Dugald Cameron, Exciseman: Victim or Villain?

“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

Dugald Cameron, Exciseman

Despite orders being despatched immediately following his disappearance the previous December to “apprehend all persons on whom the slightest suspicion attaches2,  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 distiller4.  He had been aiding the excisemen for some time and been instrumental in the discovery of many illicit operations, securing several arrests.

Dugald Cameron, Exciseman

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 legs6.

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 murder10.

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.


Jenny Duffy
Court Records Archivist
National Records of Scotland
1CE2/36, Scottish Excise Board Minutes, National Records of Scotland (NRS)
2CE2/35, Ibid
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)
8JC26/1819/18, NRS
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


The sinking of the Tuscania, 1918

On 5 February the United States troopship ‘Tuscania’ was torpedoed by a German U-boat while sailing in convoy through the North Channel, between the north-east tip of Ireland and the Isle of Islay. She was carrying about 2,000 American troops as part of the build-up of forces on the Western Front to increase the Allies’ strength.

The evidence of the Statutory Register of Deaths and the Registrar General’s correspondence in National Records of Scotland adds to the story of this disaster.

Although most of the soldiers were rescued by British escort vessels as the ship sank, about 200 American soldiers died. Of those who attempted to reach Islay, some died on the rugged coastline of the Oa peninsula, but about 130 men landed safely, and were found and cared for by the islanders. The bodies of many of their dead comrades were washed ashore at several places, and gradually gathered in the Drill Hall at Port Ellen for identification.

Bodies found washed up on Scottish island beaches were a fairly common occurrence, particularly during the war years. However, the unprecedented number of dead on Islay put a huge strain on the few policemen, the Procurator Fiscal, and on the islanders close to the scene. It also prompted Donald McLachlan, the schoolmaster who was the local registrar for Kildalton and Oa, to request the advice of the Registrar General in Edinburgh on 7 February. Should he register the deaths of the American soldiers?

He and the other two Islay registrars received a reply by telegram on Saturday morning, 9 February:

‘Tuscania. No registration to be made in Books of your Registration District. Letter follows. You may aid Procurator Fiscal if desired by taking notes of particulars. Supply of Forms Particulars of deaths being forwarded.’

(NRS, General Register Office out-letter book, 1918, GRO1/545, pp.645-6)

On Monday 11 February 1918 the Secretary of the General Register Office wrote more fully to McLachlan, who lived at Port Ellen, and to the registrars of Kilchoman at Port Charlotte and Portnahaven at Bridgend:

‘I am directed by the Registrar General to inform you that … the deaths at sea of members of the American Expeditionary Force of Crew of the vessel caused through the unfortunate torpedoing of the U.S. Transport TUSCANIA do not fall to be registered in the Register Books of your Parish, notwithstanding the bodies may have been washed ashore on the coast of your District or brought ashore therein. Should any deaths however, have occurred amongst any of the survivors who may have been landed in your Parish such deaths would be subject of registration in the usual manner in your Register.’

(NRS, GRO1/545, p.665)

Islay fiscal 1
Letter from Secretary of General Register Office to Donald McLachlan, 11 February 1918

This explains why in the Register of Deaths for Kildalton and Oa only three American soldiers are recorded. Two of them were rescued and taken in at Killeyan farm, and later died there of ‘exposure and shock’. Private Stanley L Collins died on 7 February 1918, and Private F T Benefiel on 14 February 1918. The farmer at Upper Killeyan, Robert Morrison, saved the lives of three survivors he found on the rocky shore, and his two sisters fed and cared for as many as 80 to 90 survivors at the farm. Morrison was awarded the OBE for his services.

American soldier death entries Benefiet and Collins
Death entries for Private F T Benefiel and Private Stanley L Collins, 1918.  (NRS, Kildalton and Oa Register of Deaths, 1918, 541/7) 

An unidentified third soldier was taken to the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen, where he died on 8 February.

American soldier death entry unnamed
Death entry for an unidentified soldier, 1918.  (NRS, Kildalton and Oa Register of Deaths, 1918, 541/6)

Survivors who had been immersed in cold water could succumb to the effects of changing body temperature. The bare details of their deaths were recorded on 29 March, on the information of the Procurator Fiscal. No information about their age or parentage was recorded. Although the soldiers from the ‘Tuscania’ were buried on Islay, the bodies of all except one were later exhumed and returned to America for re-burial.

An even greater tragedy occurred on 6 October 1918, when another troopship, the ‘Otranto’, collided with an escorting warship, with the loss of 400 soldiers. The lives lost in these catastrophes are commemorated by a memorial on the Oa headland.

Tristram Clarke

Head of Outreach

National Records of Scotland

Scottish Archives For Schools

Are you a primary or secondary school teacher?

Would you like to find out more about how you can use records from the National Records of Scotland archives as teaching tools?

Our Outreach & Learning team provide a flexible service with workshops designed to support a wide range of Scottish Curriculum areas and National Qualifications.

You can also use resources available on our Scottish Archives for Schools site as teaching aids, to help pupils connect with Scotland’s history, heritage and culture.

Recent learning events included a school workshop on historical sources for a Higher History class from Webster’s High School in Kirriemuir, supporting the pupils’ recent project on empire and migration.



In this workshop our Head of Learning, Tessa Spencer, provided primary and secondary sources telling the tale of the McCracken family, who emigrated from Ayrshire to Australia in the 1840s. It was a fun day for us, for teachers and – we hope! – for pupils.

The class explored journal entries and correspondence written by Peter and Robert McCracken detailing their voyage to Australia, as well as later genealogical research by Coiler McCracken, Peter McCracken’s son.

These documents offer a unique insight into the family’s experiences, the push and pull factors of emigration in the nineteenth century and the rapidly developing colony of Australia. Students also considered the differences in perspective between the personal and published accounts.

If your class would be interested in taking part in an education workshop, or if you would like to discuss options for learning opportunities with our staff, please see the Services for Schools section of our website.

For more information on school visits and workshops, as well as resources to help pupils connect with Scotland’s history, heritage and culture, you can also visit the Scottish Archives for Schools website or contact our learning team at education@nrscotland.gov.uk.

And you can find out more about the McCracken family’s emigration to Australia in a previous Open Book article from earlier this year.

“D Day” 1971 – All Change

Our archivists have retrieved some items from the NRS archives to mark the 47th anniversary of decimalisation in the UK on 15 February.

The first is a still from the film “All Change”, produced in colour in 1969 by World Wide Pictures Ltd. for the Central Office of Information, on behalf of the Decimal Currency Board.

Decimalisation All Change
“All Change”, 1969 – British Official Photograph: Crown Copyright Reserved.  Issued for British Information Services by Photographs Division, Central Office of Information, London.


The film gave shopkeepers across the UK a preview of how retail trading would look soon after “D Day” – 15 February 1971 – when Britain was to officially move to decimal currency. The film explained what “going decimal” meant; what its benefits would be and why early planning was needed.

In this scene, it’s explained that three halves of bitter will cost twenty one new pence.

We’ve also photographed pages from the booklet “New Money In Your Shop”, issued by the Decimal Currency Board in 1969.

Decimalisation Booklet 2

Decimalisation Booklet 1
“New Money In Your Shop”: Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland.

Everyone is now familiar with decimalised currency but since most readers will be far too young to remember pre-decimal days, we’ve included the most straightforward summary of “old money” in the UK, as found in the 1990 novel Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman:

“One shilling = Five Pee… Two Farthings = One Ha’Penny. Two Ha’pennies = One Penny. Three Pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 Pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

“The British resisted decimalised currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated”.

A tale of a Government cat

Archive cat image
An illustration of the Exchequer Cat at work, from the 1950s.

While the exploits of Whitehall Cats – Palmerston and Larry most recently – have been recently making the news, cats in Government employ are nothing new. In fact, here at National Records of Scotland, we have evidence of a feline curiosity – a cat tasked with protecting records more than three centuries ago.

The Exchequer Office in Parliament Close, Edinburgh, set up in 1708, initially had problems with records being ‘greatly damnified, eaten and destroyed by rates and myce’. After giving the matter some thought, doorkeeper Robert Morison decided that perhaps a cat might give the rodents pause. Continue reading “A tale of a Government cat”

New PRSA Assessment Mechanism

Under the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011(PRSA) the Keeper of the Records of Scotland, NRS’ chief executive Tim Ellis, assesses and agrees records management plans submitted by public authorities. Over 150 plans have been agreed to date, the majority under improvement. The PRSA Assessment Team, in consultation with our stakeholders, have now developed a user-friendly tool to facilitate the capture, and review, of the continuous improvements in recordkeeping being made by authorities following agreement of their plans.

First mooted in 2015 and subsequently piloted by East Lothian Council in late 2016, the Progress Update Review (PUR) mechanism is currently being rolled out to Scotland’s public authorities. The issuing of a template reflecting the original assessment of an agreed plan enables authorities to demonstrate where changes have occurred and new policies have been instituted, help them identify where further resources and work is required, and highlight the general progress in recordkeeping they are effecting. Continue reading “New PRSA Assessment Mechanism”

The Scottish Longitudinal Study

You may have seen recent media coverage on the employment prospects of young people in Scotland from different social backgrounds.

What you might not have realised is that this piece of research – and many others – relies on the Scottish Longitudinal Study in which National Records of Scotland is a partner.

The Scottish Longitudinal Study (SLS) is a valuable social research dataset that is the result of a collaboration between National Records of Scotland and the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews. It links data from National Records Scotland (NRS) (including Census from 1991, 2001 and 2011) and the National Health Service Information Services Division. Continue reading “The Scottish Longitudinal Study”