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Issue 60 - South Island moonshine

Whisky Magazine Issue 60
November 2006


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South Island moonshine

Ian R Mitchelltells the story of the Highland Scots emigrants to New Zealand,who took with them their Gaelic language, their bagpipe music – and their illicit whisky skills.

Mary McRae sailed for New Zealand on the emigrant ship the “Hydaspes” in 1872. Recently widowed, she took with her her four sons and three daughters, and her memories of her 45 hard years in the Kintail district of the North-West Scottish Highlands, territory which was the MacRae heartland. She also took with her a wooden box marked “Household Goods”, which contained one of the most essential household items in Kintail at that time. This was a fine copper and brass whisky still, which was to have a colourful history once it was reassembled on her new holding in the Hokonui hills of Southland in New Zealand's South Island.

She left behind in Kintail a conviction for illegal distilling, which had attracted to her, or rather to her son Duncan, a massive £650 fine, with an additional £150 for non appearance at court, for operating a still on Kishorn island in Kintail.

Mary's husband had died the year before, and possibly dire economic necessity had driven her to illicit distilling to support her large family, as it did many others. There is no record of the fine being paid before Mary left Scotland, indeed such a sum would have been impossible for a poor Highland crofter to find.

The McRaes (most dropped the first ‘a' on arriving in New Zealand) settled in the Southland district which was heavily populated by Scots, particularly Scots Highlanders, with many hundreds from Kintail itself.

The locals still universally spoke Gaelic, played the classical bagpipe (pioba...

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