The deil's awa wi th' exciseman
Gaugers were the hated excisemen who hounded whisky smugglers in the 18th and early 19th century. And Malcolm Gillespie was one of the most wretched and tragic of all. Ian R Mitchell tells his story
The exciseman, or gauger as he was known in the Scots vernacular, was probably the most hated figure in Scotland 200 years ago. This dislike was given a humorous slant in our national bard Robert Burns’ poem, The Exciseman. Here the despised figure is carried off to Hell by the Devil (Auld Mahoun), The deil cam fiddlin through the toun, And danced awa wi th’Exciseman And ilka wife cries “Auld Mahoun, I wish ye luck of the prize, man” Ironically Burns himself served a spell as an exciseman, though in the relatively quiet Dumfries area of South-west Scotland . His job would have been very different had he found himself in his forebears’ homeland of Northeast Scotland, where smuggling was rife and the conflict between distillers and gaugers reached a low level civil war, with fatalities on each side.
In the wild areas which lay between the Lowlands of the North-east and the Highlands proper, that is, the upland areas of the Cabrach, Glenlivet and Deeside, the illicit whisky industry was a massive enterprise.
Here people did not just distil ‘the craitur’ for the resulting conviviality, on the contrary most of their production was exported to the Lowland towns and cities. The money from the sale of the contraband did what farming in these poor areas could never do; it raised the money to pay the tenants’ rent and left a good surplus for a decent living.
Everyone, involved in the distilling or not, conspired to defeat the forces of the law. Local landlords, acting as Justices of the Peace, enforced ludicrously low fines on distillers - since these landlords too were often the recipients of the cash, as rent, from the illgotten gains of the distillers.
Even the stationing of soldiers at Braemar and Corgarff Castles, did little to halt the trade.
That job fell to the gaugers.
The gauger was spurred on by the promise of a large bounty, given as a percentage of the value of the spirits seized. This was certainly a motivation in the case of the most successful of the excisemen, Malcolm Gillespie.
The ‘King of the Gaugers’, Gillespie enjoyed a lavish lifestyle on the proceeds of his enormous seizures.
But sheer love of adventure and excitement clearly motivated Gillespie, who had been turned down for a commission in the army since he could not afford to buy the post - as was the procedure at that time.
A native of Dunblane, Gillespie moved to the North-east around 1800, where his courage and talents were employed in suppressing the illicit whisky trade.
While the soldiers in the mountains had little success in stamping out the supply side of the industry, located in well-hidden illicit stills, Gillespie concentrated, with much more success, in intercepting the contraband on its actual way to the Lowland markets.
For more than a quarter of a century Gillespie harassed the smugglers of Aberdeenshire. In that time he impounded 6535 gallons of whisky, 407 stills, 165 horses, 85 carts and 62,400 gallons of barley wash.
Gillespie trained bull dogs to tumble the ponies carrying the akers of whisky, by biting their noses, and causing the spillage of their cargo. His own favourite dog suffered martyrdom by being shot dead by a smuggler.
The ponies too suffered casualites. On one occasion Gillespie had been worsted by a superior number of foes, but as they fled, he shot the pony carrying their wares dead and prevented them triumphing.
Gillespie and his men were armed with swords and pistols, which they unfailingly used. He himself sustained 42 wounds in his career and was battered near to death on frequent occasions.
Some of Gillespie’s exploits are the stuff of legend. On one occasion a party of smugglers set out from Upper Deesidee, with 10 cartloads of whisky and a numerous armed guard.
It was night, and a fearful one, so the smugglers were not expecting excisemen to be out and about.
They reached Culter outside Aberdeen without opposition, but here the gaugers lay in ambush, and a battle ensued between the two sides.
In the end the smugglers fled, leaving several wounded and one of their men dead, and the whisky fell into Gillespie’s hands.
We are lucky to have an account of Gillespie’s exploits written in his own hand.
One of the incidents it describes is the Battle of Inverurie in 1824, where a cavalcade of smugglers were intercepted while they were heading for Aberdeen.
Gillespie and a sole assistant stumbled on the 25 smugglers and their cargo, while the rest of the excise men were scattered around.
Gillespie describes the ensuing battle in his own words, using the third person for himself, “This formidable group were very indifferent to his (Gillespie’s) threats, and looked upon him with his assistant in a scornful way, and were proceeding onwards, when he immediately fired and killed a horse.
“The next shot he discharged went through the shoulder of a robust delinquent, in the very act of bringing down on Mr Gillespie’s head a large bludgeon.
“The whole gang were now upon Mr G., but by this time the rest of his party had assembled and a terrible conflict ensued.
“Bloody heads, hats rolling on the ground, the reports of firing and other noise resembled the Battle of Waterloo, but in the end the lawless desperadoes were obliged to lay down their arms and submit to the laws of their country.
“Mr G and his party were all much debilitated by severe wounds and bruises and loss of blood; but the greater part of the smugglers were in a much worse situation.” Gillespie wrote this account of his work, glowing with professional pride, while in prison in 1827 awaiting trial for printing and circulating forged bills. This was a then capital offence, and he was convicted, and hanged in November 1827.
Gillespie was a victim of his own efficiency, and the general success of the government’s policy of suppressing the illicit whisky trade.
As the smugglers were defeated it meant that prosecutions for illicit distilling in Scotland fell from 3,000 a year in 1823 to less than 300 in 1827. And so too fell the exciseman’s bounties for seizure of the dwindling amount of contraband.
Gillespie, used to a generous income, turned to forgery to replace his declining bounties. It still seems harsh that a state which he had served so well, and so bravely, should in the end mete out to him a more severe punishment than was ever inflicted on any of the smugglers he caught.
But all those smugglers he had had incarcerated, fined or simply forced into unwilling retirement, must have gloatingly echoed Burns’ words as Gillespie was hanged.
And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil That danced awa wi th’Exciseman.