In 1786, the Government introduced the Scotch Distillery Act, which introduced heavy license fees and increased the tax on whisky. Before the Act was introduced, a large quantity of the island’s barley was made into spirit and each farm on Tiree usually had one still producing whisky, for both local consumption and export. Whisky was worth much more than barley as grain alone- one boll of barley was worth 30 shillings as grain but 6 guineas if distilled into whisky.
As far back as 1789, MacLean the tacksman at Kilmoluaig (Fear Chill Moluag) had one of the two stills on the island licensed to produce whisky. ‘Mr McLean, Kilmoluaig has one of the stills on his farm.’ Cregeen, E., 1964, Argyll Estate Instructions, Edinburgh, Scottish History Society, 19. It is likely that the same family were selling spirits in 1841.
The Duke attempted to quash illicit distilling on the island and it was noted in the Statistical account of 1793 that, up until recently, around 300-400 gallons of whisky had been exported from more than thirty stills on the island.
Illicit whisky production was also fast dwindling peat supplies so the Duke set up three legal coal burning stills and ordered that every tenth crofter caught making whisky should be evicted. The Duke even announced his intention of accepting rent payments paid in barley. His attempt was unsuccessful; in 1789-90, 157 people were convicted of illicit distilling on Tiree and fourteen were evicted.
The Chamberlain for Tiree was in charge of the evictions although he found it extremely difficult- in most cases it involved either exiling war veterans or leaving families without someone to earn a primary source of income, which would cause a storm of protest. The illicit distilling was not stamped out until some of the more stubborn distillers were removed from the island.
Gaugers were also stationed on the island, which forced the islanders to secretly ship their barley to Donegal in Ireland to be distilled there instead.
The reduction of illicit stills on the island was greatly received by the island’s minister at the time, the Reverend Archibald McColl:
It is a great help for the morals of the community that there is only three licensed stills and the only public houses are the four at the ferries and harbours in Tiree and Coll.
The island’s population rose very sharply during the second half of the eighteenth century, due to the booming kelp industry, and by 1792 it had risen to 2,416. This had a negative effect on the production of grain due to the increase in tenants resulting in the ground being split into smaller portion. Tenants were forced to let their cattle pasture on the corn and they were unable to begin sowing early because of the trespass of cattle, sand blow and wet land.
The season of 1790-91 was particularly poor- only 300 bolls of barley were distilled on the island and 2000 bolls had to be bought in at a very high price.