Beyond The Angels' Share

Our man in the Highlands Ian Murray has been busy rooting through his scrap-book and has come up with this gem.


When the railways were nationalised in 1948 around eighty per cent of all types of traffic were carried by rail, including almost the entire Scottish whisky production.

The whisky produced mainly in the Highland distilleries was despatched in oak barrels called butts and hogsheads. At the railway stations the barrels were loaded into open wagons securely roped and forwarded to the bonded warehouses in the south of Scotland for the spirit to mature. Prior to despatch from the distillery each cask was accurately measured for volume of spirit by the Excise Officer assigned to the distillery.

A generous allowance was always made for the evaporation of the spirit and this allowance is known as The Angels’ Share.

The main despatch days were Tuesdays and Thursdays. On these occasions goods trains of around twenty-five open wagons went south via Aberdeen or Aviemore Junction for the Speyside whisky traffic.

In the early 1950’s the Customs and Excise (as it was known then) reported to the railway authorities that thefts of spirit from some of the casks forwarded by goods train from Keith Junction via Aberdeen were giving cause for concern.

It was suspected that these thefts were the result of spilling the casks during rail transit. Spilling is a well-known term in the whisky industry and takes place when two holes are bored in a barrel, spirit withdrawn, and thereafter the holes plugged by inserting a wooden spile. The spile is then made flush with the stave of the barrel, and when covered over with dirt or mud almost impossible to detect.

The local British Transport Commission Police were duly tasked with putting a stop to these thefts. It was decided at senior level that two police officers would travel in the open wagons, initially between Keith Junction and Aberdeen, but later throughout the entire journey to rail marshalling yards in the south of Scotland.

Despite these measures the thefts continued, until in the early hours of a Friday in winter. The police officers travelling in an open wagon near the front of twenty-five wagon goods train saw their vision broken as they looked back towards the lights of Aberdeen. This was over in around three seconds. At the first halt of the train at Stonehaven for signals, the officers left the wagon they were travelling in and walked towards the end of the train. In a wagon they found the person responsible for these thefts busily engaged in the illegal act of spilling a whisky cask.

The man was duly arrested, and it was revealed that he was a Passed Fireman (one who was authorised to drive locomotives) attached to the Ferryhill Motive Power Depot at Aberdeen. Due to his railway employment he knew the road (railway line) south of Aberdeen, well.

He readily admitted that he had been stealing the whisky over a long period. The Modus Operandi used was to lie in wait for the Craiginches ‘Up’ freight train to be halted for a few seconds before moving onto the main line south. This halt was never recorded in the Guard’s journal, and did not occur on every occasion. However on the occasions that this took place the thief took the opportunity of climbing into one of the wagons.

After having extracted the whisky from the barrel the spirit was put into hot water bottles carried for this purpose. These bottles were then placed into a sack. At a convenient point in the journey (usually adjacent to a main road) the sack was thrown out onto the left hand running lineside. This point was well-known to the thief due to his railway employment. At the first opportunity the thief would leave the wagon and thereafter obtain a lift or take a service bus back north to the point where he would collect the stolen whisky. He then continued his journey back to Aberdeen by the same methods.

At Aberdeen the stolen whisky was bottled and later sold, mainly in the Fish Market, for £1 per bottle. Remember this was the 1950’s.

The conclusion of this case occurred when the thief appeared before Aberdeen Sheriff Court (from custody). He pled guilty, was fined due to his previous good character and dismissed from the railway service.

Interesting aspects of this case:

  • The thief’s father was employed as an Engine Driver at the same depot.
  • The son had intended emigrating about three weeks after his arrest in order to join the Police Service in Australia. Needless to say these plans were aborted following his arrest.
  • The practice of police officers travelling in open wagons for over 150 miles would not be allowed today.
  • On occasions it was possible that the roped barrels broke free.
  • The smaller casks called HOGSHEADS contained fifty gallons of whisky and BUTTS almost double the volume.
  • The prospect of serious injury to a police escort could not be ruled out.
  • Local residents in the Spey Valley and indeed throughout the Highland Region of Scotland are familiar with the terms alien to southern populations.
  • Broaching or spiling a cask is familiar lingo in the Highlands of Scotland.
  • A question frequently asked ‘why are two holes bored in the cask?’ – One for the intake of air into the cask, the other for collection of the spirit.

Editor’s note:
Sadly a few years ago the railway lost the majority of the whisky traffic to the roads. A few bottles were carried by the Freightliner network. However just before I went to press with this Newsletter Ian advised me that funding has been received from the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (Hitrans) and others to shift spirit from Moray whisky distilleries to the central belt by rail. This will reduce HGV traffic on the A95 by half. This can only be good news for the rail industry.

Extract from the December 2012 edition of History Lines (No. 40)