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
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 “