Battle at the Cabrach

The Cabrach is still a lonely area tucked away on the borders of Moray and Aberdeenshire, sparsely populated and wild when the weather is rough. In the eighteenth century it was still mildly dangerous to cross, while even in the nineteenth, when Great Britain was the foremost industrial nation of the world and a leading light of civilisation, the Cabrach had a reputation for lawlessness. The area was close to Dufftown, set at the northern fringe of the Grampian Hills and at the very heart of the whisky smuggling business. Not only was it an excellent area for distilling, with desolate hills and an abundance of good water near good farmland, it was also where the smuggling routes began to the southern cities.

In 1827 the whisky wars were at their height. In February of that year the Excise decided to have a detailed examination of the hills around the Cabrach and Dufftown to crack down on the many illicit stills. Donald McKenzie, the Riding Officer of Excise based at Elgin, was the leading man, and he called in nautical help in the shape of Peter McIntyre, who commanded the revenue cutter Atlanta. The Excisemen based themselves in Dufftown and shortly after nine in the morning of 6 February McKenzie mounted his horse and led them toward the Cabrach. McKenzie and McIntyre were supported by the boatswain and nine men from Atlanta. Six of the crewmen carried muskets; the others had to make do with cutlasses. They were crossing the bridge over the Water of Dullan when they noticed a party of about twenty men on the opposite side. Some of the men were armed and were flitting around in a small patch of woodland. McKenzie advised his men to take no notice but to continue with the task. They marched into the parish of Auchendoun and were approaching Laggan farm when a local man called out that they had best return, adding, ‘There is hot work before you, lads.’

Again McKenzie told his men to carry on and not even to reply to the man. A few moments later a “young girl also gave the same advice, saying the Excisemen ‘had better go back as they are waiting for you in the wood’, but McKenzie refused to listen. That decision proved to be a massive mistake, as the men in the wood launched an assault.

The attackers were all local men. They included James and William Gordon from Mortlach near Dufftown, James Grant and James Mackerran. With no provocation except the presence of the Excise, they lifted their muskets and fired. The shots crashed out, with the balls passing so close the Excisemen could hear the whistle of the lead. There was instant pandemonium. The cutter’s crew were seamen, brave in the screaming nightmare of a high seas storm but lost here in the whispering hills; some stopped dead and refused to go any further, but others were more determined and loaded their muskets for retaliation. The gunfire had unsettled McKenzie’s horse so the Exciseman had to fight to retain his seat, but he was a brave man and was determined to press ahead and complete his duty.

McKenzie called to McIntyre and two seamen and led them in a splashing foray across the Water of Dullan, possibly hoping to outflank or ride around the attackers, but somebody shouted out, ‘There he is!’

There was a volley of six or seven musket shots. Some passed very close to him; some kicked up fountains of earth around the legs of his horse and one ricocheted from a stone on the ground and knocked off McKenzie’s hat. Already skittish, his horse reared and fell. McKenzie was thrown and for a second he thought he had been hit. Another volley followed the first, with the shots hissing past and thudding into the ground. The horse recovered. McKenzie pulled himself into the saddle and re-crossed the water as jeering voices came to him.

‘McKenzie and his horse are all blown to atoms!’

The attackers were only about sixty yards away, well within musket range. The two seamen returned quickly to their shipmates, but McIntyre was not so lucky. He threw up his arms and shouted, ‘Mr Mckenzie, I am hit!’ A musket ball had hit Peter McIntyre on the right side, passed though his body and emerged from his groin.”

McKenzie watched in horror as McIntyre fell. ‘For God’s sake, desist,’ he shouted out to the attackers, ‘for you have shot a man!’

However, rather than desist, the attackers reloaded and fired a third volley. Somebody shouted, ‘Shoot the whole of the bastards!

Helping the grievously wounded McIntyre across the moor to the nearby Laggan farmhouse, McKenzie hoped they were safe, but the attackers followed. They surrounded the farm, pointed their muskets at the windows and threatened to finish the job they had started by burning the building down with the Excisemen inside. The smugglers eventually withdrew but with McIntyre wounded and an unknown number of hostile armed men in the neighbourhood, McKenzie thought it best to forget his search and return to Dufftown. Once his men were safe, McKenzie alerted the local authorities to pursue the attackers.

The case came to the High Court in Edinburgh in July 1827, where the two Gordons appeared. Grant and Mackerran were summoned but failed to appear and were consequently outlawed. The Gordons may have wished they had also absconded when one of the judges, Lord Mackenzie, said this was ‘the most desperate and lawless case he had ever heard of’ and Lord Pitmully, the presiding judge, ordered them transported for the term of their natural lives.

Excerpt From
Whisky Wars, Riots and Murder: Crime in the 19th-Century Highlands and Islands
Malcolm Archibald