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There are few people living about Dufftown at the present day who can remember the stirring events with any degree of accuracy which once took place in this otherwise peaceful portion of Banffshire. I do not mean to insinuate for a moment that the inhabitants were much given to quarrelling among themselves or with their neighbours in the surrounding districts. No, they lived at peace with one another, and with those strangers whom chance might bring them in contact. In fact, they lived in perfect harmony all too perfect for the peace of mind of a certain class of individuals newly imported amongst them, and to whom they gave an endless amount of trouble – I mean the Inland Revenue Officers, or, as they were usually styled, the “gaugers.”

These ubiquitous individuals had the utmost difficulty with them in respect of a certain reticence they observed in giving any information about the legal shortcomings of their neighbours, and indeed it was not much wonder, as those gentlemen somehow contrived to obtain a large amount of information from independent sources.

It was not that Donald would not pay his taxes ungrudgingly – all except one, and the one he took a delight in evading, or rather in defying the minions of the law to collect it. This was the duty imposed on all spirits made in the country, and which gave rise to such an amount of smuggling that it was questionable in some localities if the tax paid the cost of collection. Notwithstanding the pains, penalties, fines, and forfeitures, Donald contrived to “mak’ his wee drappie,” and if questioned as to the morality of such proceeding, his reasoning was at least quaint if not very logical.

“There’s naething wrang in makin’ a drappie for yersel’ an’ frien,’ but if thae billies catch ye they’ll gar ye pay for what ye’ve made an’ what ya hinna, besides takin’ every dish (vessel) ye hae,” and with this reasoning he was satisfied. As for any other consideration nothing gave him greater pleasure than outwitting the gauger, and many were the fights, flights, plot, and counterplots caused by the persistency with which he clung to this idea.

A typical specimen of the above was Donald Macpherson, a crofter, farming a small strip of land near the base of the Little Conval, a little above Lettoch Wood. In passing, it may be mentioned that this wood at the period to which we refer bore not the faintest resemblance to the few trees to be seen there at the present. Instead, a dense wood of massive trees, the green tint of whole foliage was refreshing to the eye, pointed heavenwards, contrasting pleasantly with the dark blue of the surrounding mountains.

Donald’s croft extended on both sides of the burn that flows into the river Dullan a little below this, nearly halfway up the side of the Conval, and in a number of places was thichly studded with trees. The steading (if a few rickety, half-dismantled houses deserve the name) was situated on the burn where it makes a sudden bend to the southeast, and about two hundred yards above where the road now runs, but of which no trace now remains beyond a small hollow on the south side.

Here Donald resided with his wife Janet, and it was often remarked by their neighbours that if he had attended to the outdoor department with the same assiduity that his wife attended to the internal arrangements the place would be in more flourishing condition. Indeed Janet’s capacity for work seemed inexhaustible, and it was well nigh impossible to pass the place without finding her either washing or busy in the wash-house boiling “neeps for kye.”

The copper in which the “neeps” were boiled was the most wonderful article about the establishment. Situated in one corner of the wash-house, and surrounded by bricks which formed a sort of rude furnace, it seemed the only useful article the building contained. A number of wash tubs in all stages of demolition littered the floor, while in a corner adjacent to that in which the copper was placed a mound of peats. A close observer might wonder why the brickwork surrounding the copper did not reach to within some six inches of its edge, but he would naturally put that down as a matter of detail. It was not a matter of detail however, but served a very useful purpose as the reader will understand further on. The peats in the corner also served a twofold purpose, for besides making a fire to boil the copper, they also concealed a hole in the wall about three feet in diameter, forming the entrance to a short passage which ran under the “knowe” at the back of the wash-house. At a few yards’ distance from the entrance this passage opened out into a fairly large cave, which ran directly under the knowe. Here were situated two wash-backs or fermenting vessels formed from two puncheons placed on their ends, and having one of the ends knocked out. From there issued the pungent odour of escaping carbonic acid gas, which showed that fermentation was actively progressing. On the floor, beside the fermenting vessels, lay a third composed of copper, and very much resembling that in the wash-house. It differed from it in this however, that instead of having the ordinary bottom, its sides were drawn into a long and tapering curve, not unlike a gigantic cow’s horn. Suppose this extraordinary looking vessel were taken and placed in an inverted position over the copper in the wash-house, it would be found to exactly fit that part of the edge which was left bare – in fact, the fit would be found so exact that a little of the tenacious clay from the bed of the burn plastered over the joint would render it air tight. The other end – the curved and tapering end – would now be found to fit a small hole in the wall which separated the cave from the wash-house. An examination of this part of the wall would reveal, right beneath the hole and in a detached portion of the cave, a hogshead on its end, with the head knocked out and containing a copper tube coiled inside. This vessel was always kept filled with water, a supply of which reached it from the burn running in front of the wash-house.

The reader will naturally inquire as to the use of all these vessels in a wash-house, and why they have been so minutely described. I will tell him.

The vessels from which the pungent gas was escaping were used for the manufacturing of was from the wort already made in one of the apparently useless vessels on the floor of the wash-house; the vessel containing the copper spiral was a worm tub, and the copper in which Janet boiled the “neeps for the kye” nothing else but a small still when the head (that curved portion lying on the floor of the cave) was placed in position.

As the ground on which Donald’s house stood was at a considerable elevation above the surrounding fields, it was impossible to approach it without coming under the observation of Janet’s lynx eye, when she would hurry down to the wash-house and pretend she was engaged in her everyday work.