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Book highlights dark side of Highland life


By David G Scott


Social unrest in Wick in the 1800s is one of the many subjects to enthral Caithness and Sutherland readers in a book that looks beyond the romantic Victorian vision of the Highlands and Islands.

Whisky Wars – republished this month after its initial 2013 release – whets appetites with robberies, smuggling, brutality and rioting in the northern counties and further afield.

Whisky Wars will appeal to history buffs and true crime fans.
Whisky Wars will appeal to history buffs and true crime fans.

Author Malcolm Archibald pulls together a vivid and often shocking collection of horrible histories that tears apart the popular tartan myth. Chapter four, for example, has a substantial section entitled Riot Town that is all about Wick and the social unrest that occurred there in the 1800s.

"Within a period of 32 years, Wick experienced four major riots, had the army called out and created questions in Parliament. That is not bad for an isolated town of just a few thousand souls," Archibald writes.

The well-known War of the Orange riot in 1859 is covered, but there are other anecdotes on local insurrection that will enlighten the reader.

In July 1832, for example, cholera hit Wick badly and local folk looked for a scapegoat. An Edinburgh doctor, who ran the town's hospital, was looked upon with suspicion – it being thought that he was whisking away dead bodies to the capital for surgeons to dissect. Tales of bodysnatchers were rife at the time, after the gruesome murders by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, so it didn't take much to whip the rumours up into a frenzy.

Malcolm Archibald's new book is about skulduggery in the Highlands. Picture: Trevor Martin
Malcolm Archibald's new book is about skulduggery in the Highlands. Picture: Trevor Martin

"As the crowd grew, some men tried to attack the doctor, and when the chairman of the board of health stepped in he also became a target for the mob, which now was over 1500 strong." With the cries of "murder him" reaching fever pitch, mounted patrols of special constables had to restore order and the doctor fled the town on the next mail coach south.

There are plenty of other stories with food riots in Castletown, female criminal shenanigans in Thurso and a lusty church minister in Latheronwheel. From Sutherland there are tales aplenty of the Highland Clearances and its consequences such as the rise in sheep rustling in the county.

In another chapter, an enterprising burglar wanders between the two counties and after robbing a farm near Halkirk makes his way west to Strathnaver before being finally apprehended.

Whisky Wars is a fascinating journey into the darker side of the Highlands and will appeal to history buffs as well as true crime aficionados.

The book is available on Amazon and through Black and White Publishing.



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