The island of Tiree is the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. It is a relatively low-lying island with an area of 7,834 hectares and a population of around 650.
There are many theories as to where the name Tiree is derived. Professor William J Watson, who published The Celtic Place Names of Scotland in 1926, argues that the second element of Tir-iodh is likely to be Heeth, a name from the Iron Age or earlier which is not Gaelic, possibly not even Celtic. More common theories have suggested that the name derives from ‘Tir-iodh’ which means ‘land of corn’, or possibly ‘Tir-I’ the land or granary of Iona.
As the latter two theories suggest, the economy of Tiree has been based on the production of grain since ancient times. Renowned for fertile and easily worked soil and long growing seasons, the island was unique in the Hebrides. Along with this corn production, Tiree was famous for the production of whisky – made from the island’s plentiful supplies of barley. Each farm on Tiree usually had one still producing whisky, for both local consumption and for export to neighbouring islands and Ireland. Records suggest that there were fifty distillers on the island around 1768, declining to around three in 1793.
Whisky was worth much more than barley as grain alone- one boll of barley was worth 30 shillings as grain but 6 guineas if distilled into whisky. The island's harvests, however, were not always reliable, with those in 1790 and 1791 being particularly poor. Less barley being available for distilling, the Tiree chamberlain reported in 1790: "The legal distilleries in Tiree used 326 bolls of Tiree barley, 40 bolls from Appin and 160 bolls of malt from the Clyde. Twelve tons and 160 carts of coal were imported."
Tighter regulation, both from the estate and the government, also squeezed the industry. The minister's 1792 report went on: "The parish [of Tiree and Coll] [a few years ago] had upwards of thirty stills, but is now reduced to three small licensed one."
The estate was particularly concerned by the stills' voracious peat consumption and The Duke instructed the Tiree chamberlain in 1789: "As you mentioned two licensed stills are to be erected in the island, you should take measures for having both erected so as they may be carried on with coal ... otherways they will soon waste the little fuel that is in the island."
There was also a long-standing concern about a rise in drunkenness on the island, which the authorities linked with the number of stills. James Turnbull had reported in his Statistical Account of 1768: "The people drink more than they would do, which is a means of spoiling their morals and keeping them idle."
The Duke responded three years later by asking about "the most effectual methods of crushing distillery". In 1794, the Duke chided the chamberlain, accusing him of allowing "the tenants to drink their barley" rather than paying rent.
By 1801, the chamberlain still spoke of "spirits, to which the natives are much addicted." That same year, however, 157 islanders were found guilty of illegal distilling; in addition to a court fine, the new chamberlain, Dr McLaurin, was instructed to evict one in ten offenders as a warning. The Duke went further, demanding that all barley not needed for food should be sent directly to him at Inveraray Castle. Ten years after the legal distilleries had been set up, "none could be found on the island willing to undertake the distilling in a legal way" and by 1802 the duke pulled the plug completely: "The barley to be exported as last year, and no distilling permitted."
Tiree, long known as Tìr an Eòrna 'the land of barley', was an island whose swollen population could barely feed itself, an island that had exhausted its reserves of peat and had to rely on expensive imports of coal. In addition, the long-lived eighth duke held a policy of keeping Tiree alcohol-free (the island’s licence had been removed in 1848 and wasn’t reintroduced until 1950).
When James MacDonald produced an authoritative survey of agriculture in the Hebrides in 1811, he wrote: "There were formerly large sums of money drawn by Tiree for whisky, distilled from the excellent barley of this fertile island; but of late this branch of industry has been suppressed, and that too, very probably, to the ultimate advantage of both proprietor and tenants."