Ancient scotch distillery excavation underway

An archeological excavation is underway at the site of one of the earliest legal whisky distilleries in Scotland.

The dig is thought to be the first excavation of a traditional small-scale farm distillery and is taking place at Blackmiddens, a ruined steading in the Cabrach on the border between Moray and Aberdeenshire. 

The archaeological dig is being led by the Cabrach Trust with funding and assistance from Forestry and Land Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland. 

The Cabrach Trust was established to preserve the history of an area notorious for illegal whisky distillation and smuggling. 

Chief executive of the Cabrach Trust, Anna Brennand, said: “The Cabrach is a place of many secrets. For decades local farmers secretly distilled whisky and smuggled it away under the noses of excisemen. Then, when the law was changed to make small-scale whisky production profitable, Blackmiddens was one of the first farms to take advantage of this. 

“The farm would have had a small 40-gallon (180-litre) still compared to whisky stills today which hold many thousands of litres. However, despite the fact that farms like this were famous for their fine quality spirit, whisky production at Blackmiddens stopped just eight years after it began and the farm fell into ruin.”

Joan Harvey’s great, great uncle, James Sharp, was the tenant farmer at Blackmiddens.“I was always told that my great, great uncle was the head of the gang at the time,” said Harvey. “We were the ‘freebooters’ who took the whisky to Aberdeen to sell in the pubs. Stories about their adventures were passed down my family. 

“Apparently my great, great grandfather had a white stallion and when the excisemen were billeted locally he would ride his white horse, alerting everyone that the excisemen were there so that the whisky smugglers could go to ground. 

“I was also told that, one time, the excisemen were trying to catch the smugglers and had set up barricades all around Aberdeen. My great, great uncle hired a horse-drawn hearse and loaded the coffin with whisky. When he reached the excisemen, they all took off their hats as a mark of respect for the dead, and the whisky went through.”