Scotland’s flirtation with prohibition

In the last issue of Unfiltered, we looked at the winners and losers in the world of Scotch from the Prohibition era in the United States. While we never had a period here when alcohol was made illegal, the ‘Temperance’ movement had a huge impact – at least in certain places


The term ‘prohibition’ usually conjures up images of Chicago ‘speakeasies’, ‘bootleggers’ and press photographs of revenue officers smashing open casks of illegal alcohol. However, prohibition was far from being just a US phenomenon, and had been around for a very long time before the US introduced it in 1920, courtesy of the Volstead Act.

The earliest recorded imposition of prohibition took place during the Chinese Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC) where the ruler, Yu the Great, banned alcohol across his kingdom. Rather more recently, Iceland became the first European country to adopt prohibition in 1915, followed by Norway in 1916 and Finland during 1919. Meanwhile, as Britain had become increasingly industrialised during the 19th century, the problem of drunkenness and its effects on families was magnified by swelling urban populations, with the British Association for the Promotion of Temperance (BAPT) being formed in 1835. One of its proponents was Scotsman James Stirling of Bearsden, near Glasgow. BAPT promoted abstinence from spirits, but did not object to the consumption of beer or wine.

However, Britain’s first temperance society had actually been established on 5th October 1829 by another pair of Scots, landowner John Dunlop and his aunt Lilias Graham. It was named the Glasgow and West of Scotland Temperance Society. The first meeting took place in Greenock, but Dunlop soon turned his attention to Maryhill, Glasgow, which at that time boasted 23 pubs, or one for every 57 residents!

Like the BAPT, Dunlop was particularly concerned with abstinence from spirits, especially whisky, while considering wine and beer acceptable refreshments. Gradually, however, more radical ideas of total abstinence from alcohol gained traction, and it has been estimated that by 1900, 10 percent of the adult population of the United Kingdom were teetotallers.


If Maryhill was well supplied with alcohol, it was nothing compared to the situation in the Caithness fishing port of Wick, which experienced its very own period of prohibition, as did Kilsyth, Kirkintilloch and Lerwick.

As one of the world’s leading herring ports during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wick became associated with drunkenness and violence among some of the fishermen and transient workers who followed the herring fishing fleet through the summer season.

Writing in 1840, the Rev. Charles Thomson noted that: “The herring fishing has increased wealth, but also wickedness...There is a great consumption of spirits, there being 22 public houses in Wick and 23 in Pulteneytown...Seminaries of Satan and Belial.” Indeed, it has been estimated that in excess of 800 gallons of whisky – or some 5,000 bottles – were being consumed each week!

Sails drying at Wick Harbourfront. Copyright the Wick Society Johnston Collection

Illicit still, copyright the Wick Society Johnston Collection

Not surprisingly, many local people came to support the cause of temperance, and as the late Caithness historian Iain Sutherland wrote in Vote No Licence: “For a quarter of a century, between 28th May 1922 and 28th May 1947, there were no public houses or licensed grocers in Wick open for the sale of alcohol to the public. They had been closed as the result of an election which had been held on 10th December 1920, under the terms of the Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913.”

Illicit drinking dens – the Wickers’ equivalent of the New York and Chicago ‘speakeasy’ – sprang up, along with at least two illicit stills. According to Sutherland: “One, at Hill of Newton, was operated by Willag Thomson in conjunction with his uncle and cousin, and the trio even grew their own barley for the whisky they produced.

“The customers were uncritical of quality, although this varied considerably according to the brew and vintage, which was usually measured in days or weeks.”

By the time prohibition was repealed in Wick during 1947 the herring fishing industry around the Scottish coast had all but disappeared. Consequently, the problems caused by excessive drinking were no worse in Wick than anywhere else in Scotland.

Having closed in 1930, Wick’s Pulteney distillery reopened for business four years after the end of the burgh’s period of prohibition, providing a more consistent and mature spirit than that concocted by Willag Thomson and his family.

Pulteney Harbour 1863, copyright the Wick Society Johnston Collection