Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The Still

A few pages into Alistair MacLeod’s 1976 short story The Closing Down of Summer there’s a brief description of moonshine the main characters were drinking on a beach on the west coast of Cape Breton:

It is the purest of moonshine made by our relatives back in the hills and is impossible to buy. It comes to us only as a gift or in exchange for long-past favours: bringing home of bodies, small loans of forgotten dollars, kindnesses to now-dead grandmothers. It is as clear as water, and a teaspoonful of it when touched by a match will burn with the low blue flame of a votive candle until it is completely consumed, leaving the teaspoon hot and totally dry.

Knowing that much of what Alistair MacLeod writes about is based on his life and his people, it’s not much of a stretch to think that those moonshine-making “relatives back in the hills” were his distant cousins in Glencoe/Upper Southwest Mabou, who also bore the name MacLeod. Alistair MacLeod is a descendant of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Duncan MacLeod. One of Duncan’s sons, Donald, was Alistair’s ancestor; another, John, was my great-great-great-great-grandfather. John’s son, also named Duncan MacLeod, migrated to Cape Breton in 1843; Duncan’s son Angus, my great-great-grandfather, became the patriarch of a large family in Glencoe/Upper Southwest Mabou after his father’s death.

But why would I assume the relatives mentioned in Alistair MacLeod’s story were my relatives? Well, because my MacLeod relatives weren’t just Alistair MacLeod’s kin. They also happened to be the makers of some of the finest moonshine on that side of the island. My grandfather, Duncan MacLeod, was introduced to his uncles’ moonshine during the summer of 1937. In fact, that summer and the next, Duncan MacLeod and his brother Hughie didn’t just take the occasional swig of it. They helped make it.

Every year when the weather was just right, the MacLeod boys would make moonshine. At least, they did the two summers that Papa and his brother were there. Papa told me the whole family got involved, except for his aunt Annie, who hated liquor, guns, and swearing, and would pack her bags and go off to stay in a hotel in Port Hood whenever moonshine season rolled around. Meanwhile, Annie’s brothers would buy large quantities of blackstrap molasses and yeast and take their 30-gallon copper pot out of its hiding place and into the woods.

At first, nine-year-old Duncan and his eight-year-old brother Hughie were given the task of feeding the dogs that their uncles kept further down the brook as an early warning system in case the authorities tried to find the still. It wasn’t long before the boys were given a more important job: keeping the worm cool. The worm was a copper coil that ran through the big copper pot and was submerged in a bucket of water. The boys’ job was to keep putting cool water from the brook into the bucket, to keep the worm cool and make the moonshine just right.

When the moonshine was ‘just right’ it would, as Alistair MacLeod noted, burn blue on a spoon and leave no trace it had ever been there. It was potent stuff; most people didn’t drink it straight. Papa said it “would curl the hairs in your nose” so most people only used it to make hot toddies. Duncan and Hughie would take the occasional sip of the pure shine, though, when no one was around.

The MacLeods would run the shine off three times before it was considered ready to drink. They would also brew their own beer, in two 100-gallon barrels. The Nova Scotia government, which had taken control of liquor distribution and sales in 1930, didn’t take too kindly to anyone trying to get around the Liquor Control Act, so the police often went looking for the still. The MacLeod boys were able to keep their operation safe from the long arm of the law, but one year they had a close call that almost ended in tragedy.

One year — I don’t know exactly when — the RCMP came dangerously close to finding the MacLeod boys’ moonshine operation in the woods. According to my grandfather, an RCMP officer named Malcolm MacLean was chasing my great-granduncle Alec MacLeod somewhere in the woods when Alec, who always carried a pistol, turned to fire a warning shot. Instead of disappearing into the forest, his bullet hit MacLean in the neck, seriously wounding him. MacLean survived but was left with a permanent disability, which earned him the nickname Crooked-Neck MacLean. Worse still, he never got a look at the face of the man he’d been chasing, so he could never pin the shooting on Alec, even though everyone in the area knew it was Alec who’d done it. Until his death in 1977, Alec felt guilty over what he’d done, but also relieved that he hadn’t killed MacLean. He also felt quite relieved, as did the rest of the family, that the MacLeods could continue making moonshine a little while longer.

The police never found the still, because the MacLeod boys valued not only their freedom but also the big copper pot, which they would hide up in the trees. I think Papa was only half joking when he told me it might still be somewhere in those woods.

As for Duncan, those early encounters with alcohol would not be his last, as he would later become an alcoholic. He would also brew his own alcoholic beverages — and get caught. In fact, one run-in with the law during his teenage years would land him in jail.

But those are all stories for another day.

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Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.