Excise - trouble at the border

Numerous newspapers articles of the 1840s and 1850s tell of unfortunate passengers who, oblivious of the law, dared to bring a bottle of whisky south over the border on the new main line railways. Punishment varied from confiscation of the whisky to imprisonment (where genuine smuggling was suspected). Unfortunately the Excise Regulations required that the full English Excise Duty be paid and a certificate of proof issued before bringing 'home spirits' over the border. But, far worse for our passengers, export of amounts less than twenty gallons was prohibited - these were to be seized and disposed of, there was no paying of duty at the last moment.

How did this arise?

The 'Act of Union with England' of 1707 (passed in the Scottish Parliament and counterpart to that passed in the English Parliament in 1706) specifically excluded whisky from the otherwise free trade agreement. The duty payable in Scotland and England on spirits was different. The duty gradually increased leading to the closure of legitimate distilleries and the setup of illicit stills. In 1823 was the important Act allowing registration of a distillery for a modest fee to which most distilleries trace their formal foundation. However, despite these adjustments, by the time the railways opened there was a significant discrepancy between the duty paid by distillers in the two countries, the Scottish duty was half of the English.

The reasons for this are complex, including
- the encouragement of legal, registered, Scottish distilleries
- Lowland versus Highland distillery competition
- keeping the cost of whisky relatively low in Scotland for its population
- protecting the London distillers from cheap spirits crossing into England
- protecting the Irish distillers' trade with England
- lobbying by the Temperance Movement
- creating a parity between British and Colonial spirits' duties

It was not possible to keep all groups happy and in almost every year between the 1823 Act and the building of the trunk railway lines there was an Act of Parliament adjusting the excise in some way.

Such were the delays that the North British Railway engaged in near battle (well, certainly some strongly worded letters) with John Clayton Freeling of the Excise in 1846 asking to have the law changed, while reminding passengers to observe the excise laws. The situation remained unresolved when the Caledonian Railway opened in 1848 and, faced with passengers and staff being taken to court, that company placed large notices at all of its stations.

The railways were fortunate that the United Kingdom's Parliament was increasingly encouraging free trade, a process which started after Adam Smith and, in particular, the repealing of the Corn Laws. Reforms included the reduction of bureaucracy by merging the Board of Stamps with the Board of Excise to create the new Board of Inland Revenue (1849). There were many Acts of Parliament relating to Excise on various goods and the repealing various duties.

Notably in October 1855 an Act was passed which equalised the duty on spirits in Scotland and England.

'home spirits' - spirits made in Britain, not the colonies, termed colonial liquor or spirits.
'twenty gallons' - to encourage the industry to export whisky in bulk

Newspaper snippets

July 1846
... parties from Edinburgh, arrived Berwick terminus. A lady and gentleman, on alighting from one of the carriages, brought out a small basket with them, when they were accosted by one of the excise officers belonging Berwick, who seized and searched it.
December 1849
... excise officers made a seizure of six bottles of whisky concealed in gentleman's luggage, who came hither by the North British Railway, and was proceeding to London ...
January 1851
... take along with her a little Scotch whisky, and got two gallons from a spirit merchant in Aberdeen, along with a permit of the usual kind. When she arrived in Berwick, however, not only was her whisky seized by the Excise officals, but she herself was taken ...

Act of Union

The Articles of the UNION as they passed with Amendments in the Parliament of Scotland, and ratified by the Touch of the Royal Scepter at Edinburgh, January 16, 1707, by James Duke of Queensbury, her Majesty’s High Commissioner for that Kingdom.

VII. ‘That all Parts of the united Kingdom be for ever, from, and after the Union, liable to the same Excises upon all excisable Liquors,’ Excepting only that the thirty-four Gallons English Barrel of Beer or Ale, amounting to twelve Gallons Scots present Measure, sold in Scotland by the Brewer at nine Shillings Six pence Sterling, excluding all Duties, and retailed, including Duties, and the Retailers Profit at two Pence the Scots Pint, or eighth Part of the Scots Gallon, be not after the Union liable on account of the present Excise upon excisable Liquors in England, to any higher Imposition than two Shillings Sterling upon the foresaid thirty-four Gallons English Barrel, being twelve Gallons the present Scots Measure.
‘And that the Excise settled in England on all other Liquors, when the Union commences, take place throughout the whole United Kingdom.


July 1851 Hansard

At present the amount of duty levied upon home spirits was distributed in a manner highly favourable to the interests which purported to be most aggrieved by the existing system, for while English spirits paid 7s. 10d. a gallon, Scotch spirits only paid 3s. 8d., and Irish spirits only 2s. 8d.

Caledonian Railway's notice

By Authority
Public Notice

The PUBLIC are requested to take Notice, that the Trans-
mission of all FOREIGN and COLONIAL SPIRITS between
Scotland and England, by Land, is contrary to Law.

Spirits Distilled in Scotland can only be transmitted, by
Land, in quantities exceeding Twenty Gallons, accompanied by
an Excise Permit; the full rate of English Duty having been
previously paid.

All Scotch Spirits found in Transit, per the Caledonian
Railway, in less quantities than Twenty Gallons, and all such
Spirits of that or any greater quantity unaccompanied by the
necessary Permit, are liable to be sized by the Officers of the

The Caledonian Railway Company refuse to undertake the
Conveyance of Spirits, except when conditions of the Excise
Regulations have been complied with, and when they are sup-
plied with the name and address of the party sending and
the party to receive the Consignment.

All packages containing Liquids of any description are
liable to detention on suspicion to avoid which it is desirable
their contents should be stated st the time of Booking.

By order,
J.W. Coddington Secy.