Gustavus McIver – secret distillers get quite a shock

Wilson’s Tales is a record of our region’s history, legends and people. First serialised in the Berwick Advertiser in the 1830s, The Wilson’s Tales Project is retelling them for a modern audience.

Sunday, 21st April 2019, 12:33 pm
Updated Thursday, 11th April 2019, 16:34 pm
Gustavus McIver. Picture by Claire Jenkins.

PREVIOUSLY: War hero Gustavus McIver married saucy Julia Briggs in haste. Now he keeps house while she guzzles whisky. To escape temptation, he moved them to an isolated cottage.

There was no other house for miles around. No neighbours, no dram shops, and the only human contact was with a carrier who brought provisions.

For six weeks, Julia stayed sober. But then Gustavus relaxed, taking an hour out to walk the hills. On his return he found his wicked enchantress comatose on the floor.

Where had she got her supply? A search of the house found nothing. The carrier hadn’t passed for a week. No one else had ever been seen to call. But now, every two or three days she was blootered.

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Gustavus was mystified. Julia was smug. He seemed unable to leave the house because when he came back she would be drunk.

He tried terrifying her into sobriety: the next time he found her drunk he’d put her in a coffin and bury her. Gustavus made a coffin and stood it in the bedroom as a warning. Julia laughed, saying he’d be hanged if he buried her alive.

But three days later the minx was drunk again and instead of putting her to bed, he heaved her into the coffin.

In a dark wood, some way from the cottage, he found a ready-made hole protected by bushes. He popped the lid on the coffin, which had plenty of breathing holes, lowered it into the pit, and went home. When she woke, she’d be so horrified that she’d lose her taste for whisky.

He had no idea that the hole was the entrance to a subterranean distillery manned by brawny Highlanders Angus McGuire and Donald McNair. This was where Julia had been getting her supplies.

Angus and Donald were at work when they saw the coffin descending. When Donald, the bolder of the two, prised it open, there was the corpse of their customer Julia: “Murdered by Gustavus, by God!”

They decided to wait for dark, then give Julia a decent burial. After all, they didn’t want anyone thinking they were the “murderers o’ the puir cratur”.

To give them courage they fell to drinking. In the past they’d enjoyed much fun with saucy Julia so they passed a jolly time quaffing beside the coffin.

By nightfall they were well refreshed. They’d just proposed a toast to “the good cratur’s soul” when Julia opened her eyes. Unaware of her situation, and seeing that drink was in the offing, she held out her hand for a glass of whisky.

NEXT WEEK: Till death do us part.

Retold by Christine Fletcher, adapted by Joe Lang and illustrated by Claire Jenkins. Read the full story and background in Volume 4 of the Wilson’s Tales Revival Edition, £8.50, from Berwick booksellers or