24 June 2013
Author Malcolm Archibald talks about the exciting life of excise man Malcolm Gillespie, famed as the number one enemy of smugglers in the 19th-century Scottish Highlands. ...
In the early 19th century whisky smuggling was rampant across much of Scotland. It was produced in the Highlands and carried to the towns and cities of the lowlands to be sold. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of gallons of illicit ‘peat-reek’ were produced, which cost the revenue an incalculable fortune in lost taxes. The government responded with an infusion of Excise men, sometimes backed with military and even naval support.
One of the most prominent of the Excise men was Malcolm Gillespie. As he could not afford to purchase a commission into the army he joined the excise service and after a varied career in different coastal positions he ended up in the eastern Highlands, where illicit whisky smuggling was most rife.
He had an adventurous life that included various battles with armed smuggling gangs.
In a long career, Gillespie was wounded an alleged 42 times and made his name as the prime enemy of the smugglers. However he was not in the excise business purely for self interest as he gained a bounty – a bonus – for every gallon of whisky he captured. When the seizures dropped he lost money and turned to forgery instead. He was caught, convicted and hanged. Gillespie was certainly not a hero, but his life story encompasses an era of Highland and Scottish history that deserves to be remembered.
When did you first become aware of Malcolm Gillespie?
I came across a few references to Gillespie when I was researching a novel about whisky smugglers I had planned to write. I thought he was a fascinating character then, although I was not aware at the time of his eventual downfall and demise. He seemed to crop up in a huge number of situations across the Grampian Highlands and into Moray. I kept his name on file and decided to find out more about him.
What is it about him that you find so interesting?
His determination; he was a very determined but flawed man. I think he is the only exciseman who has entered folklore by name, which surely proves he was successful in what he did. When you have tales of smugglers outwitting a named exciseman, then you can be sure that man was notorious and respected, if probably not liked. I can relate to that; he was seen as an enemy of the illicit whisky makers and carriers at a time that the Highlands were a war zone between government forces and the smugglers, but when times got tough he turned to crime himself.
I do not think he was in the slightest bit interested in putting down smuggling or that he saw himself as a moral crusader or an agent of the government. I think he was just a rogue who was making money on the right side of the law.
Has he influenced your perception of Scottish history?
In a way he encompasses so much of Scottish history. Other nations may have perfect heroes but ours are so often just ordinary men and women who struggle through adversary to achieve some objective. The Scottish people have the ability to see the goodness even through failure, and to appreciate the finer points in a man or woman who is less than perfect. We seem to prefer a touch of wildness in our national icons.
Think about our national heroes: Rob Roy: a cattle thief and outlaw; King Robert the Bruce: a hero or a man who changed sides for his own ends? David Livingstone: a missionary who preferred exploring to converting; Mary, Queen of Scots, who created turmoil with her choice of men and religion.They were all undoubtedly brave people but were also stubborn adventurers who followed their own path come what may.
Malcolm Gillespie was similar in his own way. When his original career choice of joining the army was blocked to him, he became an exciseman and possibly because he was so similar to the people he opposed, he was arguably the most successful of them all. He shows that nothing is quite what it appears and a hero one year could be an anti-hero the next.
Malcolm Archibald is the author of Glasgow the Real Mean City, published by Black & White Publishing at £9.99.