The copper still in Kit Carruthers' former cowshed in the heart of Dumfries and Galloway countryside stands on four little legs – a bit like one of the dairy cows that once occupied the sandstone barn - its well-rounded pot belly gleaming.

The spirit it is distilling has been part of Scotland’s heritage for centuries, entwined in dark tales and dreadful secrets, savoured and sought out by the well-off, and, eventually, outlawed.

While whisky is, of course, the nation’s top tipple, in the late-1600s and early 1700s, it was Scottish-made rum that filled many an empty glass.

Now, from the rural fringes of Lockerbie, where Kit’s Ninefold Rum in elegant cut-glass style bottles goes on to grace the shelves of the likes of Harvey Nichols, to one of the nation’s traditional whisky islands, and onwards to Caithness and Orkney, Scottish distilled rum has been making a spirited return.

But while a new generation of Scottish rum makers has emerged in recent years to collect plaudits for their efforts, they have also faced the sticky issue that goes hand in hand with the sugary spirit: its uncomfortable historic connections with slavery, Caribbean plantations and exploitation.

The issue will be tackled head on next Saturday at the Scottish Rum Festival in Edinburgh – part of the Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight - when the uncomfortable roots of Scottish rum is laid bare in an acknowledgement of how the spirit evolved and the brutality, greed and misdeeds linked to its heritage.

Far from attempting to ‘guilt trip’ drinkers, however, it’s hoped that by making clear how Scottish distilled rum gave whisky a run for its money – before Scotch producers’ outraged cries led to it being banned – they might enjoy rum with a new appreciation of the many layers of history contained in each sip.

While Kit’s bespoke Scottish-built 500 litre copper hybrid pot still turns cane molasses, yeast and Dumfries and Galloway water into Ninefold’s three core rums – there's a single white rum, spiced rum and aged rum – Ross Bradley has several casks of his Sugar House Rum, distilled in a now closed Dumbarton distillery, stashed in a bonded warehouse in the Borders.

“It’s sleeping nicely,” he says, adding that a growing trend among drinkers is for Scottish rum which – like whisky – has been allowed to mature for a few years in casks before being bottled.

Read more: National Trust Scotland: Archaeologists celebrate 30 years of research

His Sugar House Rum places Scotland’s links with slavery and exploitation front and centre of his brand: the name comes from Glasgow’s original 17th century rum producers, whose sugar houses refined sugar from plantations worked by slaves.

That process left a waste product – molasses – which the sugar house barons soon realised could be turned into rum.

“There is this romantic side of Scottish history, and we often shy away from the darker side," says Ross. "We tend to say ‘it was all them down south who did it’.

“But there was a dark history around the Scottish merchant traders with their tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations. I wanted to acknowledge that from the get-go and do the right thing.”

The Herald: Kit Carruthers is acknowledging Scottish merchants pastKit Carruthers is acknowledging Scottish merchants past (Image: Newsquest)

From the mid-17th century, a ‘golden age of sugar’ took over from the tobacco trade. Sugar houses, mostly in Glasgow, were established to import and refine muscovado sugar from the West Indies, where slaves endured terrible conditions at plantations and in boiling houses owned and overseen by Scots.

The sugar industry, with its brutal conditions, meant workers had short lives: a constant stream of hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women and children were needed to work in gruelling conditions.

In Glasgow, the muscovado sugar they produced was refined into white sugar in sugar houses such as Easter Sugar House, at 138 Gallowgate.

By 1680, with Caribbean rum brought home by sailors rising in popularity, the sugar barons saw the value in waste molasses, and Easter Sugar House became one of the first to produce their own rum.

Soon the city became known for ‘Glasgow punch’ a heady cocktail served in large bowls and typically mixed with water, sugar, lime and lemon.

Ross, who will present a talk on Scotland’s rum heritage during the festival, says demand from sweet-toothed Scots saw rum become the preferred ‘go-to’ spirit, sparking outrage from Scotch producers over the impact on their products and leading to rum being banned in the 1690s.

Eventually the duty imposed on rum saw production overtaken by beer and gin, while the move to make whisky production legal put it – and not rum - on course to become Scotland’s national drink.

“History is something we need to face head on,” says Ugandan-born Paul Rutasikwa, who launched his rum, Matugga, with his wife, Jacine, in 2018.

“We have tried to address that by giving more knowledge to people, so they understand the injustices that built the modern rum industry.

History is something we need to face head on

“The focus is not to get into recrimination, it’s to try to understand where it came from and how can we move the industry forward in a more balanced way.”

Read more: Commando comics: doggy tale has received a comic book makeover

Not all history is as distasteful, however, and part of his ethos is to return to traditional distillation methods based on local produce and the microbiological magic that produces unique spirits.

“Every area has its own microbiological balance, like an ecosystem,” he says. “And rum is one of the only spirits focused on harnessing that microbiological ingredients to produce unique flavours.

“We are going back to the future, making spirits as they were made years ago.”

Demand for new Scottish rums such as his, is outstripping supply, he adds. Matugga has just expanded and has eyes on export markets in the United States and Africa.

“Our annual output of pure alcohol has gone from 5000 litres to 40,000 and we are looking to double that in the next two years,” he adds.

Modern Scottish rum distillers and distilleries are a world away from 17th century originals: Sugar House Rum’s Ross Bradley’s background is as a mechanic, while in rural Dalton, near Lockerbie, Dr Kit Carruthers, is an environment scientist who turned to distilling after finishing his PhD and struggling to find work.

He makes Ninefold Rum in the 150-year-old converted cowshed, on land which has been in his family for 460 years, while Carruthers’ family history in Dumfries and Galloway spans 750 years.

“Climate change is a ‘hot topic’ but no one wants to pay people to do what they have to do,” he says. “This was a way of diversifying and adding to the traditional estate income of renting, farming and forestry.”

The distillery uses casks made from Scottish oak trees felled on the family’s estate, half a mile from the distillery, while the bottle’s label features a seraphim, a six-winged angel that also features on the family crest.

Climate change is a ‘hot topic’ but no one wants to pay people to do what they have to do

Meanwhile, on whisky island, Islay, Ben Inglis, has turned the Old Lemonade Factory in Port Ellen into The Islay Rum Distillery – a distinct contrast to the island’s links with smoky heavily peated malt whisky.

The Herald: Ben Inglis, has turned the Old Lemonade Factory in Port Ellen into The Islay Rum DistilleryBen Inglis, has turned the Old Lemonade Factory in Port Ellen into The Islay Rum Distillery (Image: Ben Inglis)

Having now started full production, he expects to produce around 30,000 litres of alcohol a year, some heading to market as white rum, limited edition special batches or in a nod to the island’s malt whiskies, a peat spiced version, the rest laid down in casks to mature.

“One of the things we need to be aware of when taking up rum distillation is where it originated,” he agrees.

“We need to have a good understanding of what happened in history – you can’t be oblivious to it.”


The Scottish Rum Festival is at Patina, Edinburgh, on Saturday, 2 September. It is part of the Scottish Food & Drink Fortnight which runs from  Saturday 2nd to Saturday 16th September. For events, go to