Highland Park will forever be associated with Magnus Eunson, the man often credited with the foundation of the distillery at the end of the 18th century. Eunson was not a preacher as received wisdom would have it. He was a beadle (verger, a layperson who assists in the ordering of religious services) by day and a smuggler by night, the latter operation based from his bothy on the High Park above Kirkwall where Highland Park Distillery now stands.According to W. R. Mackintosh in Around the Orkney Peat-Fires (1898) Magnus ‘Mansie’ Eunson was “a flesher [butcher], beadle, and a successful smuggler. In addition to this he was a born character, brimful of pawky (cunning & sly) humour and resource, which extricated him from many a scrape.” Stories of smugglers are forever imbued with romance and poetic licence, the canny happy-go-lucky local outwitting the cowardly, corrupt and doltish representatives of the establishment; in these stories Eunson is shown as being brave and ingenious enough to enjoy many a narrow escape from the clutches of the exciseman.
The best-known Eunson anecdote is recounted by Alfred Barnard in his seminal Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887); “Hearing that the Church was to be searched for whisky by a new party of excisemen, Eunson had all the kegs removed to his house, placed in the middle of an empty room and covered with a clean white cloth. As the officers approached after their unsuccessful search in the church, Eunson gathered all his people, including the maidservants, round the whisky, which, with its covering of white, under which a coffin lid had been placed, looked like a bier. Eunson knelt at the head with the Bible in his hand and the others with their psalm books. As the door opened they set up a wail for the dead, and Eunson made a sign to the officers that it was a death and one of the attendants whispered “smallpox”. Immediately the officer and his men made off as fast as they could and left the smuggler for some time in peace.”
Mackintosh tells us that Eunson was not a preacher, nor does his account suggest that Eunson was an illicit distiller, however smuggling was virtually a synonym for illicit distilling. He smuggled principally spirits, but remains most closely associated with the origins of Scotch whisky from Highland Park Distillery. By 1798 Highland Park had been founded; later a syndicate, which, somewhat ironically, included Eunson’s arresting officer, John Robertson, and his fellow exciseman, Robert Pringle, purchased the High Park estate, including the distillery in April 1813.
Excisemen had targeted the Orkney Islands and seized many illicit stills from 1805. Smuggling on Orkney had become so prevalent that one Sunday, Mansie’s minister denounced the activity as being iniquitous and un-Christian. When the sermon was over, Mansie was asked what he thought of the minister’s pronouncements; “I think that oor minister is no’ very consistent, for at the very time he was preaching, he had six kegs o’ as guid brandy under his pulpit as was ever smuggled.” Clearly, Mansie was confident that his preferred hiding place for the contraband, under the floor of the pulpit, was well-placed.
Mackintosh illustrates Eunson’s cunning; he was to bring some casks of illicit whisky from Deerness into Kirkwall, so he purposely told a local worthy of his plan to cross the bridge of Wideford on the Kirkwall road between midnight and 1am with the casks loaded on three horses. The worthy was a well-known informant so Eunson was sure he would tell the excisemen of his plan. As expected, the officers were informed and proceeded to stake out the bridge at the appointed time, sheltering from the cold of the night under the parapet. They duly heard the sound of horses and sprang to confront Eunson only to find that he was heading in the wrong direction with what turned out to be empty casks. He told the officers that he had taken the full casks into Kirkwall somewhat earlier than he had mentioned to the informant, but that he had not had the heart to keep the officers waiting in the cold for him until morning.
As with all folk heroes, there are stories of Eunson’s charm too; he employed his quick wits to engage a party of guagers (an excisemane) in banter and humour after they caught him with kegs of smuggled spirit in a cart and insisted he accompanied them to Kirkwall to deal with the matter. So entertaining was Mansie that the guagers failed to notice a number of his accomplices creep behind the cart and remove the kegs one by one as the party made its way towards town.
By the time they reached Kirkwall there was no evidence left so no charges could be brought against the smuggler. Finally, in 1813 Magnus Eunson was arrested for transporting illegal substances; four packs of untaxed salt and one pack of whisky. To quote Mackintosh; “At length Mansie was taken before the Session for smuggling, and he lost his situation as a beadle. He took this so much to heart that he gave up attending church.” When Mansie was tackled about his absence by the minister he had as usual a ready answer. Indeed he insisted that he did still attend church. The minister said this was not true but Mansie replied; “My wife is there every Sunday”. He pointed out that when he got married the minister who conducted the service said he and his wife were now one. “Either you or the other minister has tellt us a lee (lie)” retorted Mansie.
Curiously, though, the case never went to trial so Eunson was never sentenced. This has led to suggestions that he was merely the front man of a larger, better-organised smuggling operation. The disappearance of Eunson following his arrest contrasts with the meticulously recorded development of Highland Park from 1818. That was the year that straw-plaiting¹ businessman and farmer Robert Borwick together with his son-in-law, John Robertson became official co-founders of Highland Park Distillery. This was around the time that Scotch whisky was gaining a higher profile; King George IV paid his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1823, in effect granting Scotch whisky royal approval, and the following year the Excise Act halved taxes on spirits. In this short space of time whisky distilleries were taking out licences, the King developed a fondness for whisky and tax cuts made Scotch whisky a much more attractive commercial proposition. Little wonder that expansion followed.
The High Park was now officially called Highland Park and in 1826 John Robertson moved south, with Robert Borwick buying out his share in Highland Park. Borwick died in 1840 and the distillery was taken over by his son, George, who invested little in the distillery and, upon his death, the value of fixtures and fittings had shrunk to a mere £104. James Borwick (George’s younger brother) inherited the distillery in 1869 but, as a church minister, he felt ownership of a distillery was inappropriate so he put it up for sale. Initially there was no interest and the property was offered at £450 on the condition that it was used as a poor-house. However, in 1876 the distillery was purchased by the newly formed partnership of Stuart & Mackay. These were great days in the Scotch whisky industry and business boomed. Highland Park whisky enjoyed first class status and became (and remains) extremely desirable to blenders for use as top dressing, to give blends backbone, structure and flavour; Chivas Brothers, Haig & Co, George Ballantine & Co and John Dewar & Sons all became customers. Many of the distillery ledgers can be seen at the new Kirkwall library archive.
The day book records on March 13th 1876 that Chivas Brothers, Merchants, Aberdeen bought 117 gallons of whisky at 3/10 per gallon, making a total of £22, 14 shillings and 4 pence. On February 7th of that year John Graham, a Glasgow merchant, bought 734 gallons. In the late 19th century the distillery was still happy to deal with direct sales; in August when Dr Bruce of Kirkwall bought two gallons and the Reverend John Dangerfield of Sanday bought 5 gallons. It reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars as trading restrictions meant a shortage of Italian straw. The industry collapsed in the 1860s with the advent of cheap, Chinese imports.
On the maiden voyage of his liner, the Pembroke Castle, Sir Donald Currie visited Kirkwall in 1883. The whisky of Highland Park made such an impression on him that he took a quantity with him for the remainder of the voyage, during which the King of Denmark and the Emperor of Russia expressed their appreciation of Orkney’s finest. In 1895, on the death of William Stuart, James Grant became the partner of James Mackay. The library archive chronicles the alterations and improvements made to the distillery by Charles C Doig, renowned engineer and architect.
Typed and hand-written letters from Doig to Charles Hayden discuss details such as this note from 20th June 1908; “I am not sure what kind of roof you have on No.10 at present but if it is of iron only you would require to sark and felt underneath it, or make the walls of barn at least 5ft; higher or you will never make good Malt.”
The Grant family retained control of Highland Park until 1937 when the distillery became part of Highland Distillers’ portfolio; the other distilleries in the group were Glenrothes, Tamdhu, Bunnahabhain and Glenglassaugh. Highland Park was run as a wholly-owned subsidiary and retained the name James Grant & Co for many years.
The abiding care and attention, the hallmark of Highland Park production, manifests itself in the distinctive aromatic, full-bodied floral sweetness of the whisky. Highland Park’s incomparable balance comes from a tension between the aromatic Orkney peat and the sweetness of oak casks seasoned with Oloroso sherry.
The accolade of Best Spirit in the World wasn’t a one-off. Highland Park has been picking up medals and awards for over a decade.
Magnus Eunson chose the High Park site because of the outstanding water source. There may be little evidence of him being an illicit distiller but, over 200 years of distilling history on the same site – resulting in Highland Park becoming the most respected single malt in the world – is evidence enough that he knew whisky.
Holm Road, Kirkwall
Orkney, KW15 1SU Scotland
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