Illicit Distilling on Arran

With news that the distillery at Lagg will be opening next spring, local historian Jim Henderson sent the Voice an historical account of the illicit distilling industry in Arran in the early 19th Century.

The website for the new distillery says that the Parish of Kilmory and the surrounding area of the island was a hotbed of whisky production, both legal and illicit, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This social history of the new distillery will inform the style of whisky that will be produced at Lagg. The distillery says that the single malt will be heavily-peated in a style reminiscent of the original Arran whiskies and quite distinctive from The Arran Malt produced at the distillery in Lochranza.

Whisky distilling for some families in the 18th and 19th centuries formed a significant part of their livelihood, but which was often undertaken at huge risk as the following story shows.


During the late 18th and early 19th century illicit distilling of alcohol was a common practice especially in the south end of the Island, making use of the grain grown on the farms and quality of the water.

During this period education supported by the ministry began in the Shiskine valley and the more populated areas. Religion became a leading factor in how the Island folks behaved, with the Sabbath on a Sunday strictly observed. However, the church also assisted needy Islanders due to the absence of any social welfare arrangement.

Around this time in the Island history, enterprising individuals operated stills to brew alcohol. Smuggling was prevalent and with the introduction of Malt duty men from the Revenue became the Islanders enemy.

By 1793 there were three licensed distillers on the Island with a small number still operating illicit stills, which created a number of incidents involving the revenue men. On one occasion a family of Father, Son and Daughter were cited to appear at court in Rothesay, where they were fined the sum of £60.00. They paid the fine with some haste; this may assist to illustrate the income from distilling alcohol. This sum probably represented a full year’s income for most families in the late 1700’s.

The population of the Island in 1782 was 5804, which increased to 6600 by 1820. The next two years recorded terrible weather conditions country wide and the River Thames was so frozen that folks played on the ice. Due to the winter conditions, many villages were cut off, the only means of transport between each community was by the sea in boats.

On the 27th March 1817 a boat set sail from Sliddery, at the South of Arran with a load of illicit whisky. Soon after leaving the crew caught sight of the revenue cutter and put about. Their actions were spotted by the cutter crew, who set off in pursuit. They launched a smaller vessel with 10 men aboard to enable them to sail in the shallower waters and caught up with the Islanders on land, seizing the contraband whisky.

The actions by the revenue men attracted a lot of attention by the locals, who set about to retrieve the whisky. The resulting struggle ended with 2 men and 1 woman being shot and a further two children injured. The two men were father and son by the name of McKinnon and the woman was Isabel Nichol.

A courts case was held in Rothesay on the 9th September 1817 when John Jeffrey the mate of the Prince Edward revenue cutter was found not guilty of murder. The jury backed the defendant’s lawyer who claimed that he was just defending his men in pursuance of their duty.

This action brought about an end to the smuggling era of Arran. The death of three
South-enders and the reduction of alcohol duties, combined to make smuggling and small stills unprofitable.


By Jim Henderson