Wee Scotch Whisky Tales by Ian R. Mitchell
(Angels' Share) 2015 £4.99
Chapter on Glasgow Shawfield Riot of 1725
THE UNION OF 1707, THE MALT TAX -AND WHISKY
When Scotland and England unified their parliaments in 1707, there was very little of what we would now call whisky distilled in Scotland, apart from in scattered sma stills. The only major producer was Forbes of Culloden’s distillery at Ferintosh, where he was allowed to produce his aqua vitae tax free and appears to have used mainly corn in the production process. The national drinks were claret and wine for the upper classes, and tippeny ale for the lower orders; almost all malted grains were used for brewing, rather than for distillation, at that time. A convoluted process, in which malted barley was a key player, was to change this situation completely by a century later, and establish whisky as Scotland’s “national drink”.
The Union was not popular in its early years, to say the least. Jacobites opposed it since it blocked the way to the return of the Stuarts, Presbyterians opposed it as it introduced toleration for non-Presbyterians in 1712, and most importantly, as a move to equalise Scottish and English taxes, a malt tax was proposed in 1713 which was so unpopular that it contributed to a motion in parliament to repeal the Act of Union itself. This motion narrowly failed - and the imposition of the tax itself was postponed. However, in 1725 the London government came back with its malt tax proposal, though at a lower rate of 3d a barrel of beer brewed in Scotland against the English rate which was double that. Opposition to the tax amongst the populace was general, leading to a brewers’ strike in Edinburgh, and riots throughout the land, but nowhere was hostility more widespread than in Glasgow.
In June 1725 crowds assembled in the centre of the city and rang the town’s fire bell to summon forth support. Initially they molested the excisemen sent to collect the new tax, but then turned their attention to the local M.P., Daniel (or Donald) Campbell, who was reputed- correctly- to have voted for the malt tax. Campbell was an exceedingly rich merchant capitalist who had in 1711-12 built the Shawfield Mansion in the centre of Glasgow, at the junction of the Trongate and Glassford Street. This was then the finest Palladian mansion in the city and possibly in Scotland. The crowd smashed the windows of the mansion and looted much of its contents.
The authorities called in the military to restore order, and Lord Deloriane’s Foot, commanded by one Captain Bushell, fired on the demonstrators, killing nine and wounding sixteen of them - without having first read the Riot Act or having fired warning shots, as was legally required. This failed to restore order and the Glasgow magistrates ordered the troops to leave the city, subsequently charging Bushell with murder- a charge eventually dropped. The troops retreated towards Dumbarton and were again attacked, again they fired, and again killed an undetermined further number of rioters. Finally General Wade, commander in chief of forces in Scotland, was sent to Glasgow with a much larger number of troops, including the Earl of Stair’s Dragoons, quelling the rioting. Wade was accompanied by the Lord Advocate, Forbes of Culloden, who exacted retribution for the riots. Several of the culprits were jailed, fined, whipped through the town or exiled for life. (Interestingly Forbes was the holder of the Ferintosh tax-free concession mentioned above, thus the malt tax did not apply to his own activities!)
Forbes also arrested Provost Millar and the rest of the town council for alleged complicity with the rioters - whose side they were deemed to have taken. Though these charges were subsequently dropped the council was fined a total of almost £10,000 to cover the cost of the riots, and was forced to sell off most of the city’s common lands to pay the fine. Much of the compensation went direct to Campbell of Shawfield, a total of more than £6,000 for the purported damage to his mansion. However this can be seen as a reward for a loyal government supporter rather than valid compensaton, as two separate estimates by tradesmen for repairs to the building (which was not demolished or burnt down as many stories tell) came to a few hundred rather than to thousands of pounds. Until its demolition in 1792 Shawfield Mansion remained the most luxurious dwelling in the city -so much so that Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in it in 1746 on his retreat to Culloden.(Whilst he did so, Campbell of Shawfield, who had fled Glasgow, raised at his own expense a militia to fight to Jacobite army).
But to return to our story- and the malt tax, which was now imposed and collected after the events of 1725. One effect of the tax was to lead to a decline in beer drinking in Scotland and to an increased consumption of whisky- much of it produced from the sma stills in the Highlands, and then smuggled south - and therefore, untaxed. But whisky at this time was a term which covered a multitude of sins, and included any distillation made from any malted gain- or gain mixed with unmalted grain- and flavoured with herbs, raisins, spices and a variety of other ingredients to make it palatable. The emergence of a drink based on malted barley took longer to emerge, and again has a connection with our story of the malt tax.
With his fairly ill gotten gains from the Shawfield Riots, Daniel Campbell procured the bulk of the purchase price for the island of Islay in the inner Hebrides. He set about the process of agricultural improvement on the island, developing mining and other enterprises as well as introducing new methods of crop rotation and new crops, such as the higher yielding barley to replace the traditional crop of bere. This led to the situation where tenant farmers who had a surplus of the grain could use it to produce the drink that was to become known as whisky. That this practise had become widespread in the 50 years after Campbell bought Islay is shown by the comments of the Rev John Mcleish of Kildonan in Islay in 1777, that
“we have not an excise officer on the whole island. The quantity of whisky made here therefore is very great, and the evil that follows due to the excess of this liquor is very visible on the island.”
Initially these were sma stills bubbling away for personal or local consumption, with a little smuggling sideline to the Lowlands. The Highland product, made from malted barley was considered to taste much better than Lowland whisky, generally made with other grains, and was in increasing demand. And by 1750 it was this drink that was generally known as whisky, and the term did not any longer apply to the rougher grain spirits flavoured like cordials to make them palatable.
At the same time another development took place which was of great importance and can be regarded as the first step towards making Islay-arguably- the malt whisky capital of the world. Shawfield Campbell had died in 1753 and his estate passed to his grandson, who carried on the process of economic development, most notably with the construction of the planned village of Bowmore in the 1760s. The new laird encouraged one Daniel Simpson, a farmer at Bridgend who had done some small scale distilling, to open a larger enterprise in the own, and-probably in 1779- the Bowmore distillery opened. This was the first of a long and illustrious line which, after the Excise Act of 1823 basically doomed the sma stills and made the world safe for the large scale capitalistic distilleries, with nine large scale distilleries operating on the island by the mid nineteenth century.
By a circuitous route, the tax on the malt in beer had contributed to the eventual emergence of malt whisky. The rest, as they say, is history. It is also interesting that until the development of North Sea oil, the present day opponents of the Union of 1707 were wont to argue that Scotland could be economically viable on the tax revenue - not of black oil but of the golden spirit. The tax receipts fromIslay whisky alone are estimated at £500,000,000 annually. And it is further interesting -and reassuring - to note that, while the oil will not last forever, the whisky will.