Victorian Highlands & Rise of Whisky

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The Victorian Highlands

Queen Victoria's love affair with the Highlands inflicted a massive change on the country - by suddenly making it trendy and fashionable to travel north of the border.

In the space of just a few years, Highlanders stopped being seen as savages by the English and suddenly became the centre of fascination and attention.

The middle classes caught onto Victoria's example and started to fall in love with the customs and culture of Scotland's rugged, mountainous and remote north.

However, England's sudden interest in all things Scottish did very little to ease the burden of poverty on Highlanders - and in some cases, it actually made it even worse.

Tartan had started to catch on even before Victoria took the throne, but once she began to come north and took over Balmoral castle as a holiday retreat, it really boomed. At the same time, other parts of the Highland outfit suddenly took on unprecedented popularity.

Suddenly sporrans, Celtic jewellery and dirks became all the rage, worn by those who wanted to prove an affinity with a country many of them hardly knew anything about.

As Highland clothes became fashionable, so did the clans and the pipes. Suddenly, everyone had an interest in their Highland roots, leading to the establishment in the late 19th century of clan societies. Interest in the bagpipes grew after Victoria appointed her own piper to play to her every day.

There were other developments, too. Gaelic choirs began to be established, and Highland culture started to flourish and feel confident about itself for the first time since Culloden more than 100 years before.

Yet for most people actually living in the Highlands, their conditions and their lifestyles were as wretched as they had ever been. The owners of the giant estates had often fled to the good life in London, leaving the vast tracts of land they controlled in the hands of incompetent factors.

Crofting 

Crofts were established in the 19th century, but they were so small that it was hard to make a decent living off them and the land often suffered from over-use, gradually making it less productive. The staple food was the potato but if the crop failed, then famine could result.

To make matters worse, the pattern of trying to empty the Highlands of people to make land available for other uses such as sheep, first found in the notorious Highland Clearances, continued. Matters came to a head in Skye when crofters near the township of Braes demonstrated against increased rents and and also the loss of pasture rights. The ensuing "Battle of the Braes" involved gunboats and troops but ended without anyone killed and the government had taken notice. The Napier Commission was established in 1883 under the chairmanship of Lord Napier and found evidence of extreme hardship across the Highlands of Scotland.

Crofters' rights were finally recognised in the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act which was approved by parliament in 1886, although trouble continued to flare up even after this legislation had been passed. This established the Crofter's Commission to guarantee fair rents, tenure and compensation for land improvements. This has been called the magna carta of Gaeldom recognising that crofting represented a distinctive system for land tenure and the communities that grew around them.  The completion of crofting reform was not completed until 1976 with the Crofting Reform Act.

Many Highlanders continued to take the traditional escape route from poverty - emigration. They sailed to places such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand in search of a better life. Thousands of people every year left the country to try and establish new existences for themselves - usually successfully - on the other side of the world.

For Highlanders, the army provided another escape route. Highland regiments played a major part in helping Britain to keep hold of its Empire. They played a major role in campaigns in places like the Crimea, the Napoleonic wars, the Sudan and South Africa.

As well as the royal family's infatuation with tartan, it was the battalions of soldiers wearing kilts which helped to make Highland dress so popular and to establish it as the national outfit of Scotland. By the 1880s, even lowland regiments were ordered by the War Office to deck themselves out in tartan trews. Ironically, some of them had actually won their battle honours in the past fighting against Highlanders.

As native Highland inhabitants moved out to seek a living elsewhere, so the rich middle classes moved in to take over the area for their own enjoyment. They built huge mansions in the popular Scottish baronial style, complete with battlements, turrets and ornamental gardens.

The English came to the Highlands not just for the views and the vast emptiness, but also for the sporting life. They enjoyed fishing and shooting of grouse, pheasant and deer.

The field sports industry which exists to this day in Scotland started in the 19th century with the beginnings of managed estates. These allowed sportsmen to come north and blast away with their shotguns in pursuit of pleasure. To accommodate them, native Highlanders were evicted again - this time not to make way for sheep, but for deer to be hunted by the wealthy elite.

But it was not just the rich who came north to Scotland. Thanks to the coming of the railways, some of the most remote parts of the Highlands were opened up to anyone with the money to buy a train ticket. The age of mass travel had finally arrived.

The era of the package holiday started with Thomas Cook, who charged people in his native Leicester a guinea for a tour of the lowlands. They sailed by steamer from Fleetwood to Ardrossan, and then travelled to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Cook brought tens of thousands of holidaymakers north of the border, and established tourism as Scottish industry for the first time.

Rise of Whisky 

Another boom industry to be launched during the Victorian era was whisky distillation. Distilling had existed in the Highlands since at least the 16th century, but it had been illegal.

In 1823, an act was passed which dramatically cut the rate of duty and finally made large-scale commercial whisky production viable, while at the same time wiping out the illicit stills. The result was that production shifted from the Highlands to the lowlands.

In 1831, a still was perfected which allowed commercial quantities of whisky to be produced. In 1865, whisky blending was pioneered by a lowlander, William Usher, and the industry boomed.

New whisky barons whose names remain famous to this day flourished. They included Thomas Dewar of Perth and Alexander Walker of Kilmarnock. Output rose and rose, and the drink became popular south of the border as the middle classes took to it instead of their more traditional tipple of brandy.

The growing temperance movements, led by figures such as Thomas Cook, had no effect on the industry, which continued to boom. The factories of the lowlands made much of Scotland prosperous, and workers in the towns and cities were paid good wages which they spent on hard drink - much of it whisky. By 1884, more than 20 million gallons a year was being produced.

The leading figures in the industry soon realised that if their product could be such a success in Britain, it could also prove to be equally popular in other parts of the world.

As a result, they set out to develop an export market. Alexander Walker took the drink all the way to Australia, while Thomas Dewar spent two years travelling the globe to promote and sell his products.

Both ventures were a success. Whisky was soon being sold and enjoyed all over the globe. It achieved more even than the clans, the kilts and the pipes in putting the country on the world map. It became a splendid ambassador for Scotland - a position it still holds to this day.


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