons of whisky  weekly were produced in Crieff alone which were largely exported  to England . Crieff has long been the head quarters for the periodical collections by the Excise for the district

Illicit Distilling – Rob Roy  And The Battle of Currymuckloch

The Highland areas immediately north of Crieff were in the 18th century and earlier the home of much illicit distilling  of whisky . When Rob Roy publically toasted the “ King across the water “ at the Cross of Crieff it  was with whisky on which no excise  duty  had been paid . That  whisky had been illicitly distilled and confiscated by the gaugers or excise men . This was in the period  immediately after the  1714 Jacobite Uprising when there was a strong animosity  towards the Hanoverian successors  to the Stewart dynasty – especially  amongst Highland Scots . Much of this feeling had  been fuelled by the imposition  of  a high tax on malted barley an essential ingredient in the distilling of whisky . The  excise men had  confiscated a small barrel of the fiery spirit much to the annoyance  of the local inhabitants . Rob Roy MacGregor , who had  Crieff connections ,had  heard  of this and in the dark of the night  had entered the  home of the excise man  or gauger – crept into  his  bedroom , recovered  the uisge beatha and as  a parting gesture cut of the ears  of the poor man . As Rob and his men gathered at the Cross in the town the famous  toast was  made despite the presence  of a contingent of Hanoverian red coat troops  stationed in the town  to watch the wayward activities of its discontent citizenry !

Another oft related  tale  concerning illegal distilling  is the  so called  Battle of Currymuckloch Currymuckloch was a small clachan or  hamlet  located  north of the Sma’ Glen on the way to Amulree .Here a band of Highland smugglers were crossing the moor  heading south to Crieff when the were  intercepted by a number of excisemen  supported  by a party of Scots Greys . A fierce skirmish ensued with the soldiers and excisemen coming of  second best . A song  written by a local rhymester on the “ Battle “ went thus :

But Donald and his men stuck fast
An’ garred the beardies uit the field
The gauger he was thumpit weel
Afore his pride would let him yield
Then Donald’s men they a’ cried out
“ Ye nasty filthy gauger loon “
If   ye come back , ye’ll ne’er win home
To see yer  Ouchterarder  toon “


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