The unbelievable tale of Malcolm Gillespie?

You are going to write The Great British Novel of the 21st Century. Before you bash it out, you will  need to populate this unputdownable page turner of literary magnificence with a hero. And not just any hero. He must have the guile and cunning of a Scarlet Pimpernel, the strength and bravery of a Stallone or a Willis, the detection abilities of a Holmes, and the indefatigable determination and spirit of a Douglas Bader. This is a man that must be capable of the kind of knife-in-teeth swash buckling derring-do that would make Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood remove his jaunty hat and seek alternative employment. And naturally enough, he must also be an impoverished Scotsman who works for the tax man. 

If the existence of such an individual may lean ever-so subtly towards the implausible, then you have clearly had the misfortune to miss The Life and Dying Declaration of Malcolm Gillespie which details his travails, his dogged consistency of mettle in the face of peril and his continual triumph against  seemingly overwhelming opposition. His swordsmanship, fighting spirit and uncanny ability to locate  ‘delinquency’ (by way of the odd bribe but also by his bloodhound nose) are not to be sniffed at either. And we know this all to be true of course because The Life and Dying Declaration of Malcolm Gillepsie is written (or rather, dictated) by, er… Malcolm Gillespie, an arsonist hanged for forgery and with a seemingly unerring ability to make himself increasingly poor the harder he worked. A fiscal genius, Malcolm was not. 

These last considerations combine with the endless tales of heroism to make it very easy to laugh off The Declaration as the exaggerated ravings of a condemned man, desperately seeking some form of amelioration and public approbation in the face of his shame. ‘Pah!’ you may say. You may also follow  that with something along the lines of ‘the tales of such an heroic tax collector’s adjunct are clearly nonsense and should be treated as such’. Well let’s see, shall we? Gillespie was born in Dunblane in the late 18th century. With little social connection to recommend him other than being a distant relation to a ‘Captain Blair’, he found his desire to gain a commission to the military hard to realise. Instead, he was employed as an army recruiter by Blair’s superior officer, the Right Honourable Lord Adam Gordon. During the same period in which he enlisted 400 ‘fine young lads’, ‘Mr G’ (as the scribe he dictates his story to calls him throughout the narrative) married and started a family. He also showed his first talent at managing to be successful within his chosen vocation while simultaneously making himself – and his mates – skint. We are not offered any reason for this to be the case other than his assiduous dedication to his exertions within a job ‘well known to  be attended with considerable expense’.  

Happily for Mr G however, his benefactor Lord Adam Gordon ‘made intercession’ and in 1799 he was appointed as an ‘expectant’ for the Excise, overseeing the salt manufacture in Prestonpans, nea Edinburgh. In addition to actually making money from working, he quickly gained a reputation for shaking down fraudulent saline activities. His rise throughout the ranks of expectants, however, was anything but meteoric. Unfortunately for Mr G, Lord Adam died and from then on, he was left to rely on nothing but his determination to carry out his duties to the best of his abilities. But while he never achieved much in the way of promotion, if we are to believe even a small amount of his autobiography, his dedication to his task remained undimmed throughout his career. 

After a couple of years in the salt mines Mr G was granted a requested move to Aberdeenshire, home as it was to rampant levels of illicit whisky production and its clandestine transportation. Thousands of ‘ankers’ (a measure equivalent to 8 1/3 gallons) were moved under darkness from rural stills to the markets of Aberdeen and central Scotland and thus made the area a fecund source of career betterment opportunities for our keenly energetic hero. 

“By 1820, there were as many as 14,000 illicit still confiscated or destroyed.”

Some context here may prove helpful. In 1644, the first taxes were levied on the production of Scotch and over the next 150 years, the not wholly unforeseeable result was that its illegal production went into overdrive. By 1820, there were as many as 14,000 illicit stills confiscated or destroyed and it is estimated that over half of the whisky consumed in Scotland produced no revenue for the government. As a result, financial inducements were offered for the capture of illegal whisky and it is here where money could be made (or in the case of Mr G, not made) by those working for the Excise. As an aside, it should be pointed out here that this was not some romantic Whisky Galore vision of the  ‘illicit still’. It is more accurate – although overly simplistic – to equate the ‘whisky gangs’ of this period to the gangs involved in contemporary drug production, albeit with far fewer associated fatalities. These were not dashing bandits fighting ‘The Man’ but men of violence conducting a business born out of poverty. Successfully transporting whisky was often the only way to make money and its necessity made the smugglers take it very seriously indeed. 

Tedious scene setting now taken care of, we can get back to the hero of the piece. When we last looked in on Malcy, he had just popped up to Aberdeenshire to fight the good fight against the creation and transportation of illicit alcohol (for which, from this point on we shall use ‘The Trade’ – partly as shorthand and also to avoid the tiresome pursuit of glib synonymic terms such as ‘dodgy  booze’ or similarly awful descriptors). As we have already learned, working in The Trade was not an uncommon profession and as such, offered Mr G considerable possibilities for financial advancement as he would get a cut of the value of the alcohol he confiscated. As you may imagine, the management and employees of The Trade were not terribly keen on the confiscation of their wares and very rarely gave it up without offering fairly robust physical resistance. This fact could justifiably  make a lesser man consider a different career path. Perhaps in gardening or as a cheerful, salt-of-the-earth publican – although as anyone who has visited Aberdeenshire can attest, the existence of the latter is admittedly wholly fanciful. Not our Mr G, however. Quite the reverse in fact, as if there is one unassailable truth in the many tales told of Malcolm Gillespie, it is that he was an  extremely violent man. Rather than try and avoid confrontation, Mr G went after it like the ferret up a drainpipe that would make any other ferrets observing slink away, embarrassed by their flat-footedness and lack of élan in drainpipe scaling. 

Being keenly proficient in violence, however, is certainly not the only skill on display in The Declaration. There is insufficient space here to recite the many, many deeds of derring done and I suspect, insufficient patience within you to read them all. So instead, let us concentrate on a selection that go some way to explain the seemingly outrageous claims of the opening paragraph of this  week’s drivel. 

“Rather than try and avoid confrontation, Mr G went after it like the ferret up a drain pipe.”

Firstly, guile, which is exhibited in spades in the very first tale we come across. On one of his ‘nightly excursions’ (we are told that he would sometimes stalk his prey for 30 consecutive nights to collar the blighters) he came across 15 or so fisherman at Loch Colliston, each carrying an anker of spirit from a boat. As he is on his own, Mr G fires a volley of shots into the air, panicking said anglers and causing them to unhitch the barrels, hitch up their trousers and bolt in various directions. This, in turn, allows Mr G to saunter down and collect the spoils. You know the story where a junior bull, on seeing a field of cows, recommends that he and his father run down the hill to mount a single cow and dad bull explains that they should simply walk down and mount them all? Well, in my mind at least, Mr G wanders down to collect the barrels like that. Anyway, while musing on the ‘best method of getting these ankers conveyed to a place of security’, Mr G is approached by 6 gun-wielding ‘foreigners’.  What six gun-wielding ‘banditti’ should be doing wandering around on a cold night in Aberdeenshire is not fully explained, but in any case there they were and not but a minute later – in a scene reminiscent of Zorro but presumably with less sombreros – all 6 of them were pointing their guns at Mr G’s chest and offering him the big sleep unless he exited stage left without further delay. At this point, Malcolm’s cunning springs to life. ‘Aha!’, he said, possibly, snatching an old letter from his pocket and using this random bit of correspondence to convince the assorted rotters that it contained authorisation from the owner of the ankers to collect same. This ‘pacified the foreigners’ who duly shuffled off to Colliston for a pie and a pint. By the time that they discovered the ruse and returned with ‘redoubled fury’ to give him a proper biffing about, Mr G had hopped it with the goodies to his mate’s house. Tidy. 

Swiftly moving on to strength and bravery, we find ourselves addressing Mr G’s various interactions with the Grants. Every hero worth his or her salt unquestionably needs a nemesis and for our own, it was the family Grant. If not perhaps the cosa nostra of the Stonehaven locale, they were at least highly successful in The Trade and so feared by all, that many excise men on seeing their nefarious activities would simply walk off with their heads bowed, whistling a tune and suddenly seeing someone they knew who happened to be quite far away in a direction opposite that of the Grants. Mr G, of course, was not in the habit of bowing to anyone. 

The scene is two miles outside Stonehaven, the participants are Grants x 3, Malcolm and a horse  pulling a cart with a load of illegal whisky on board. After successfully seizing the cart, Mr G sets off for Stonehaven with the Grants in hot pursuit, somewhat choleric in their aspect. After a bit of back and forth between Mr G and Grant senior (with the two Grant sons intermittently striking Mr G ‘many a blow’) father Grant finally succeeds in getting the upper hand, pinning Mr G down and holding a knife to his throat with the sole intention of interrupting the union ‘twixt head and neck. So is our hero cowed by this threat, reduced to quivering and begging for mercy? Not as such, instead ‘It was then Mr G was obliged to extricate himself, by giving Grant a severe beating’. More than likely followed by an insouciant shrug and a dusting down of the sleeves and as he ambled off towards Stonehaven with the goods in tow.  

One of the many issues that Gillespie found in his extremely successful pursuit of the various ne’er do wells and baddies was that in each area he arrived at, he had cleared them out all too soon. Just as the Grants were held in high esteem and the mention of their name sent shivers through the spines of lesser excise men, so too was Mr G preceded by his reputation and on his arrival anywhere, many of his potential further successes simply scarpered to pastures other. It was because of this that he moved on from interrupting the transportation activities of The Trade and instead, started to look for its source. Which brings us to his detection abilities. We shall skim lightly over these as we really must get on but suffice to say that in terms of finding and destroying stills and storage spaces, Mr G was not  just Holmes, he was Holmes’ borrowed dog, Toby (who you may remember was the exceptionally well-nosed mongrel used for tracking in The Sign of the Four). In one tale, after one the many tip-offs he pays to receive, Mr G finds a ‘fraudulent concealment very judiciously erected in the sand’ which his ‘brother officers’ had walked over several times without noticing. Further, he continues to explore the same coastal area and discovers several other hiding places capable of concealing ‘50 to 100 ankers at a time’ and that had been undiscovered by the law for ‘upwards of 50 years’. So, excellent  detection abilities? Check. 

Lastly – or indeed, ‘at last’, you may be saying – we come to Mr G’s greatest strength, and perhaps his fundamental weakness: his grim, unerring and inexhaustible determination. If he was a bloodhound in sniffing out illicit stills and ‘concealments’, in his general approach to the chasing down of The Trade, Gillespie was an attack dog. In fact, he actually had an attack dog – a pedigree bull terrier – for a year or so before it was shot by one of the banditti. By all accounts Mr G was very fond of the hound  and had trained it to jump up and bite on to the noses of horses to stop them running away. Which seems a bit hard on the horse of course, but then Mr G seems to have scant regard for horse husbandry and The Declaration is literally littered with their corpses. If he’s not taking pot shots at horses (including, as it would mean nobody could use it to escape, shooting his own) he’s riding them into the ground. In one 12 miler chasing smugglers he ran a horse so hard that he killed the poor animal and on the return leg, rendered the other one so second hand that it was knacker’s yard bound before it could say neigh. 

“While his is a career that has made him revered throughout Aberdeenshire, It is also that has made him steadily poorer”

If that sort of determination is difficult to admire, the kind on show in yet another story of Mr G being given yet another beating is much less so. In the middle of winter, while Gillespie is on his ‘nightly peregrinations’, he is set upon by ‘delinquents’, beaten, bound with ropes and hurled into a nearby hedge. He then spends 6 hours lying in the snow before being noticed by a passer-by and set free. It is at this point, freezing, frost-bitten and having been roundly thrashed that he walks 6 miles, finds the tracks of the smugglers’ cart and once again seizes the contraband spirit.

We are told that this exploit left Gillespie ‘long under indisposition’ and it is one of many that did so, as a great deal of Mr G’s time was taken up by getting the stuffing knocked out of him. He is said to have 42 separate serious wounds by the time his career comes to a shuddering halt. By this point his eye sight is intermittent and his body is all but broken. His major problem however, is that he is absolutely potless. While his is a career that has made him revered throughout Aberdeenshire and beyond, it is also one that has made him steadily poorer and that sadly leads him, inexorably, towards trying to solve the situation through crime. The business of capturing all of these desperadoes, yousee, does not come cheap. There are men to hire and house, taxes owed to the King, tip-offs to pay and many, many horses to replace or repair. As a result, even when he collars a really big shipment hestill manages to come out of it worse off. His answer to solving this problem, regrettably, is not his finest work. To start with, he decides to torch his own house, Crombie Cottage, located on a small concern of 11 acres or so where he and his heavies live. Upon leaving for Edinburgh one weekend, he casually mentions to the lads that he has left a rather vast amount of gunpowder and turpentine that they can (wink) do what they like with in his absence. Not needing asked twice, they duly do the honours and Mr G collects 800 odd quid from the insurance (a figure which was less than the outlay on purchase and improvement of the cottage and which once again underlines the unlikelihood of him securing a senior post in the financial services industry). At around the same time, he and hisoppo’ George Skene Edwards are also running a scam creating fake bills of credit, using the names of local lairds and landowners as guarantors and forging their signatures to borrow money from the banks. Amazingly, he seems to have got away with the arson but the forgery, a capital crime, he did not. On 16 November 1827, Malcolm ‘the Guager’ Gillespie, became the last person to be hanged on Aberdeen’s outdoors gallows. By all accounts, he took it like a gentleman.

So how much of all of this is true? If we look at the press reports of the time then much of The Declaration is certainly corroborated. It is worth noting, however, that many of the tales only feature Mr G and some wrong ‘uns, and the latter are unlikely to have given extensive interviews. So while there ports go in some way to adding validity, they do not offer cast iron proof. His reverence amongst the local population also add some strength to the claims, but it would not be the first time that a legend has grown around a man by the man himself creating it. A swift glance over to our American cousin sat this time of writing proves that beyond any reasonable doubt. Charlatans, bounders and cads can easily fool a populace into believing they are of The Right Stuff by using falsehoods, exaggerations and bald-faced lies. As those same cousins are fond of saying however, the numbers do not lie. Even if we are to mutter a bit at the tenuous nature of some of the tales, we cannot discount that during his career Malcolm Gillespie confiscated or destroyed 20,000 gallons of spirit, 60,000 litres of wash, 407 stills and 165 (presumably quite nervous) horses. If we remember that The Trade was populated by violent, often desperate men who had no other practicable means of earning an income and that M rG was still able to avail himself of such huge quantities of illicit spirit within such an environment , perhaps the tales do not seem so fanciful after all.

We also need to look at his motivation for undertaking this career. It makes him no money, takes him away from his family for extended periods, invariably means he gets a good kicking and is often a lonely and, outwardly at least, generally thankless task. So why on earth did he do it? Fame and adulation? Possibly, but he was only really famous towards the end of his career so while ego may well have played a part, I think a much bigger part was just for the sheer hell of it – the thrill of the chase,the adrenaline burn and because he really, truly enjoyed a good scrap. And while that was irresponsible to his family, a bit juvenile and extremely hard on the local equine population, Gillespie was also doing some good at the same time. Or at least what the law called ‘good’, anyway. If we take all that into account, the stories are again more believable than they first might appear because Mr G was looking for a kind of Boy’s Own Adventure as much as he was for illicit whisky.

Then again, maybe I just want to believe in Mr G’s exploits. Certainly, even in spite of his extremely questionable morals and predilection for violence, I find myself admiring the man (although not his treatment of horses) and that necessarily will colour any judgement. Perhaps, but I content myself with the words of another great adventurer. In his book Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, Mark Twain famously opined, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” As The Declaration tells us very clearly, Mr G didn’t feel obliged just to stick to ‘possibilities’ either.

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