The Malt Riots that helped fund a new age for Scotch whisky

It risked rising beer prices and a revolt over the Union – the people were angry, and the streets became dangerous.

Glasgow in the mid-18th Century around the time of the Malt Riots, which led to more than 1,300 soldiers stationed on the streets to quell mass unrest over the introduction of a new tax. PIC: Creative Commons.
Glasgow in the mid-18th Century around the time of the Malt Riots, which led to more than 1,300 soldiers stationed on the streets to quell mass unrest over the introduction of a new tax. PIC: Creative Commons.

The Malt Riots led to fatal shots being fired in Glasgow with unrest rippling through the streets of the land, from Elgin to Dundee and Stirling in the summer of 1725.

Scotland became “virtually ungovernable” as the riots spread but the unrest came with perhaps an unlikely consequence – the dawning of a new age of the legal Scotch whisky industry.

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Protest flared, both among the people and politicians, when Westminster wanted to extend a tax on malt bushels to Scotland. It had been paid in England to help fund the wars against France with the 1707 Treaty of Union at first exempting Scotland from the levy.

By 1725, the tax was brought in across Great Britain at a price of 3d a bushel – half of what had been paid in England.

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The price of everyday goods, including beer - drunk by the gallon as a safer alternative to water – faced a hike and an “explosive, two stage reaction” shook the country, according to historian Christopher A Whatley, author of Scotland and the Union, Then and Now.

Riots broke out, starting in Hamilton on 23 June – the day the new tax collection was due to start with more than 1100 excisemen hired.

But it was perhaps Glasgow that felt the full force of the anti-tax riots with the unrest spreading and to the mansion of Duncan Campbell of Shawfield, Glasgow’s first MP at Westminster, who supported the tax.

His home, which sat on the corner of Glassford St and the Trongate, was broken into and ravaged by a mob armed with hatchets and other weapons.

Attempts to control the crowd only served to inflame it with soldiers shooting eight members of the crowd in which “stone-throwing females and butchers were prominent”, Whatley said. A further 18 people were wounded.

The soldiers were forced to flee for their lives and took refuge at Dumbarton Castle with General Wade sending 1,300 troops into Glasgow to restore order with the city living under a military presence. Protests followed over the summer in Ayr, Dundee – where a merchant’s house was sacked – as well as Elgin, Paisley and Stirling.

“The fact is that Scotland had become virtually ungovernable,” Whatley said.

Duncan Campbell was compensated by the City of Glasgow for the damage to his home with £10,000 paid to the MP – around £2.1 million at today’s values – with some of the money raised by selling common land.

With the compensation, Campbell went on to buy Islay and Jura.

Emily Coyle, brand development manager at Glasgow Distillery Companysaid : “Campbell took the compensation to buy Islay and Jura, where he encouraged local farmers to seed extra barley which ignited the production of Scots whisky.”

Following Campbell’s death in 1753, his estate passed on to his grandson Daniel who set up the village of Bowmore. The Bowmore Distillery was founded shortly thereafter and a new era of legal whisky production began with the spirit, arguably, funded by the riot of the people.

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