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Industrial Revolution: 1770s to 1830s

Trade and Communications


By Michael Moss

Although smuggling had declined by the 1770s, it increased rapidly after the French Revolution in 1789. To pay for the wars with France, duty on all manner of goods, but particularly alcohol, was greatly increased. Not only foreign goods were smuggled but also whisky made illicitly in the Highlands and islands. In some years when harvests were bad and food in short supply distilling was prohibited and the only source of supply was illicit whisky.

Smuggling was well organised and some landowners, such as the Duke of Hamilton who owned Arran, encouraged illicit whisky-making as it helped the tenants pay their rent. Most of the goods smuggled in to Glasgow were landed on the Ayrshire and Renfrewshire coast and transported overland on ponies. On the main road to the coast, Beith in Ayrshire became notorious as a centre for smuggling to such an extent that law enforcement officers would not go there. The smugglers were met on the outskirts of Glasgow by middlemen, known as blethermen, who negotiated to buy their wares.

By the 1810s the lawlessness of the smugglers was causing concern and there was pressure for reform. With the coming of peace, landowners gradually began to withdraw their support for illicit whisky-making and at the beginning of the 1820s measures were passed to reduce duty sharply and at the same time to impose much harsher penalties on those caught smuggling and illicit distilling. Although illicit distilling disappeared almost overnight, smuggling continued across the border into England where rates of duty were higher. This did not come to an end until the early 1850s when duty was equalised.

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