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They Taxed Our Whisky!

by Niamh Wood

The Glasgow Malt Riots

The malt tax riots were a wave of protest to the extension of the English malt tax to Scotland. The riots were one of the most infamous uprisings by Glaswegians in the early 18th century. It was one of the most prolonged and violent riots that the city had ever seen and one that played an important part in the heritage of scotch whisky.

The Riots began in Hamilton on June 23rd, 1725, and soon spread throughout the country. The riots commenced due to the Act of Union of 1707 coming into place. Many scots, but particularly the Glaswegians, were severely opposed to the act. The joining of Scotland and England under the same monarchy enraged the Glaswegians. Soon after the act was put into place, the city magistrates decided that no more than three people could congregate in the street after nightfall in fear that the scots would end up rebelling and causing wide-scale rioting. They called it malt tax. It got the name due to the increased price of alcohol at the time and malt was a vital ingredient in its production. Although the law was in place, it was never properly enforced until 1725. The new duty was of course treated with outrage across the whole country and riots began throughout Scotland, with Glasgow’s scenes being the worst.

Officers were employed to collect excise duties and enforce excise laws. They were sent to the city on the first day of its introduction and were met with immense threats that they would be stoned if they took account of the malt supplies of any Glaswegians. Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, the MP for the Glasgow district, was seriously targeted. He was one of the signatories to the act of union and later voted in favour of the malt tax. This led to his city centre property of Shawfield mansion being destroyed by angry citizens. With more riots growing, government forces were sent to suppress the disturbances.

The government sent a 400 men army forces led by Field Marshall George wade to put the city back in order. Some two weeks later, the city began to regain order. However, by this time, several deaths had occurred, and people had critical injuries. In the aftermath of the events, several of those identified as the leaders were banished from the city forever. Others who also played a big role in the riots were publicly whipped as punishment. With the damages caused, the cost of the riot in the region came to around £10,000 (which would be around £920,000 in today's money). Much of the land had to be sold to raise the necessary funds to compensate for the loss.

Daniel Campbell of Shawfield also had to be paid the sum of £6080 in compensation for the damage done to his property. He refurbished his home and sold it in 1727. He used the compensation he received and a loan to buy the islands of Islay and Jura for £12,000. His purchase of the islands began the true connection between Glasgow and malt whisky production.

Upon moving to the island, Campbell introduced new crops such as barley. This gave the farmers that worked for him a surplus of grain which allowed them to produce whisky. Over the next 50 years, whisky production grew rapidly to the point where the consumption of the drink became alarmingly high and problematic for the island. Due to Campbell owning the whole island, it was exempted from the Scottish Board of Excise.

Campbell bought the island with the hope of reversing the reputation it held of making strong and illegally made alcohol to legal production of it. When Campbell died in 1753 his aims became apparent. In the 1760s David Simson created a new commercial centre for the island was created by the name of Bowmore. Before Campbell's death, he had given David the go-ahead to start this project and to this day, it remains the oldest distillery on Islay and is thought to be the oldest distillery on its original site in the whole of Scotland.

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