Of Old Islay Times, Baldy's Bay and Illicit Whisky

When I wrote about Proaig and McArthur's Head Lighthouse this week I was reminded again and again of the old days in this area. In the story about McArthur's Head lighthouse I already mentioned Dougie MacDougall and his booklet "As Long as Water Flows" and quoted a paragraph from the old days. When I recieved an email this morning from Christine Logan, his daughter, I decided to post another one of his stories on this blog about bygone days along the shores of the Sound of Islay. I don't know about you but I can't get enough of these old nostalgic stories. It must have been hard times back then but judging from Dougies stories, it must have been fantastic as well.

Dougie MacDougall: When Archie, Donald and myself came out of the bar we sat on the old sea wall and conversed for a while about happenings of bygone days. Archie says to Donald, "You are bound to know all the coastline from here to McArthur's Head and with most of all the old stories attached to it." "Indeed I do, Archie, for many a time I have explored the shore, old ruins of houses, caves and landing places where they ferried their livestock across the Sound to Jura en route for the mainland markets." Donald said that the folklore of the Islay and Jura coast was a history in itself and would go down well in book form. Continue reading.....

I must tell you Archie, about Baldy Mhurachaidh who was an expert on distilling whisky till he was betrayed by one that he thought was a good friend. Baldy had his house halfway to McArthur's Head on a point named Rubh'a Chladaich, the ruins can still be seen, in fact most of the walls and gable ends are standing (could this perhaps be the present bothy, see image). Baldy was a crofter fisherman and even to this day there are traces left of the land he cultivated. Also the peat banks are to be seen on the hillside at the back of the house. There is a lovely shingle beach running along for half a mile with two fast flowing burns, one flows down Gleann Ghaireasdail and the other down Gleann Choireadail. This part of the land is named Baldy's Bay. "I have no doubt," says Donald, "that Baldy's Bay would be a haven for all kinds of fish, including nice fat sea trout."

In the old days most every house had its source of getting their black bottle refilled with the best of whisky and not the vitriol we purchase today at a price! Those that they name smugglers were the leaders in the whisky industry till the government saw that it was a good thing, so they crowded in and put the gaugers on their trail. Baldy was an expert at distilling the cratur: in fact his secret source of making it died with him. The secret cave where baldy had his 'still; and all his gear is situated one mile north of where his house stands and was never entered at the time by any person except himself. The story goes that a shepherd who sometimes gave him a call on his rounds, was hospitably entertained by Baldy. This was always at his house, he got his dram, tea, and most of the times went away with a flask in his pouche. The last time he called at the house he was entertained in the same way and went off with a bottle in his pocket. He went straight to the gauger, handed over the sample and reported Baldy for distilling illicit whisky. On the quiet, the gauger sent word to Baldy that he was coming down next day in a four oared boat. This was a fair warning that gave Baldy plenty of time to destroy all the evidence of his trade. The gauger arrived, found nothing in Baldy's house. Of course he never told where he was making the whisky. The sample bottle was very strong evidence against him: he was found guilty and deported to America, but in later years returned and lived in Greenock. It was said at the time that the distillers found it impossible to brew a whisky to the standard of Baldy's method which was never found out.

Donald said that next door to Baldy's was another house, the ruins are still there, and was owned by a Mary MacArthur, related to the Clan MacArthurs of Proaig. On occasion the sould walk from there to the village of Keills where there was a wee shop. Mary would hand over her basked. It always contained fresh butter, eggs, and in the very bottom of the basked, a bottle of whisky. In echange she got her basket filled with what she was in need of, like sugar, tea, flour and all the ingredients for baking. She would then walk back, a distance of thirteen miles in all.

right down below the house ruins are rocks with a sheltered passage running into a small cave where they hauled up their boats or moored them if the weather was kind. On the south side of Baldy's Bay, on a flat piece of ground was Morag Morrison's house. The ruins are still showing. They had plenty of fresh water for a fast flowing burn came down Gleann Choireadail past the end of the house. This is where they must have done their washing. They lived well, Donald said, on the best of food, for they grew all their own produce on the adjoining land and fresh fish and shell fish was in abundance in those days. Those stories, says Archie, are very interesting. "It seems, Donald, that you are well acquaint with most of the old history regarding most of the ruins and caves that abound along those shores."

The story above was taken from the booklet "As long as water flows" by Dougie MacDougall.

Tag: history dougie macdougall sound of islay proaig claddach mcarthurs head tales

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