IT is remembered through tales of smuggling and secret codes.

Now the real story of a ruined farm steading could be uncovered as researchers dig for whisky history.

Three days of excavations at Blackmiddens, in the Cabrach on the border between Moray and Aberdeenshire, will end tomorrow.

The site, between Rhynie and Dufftown, was one of the first farms granted a licence to produce whisky following the 1823 Excise Act which legalised what had been a black market activity.

The area was once a hotbed of illicit distilling and the Cabrach Trust hopes the archaeological project – thought to be the first of its kind – will help add facts to the folklore passed down through generations.

Anna Brennand, chief executive of the Cabrach Trust, commented: “The Cabrach is a place of many secrets. For decades local farmers secretly distilled whisky and smuggled it away under the noses of excisemen. Then, when the law was changed to make small-scale whisky production profitable, Blackmiddens was one of the first farms to take advantage of this.

"The farm would have had a small 40 gallon [180 litre] still compared to whisky stills today, which hold many thousands of litres. However, despite the fact that farms like this were famous for their fine quality spirit, whisky production at Blackmiddens stopped just eight years after it began and the farm fell into ruin. We hope to uncover some of the secrets of early whisky making in the Highlands with this exciting dig.”

Joan Harvey, 66, was told many tales about the antics of her great-great uncle James Sharp, once the tenant farmer at Blackmiddens. She said: “I was always told that my great-great uncle was the head of the gang. We were the freebooters who took the whisky to Aberdeen to sell in the pubs. Apparently my great-great grandfather had a white stallion and when the excisemen were billeted locally he would ride his white horse, alerting everyone that the excisemen were there so that the whisky smugglers could go to ground.

“One time, the excisemen were trying to catch the smugglers and had set up barricades all around Aberdeen. My great-great uncle hired a horse-drawn hearse and loaded the coffin with whisky. When he reached the excisemen, they all took off their hats as a mark of respect for the dead and the whisky went through.”

Matt Ritchie of Forestry and Land Scotland, which owns Blackmiddens, said: "Illicit stills can be found throughout the Highlands but they were particularly common in the Cabrach. You can find them tucked away next to burns in the hills.

"When smaller distilleries became legal, the illicit distillers came down off the hills and set up in farmsteads like Blackmiddens. Consequently, the nondescript buildings can be much harder to identify, and this is what makes this first ever dig so exciting.”