The Malt Tax riots

The law of unintended consequences refers to outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen. Within the world of whisky, a good example of the law in action is the way in which the ransacking of a Glasgow mansion by an angry mob led to the establishment of the legal whisky industry on Islay as we know it today, as Gavin D Smith reports


The history of whisky has been shaped to a significant degree by excise legislation, and the Malt Tax Act of 1725 doubled the price of malt from 3d to 6d per bushel, bringing Scotland into line with England. The Malt Tax had first been imposed in Scotland in 1713, but at half the prevailing rate south of the border.

Unsurprisingly, the doubling of this tax led to fierce Scottish opposition, with brewers in Edinburgh refusing to make beer, while in Glasgow protests turned violent with 11 people losing their lives in the Shawfield Riots of June 1725. During these riots the mansion of prominent merchant, shipowner and local Member of Parliament Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, (c.1671-1753) was ransacked, as a reprisal for his support of the Malt Tax increase.

Subsequently, Campbell received £9,000 in compensation from the government, and went on to spend a total of £12,000 buying the island of Islay and part of neighbouring Jura in 1726. He went on to bring significant economic improvements to the island of Islay, offering farming tenants longer leases in order to allow for a diversification of agricultural practices and encouraging the growth of a flax industry to expand Islay’s economic base.

Daniel ‘The Great’ as he became known was succeeded by his grandson, also Daniel, often referred to as ‘Daniel the Younger,’ in 1753. The youthful Campbell proceeded to continue his grandfather’s good works, developing linen and fishing industries, constructing schools and establishing a ferry service to the mainland.

During the late 1760s, Daniel the Younger was responsible for creating the geometrically arranged ‘model’ village of Bowmore, with the Round Church at its centre, and according to records, it was there, in 1779, that David Simpson established Bowmore distillery.

Simpson had previously operated Killarow distillery, near Bridgend, which was active from 1760 to 1808, and the distiller is believed to have moved to Bowmore in 1766 and rented land there, leading to speculation that Bowmore distillery may in fact predate its official foundation date.

Daniel Campbell was keen to see legal distillation develop as part of Islay’s economic diversification and he encouraged Simpson in his whisky-making endeavours.

Daniel Campbell was keen to see legal distillation develop as part of Islay’s economic diversification and he encouraged Simpson in his whisky-making endeavours.

Daniel Campbell died during 1777, and he was succeeded as laird of Islay by his brother Walter, who carried on the family tradition of agricultural and infrastructure improvements on the island. He in turn was succeeded in 1816 by his grandson, Walter Frederick Campbell, then just 18 years of age.

Walter Frederick played a significant part in stimulating the island’s distilling industry, and before the Campbell estates on Islay were sold off in 1847 to settle debts, Walter Frederick assisted in the foundation or legalisation of up to a dozen Islay distilleries, including numerous farm-based stills which had formerly operated illicitly.

During the Campbell ownership of Islay, along with Bowmore, other iconic distilleries we prize today were established, including Port Ellen, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.

While many historic landowners in the Highlands and Islands have received a bad press for their treatment of the local population, it seems that the train of events set in motion in Glasgow during June 1725 had an overwhelmingly positive effect upon Islay, significantly shaping the island as it is today.