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THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT, PART ONE. BY GORDON DALLAS

Posted on 09 Apr 2020 by Glengoyne Distillery

Before effective legalisation in 1823, the job of an Excise Officer wasn’t always an easy one.

Our very own national bard, Robert Burns worked in the Excise from 1788 in the area around Dumfries which was a relatively safe place to ply this trade as back up in the form of dragoons were never too far away.   By all accounts, it was well paid, and I'm sure he still had time to crack on with some poetry in between waiting for the smugglers to try and sneak by.

It wasn't the case in the lawless Highlands, being an Excise Officer here took a bit of courage and a lot more muscle.  There weren't as many dragoons to help; you were on your own, with only some hired men when you came face to face with the smugglers.  Tales of the smuggling wars would be told another day suffice to say that blood was spilled on both sides of the law. 

Sense prevailed in The Excise Act of 1823, which effectively made going legal a sensible thing to do, financially.  However, this legislation made it compulsory for all legal distilleries to use a spirit safe so the government could calculate what was being made, and it stipulated that accommodation had to be provided for a resident excise officer.  If smuggling had been a game of cat and mouse before the Act, it was now compulsory to give the cat a place to stay…bowls of milk and a scratch post optional!  

It is precisely what Glengoyne's first proprietor, George Connell had to do in 1833.  Now that he had gone legal, he could build a warehouse and a stillhouse – no longer did he have to hide his 'moonshining' equipment. 

He could buy bigger stills, create an area for maturation, all which would have improved the flavour immensely, but he also had to build a Custom's House.  It was the law.  Coming from a family that had been illegal distillers and smugglers for at least two generations, it must have surely stuck in the throat.

It is not too much a stretch of the imagination to postulate that George maybe dragged his heels observing this particular law. Perhaps he built first the stillhouse, warehouse, manager's house, and finally, with total horror, a house for the Customs and Excise Officer!  

Did George even finish the house before it opened officially as Burnfoot Farm Distillery in 1833?  Was there a lack of enthusiasm to make a lovely home for his once mortal enemy, the dreaded Excise?  

Is it also possible to believe that Mrs Connell had to send a pigeon to summon the D.I.Y. S.O.S. of their day to come out and finish the building? (if your reading this and not from the U.K., it's a B.B.C. building programme!)

Could it be possible that a 'Ye Olde' 1830's "Nick Knowles" character and his cheery crew of navvies and builders turned up in 20 horse and carts and finished the Custom's House days before it opened?  

Did it happen that the first Excise officer and his family removed their blindfolds and gasped in wonder as 'Ye Olde' "Nick" showed them their new home, thanked the builders with tears cascading down everyone's cheeks with George Connell scowling in the background? 

Okay, I maybe got carried away, but you get the point. It wouldn't have been high up on George's 'to-do' list!  For someone who wrote comedies in the past, this is fertile ground for a sit-com. The 'watcher' living on-site and the workers all trying to sneak a dram or two when he's not looking. It's a classic set up!