Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

A Tale of Illicit Stills around Loch Torridon

An absolutely mirror-like Loch Torridon

The rugged and mountainous terrain encircling the loch was once a stage for a tussle between cunning smugglers and officers from the Customs & Excise. Back in the late 19th century, the number of secret hideouts for smuggling on the west coast of Ross-shire was on the rise. The Government decided they’d had enough and resolved to crack down on the illicit stills. In March 1888, there was a major push to close down covert smuggling dens in the area. The officers divided into two groups and embarked an extensive search amidst the Alligin Hills overlooking Loch Torridon1Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser – Saturday 17 March 1888 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000462/18880317/104/0006.

Now, one group of officers, while snooping around a secluded barn above the village of Wester Alligin, stumbled upon a large distillery in full swing. It was a breakthrough. Without wasting a second, they started tearing the place down. But just as they began their wrecking spree, things took a turn. They found themselves surrounded by an irate and rowdy mob. Sensing trouble, they thought it wise to make themselves scarce. One officer took off with the worm—a coiled copper pipe used in distilling—while another grabbed another piece of the still.

As they beat a hasty retreat, the mob hot on their heels, stones were flying left, right, and centre. The officers got separated, and one got nabbed and was held captive. Meanwhile, the other officer managed to leg it, with the mob chasing him all the way to the village of Inveralligin. There, he found himself surrounded by about thirty men and women. They swiped the worm from him, giving him a few cuts and bruises in the process. Luckily, they let him escape once they got hold of the precious worm.

By some stroke of luck, he bumped into the other party, who were returning from their exhausting search deeper inland. They had uncovered a few abandoned smuggling hideouts, but one clearly showed signs of recent activity. Rejuvenated by their reinforcements, the officers revisited the partially demolished bothy and set fire to its contents. The leaders of the smugglers, so they said, could be easily identified.

In case you’re wondering, a worm is that long, curly copper pipe that sits in a big vat of cold water, usually kept outdoors. As the vapour travels through the worm, it condenses back into liquid form. It’s an old-school method of turning spirit vapour back into liquid, but these days, only a few distilleries still use it. Most prefer the more modern and efficient “shell and tube” approach2https://www.masterofmalt.com/blog/post/what-are-worm-tubs-and-why-do-they-matter.aspx.







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