The irony was not lost on us. Two days earlier, Brian and I had relaxed, after a day on Cumbria’s Howgill Fells, over a coffee in a temperance pub. Now, we were enjoying a drink, admittedly only of orange juice, on the walls of an illicit whisky still in the Cheviots.
We had left the car at Shillmoor, in the Upper Coquet valley in the early afternoon, and made our way up the broad track over Copper Snout. To the left lay Shillhope Law and the deep gash of Usway Burn, its craglets and scree patches caught sharply by the Spring sunlight. To the right was the shallower, though no less steep-sided valley of Wholehope Burn. Just where the track veered off to the right, to joinClennell Street at the edge of Kidland Forest, we moved down the slope toward Wholehope Burn, and began to search for the remains of the 18th century still. I had been given the grid reference for its position, but without knowing quite what we were looking for, we zig-zagged across the slope, which grew steeper as we descended. A few hollows suggested promise, but proved to be nothing more than landslips.
Assuming that the still would be situated near the burn, I moved off downstream, searching for any rock piles that might appear incongruous. Brian continued upstream, and within a few minutes, called to me that he had found it.
I joined him, and we looked down a near vertical drop and across the burn to a figure-of-eight stone structure that nestled beneath a small crag. It was camouflaged by the soil and grass of more than two centuries, but such was its position among the twists of the valley walls that even in its heyday it would have been difficult to find. It may well, then, have had a covering of turf. Patches of wood sorrel on the surrounding slopes suggested that it might also have been hidden by trees. On closer inspection, it proved to be even larger than it had initially appeared. Its upper circle enclosed a deep pit, which may have held a fire, while upstream, were walls that could have been part of a shelter, either for men or pack animals, or possibly a store room for the barley or illicit liquor.
This still, at Wholehope Burn, was one of many scattered around the Upper Coquet during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these were set in the less accessible reaches of the tributary valleys, Usway, Rowhope, Carlcroft and Blindburn. The whisky was sold in earthenware jars, known as grey hens, the customers being mainly local shepherds or drovers migrating back and forth across the Scottish Border.Among the smugglers and distillers who plied their trades amid the hills, the only one whose notoriety seems to have survived into legend was known as Black Rory. One of the stills attributed to Rory is situated in the upper reaches of Usway Burn, and it was this that we went searching for the following week.
Clay Burn Waterfall
We made our way from Barrowburn up the hillside to the western bulge of Kidland Forest, and from there down past Fairhaugh. The track led on through the conifers, then across open land, following the course of the river, to Uswayford. A few hundred metres north of this, lay the tributary of Clay Burn, and an extremely pretty, hidden waterfall, which dropped for ten metres between rock walls into a peat brown plunge pool. We passed that, then contoured back across the slope to rejoin Usway Burn. The grid reference I had been given was located high on the hillside. Thinking this to be an unlikely situation for a still, we dropped down to the river bed and followed it upstream, past heather-topped crags and gullies clothed with primrose carpets.
At the point where a small stream ran in from the west, we found the remains of Rory’s still, almost by stepping into it, for it was virtually invisible from a distance of more than a few metres. It demonstrated the same figure-of-eight construction as the still at Wholehope Burn, but was buried in far more vegetation, to the extent that a tree grew out of the pit in the upper circle. It would have required determination to come this distance to brew the whisky, so the trade must have been extremely profitable. The still would also have been well hidden from the excise men, or gaugers, who hunted for it. It might, however, have been not too distant from one of the cross-border smugglers’ or drovers’ routes.
Black Rory’s Still
Though the river, at this point, was somewhat enclosed by its rocky walls, and the view limited in its extent, we felt this to be one of the most beautiful, yet little known short stretches of valley in Northumberland. Before leaving, we drank a toast, in tea this time, to Black Rory and his confederates. We continued upstream for another few hundred metres to Davidson’s Linn, a waterfall of about the same height as, and equal prettiness to the one on Clay Burn. From there, we followed a track west through the forest and on to the border and a junction with the Pennine Way footpath. This took us to the summit of Windy Gyle, from which we descended south, back to the Coquet valley.
We joined the road at the mouth of Trowsburn. Alongside the bridge is the alleged site of the notorious Slyme Foot Pub, where much of the illicit whisky was sold. Many other activities of questionable legality and morality were indulged in here, and the pub was closed in the 1860s, as a result of threats from the Archdeacon of Northumberland. The building was later demolished, though the remains of its foundations can still be seen. However, it has been suggested that rather than here, the pub stood on the site of the present Barrowburn car park, to which we returned after a mile’s walk along the road.
A week later, we were again in the Coquet valley, this time slogging up the slope above Carlcroft Farm. The footpath took us across Carlcroft Hill and into the steep-sided valley of Blindburn. We followed the stream northward, past a tributary that ran in from the east, where we searched among level patches and beneath small crags, before carrying on upstream. A short distance north of the confluence, we found the third still. It was of the same shape and size as the others, but the nettles that grew around and over it would probably have hidden it completely had we come here a few weeks later in the year. According to legend, the gaugers, on four different occasions, failed to locate this still, despite coming within 200 yards of it. As at the previous stills, a toast was drunk to Black Rory, this time, however, and more appropriately, with a drop of the whisky named after him. We continued up the valley and onto the Border summit of Beefstand Hill, from which we descended, through a couple of light showers, to the road at Carlcroft.
As has been intimated, the exploits of Black Rory have been commemorated in an eponymous whisky, sold by the Coquet Whisky Co. This is the brainchild of Ros Tinlin, of The Haven, Rothbury. Some five years ago, being fascinated by the history of the Coquet, Ros invited Master Blender and Distiller, John McDougall, from Scotland, to create a whisky that would reflect the spirit of the area. He studied the waters, peat and terrain of the Coquet hills, and using his extensive knowledge of Scotch whiskys, came up with the unique blend that is Black Rory. Of course there is no way of knowing the taste or quality of the original illicit liquor. It was probably very rough stuff, and not without its element of danger. The modern distillate, though much more palatable, at least preserves something of the memory of the wild characters who once traded amid the equally wild hills and tributaries of the Upper Coquet valley.