Posts tagged ‘whisky’

May 8, 2019

Poor Lexy Campbell, Lord Byron and the man who could raise the dead

Lexy Campbell was very young when she caught Lord Byron’s eye on a visit to his former nurse, Agnes Gray, in the village of Woodside, close to Aberdeen. Agnes and her husband, Alexander Melvin, lived in a first floor flat at 177 Barron Street, its back to the old turnpike road to Inverurie, as was the tradition. Following his visit the tenement was tagged ‘Byron Hall.’

A young George Gordon, Lord Byron, admirer of Lexy Campbell

I don’t know when that was but reckon she was around fourteen or fifteen, ten years younger than Byron; known in Aberdeen by his mother’s family name, George Gordon.

Lexy, Alexandrina Campbell was five foot three, fair with light brown hair and hazel eyes with a little mole on her right cheek. She lived near Agnes in Printfield, in the flat of a ‘very respectable spinster, called Nelly Calder. It was subsequently reported that poor Lexy’s reputation suffered following the attentions of George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose reputation is well-known but on this occasion he appears to have been innocent – well fairly innocent for she might have been tainted by the whiff of scandal that always hung about the poet and ‘Poor Lexy lost caste by this affair, and her subsequent history was unfortunate.’

When she was 30 years old Lexy Campbell was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) Australia along with 99 other prisoners from Britain on the ship, Harmony. Why? Well, it all started like this –

Lexy Campbell became the housekeeper, tutor to his children and perhaps mistress of the notorious Black Malcolm Gillespie. Dark haired with a dark complexion Gillespie was a gauger, an exciseman – employed by the government to collect taxes, for the purposes of this account we’re concerned with the whisky tax imposed on the spirit in Scotland by the British government eager to control the smuggling of foreign spirits and illegally produced whisky in Scotland – illegal in the sense of not paying the government’s tax. Originally from Dunblane, Gillespie worked in various districts including Collieston, Stonehaven and later went to live at Crombie Cottage at Skene, west of Aberdeen. He was a very successful gauger and for 28 years he was a scourge of local whisky smugglers, well-informed and knowledgeable on the whereabouts of stills and routes taken by smugglers. He’s credited with seizing 410 gallons on a single occasion and over his time as an exciseman he captured 22,751 gallons of spirits, 165 horses and 82 carts.

It appears the government didn’t pay their gaugers very much for Gillespie felt the need to make a bit more besides to maintain the lifestyle he thought should be his. But I’ll come back to that.

One of Black Gillespie’s adversaries was entrepreneur whisky man, John Duff – a prolific whisky maker and smuggler. One day with 40 gallons of whisky concealed in his house ready to be carted to Aberdeen for sale he was dismayed to spot the approach of the exciseman, Gillespie. Time was too short to shift the barrels of whisky so Duff frantically thought how he might prevent Gillespie searching his property.

Landseer’s romantic image of an illicit whisky still

This was a time when itinerant craftsmen took their skills around the countryside rather than folk going to them in a village or town. It so happened that a travelling tailor was at Duff’s house ‘whipping the cat’ i.e. engaged on making up clothes there.

This particular tailor was a Highlander although that probably has little relevance to his insatiable thirst for whisky. And no, he wasn’t persuaded to drink 40 gallons of the stuff in the time it took Gillespie to arrive.

‘There’s Gillespie, we maun try to save the drink. Will ye render assistance, Tam?’ John Duff asked the tailor.

The tailor agreed to help Duff when he was promised he would be paid as much whisky as he could drink in a week but on discovering the plan involved him playing dead Tam the tailor was less enthusiastic for as a Highlander he had sufficient respect for religion to worry about playing with fate and death.

However, he agreed and lay down on the long table with a napkin tied under his chin and a cloth spread over his face – every inch a corpse.

Gillespie marched straight into the house and was surprised to be greeted by a body laid out in front of the window and Duff and his relatives seated about in a state of mourning – their faces wet with tears and bibles in their hands as they sang a Psalm.

‘Oh, Mr Gillespie! Ye hae come to a hoose o’ mourin’. As ye see, we hae just been askin’ Divine aid to sustain us in this sair dispensation, but come inbye! Come inbye,’ invited Duff.

The two men talked a little about the dead man who Duff claimed was his brother newly returned home from America. Gillespie was well-informed about the people in the community he policed and was certain Duff had no brother. Suspicious, he enquired what the man had died from. Duff was dumfoundered and thinking fast thought it best to say it was something highly infectious to encourage Gillespie to leave but his mind went blank. He dropped his gaze and his eyes fell on the open bible in his lap. And he read the first words he saw.

‘’Nae ither than leprosy,’ he said.

‘Leprosy, did you say?’ cried an astounded Gillespie.

The gauger was more suspicious than ever and asked to see the corpse. Duff warned him he was taking his life in his hands but to go ahead.

Gillespie stepped up, ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s much danger, for I am not very liable to infection.’ He lifted the cloth and was sure he recognised the man laid out who didn’t look very dead or diseased. It came to him that this was none other than the wandering and often drunken tailor he had seen weeks earlier. From his pocket he took out his snuff box and taking a pinch of the stuff pushed it into the nostrils of the ‘streekit’ man. The corpse sneezed, again and again, and sprung to his feet, tearing off the cloths around his face while the Duff family looked on aghast and Gillespie smiled.

‘What the devil gar’d ye stap yer langnailed fingers up my nose?’ demanded the risen corpse.

‘Man, I think you have reason to be thankful that I did so. If I had not, our friend here might have buried you alive. If you ever again fall a victim to the leprosy you now know the cure. Just try the effects of a pickle snuff,’ said Gillespie.

Then turning to Duff he told him he had just witnessed one of those miracles he read about in the bible.’ As for raising the dead Gillespie insisted he couldn’t do that but had come close, ‘for I have at least raised the ninth part of one… you thought the body only remained, and that the spirit was fled: you see you are mistaken. After such an error I could never pardon myself if I departed without searching the house. It is not known what further discoveries I may make. I may even find spirits absent from the body.’

And so it was that John Duff’s store of whisky spirit was discovered and confiscated and Duff dealt with by the courts which put a stop to his whisky smuggling career.

When it came to his turn Gillespie’s own court appearances must have raised a wry smile and a slàinte mhath or two around the straths and townships of Aberdeenshire.

In 1827 Malcolm Gillespie and George Skene Edwards were charged with forgery to obtain money. On his arrest Gillespie uttered, ‘Good God, I am a gone man. You must allow me to disappear and this will be all settled.’ He appealed to have the charges removed which was rich given his ruthless approach to those he apprehended. Before his arrest when he became aware the game was up on his forgeries he told one witness against him, ‘for God’s sake good woman, don’t do that, for, if the fiscal got notice of that, I might as well cut myself in pieces, or blow out my brains.’

The man with a craving for high living, or as high as a gauger cum fraudster could expect, who forged Treasury bills went on to try to defraud two insurance companies.

The home he and Lexy lived in, Crombie Cottage, he insured for £530 with one insurer and £300 with another. One or two others shared the house and all were implicated in Gillespie’s plot to burn down the house and claim insurance money on it. Gillespie took himself off to Edinburgh, presumably to give himself an alibi, leaving the others to arrange the fire by smearing the furniture with rosin, inflammable solid pine resin, jamming more resin between roof joists, pouring turpentine around and sprinkling gunpowder over surfaces. Coils of dry ropes were brought into the house to help it burn and one part of the thatch was cut to prevent a single area go up in flames.  On the night of 21 February 1827 all the participants took a dram of whisky then Lexy took a lit candle into the cellar and set it alight while another ignited the dry ropes.  

It was an elaborate plan and it worked. The house burnt down good and proper or in Gillespie’s words it was ‘genteelly done.’

On 30 April Gillespie was apprehended for his claim on the insurance companies. He, Lexy and the rest were held in Aberdeen’s tolbooth. By a majority verdict Gillespie was declared guilty of forgery and told to expect no mercy in this world. He bowed to both bench and jury. Gillespie retained hopes of a reprieve to near the end for he was much respected as guardian of the law of taxation by many a landed gentleman and MP but when that didn’t come the gauger became introspect and dejected. At the last moment he admitted his forgeries, protesting he acted honestly. He was executed on 16 November. When he stepped up to the scaffold he looked towards the west – supposedly towards Skene. Following his hanging he was cut down and transported back to Skene and buried there.  

The type of convict ship Lexy sailed on to Van Diemen’s Land

As he had been convicted on the capital offence of forgery Gillespie was not tried on fire-raising to defraud. His accomplices faced that charge but it was accepted by the court that Gillespie had been behind the plan so they were shown leniency – seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land – which is why Byron’s early love, fair Lexy Campbell, at the age of thirty found herself in the company of 99 others on a convict ship, Harmony, bound for Australia on 9 September 1828. Her fate there? I don’t know.

PS Thanks to John and Lesley who responded to the initial blog with links to information about Lexy. I had read previously she was from Ross-shire (like me) but dismissed this as it mentioned a place called Haries (which doesn’t exist) however it must mean Harris in the Western Isles which is in Easter Ross.

I didn’t find out much more about Lexy post-transportation other than she was described as well-behaved and married a man called Bryan. Grateful to readers and https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/about-convict-lives/about-convict-lives for this information and anymore is welcomed.

October 23, 2018

Against the grain: Scotland pays the English Exchequer

It was regarded as oppressive to Scotland – tax that is – the malt tax in particular was exercising minds over what was seen as the high-handed treatment of Scotland almost before the ink was dry on the Union agreement.

whiskey-still[1] - Copy

To pay for their war with France the English government had introduced a malt tax and when the Union was agreed Scotland was temporarily exempted from it.

Between 1713 and 1724 the malt tax was expected to be a temporary tax which was voted for or against annually. But it was imposed on Scotland ‘with great difficulty’ to the extent a ‘Scotch peer had moved in the other House to dissolve the Act of Union’ – and the vote was tight with 55 voting on each side of the proposition that the Union be dissolved.

Article 14 of the Treaty of Union of 1707 specified that no part of the UK would be burdened unfairly with duties but that due regard would be made to particular circumstances and ability to meet responsibilities. Yet only six years after the Union what had been the English parliament and renamed the British parliament did –

‘actually impose a heavy burden upon Scotland, without any regard to the circumstances of the case, viz. the inferiority of Scotch grain, or the ability of the people , in that part of the United Kingdom, to pay a tax, which in several places was nearly equal to the value of the raw article.’

In other words a tax was imposed on Scots farmers that amounted to almost the value of their crop of bear barley. Bear barley was the principle type of barley grown in Scotland because of its climate and soil conditions, to an extent, but it was not as productive or as valuable as barley grown in most of England.

Support for the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 to return the Catholic Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain was boosted by resentment over the London government’s high-handed treatment of Scotland and the crushing fist of the Hanoverian monarchy. That Hanoverian crushing fist was liberally applied to Highland Scots at Culloden and in the brutal aftermath with Hanoverian redcoats unremitting campaign of rape and slaughter when forts, roads and bridges were constructed throughout Highland Scotland to more effectively control and repress the population -which they did successfully.

With the Jacobite rebellion suppressed and voices questioning Scotland’s treatment within the Union bludgeoned into silence the malt tax could be imposed without fear. In 1725 some consideration was paid to Scotland’s problems paying the tax and differential taxes were temporarily introduced with Scotland paying 3d to England’s 6d on a bushel of malt. But sixty years on arguments over the government’s unfair treatment of Scotland raged on.

Scots famers resisted the tax by not informing excise officers they were growing barley and refusing them admission to their grain lofts. And for most of them they had the support of local justices of the peace.  The tax led to riots and their brutal suppression which resulted in deaths and transportations. 

The Scots clergy, however, who had been exempted from all taxes on what was grown in their glebes (land attached to manses on which various crops were grown to provide food and income for ministers and perhaps local people) and who had never been charged any malt tax before volunteered to pay nominal sums to prevent more unrest among their countrymen and women. This squirming hypocrisy was seen as betraying the interests of Scotland – that driven by their hatred of Catholicism they were content to support the Protestant Hanoverian monarchy – brought in to keep the Catholic Stuarts out of power.

Not many Scots were in favour of the Union – not that they had any say in the matter and from its inception it was apparent Scotland far from being an equal partner would be subordinated to larger England whose parliament became the Union parliament with all of its traditions retained as if it was still English.

Over half a century after the imposition of the malt tax complaints raged on that Scots were effectively paying twice as much tax as the English.

Here’s a flavour from the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser in 1867 –

‘A certain class of English newspaper writers, and of Englishmen generally, can never be made to understand why Scotsmen should ever speak of Scottish rights, or have any notion beyond being regarded as a somewhat insignificant appendage to England.’

The author referred to the Union as a source of tension between Scotland and England and the levying on taxes imposed by an English-biased parliament. Obviously before the Union Scotland had its taxes and England its own taxes so everyone was happy, or not.

From the Union taxation was decided by what was still regarded as fundamentally the English parliament and the author went on to state that London treated Scotland as if she –

‘were a conquered country, in so far as it (Scotland) has been heavier taxed than the other divisions of the larger and wealthier neighbour.’

The issue of the malt tax still figured among complaints – the annual tax that had become a permanent tax with its detrimental impact on Scotland (and Ireland) – more so than in England. The argument was now less on the quality and value of barley grown in each of the nations than on what barley, or rather its malt, was made into.

Scots and Irish people when not drinking water – remembering that drinking water was often polluted before piped supplies made it into homes (for many that was not until the 20th century) so they drank whisky. In England beer was the national drink. It wasn’t that people drank all day and night but those were the national drinks (tea, coffee and cocoa were expensive luxury imports and the majority of people could not afford to buy them.)

Malt in Scotland and Ireland was used to produce malt spirits – whisky. This didn’t happen in England. Malt spirits or whisky was therefore being taxed by the Exchequer through the malt tax which given whisky’s importance in the diet of Scots and Irish penalised them far more than English consumers.

The consumption of malt and grain spirits in Scotland, England and Ireland for the year ending 31st December 1866 and the revenue derived from them through the duties paid were –

In England 9,515,040 proof gallons; pop c 20 million
In Scotland 7,691,760 proof gallons; pop c 3 million
In Ireland 5,910,061 proof gallons pop c 6 million

The rates of duty were similar in all three countries i.e. 10 shillings per proof gallon making the amount of duty paid in England £4,757,520; in Scotland £3,845,879; in Ireland £2,955,031.

Taking the population of each country into account this worked out per head of population per gallon tax as –

England paid tax of 4 shillings 9 penny
Scotland paid tax of £1- 5 shillings 1 penny.
Ireland paid tax of 10 shillings

Scots were paying far more per head of population than the English. It was said that the English people would not have stood to be treated so unfairly as to pay greater tax than the people of Scotland and Ireland.

‘That any nation should be made to pay at the rate of £1.5.1 a head on a single article of consumption is unparalleled in the annals of taxation, and no Legislature in the world ever made such an unfair and unjust use of its power as has the Parliament of the United Kingdom.’

What would English people say if they were compelled to pay a tax of £1 a head for their ale? They would not stand for it and nor should they. But Scots were being unjustly taxed and their complaints fell on deaf ears inside the parliament in London.

It was argued at the time that if the English were taxed on their national beverage – beer – at the same rate Scots were taxed on their national beverage whisky – high duties on tea and sugar and other commodities which made them too expensive for the majority of the population could be reduced to make them affordable.

From England the argument came that it was a matter of choice what Scots drank and they could drink beer so their complaint of being unfairly taxed did not stand scrutiny. This failed to tackle the question of why one drink in one part of the Union was targeted to be highly taxed while another was not, notably England’s drink.

Given it was the Scottish beverage that was taxed at a higher rate and the tax collected in Scotland in proportion to the population was greater then Scotland should be relieved of the burden of taxation on other taxes, it was argued. Instead Scots paid the penalty of their whisky being targeted for high taxation and were forced to pay the same rate for taxes which were made common across the Union – in essence they were being dealt a double whammy tax obligation.

‘Were the case reversed it would amount to this, that the people of England would pay £20,000,000 more of taxation than they do, and the people of Scotland would pay not more than two fifths of what they at present contribute to the national revenue. This would amount to £1 per head saving in Scotland imposed through the special whisky taxation.’

Suppose, it was asked, that England was a whisky nation and Scotland a beer nation would it be likely the duty on whisky would have been 10 shillings a gallon and no duty on malt liquors i.e. beer? The opposite would be the case it was argued – ‘Englishmen would never have submitted to be taxed £1 a head higher than Scotsmen.’

Why do Scots submit to such gross injustice?

‘We are sometimes taunted as a nation, by English writers, for our inadequate provision for the poor, but the additional taxation wrung from us by a Parliament in which there are nearly eight Englishmen for every one Scotsman would double that provision, and leave the whole of the eight hundred thousand pounds assessed for that purpose in the pockets of ratepayers.’

There were Scots MPs in the London parliament but they were accused of not being much interested in sticking up for Scotland unlike many Irish MPs who argued in the interests of their country. On the subject of the unfair taxation laws Scots MPs were largely silent.

High taxation of malt spirits led to illicit distillation – making their national drink affordable to Scots and so criminalised them.

We no longer have a malt tax as such but whisky is still taxed at high levels – currently around 76% of the price of a bottle of whisky is tax that goes to the Exchequer in London. Every day the London government collects around £9 million from spirit drinkers in the UK.

I suppose the government in London saw it could get away with the malt/whisky tax paid by Scots to enhance the services and infrastructure around London and so when North Sea oil and gas came along in Scottish waters it was a lesson well learned that the Scots could be ripped off without their MPs complaining. And they were right.