All three families involved in Ice & Fire Distillery are crofters and own Croft land in Caithness.
Crofting is a traditional form of land tenure, unique to predominantly the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which continues to be a vital component of this regional economy in the 21st century.
Within crofting community’s individual crofts are generally small in size (from less than ½ a hectare up to 50 hectares but an average croft in ~ 5 hectares. The sharing of common grazings within crofting townships is common practice with the crofts on the better land and rough/hill grazing being held in common grazings.
Crofting is a system of land holding unique to Scotland. A croft is a small land holding, of which the crofter is a tenant. Earning a living this way has always required the ability to innovate and hold down a number of jobs in addition to tending to crops and livestock. In this respect not much has changed in the past 200 years. Crofters still need to undertake a number of jobs to maintain an income and to make a croft viable.
In the 18th century, landowners discovered sheep were more profitable than tenants, and so began to clear people off their land leading to the Highland Clearances. Many of those evicted emigrated, but others were pushed to marginal land in the form of small crofts near the shore or high in the hills.
This clearing of the population is a main contributor to the massive world-wide Scottish diaspora and why so many Americans and Canadians can trace their ancestry to the proud, ancient clans of Scotland. It is not known exactly how many highlanders emigrated time but estimates put it at about 70,000. Whatever the exact figure, it was enough to change the character and culture of the Scottish Highlands forever.
Caithness and Illicit Spirits
It was the introduction of a tax on malt, an essential ingredient in the making of whisky that helped spur on the illicit distilling of whisky – that is the distilling of whisky without a licence, which cost a lot to purchase. As much as anything, the driving force behind the trade was poverty. Much of the Highlands, where hundreds of illicit stills operated, had and still have low agricultural productivity. Even the landless who could equip themselves with distilling equipment could enter into the trade, sending their goods south in barrels, hung on long strings of ponies, over the hill tracks and roads.
Many crofters in Caithness supplemented the croft income by not so legal means and distilled illicit whisky. The hills and moors of Caithness were alive with illicit distilling as there was a ready supply of water from the burns, peat from the hills and grain from the land. This was all they needed to make moonshine (and a bit of luck to evade the excise men).
There is not a large amount of documented evidence as by its very nature, illicit distilling was an “underground activity” but there are plenty of folklore stories of some of the more “famous” illicit stills.
Ice & Fire Distillery is just outside the village of Latheronwheel. The second element of the place name Latheronwheel is probably from the Gaelic Faedhail meaning a ford. A folk tale explanation of the name is that when a coach came to the ford the driver was told to ‘put some leather on the wheel’ in order that the coach was pulled through the ford and hence the name Latheronwheel.
Latheronwheel was built on land owned by Captain Dunbar. The first building was the Latheronwheel Hotel in 1835, it was known as Dunbar’s Hotel. Today the hotel is still known as ‘The Blends’ due to the proprietor in the 1890s, Donald Sutherland, who blended his own whisky, some of which possibly came from illegal stills in the surrounding area.
Illicit distilling at Badryrie
An abandoned crofting community in Latheron
If you travel north of the village of Latheron over the Causewaymire, now the Main A9 there is a small community at Achavanich. At the former school of Achavanich ('the field of the monks') the road forks, Badryrie lies around Stemster Loch.
The road to Badryrie leads almost directly in an easterly direction. About half way along the two kilometre way one passes on the right the ruins of Boanbean where in the house there about eighty or ninety years ago lived John Mackay, a ditcher and drainer but who was known to make a good living from the art of "smuggling". This was the word always used to describe the honourable and highly skilled process of whisky making. "Smuggled" whisky was, to them, simply home distilled whisky.
It is recorded in the 1831 census that eleven families lived at Badryrie.
At lower Badryrie there are the remains of two dwelling houses. The older has a unique double gable, where between the twin walls constructed in such a way that where a doorway goes through it to the next room one has the impression that it is a normal single wall. As the wall extends towards the back of the house it gradually splits in two forming a substantial cavity where in the old days a distilling plant was operated. A very small doorway, only large enough to crawl through, opens into one of the adjoining rooms where it emerged underneath a box bed under which one would also have to crawl. There was also an opening through the roof where a flagstone camouflaged with thatch was lifted on some kind of hinge. The "worm", a part of the distilling equipment, was found some years ago buried near the end of this building. A water supply to feed this "worm" was actually piped into this cavity from the mill dam a short distance away.
The MacGregor family of lower Badryrie had another "bothy" (a distilling underground hide-out in the moors) some distance away. On one occasion Mrs. MacGregor found that a shower of snow falling through the night had prevented the men-folk from returning home because of the danger of leaving footprints, drove all the cattle in the direction of the bothy criss-crossing the area in such a way as to make it impossible for any gauger (excise man) to find evidence.
The excise men kept an eye all over the hill areas knowing full well what was going on, but with little success. No prosecutions have been recorded from this area. On another occasion Mrs MacGregor, had just fed to the cows in the byre adjoining the kitchen, some draff (the residue of barley after malting) when on opening the connecting door she found two excise ment just entering the byre. She lifted up the large bucket of peat ashes just cleaned out from the lazy hole and flung it into the byre more or less in their faces allowing the cows to clean the troughs of the tell-tale draff.
The economics of these crofting communities were based more or less on living directly off the land. Oatmeal, potatoes, mutton, pork, milk, cheese, crowdie, eggs, and hares of which there was an abundance, augmented with salt herring, and of course plenty of whisky, was their staple diet.
In the late 18th century there were at least 15 illegal stills in the Parish of Halkirk alone. In the First Statistical Account the parish minister of Wick stated that whisky was drunk to excess and advocated the introduction of brewing as being the lesser of the two evils. Some of the illicit spirit was of high quality, the operator taking great pride in their product. James Henderson, the founder of Pulteney Distillery, made a very fine 'drop o' the craitur' at Poolhoy, for about thirty years, before moving to Wick. However, many of the private operators produced a rough spirit.
In recent years one could find 'a eweie wi' a crookit horn', as the stills were known, in such unlikely places as Pulteneytown, Newtonhill, Scotscalder and even on a Thurso housing scheme.
Willie Thompson, of Tannach, was a legendary local hero who shared Rabbie Burns’s ambivalence about whisky and taxation. The two did not go together in his eyes.
He was a moonshiner during the long years of prohibition when the town of Wick was dry (before the war).
There’s a story about a Customs and Excise raid on his croft which failed to find any evidence of his lethal hooch. They retreated disconsolately as Willie played "Will Ye No Come Back Again" on his bagpipes!