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Dodgy coffins to whisky galore – tales from the Cabrach

By Alistair Whitfield

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SECRETS about Scotland's whisky-making past are being sought in the Cabrach.

Archaeologists have been busy this week digging up the site of one of the country's earliest legal distilleries.

Blackmiddens, a ruined steading on the border between Moray and Aberdeenshire, was one of the first farms to be granted a licence to produce whisky following the Excise Act of 1823.

This historic statute legitimised what had previously been an illicit black market activity, laying the bedrock for the whisky industry to become the global success story we know today.

The archaeological dig, which is being led by the Cabrach Trust, is especially exciting for 66-year-old Joan Harvey.

The Dufftown resident's great-great uncle, James Sharp, was the tenant at Blackmiddens and a former whisky smuggler.

Joan said: "My gran always told me that James was the head of a gang of freebooters who took the whisky to Aberdeen to sell in the pubs.

"On one occasion they rode near to the city only to find that the excisemen had set up barricades on the road and were stopping and searching people.

"James came up with a plan. He went into Aberdeen and hired a horse-drawn hearse which he brought out with him. The gang then loaded the whisky into the empty coffin.

"They travelled into Aberdeen and as they went past the barricades all the excisemen took off their hats as a mark of respect for the dead."

Archaeologist Peter Bye-Jensen with a clay pipe found today at Blackmiddens.
Picture: Eric Cormack. Image No.043639.
Archaeologist Peter Bye-Jensen with a clay pipe found today at Blackmiddens. Picture: Eric Cormack. Image No.043639.

The archaeological dig is being part funded by Forestry and Land Scotland as well as by Historic Environment Scotland.

Matt Ritchie, who's from the former organisation, said: "Illicit whisky stills were particularly common in the Cabrach. They are difficult to spot, but once you know what you are looking for, you can find them tucked away next to burns in the hills.

"When the law changed in 1823, the illicit distillers came down off the hills and set up in farmsteads like Blackmiddens. Consequently, the nondescript buildings can be much harder to identify, and this is what makes this first ever dig so exciting."

Blackmiddens would only have had a 40-gallon still – absolutely minuscule compared to modern whisky stills which hold many thousands.

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