Magnus Eunson

Highland Park will forever be associated with Magnus Eunson, the man often credited with the foundation of the distillery at the end of the 18th century. Eunson was not a preacher as received wisdom would have it. He was a beadle by day and a smuggler by night, the latter operation based from his bothy on the High Park above Kirkwall where Highland Park Distillery now stands.

According to W. R. Mackintosh in Around the Orkney Peat-Fires (1898) Magnus ‘Mansie’ Eunson was “a flesher [butcher], beadle, and a successful smuggler. In addition to this he was a born character, brimful of pawky humour and resource, which extricated him from many a scrape.” Stories of smugglers are forever imbued with romance and poetic licence, the canny happy-go-lucky local outwitting the cowardly, corrupt and doltish representatives of the establishment; in these stories Eunson is shown as being brave and ingenious enough to enjoy many a narrow escape from the clutches of the exciseman.

The best-known Eunson anecdote is recounted by Alfred Barnard in his seminal Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887); “Hearing that the Church was to be searched for whisky by a new party of excisemen, Eunson had all the kegs removed to his house, placed in the middle of an empty room and covered with a clean white cloth. As the officers approached after their unsuccessful search in the church, Eunson gathered all his people, including the maidservants, round the whisky, which, with its covering of white, under which a coffin lid had been placed, looked like a bier. Eunson knelt at the head with the Bible in his hand and the others with their psalm books. As the door opened they set up a wail for the dead, and Eunson made a sign to the officers that it was a death and one of the attendants whispered “smallpox”. Immediately the officer and his men made off as fast as they could and left the smuggler for some time in peace.”

Mackintosh tells us that Eunson was not a preacher, nor does his account suggest that Eunson was an illicit distiller, however smuggling was virtually a synonym for illicit distilling. He smuggled principally spirits, but remains most closely associated with the origins of Scotch whisky from Highland Park Distillery. By 1798 Highland Park had been founded; later a syndicate, which, somewhat ironically, included Eunson’s arresting officer, John Robertson, and his fellow exciseman, Robert Pringle, purchased the High Park estate, including the distillery in April 1813.

Excisemen had targeted the Orkney Islands and seized many illicit stills from 1805. Smuggling on Orkney had become so prevalent that one Sunday, Mansie’s minister denounced the activity as being iniquitous and un-Christian. When the sermon was over, Mansie was asked what he thought of the minister’s pronouncements; “I think that oor minister is no’ very consistent, for at the very time he was preaching, he had six kegs o’ as guid brandy under his pulpit as was ever smuggled.” Clearly, Mansie was confident that his preferred hiding place for the contraband, under the floor of the pulpit, was well-placed.

Mackintosh illustrates Eunson’s cunning; he was to bring some casks of illicit whisky from Deerness into Kirkwall, so he purposely told a local worthy of his plan to cross the bridge of Wideford on the Kirkwall road between midnight and 1am with the casks loaded on three horses. The worthy was a well-known informant so Eunson was sure he would tell the excisemen of his plan. As expected, the officers were informed and proceeded to stake out the bridge at the appointed time, sheltering from the cold of the night under the parapet. They duly heard the sound of horses and sprang to confront Eunson only to find that he was heading in the wrong direction with what turned out to be empty casks. He told the officers that he had taken the full casks into Kirkwall somewhat earlier than he had mentioned to the informant, but that he had not had the heart to keep the officers waiting in the cold for him until morning