Scotland and Prohibition

Picture of Scotland and Prohibition

The temperance movements of the last century took a heavy toll on global alcohol production, but outside the trendy speakeasy bars and clubs ostensibly modelled after America’s prohibition movements this is now largely forgotten. Few realise that Scotland had its own, in some cases surprisingly successful temperance and teetotalism movements as well.

Prohibition in Scotland

In Scotland under the 1913 Temperance Act local areas were given the option of voting on going ‘dry’, that is prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Unlike in the United States where a 13 year nationwide constitutional ban was enforced the Temperance Act was more limited in scope allowing small areas to introduce prohibition while the country as a whole remained wet.

Background to the acts introduction

While temperance movement had existed for years opposition to alcohol consumption began to coalesce in Scotland during the 1830s, while an exhaustive analysis of the history of the temperance movements is outwith the scope of this article this corresponds to two key changes:

  • The widespread use of the Coffey still (a continuous form of distillation) had resulted in significantly reduced production costs while simultaneously delivering higher yields Duty on the production of spirit was lowered substantially* with the aim of suppressing illegal distillation (the lower taxes convincing numerous producers to go legal)
  • The result was an abundance of cheap alcohol to which the largely evangelical opposition groups attributed every social ill from illness to violence and crime. This viewpoint was not entirely without legitimacy, Glasgow for example saw 125,000 people arrested as “drunk and incapable” over the three years from 1871-1874. The desire of the temperance movements to introduce ab American style prohibition struggled to gain sufficient political support, in large part due to the revenue raised by taxing alcohol.

*The duty on spirits was reduced from seven shillings to two shillings and sixpence a gallon

A class based temperance movement

While early reformers were often motivated by humanitarian impulses it should be understood that the target of many was not the “nutritious” wine drunk domestically by the middle and upper classes, behind domestic doors or in private drinking clubs, but rather the drink of the working male population. Maryhill just outside Glasgow was the site of the world’s first temperance society. Founded by James Dunlop the movement’s target was whisky and other high proof “ardent spirits” which he saw as the greatest threat to industry, family life and finance. Later in Glasgow under a succession of Provosts including William Collins Jr. alcohol was forbidden on council premises, a ban which would stand until 1960.

The Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913

Ultimately the conflict between the temperance movement and the political forces opposed reached a compromise with the introduction of the 1913 Temperance Act. The act allowed small Scottish localities to hold votes every three years offering the option to either:

  • Operate no license to sell alcohol
  • Limit the number of licenses granted to sell alcohol
  • Continue to grant licenses These votes could be held every three years, however the act’s implementation was delayed significantly by the outbreak of war and severe limits on pub opening hours under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) in 1914 reduced the need for a time. Consequently the first polls* were not held in 1920 with the requirement of a 55% majority to pass.

Despite the delay caused by DORA its restrictions led to stricter controls on pub operating hours, beer was watered down and taxed an extra penny a pint. Many publicans also lost incentives to sell alcohol instead preferring to support the armaments industry and keeping workers sober. “No Treating” restrictions operated between 1916 and 1919 forbid the buying of rounds of drinks.

*It should be noted that as this fell after the 1918 Representation of the People Act most men had the vote, though some still held multiple votes and a large number of women were still excluded.

Where was Prohibition enacted in Scotland?

In Scotland full roll out of prohibition was fairly limited, following the 1913 act the most noteworthy bans were introduced in Kilsyth, Kirkintilloch, Wick and Lerwick and at one point, 16 council wards across Scotland went “dry” for a time. Ultimately only 23 of Scotland’s 253 districts voted for no license prohibition and a further 35 votes saw limitation of alcohol sales (Scotsman, 2016).

Duration of the ‘No License’ ban

Kilsyth in Lanarkshire (some 12 miles from the Glengoyne distillery) went dry in 1920 remaining that way until 1967. Wick in Caithness, home of the ‘Old’ Pulteney distillery, voted by a majority of sixty-two per cent to go “dry”, closing bars and requiring the removal of alcohol from the shelves, for 25 years between 1922 and 1947. With no (official) local demand the nearby distillery changed hands repeatedly before closing in 1930, the distillery was revived in 1950 following the reversal of the ban.

It took until the Licensing (Scotland) Act of 1976 for parliament to dismantle the 1913 act and other restrictive legislation, though some parts of Scotland such as Kilmacolm took far longer to embrace the new liberties and did not operate a pub until 1998 when an old waiting room at the train station was converted into The Pullman.

The Impact of the temperance movement

While it would be unrealistic to say the Scottish temperance movement had a lasting impact on the whisky, or more general alcohol industry, its impact at the time cannot be understated. The rise of the coffee shop culture as an alternative to the public house and its resultant political space, the creation of cheap refreshment rooms and temperance hotels flourished as counter-attractions. While the latter may have disappeared the former have left an indelible mark.

Happily for modern whisky enthusiasts the impact of these local prohibitionist votes on nearby distilleries such as Old Pulteney distillery in Wick which had to close was limited. These challenges were considerably outstripped by the loss of demand from the great experiment of prohibition in the US which saw over 50 distilleries closed few of which would reopen. Even here however Scotland got away with little more than a black eye. The large export market in the USA collapsed, but the European market and exports to the Commonwealth of Nations remained stable. The contraband goods sold on into the USA also cushioned the blow of prohibition considerably. For Ireland the temperance movement was one of several fatal blows from which the Irish whisky industry is only now re-emerging.


Was alcohol ever illegal in Scotland?

Yes, following the passing of the 1913 Temperance Act a number of towns across Scotland went 'dry'. These included Kilsyth, Kirkintilloch, Wick and Lerwick a number of other localities led to limits on licences to sell alcohol.

What was the 1913 Temperance Act

The Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913, was an attempt to introduce prohibition to Scotland. The law allowed Scottish constituencies to vote on whether alcohol sales should be banned, or restricted.


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