“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky”
On Saturday 4th May 1822, several months after he was reported missing, the body of Dugald Cameron, exciseman and veritable terror of the illicit distiller, was discovered lifeless and in a putrid state on the grounds of a farm in Kippen.
The Justice of the Peace informed the Board of Excise that “there is an appearance of blood about his clothes which indicates that he was murdered”.1
Despite orders being despatched immediately following his disappearance the previous December to “apprehend all persons on whom the slightest suspicion attaches”2, no one was ever charged in connection with his death.
In truth there was no shortage of people who wanted to kill Dugald Cameron and furthermore plenty of men had already tried, some almost succeeding, numerous times before.
Dugald Cameron’s fearsome reputation preceded him.
William Shepherd, accused of assaulting Cameron in July 1820, admitted that he had “frequently heard of a man of the name of Dugald Cameron”3.
Shepherd was acquitted of the violent attack which saw the unsuspecting exciseman dragged from his bed, placed in a chair and viciously beaten around the head and body with sticks until he was almost unconscious. Shepherd laid the blame firmly at the feet of his co-accused John Nicoll, who had absconded before the trial took place.
Officially appointed to the post of Extra Assistant Excise Officer in September 1818, Cameron was already “well known in the County for his activity in giving informations” and was “a great terror to the illicit distiller”4. He had been aiding the excisemen for some time and been instrumental in the discovery of many illicit operations, securing several arrests.
Cameron’s night time visit was not the first time he had been the victim of a vicious attack.
Only a month after his appointment with the Board of Excise, he had detected an illicit still near the head of Loch Katrine and apprehended two men.
While he held his prisoners in a public house in Callander, an armed mob forced their way in, violently attacked Cameron, and made off with the captives .
On a separate occasion, Cameron, accompanied by some private soldiers of His Majesty’s Fourth Royal Veteran Battalion, met with an angry mob of around 100 armed men in the wood of Mugdock where he had discovered yet another illicit operation.
John Morrison, who received a sentence of transportation for his part in the assault, declared that he had rescued Cameron from a beating and that he “was very much hurt and his face all over with blood”.
Hugh McCallum, his co-accused, saw several men striking Cameron and heard them calling out to “break his legs”6.
The worst attack, however, took place in March 1819 – an attack so brutal that it left Cameron fighting for his life for 8 days.
Cameron had received information that extensive illicit distillation was being carried on in the hills of Blackford and Dunning and so proceeded to the grounds of Baulk of Struie, intent on destroying whatever stills he found there.
He came across a bothy housing a large illicit still and began to break apart the apparatus. David Barnet, John Brown and John Scobie, who were in the vicinity of the bothy, cornered him inside and commenced an assault that would last for several hours.
They severely cut Cameron’s head with a large choppin7 bottle and struck him around the head and body with a spade, all while shouting for him to be murdered8.
Cameron managed to escape and attempted to alert a neighbouring farmer; but his calls were in vain and his attackers dragged him back into the bothy where they continued their vicious onslaught.
Rendered insensible, Cameron’s hands were tied with an iron rigwoodie9and he was loaded into the back of a cart. He came round to find his attackers rifling his pockets, but angered by the lack of money he had on him, they threatened to either burn him or drown him.
In the end, they did neither but instead tossed him from the cart and left him for dead.
He was found and conveyed, vomiting blood, to a local vintner’s who refused to take him in, leaving him once again to the mercy of his assailants who were watching from afar.
On being tossed from the cart a second time and left for dead on the road to Forgandenny, he was rescued by a passing farrier and at last received the medical attention which in no doubt saved his life.
At their trial, the three defendants were told by the Lord Justice Clerk that had Cameron died from “the barbarous treatment” their case would have been “a most aggravated case of murder”10.
But there is more to the story of Dugald Cameron.
Other officers and constables were also subjected to attacks, for after all there could have been few more perilous activities than going to remote places to seize and destroy the local men’s “water of life”.
But Cameron appears to have frequently been the target of particularly vicious and personal attacks.
Another assault occurred in June 1821 when a dozen men attacked Cameron while in the course of his duty; three of the men received a prison sentence, two failed to appear, and the case was dropped against the remainder.
Less than six months after this attack, Dugald Cameron would be dead, his badly beaten body disposed of and left to rot.
Why was he so feared and hated? Why was he was so fervent in his pursuit of illicit distilling, persisting despite the obvious danger to his own life?
A clue perhaps can be found in the trial papers of Barnet and Brown11, for these reveal an unexpected twist in the tale of the notorious exciseman – a conviction in 1816 against one Dugald Cameron for the crimes of “assaulting, obstructing and deforcing officers of the Revenue”.
The papers of Cameron’s trial12 provide the only opportunity we have to hear his own words.
In his declaration, he describes the moments prior to his arrest when, on hearing that excise officers planned to make a seizure, he had gone with his accomplices Stewart and McHardy to the field where they had concealed their whisky.
Cameron declared: “Stewart then said he was a ruined man as this was all he had and he had a wife and small family and tears were running down Stewarts’ cheeks”.
So moved was he by his companion’s situation and display of emotion, Cameron, in the face of the advancing officers, endeavoured to save him one last cask.
Did the pleas of his friend make Cameron think of his own family’s plight – five motherless children, the eldest of which was not yet nine? Did he vow then to pursue a more lawful way to provide for them? Despite the “heat of the whisky” he had been drinking since breakfast, were his eyes opened to the destruction it could cause?
Or was it simply that, as a convicted smuggler, he had no choice but to assist when the excise officers came knocking?
Whatever Cameron’s motives, it would appear that the most vicious of beatings were always reserved for the whisky smuggler turned exciseman.
Court Records Archivist
National Records of Scotland
1CE2/36, Scottish Excise Board Minutes, National Records of Scotland (NRS)
3JC26/1820/20, Trial papers of William Shepherd, NRS
4CE8/16, Scottish Excise Board Letter Books, NRS
5JC26/1819/9, Trial papers of John McKeich, NRS
6JC26/1820/46, Trial papers of John Morrison and Hugh McCallum, NRS
7Term for a liquid measure roughly equivalent of half a pint (old Scots)
9A rope, chain, or band that crosses the saddle of a horse to support the attachment of a cart (old Scots)
10The Scotsman, Saturday 15th January 1820
11JC26/1820/59, Trial papers of David Barnet and John Brown, NRS
12JC26/1816/27, Trial papers of Dugald Cameron, NRS