December is upon us once again and the shops in the towns of Perthshire will be full of Christmas shoppers buying presents for friends and family. Food and drink will be stocked up for the Christmas and New Year festivities as in this part of the world it has long been the custom to have a bottle of whisky at hand to offer visitors a wee nip “afore they go”.
At one time, the best local whisky was said to be the illicit peatreek that was made in stills hidden in the Perthshire Hills. Excisemen or ‘Gaugers’ were paid by the government to arrest anyone caught making, dealing or drinking this illegal alcohol and it became a game of cat and mouse in the mountains between the customs officials and the smugglers. Sometimes the result would be a full scale battle erupting in the heather! This happened at Corriemuckloch, which lies between Amulree and the Sma’ Glen to the north of Crieff.
A man called Donald McGregor operated a whisky still hidden in Glenquaich. In the early 1800’s he had been working extremely hard so he could supply his customers around Strathearn with drink for Hogmanay. He had arranged to meet some other smugglers from Strathbraan and the convoy of pack ponies would head for the town of Crieff. This was arranged with the utmost secrecy of course, but a local informer heard of this plan and tipped off the head Exciseman in the area. A party of Royal Scots billeted in Auchterarder were summoned and on the night the whisky was to be moved, these mounted troops or dragoons rode into Crieff, up the High Street then on to Gilmerton and up through the Sma Glen.
The troop movements created quite a bit of interest from the locals and a couple of boys were sent hurrying up the glen to inform the smugglers of the approaching dragoons. Orders were barked in the darkness to bury the barrels of whisky in the marshy ground west of the roadway. The rest of the smugglers took up positions across the road, their flanks protected by marsh to one side and a stone dyke on the other.
As the Royal Scots carefully approached they were suddenly met with shouting, quickly followed by a shower of stones causing a couple of horses to rear up and throw the riders. Then the smugglers, armed only with wooden cudgels, charged into the mounted troops, and a fierce fight raged. The Royal Scots Grays heroes of the recent Battl
e of Waterloo fought bravely with swords, they also held their pistols by the barrel and used the handle end as clubs, but in the pitch dark and being unable to manoeuvre due to the marshy ground the odds were against them. Many of the red coats liked a wee dram when off duty and although they defended themselves they were in no mood to charge into the smugglers and make any arrests.
As the battle raged some soldiers dismounted and fired above the heads of the smugglers but they were being attacked from the front and rear as the smugglers were using the wall as cover to get behind the government troops. One of the dragoons was pulled from his horse and violently hit on the head with a wooden club. It quickly became clear that this man was seriously hurt and perhaps even dead. When the smugglers heard of this they withdrew into the darkness. As the exciseman screamed at the officer in command to follow and arrest the moonshiners, the officer replied that his priority was to take the injured man to get medical aid. The soldiers put the man on a horse and they all rode to the Inn at Amulree. Once the troops had left, the smugglers were able to dig up most of the hidden barrels of whisky and deliver them to the good people of Crieff. However, it is said that not all the barrels were recovered and some may still be there to this day hidden in the moss at Corriemuckloch.
Have a very merry Christmas and happy New Year!