Of Illicit Whisky Distilling and Alladins Cave on Islay

I have seldom read such a wonderful account of illicit whisky distilling in the old days and it's fantastic that such stories are remembered and (sometimes) written down. Over time these stories will fade away and die together with the people that knew them. That's why I have to thank Lilly MacDougall, late Dougies wife, and Christine Logan, his daughter, for granting me permission to publish these stories online. They give a lovely insight into the recent history of Islay. I wish you pleasure in reading this great story.

Dougie MacDougall: Retracting my thoughts back to the days of Illicit whisky distilling on Islay, there is no doubt that the island was the perfect place with its numerous caves and hideouts in the deep valleys of the surrounding hills. I have heard many a story regarding the illicit brewing of whisky – in fact traces can be seen yet where they had their stills and worked them for many years till the law got too hot for them.

I remember my late mother telling of how her two brothers left the house in the early morning to walk to the west coast of Islay on a poaching expedition with their muzzle loader guns on their shoulders. It is a good three hours walk from the house to the west coast and the return journey would be something similar. They shot a few wild duck when walking along the seashore and quite a lot of wild pigeons from the caves fell to their guns. The time elapsed and as the bags were full and heavy they thought that a little exploring among the caves would meet with their craving for adventure. They hid the guns and game bags in a place where they knew that they could spot on the way back to pick them up. They wandered from one cave to another, commenting at times on how far in they penetrated, for some of them were huge and very dark at the further ends.

The roar and surge of the breakers on the ragged reefs descended with rebounding echoes from the cliffs and open caves which sent messages of orchestral rhapsodies to their musical minds. They wandered along the wild shoreline with cliffs rising sheer to three hundred feet in places. Those shores were constantly battered by gales and heavy seas straight in from the Atlantic, especially in winter time’s high tides. Continue reading.......

They stopped to look around, for on both sides of them the rocky cliffs rise sheer for a terrific height; in between was this dark, gloomy gully where the sun could never penetrate. The cascade of water which sprayed down from the cliff top, cast a rainbow like hue to this wild scene of grandeur. The bunch of white heather half way up to the cliff drew their attention; they would dearly love to get some of that to take home.

On closer inspection they found a very narrow shelf about four inches broad which seemed to spiral up towards their goal, so the climb started. The going was a hard one, for there was only room for the toes of their boots on the narrow ledge, so the fingers had to be sure of good grips to drag them upward. This was very exhausting work, combined with the acute danger of loose stones and the cold winds from the cliff tops crept round them underneath an overhang in the rock face, so to avoid this a slight detour to the right would clear them of this.

Through time they climbed back on to this overhang and discovered that there was ample room to stand up and walk on it. They glanced around and to their amazement the mouth of a cavern, about twelve feet wide, lay before them with the cascade of water dashing past the mouth. They picked up the white heather which was growing on a ledge close by, tied it up securely together and threw it over the cliff to be picked up later. The open mouth of this cave attracted them more so than any other cave for it was in such a hideaway position that it could not be seen from above or below the cliff.

Their curiosity got the better of them so they entered the narrow gloomy mouth but the darkness inside drew them to a halt till they got accustomed to it. Then all of a sudden, with their eyesight accustomed to the gloomy interior, all was revealed: this was more like Aladdin’s Cave. One side of the cave was full of distillery components for the making of illicit whisky by some unknown smuggler.

The copper still was embedded in a circular bed of stonework, from it extended the worm which led to a tub of water for cooling purposes. There were small containers and large clay or delph jars for holding whisky. The long pipe with a catchment on the end must have been used for the purpose of delivering water from the cascade to the plant. There was some peat in a corner and a bundle of sticks for kindling purposes. Undoubtedly, all the trade articles were there before their very eyes.

There was a seat and bench to work on; also a fireplace for heating purposes. In a corner at the mouth of the cave was a coil of rope, its end ran through a pulley in the rock face; this could be used for lowering and heaving up their stock in trade. It would also be a quick getaway route in the event of the excise officers getting on their tail. When working, the smoke of the fire would intermingle with the constant stream which came dashing down over one part of the cave’s mouth. The brothers were awestruck for the for they never saw anything like this before. Although no doubt they would have heard rumours in connection with the illicit habits of distilling a wee drop if the crater. (My uncles’ names were Hugh and Dugald MacCorquordale). Their curiosity got the better of them so they started to examine the jars but there was only one full and another was half empty. It struck them all of a sudden that they were on hallowed ground and would perhaps fair ill if caught trespassing on such a secret occupation.

It was wise to have a good look round, where they discovered quite a good path leading up to the top. No doubt this was the best way to approach the cave. They would dearly like to take some of the whisky home with them but there were no bottles or suitable containers. In any case it would not do to leave evidence of their call. Then, a plan hit them – one had to climb up the cliff, find his way down to below the cave and have the gun barrels cleaned and ready to hold the whisky. The one on the top would lower down the half empty jar by the rope pulley, so as the one below could fill up the barrels of the guns and return the jar the same way. This plan was carried out without a hitch.

Needless to say that cave was left with no trace that it was occupied for a short while by marauders. They picked up the game bags, white heather and tightly corked the muzzle loaders and made for the hills, keeping a sharp lookout in case they were spotted before reaching home.

That mystery was never solved as to who the smugglers were; the brothers never visited that cave again for they felt very guilty in helping themselves to the whisky. This is a true version of the events that happened to them on their expedition to the west coast of Islay. By the way, up to now this event, which happened ninety years ago was always kept a secret in the family, but seeing both my uncles have long since passed away, to my way of thinking it is no crime to put it down in writing.

Tag: dougie macdougall tales history whisky illicit

Comments are closed