Early Warnings

Written by Sholto Ramsay on Tuesday, 22 May 2012. Posted in Scotch Whisky

Because they knew the Customs officers could turn up at any time, most communities developed their own systems for alerting those responsible for the "sma stills." Sometimes this would involve a nod and a wink from a most unlikely figure - sometimes it would mean a special signalling system or a mad dash to make sure everyone knew to stay on guard.

It's a White Out

In the early 19th century, at a rural (or "clachan") school at Ballochandroin, near Glendaruel, the teacher, who knew many of his pupils' parents relied on the peatreak for their income, used to send his class out for a bit of impromptu PE when he knew the gaugers were about. They would run through all the backlanes and byways to put the word around.

Then the next part of the scheme would go into action. The Highlands had a tradition of sending a relay of runners out with a fiery cross to carry messages - but this canny community had developed a more subtle, and much more effective, approach. As soon as they knew about the impending danger, the women near the school would hang their sheets and blankets out to dry.

The people in the next group of houses would take heed of the billowing red alert and do the same, until the message spread right through the glen - giving a whole new meaning to "four sheets to the wind!"

A Blessing in Disguise

It was fairly common for men of God to give their wholehearted support to the peatreak makers. They could see no reason why the people should not make a living from a natural resource - just because a government decision had been passed hundreds of miles away, why should they suffer?

Besides, many of them were too fond of the peatreak to see production dry up. One such man was Glenisla minister Andrew Burns. He would often look out of the window while working on his sermon to see a couple of gaugers getting too close for comfort. On the pretence of going for "a wee wander" he would saddle up his pony and head out to "spread the word." As he bellowed Biblical phrases at the top of his voice, a frantic cover-up campaign would get underway as those in the know dashed up to the hills to issue the warning. "God bless you minister," his parishioners would say.

As the good Rev rode further into the glens the activity would get more heated - and by the time the gaugers got near, there wouldn't be a sign of illicit activity left.