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Ruined north-east farm was one of Scotland’s first legal distilleries

Archaeologists have begun excavating a north-east farm to uncover what is believed to be one of the first legal distilleries in Scotland.

Centuries ago illicit stills were scattered across secluded spots of the Cabrach while smugglers supplied the nation with whisky from the hills.

Blackmiddens was one of the first farms to be granted a licence to make the spirit following the legalisation of production in 1823.

The decision paved the way for the former criminals to come down from the hills and set up legitimate firms, allowing them to more than triple production in small purpose-built buildings.

Now the archaeologists are excavating the site to learn more about the historical methods used to replicate them at an under-construction Cabrach Trust attraction, which will include a working distillery based on traditional methods.

Peter Bye-Jensen, the trust’s heritage manager, said: “The law was designed to extinguish all of the illicit distilling.

“It was on an industrial level though, not just to supply a few communities, but to supply a nation with good whisky.

“Back in the 1800s the lowlands were producing lots of poor quality whisky, fast production but not very good – so people started seeking out the ‘under the counter’ stuff from the Cabrach.

“It meant when production here was legalised they knew there was already a big demand. So they knew they could increase production from the illicit stills to the farm.”

Excavations of the farm buildings have already revealed a centuries-old clay pipe as well as glass and stoneware.

Investigations done by experts have estimated that about 20,000 litres of whisky could be produced – today large Speyside firms can make about 13million litres.

The week-long dig has unearthed a path leading from the main farm, where sheep were kept, to a large door and store. A small room kept the still next to a cooling tub, which led through a hole in the wall to barrels or a safe.

Whisky production at the farm only ran for eight years until 1833 before the buildings fell into disrepair and were lost to time.

John Sheriff, Historic Environment Scotland’s archaeological survey team manager, said: “Blackmiddens Distillery played a short but significant role in the history of whisky-making in the north-east.

“The survey will record the character and extent of the visible remains and explore the relationship between the distillery and adjacent farm steading.”

Descendant of north-east whisky smuggler believes her great-great-uncle inspired today’s global industry

The pioneering distillers who set up at Blackmiddens would go on to lay the foundations of the global whisky industry that exists today.

One of their descendants returned to the farm during the excavation to where she once tended her family’s sheep when she was a child in the 1960s.

Joan Harvey’s great-great-uncle James Sharp was the tenant farmer when the distillery was established and the “head of the gang” of smugglers who turned legal.

Artefacts from whisky production passed down the Dufftown resident’s family, including a large pot that was used to heat grain which was later stolen by thieves.

Yesterday, the 66-year-old revealed that stories of the lost distillery and the adventures of her ancestors had also been passed down through the lineage.

She said: “One of the members of the Grant family who went on to create Glenfiddich worked on the farm as a herd boy when they were making whisky, so I just wonder whether that’s where they got some of their ideas from.

“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 and the whisky went through.”