At the turn of the 18th Century it was estimated that over 10,000 litres of whisky were made from Tiree barley and exported to the neighbouring islands annually.
In 1806, rents on Tiree – which had totalled £852 in 1770, mainly from Barley and Whisky – had risen to £2,613, reflecting the large proceeds from the kelp harvest.
By 1843, the custom of drinking to excess at funerals was less widespread and the previous 25-30 years had seen the suppression of illicit stills on the island. It was deemed important to honour the dead with a good send off therefore this saw some ‘poor families parting with their last horse or cow, to furnish entertainment of this kind.’
Rev. Neil MacLean, minister of Tiree at the time, called on ‘like-minded parishioners to abstain from drinking more than one glassful of spirits at funerals or to pay a penalty of five pounds to benefit the poor of the parish. Rev. MacLean successfully sought the backing of the Duke of Argyll and in November 1855, the Tiree factor, Lachlan MacQuarie, issued a notice prohibiting the consumption of spirits at ‘weddings, balls, funerals or any other gathering’ by tenants paying less than £30 rent, on pain of dispossession of their lands.’
It was also noted in 1843 that the legal distilleries set up to make use of surplus barley, most probably the distilleries set up by the Duke around 1786, had been forced to close as unprofitable due to high duties. There is also mention that whisky had been smuggled from Northern Ireland- a custom that had ‘a poor effect on the morals and character of the islanders.’
There is a fondness of intemperance among them [the islanders]; a consequence of the past smuggling and illicit distillation but this is improving. The amount of drink consumed now is not a quarter of that previously consumed… (MacLean 1843: 3)
Although illicit distillation was less popular, there was still a number of illicit tippling houses, as well as the two licensed inns already on the island.
It is mentioned that there are two licensed inns on Tiree and one on Coll but some illicit ones have sprung up in connection with the lighthouse construction (Skerryvore) which the minister disapproves of.
Also, Tiree’s reputation as an agricultural island was in danger as harvests were poor and crops weren’t of great quality. The minister mentions many of the same problems that were accounted for in the 1793 report and are listed below.
1 A considerable quantity of crops are raised and exported annually.
2 Crops in general are light and of inferior quality
3 Bear (barley) seldom exceeds 45lb per bushel
Reasons for this are given as:-
1 Light sandy soils
2 Seaweed fertiliser in simple state used, stimulates ground to produce a crop but does little to enrich and give substance to the soil.
3 The possessions of land are in small parcels so that several only pay £1 per annum rent and at least one croft less than a £1.
4 Regular crop rotation not possible and ground kept under constant tillage becoming less productive over time.
5 Seed of all kind is sown much heavier than elsewhere.
6 Seed is not changed enough to prevent it degenerating in crop quality.
7 The sowing season is late, especially of barley, not finished until middle of June.
8 The wetness of the ground is one reason for late sowing but is not the only reason.
9 As a consequence of late sowing, rapid growth of crop in summer it ripens too fast and grain does not fill out properly, hence poor returns.
10 Of late more people are taking to compound their manure and rotate seeds to good effect.
Some farms particularly on the west and North West have been devastated by shifting and erosion of sand dunes which inundates fields making them useless for crops (MacLean 1843: 3, 4).
Soon after this, around 1848, the Duke removed the licence from Tiree after a woman died on her way home from the inn at Croish, Kilmoluaig. The licence was not reintroduced on the island until 1952 when the Cameron family from Miodar in Caolas, who had taken over the Temperance Hotel (known today as the Scarinish Hotel) in 1950, successfully applied for a license to sell alcohol.
1848 was also the year that the final family to be evicted from the island for making whisky illegally were exiled. They were the MacDougall family from Port Ban in Caolas.
However, the removal of the licence did not completely put an end to illicit distilling on Tiree, and a number of shebeens were still actively selling whisky illegally.