Having the last laugh
Ian R Mitchell tells the story of the Macraes of Monar, illicit whisky distillers
Though doubtless the odd small scale still might yet be found in remote areas of the West Highlands, the last illicit distiller on a scale large enough to provide his main income must have been Hamish Dhubh Macrae of Monar, who retired from his calling a century ago.
He and his father had outwitted the excisemen for over 60 years, and even in finally giving up his trade, Hamish had the last laugh.
Hamish’s father Alasdair and his wife had originally come to Loch Monar from Kintail in the 1840s. Monar is and was one of the remotest parts of the Scottish mainland, accessible only by drove roads and bridle paths. Alasdair built a house on an island in Loch Monar, and by having the ‘lum reekin’ before he was challenged, gained squatter’s rights.
He also built a causeway to connect the little fortress to the mainland. But the fire in his house was not the only one Alasdair lit.
It seems that the Macraes had come deliberately to Monar to engage in the illicit production of whisky. Monar was 40 miles and hard miles at that from the nearest gauger’s (exciseman’s) office in Dingwall.
Alasdair originally had bothies at a place called Cosaig at the lochside, but when he suffered the indignity of being arrested by the gaugers and taken to Dingwall for trial, he vowed never to be captured again, and to improve his concealment.
He rebuilt his stills high on the side of a mountain overlooking Loch Monar, called Meall Mor, and here Hamish his son was apprenticed to the trade by being posted with a spy-glass to keep a lookout for the excisemen coming up the glen.
On one occasion, when snow fell and Hamish did not want footsteps to reveal the location of the stills, he stayed for several cold and hungry days on the bothy high on Meall Mor, until the snow melted.
Though Alasdair, and Hamish after him, grew a few potatoes and indulged in a spot of poaching, his main income was from the whisky; the winter months were given over to distillation, and the summer ones to distribution. There were customers in the area; the local gamekeepers and shepherds living in Glen Strathfarrar, east of Loch Monar supplied outlets as did passing drovers and tinkers, more numerous in those days.
But the Macraes also sold to local hostelries in the district, and even visited fairs at Dingwall and elsewhere, selling The Pait Blend under the noses of the authorities. The whisky was named after a knoll, Pait (Gaelic; a hump) just opposite their island home.
Alasdair lived to the ripe old age of 97, and both he and his wife were carried back in their coffins for burial to the graveyard on Loch Duich in Kintail, by rough roads amounting to over 20 miles.
The mountaineer, Rev. A E Robertson, who took the photographs shown of Hamish and Mairi in about 1905, knew the Macraes well and was told the story of their mother’s funeral. The porters were well supplied with illicit whisky that day, and one of them commented of Alasdair’s wife that "she was a big heavy woman too" – adding that they required many stops for refreshment.
One of these stops nearly led to a disaster, when the over-refreshed porters subsequently found themselves in Kintail - without the coffin – and had to return many weary miles to retrieve it.
Hamish carried on the good work after his father’s death. He was a colourful character, considering himself the equal of any, refusing to speak anything but Gaelic, and donning full Highland dress to visit the laird, Captain Stirling at Pait Lodge (where a bottle reputedly changed hands) on Sundays.
He and his sister Mairi were actually born at Monar and spent their entire lives there. (Another brother, Alexander, emigrated to New Zealand and set up an illicit whisky distilling dynasty in Southland).
Local people connived with the Macraes in the production of their whisky, sending runners ahead to warn them that the excisemen were on their way.
On one occasion the gaugers were welcomed into a house in Strathfarrar, and entertained while news of their arrival was sent ahead. In the house the gaugers over indulged in whisky (possibly Hamish’s own) and felt so hungover the next day they abandoned their search and returned to Dingwall empty handed and sorry headed.
But by the early 1900s there were fewer illicit distillers to chase, and the noose was tightening, making it more difficult for Hamish to live off his trade. And he was getting old, and had also heard the wonderful news that Lloyd George had introduced old age pensions.
Captain Stirling prevailed upon Hamish to give the distilling up. But Hamish turned even his retirement to good use. While at a fair in Beauly he approached a couple of excisemen and told them that if he could receive the £5 reward he would show them the location of some illicit stills. He then led the gaugers to his own bothies and pocketed the reward, while they delightedly took away the stills for destruction.
The ruins of the bothies are still there on Meall Mor for those who search, but the Macraes’ island home was sadly submerged by the building of the Monar dam in 1959, and the raising of the water level.
Jamie and his sister retired to the old folks’ home at Kilmorack, and on their deaths were also taken back to Kintail for burial beside their parents – though this time they were transported by road, not carried on foot as their parents had been.
The Macraes of Monar have passed into history and The Pait Blend in to folklore, its famed taste a fond memory.
Unless there is still a bottle lying about somewhere at Loch Monar?