Am Baile/Highland Folk Museum


the battle of the black pot, murdoch macdonald (2011)

Location: Torridon
distilling, hiding places, gaelic language and placenames

The Torridon 'Smugglers'

In Wester Ross ‘smuggling’ was used by excisemen to mean illicit distilling rather than illegal import. No area around Loch Torridon was without an illicit still and the remains of distiller’s huts or a 'taigh dubh' can be identified in a number of places. Torridon was one of the last strongholds of the Highland ‘smuggler’ and along the coastline the scene was often one of an ongoing battle of wits between the revenue service and the crofters. Distilling bothies were constructed and hidden with great ingenuity along the coast and hillside above the villages.

Alligin has a special place in the annals of illicit distilling in Scotland, probably due to its remoteness. A lack of roads and access only be sea made it harder for revenue officers to approach undetected. Similarly in the village of Diabaig the people had a saying "Tha Diobaig fada fo lagh" (Diabaig is far from the law). By 1883 excise stations had been set up at Lochcarron, Kinlochewe and Gairloch and raids intensified.

There is some evidence that the popular laird Duncan Darroch, who purchased the estate in 1872, had some sympathy for the local smugglers as illustrated in this local story. “Alaidh Beag" (little Alec) was a well-known smuggler in Alligin. Late one evening, he and his friends were brewing in a bothy at the base of Beinn Alligin, when the excisemen arrived unexpectantly outside. Alaidh Beag confronted them at the door with a spade and threatened to split the head of the first man who entered. While he held them off, the others escaped and finally Alaidh Beag, knowing that he could outrun any man on the hill, made off. The officers who had been fearing for their lives, did not bother to make pursuit. However, they had recognised him and he knew this. A warrant was issued for his arrest but when the Revenue Officers and the police made a surprise visit to his house some time later, a search failed to reveal him. When the search was over, his aged mother, quite overcome, knelt at the door and in eloquent and impassioned Gaelic thanked the Almighty for having protected him. Alaidh Beag had been living in the hills and he remained there in hiding for another 18 months. Then rumour has it, a passage to the Americas was arranged for him by no less a person than Duncan Darroch, the Laird himself.” He remained in Canada for many years until as an old man, he returned to end his years in Wester Alligin with his sister. Their house can still be seen, falling into ruin. His brother Roderick continued to keep the art of 'smuggling' alive.

More information on visiting the area can be found here.