The Great Dearth 1782 – 84

The summer of 1782 was a climatic disaster in Scotland. The harvest was poor throughout the country and failed completely in the Highlands where by the spring of 1783, the whole area was gripped by famine.

While many counties banned distilling to improve grain supplies for food purposes, the government sought to restrict distilling by almost doubling the duty per gallon of spirit. As a result, consumption of legal whisky dropped by 50% in 1783.

The five large distilleries belonging to the Steins and Haigs managed to increase their output by importing supplies of non food grains from abroad. They even managed to export 427,000 gallons of spirit to England.

The continued production of spirits throughout 1783 – 84 caused resentment when large numbers of people were starving to death. On June 4th 1784, James Haig’s Canonmills Distillery in Edinburgh was stormed by hungry crowds who believed that oats and potatoes were being used for distilling. The mobs were repelled on the first occasion by the Haig’s armed servants. When the rioters returned in greater force three days later they were met by a strong militia presence that wounded several people. The magistrates sentenced the ringleaders to be publicly whipped through the streets before being deported to the colonies for fourteen years. On 8th June, James Haig issued a printed statement rebutting absolutely the accusation he was distilling from food crops.