Content by: Ian McRae
The earliest record of whisky being distilled in Scotland was in 1494 when an entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls recorded ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae’. However, it is probable that the spirit was being produced for hundreds of years before that, particularly in our remote western seaboard and islands. The early product varied greatly from area to area, often being made from unmalted grains such as oats and barley and was very different from the whisky that we know today.
We know that liquors were being distilled in India from rice and flowers as early as 800 BC. It is thought that the secrets of distillation were then brought to Ireland and Cornwall by the Phoenicians and from there by the Celts as they migrated to the westernmost fringes of Scotland. These settlers produced their whisky mostly for their own use as a part of a subsistence existence and was perhaps necessary to survive the deprivations of a Scottish winter! As agriculture developed the distilling of whisky from the farmer’s surplus grain provided not only liquid comfort but also came to be a commodity that could be exchanged for cash to help pay the rent. When Distilleries came to be licensed at the beginning of the 19th century, a number were actually built by the more progressive landlords to create a market for their tenants’ surplus grain.
It was around this time that illicit production of whisky reached its peak and prominent in that activity was our own Hamish Dhu MacRae of Pait. Hamish lived and worked by the shores of Loch Monar, high above Strathfarrar on the old drove road that crossed the mountains between Beauly and Kintail. Hamish was not a farmer but a true whisky man. His father, Alister Mhor, had come to Pait around 1840 and built his home on a tiny island just yards off the shore of Loch Monar. The cottage followed the local tradition, constructed of roughhewn boulders and with a stout heather thatch roof. It consisted of only two rooms and at the end a byre for the cow.
A few years later, when the laird had proved not only willing to turn a blind eye to his illegal activities but also a willing customer, Alister felt secure enough to build a causeway linking the island to the mainland. Although he grew some barley, the ground around his cottage was rough and stoney and it must have been a struggle to cultivate. He found it much easier to barter for grain with the farmers down the glen, not much chance of money changing hands there! Porridge, potatoes and fish from the loch constituted their diet, together with what game they could acquire without upsetting the laird. His stills were housed in a little bothan by the burn at Cosaig, not far from the edge of the loch, handy for Alister but also handy for the gaugers. These excise officers scoured the wild countryside for illicit distillers, and it was not long before a large group found Alister hard at work. They arrested him and marched in triumph to Dingwall, but there was no shame in being caught distilling ‘illicit’ whisky, an activity that had been an essential part of Highland life for hundreds of years.
Convicted and fined, he returned to Pait determined not to be caught again. He rebuilt his stills in a new and even more remote location, high on the slopes of Meall Mor and it was here that the young Hamish learnt his trade. Long before his father died at the age of 97 Hamish had surpassed him with his skills and his ‘Pait Blend’ was renowned as a whisky of the highest quality.
When they died, both father and mother were carried back over the hills to Kintail for burial in the traditional manner, with relays of men taking turns to carry the coffins. Mother seemed to have been of particularly sturdy build as one member of the party remarked ‘she was a big heavy woman’! However, an essential part of the tradition was an abundance of whisky, before, during and after the journey and there are stories of other burials when coffins were dropped down the hillsides by inebriated bearers! One lady of much slighter build than Hamish’s mother was found still laid out on the kitchen table when a well refreshed funeral party returned after carrying her empty coffin many miles and interring it in the family grave.
Much of Hamish’s distilling took place during the long winter months when snow made it hard for the gaugers to travel but they made at least one excursion up the loch by boat looking for tell-tale wisps of smoke on the hillside. No doubt the considerable local support that the MacRaes enjoyed had resulted in the boat being delayed and a warning sent ahead. On another occasion the excisemen were persuaded to enjoy the local hospitality at Ardchuick while on their way to apprehend Hamish. The next morning, they were unable to continue their mission, ill as a result of drinking ‘bad’ whisky, and they dragged themselves back to Dingwall. Hamish went to great lengths to assure the district that the ‘bad’ whisky was not of his making!
Hamish and his sister were by now getting older, the stills were worn out and the increased activities of the excisemen made operating increasingly difficult. His father had been a large and well-proportioned man of exceptional strength with a reputation of being wild when roused and the gaugers had been more than a little wary of him. Although Hamish was of similar build and strength the excisemen had become more organised and better resourced and he was not regarded with the same apprehension that his father had been.
In 1901 Hamish decided on a final twist of the gaugers’ tail. He reported the finding of a still (his own) and after leading them to the site he claimed the £5 reward offered by the Government and retired from what most highlanders had regarded as an honourable trade. He lived on at Pait with his sister for some years after that and then they both retired to Kilmorack. He was a larger life character, much liked and well respected in his community. Despite his very basic way of life, he would regularly don full Highland Dress on a Sunday and visit the laird for a dram and a blether. When he died he too was taken to the little burial ground at Clachan Duich where he lies beside his father, mother and sister.
The secrets of his ‘Pait Blend’ died with him. Although it was a popular whisky in its time, it is unlikely that it would appeal to the palate of today. Perhaps the barley that Hamish bought in was malted but that which he grew himself certainly was not. The result was a whisky that could not be described as either ‘Scotch’ or Malt whisky. Our 21st century dram must, by law, be matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks under carefully controlled conditions before it can even be called Scotch Whisky. In practise, most whiskies are matured for considerably longer than that to allow the flavours to develop and the raw edges to be smoothed off. Hamish’s whisky would have been sold and drunk as soon as he could distribute it. In the difficult winters, he might have been able to build up some stock, and that stock might have been allowed to age for a few months, but most whisky would only be a matter of weeks old when it was consumed. It would have been a rough, fiery and very powerful drink with considerable character! The same adjectives might have been used to describe our ancestors, James ‘Hamish Dhu’ MacRae and his father Alister Mor!