Scotland’s smuggling past
We look at what goods were smuggled and why
What comes to mind when you hear the word smuggling? For me, it conjures up images of a stormy bay in the 18th century, with burgundy sails out on the rough murky water. A new cargo of illegallyimported liquor, or perhaps timber, is being unloaded whilst the twilight and overcast sky lend anonymity to the illicit trade. Once unloaded, I imagine contraband being taken up towards the town through caves and secret passageways, ready to be sold on the black market.
Smuggling occurred in Scotland before the 18th century, but as a result of the Treaty of Union in 1707, English customs duties and excise tax were introduced into
Scotland. There taxes were seen as a foreign imposition by many Scots – and evading these restrictions was seen by some as patriotic.
Smugglers tended not to import foreign luxuries and expensive items as one might perhaps expect, but rather staple goods that were heavily taxed under the new laws, such as tea and tobacco. Salt, mainly imported from Carrickfergus in Ireland, was particularly sought-after because it allowed meat to be preserved over the harsh winter months. Importantly, before these political changes, Scotland already imported goods from around Europe: timber from the Baltic states, salt from Carrickfergus and brandy from the Netherlands. So, when these imports became illegal, traders now faced being classed as smugglers. Understandably, some merchants preferred to continue trading illegally, rather than close up their businesses and find employment elsewhere.
Illegal trading was usually carried out by smuggling gangs of 50 to 100 people, each with a specific role. The main roles were the spotsman, who would direct the cargo ship to shore; the lander, who would arrange the unloading of the contraband; the tubsman, who transported the goods; and the batsman, who protected the tubsman.These gangs often clashed violently with customs officers, or ‘excisemen’ as they were called, but there was an insufficient number of officers to patrol the whole coastline.
Centres of smuggling
Irish contraband salt was stored in places such as KirkYetholm
near Kelso, just a mile from the Scottish border, where it has been estimated that one in six people was involved in smuggling during the 18th century. Smuggling occurred in border and coastal towns such as Hawick, Eyemouth and Troon, as well as locations such as the Kintyre peninsula, on the west coast.
Shetland and the Orkney islands also have a smuggling past. In Shetland, French and Spanish ships brought brandy, wine, gin, tobacco, salt and other commodities. Contraband timber was also brought from Norwegian ships out of Bergen, due to Shetland’s lack of trees. Orkney’s smuggling consisted mainly of the illegal malting of barley and stilling of whisky. Islay was also a great whisky-producing island and the ‘moonlight’ (as they called it) was stashed in hollows and caves.
It is important to note that in Scotland of old, the term ‘smuggling’ did not only refer to the illegal importing and exporting of goods, but also illegal distilling. Most of the stilling went on in the glens, where there was a plentiful supply of clean, fresh water. The process of whisky production in Scotland was unchanged for centuries: malting, mashing, fermentation, and distillation. However, when the government introduced a tax on malt, illicit distilling increased dramatically. The production of this spirit was seen as a basic right and ‘Scotch whiskey’ remains key to Scotland’s national identity.
This trade gave rise to some amazing characters and tales that have been passed down for generations. For example, during the 1760s, a group of smugglers were transporting illegal goods inland from Troon (six miles north of Ayr) through the Dundonald hills when they stumbled into the path of the king’s men.The story goes thatTam Fullerton, who was known for his strength and courage, volunteered to hold off the soldiers whilst his fellow smugglers escaped.Tam stood behind a wall and began throwing rocks at his adversaries until his friends had fled and he himself could fade away into the woods.The following rhyme dates from the time and reads:
Tam Fullarton, who hailed from Loans A Hector when he took to stones, That night Tam was not slack nor slow, But dealt and warded many a blow.
Surprisingly, there are stories of compassion between smuggling men and the authorities. In 1764, a smuggling team led by James
McAdam had crossed the swollen River Irvine when an exciseman appeared across the water.The smugglers warned the man that the river was running dangerously high, but he dived in, attempting to cross. As the man was being swept away by the current, McAdam jumped in after him and hauled him out, risking his own life. Many of these accounts were recorded by smugglers themselves, so it is unsurprising that they often portray smugglers in a positive light.
In Eyemouth, high cliffs and hidden caves provided the perfect conditions to allow successful free trade. Alleyways and cave passages provided escape routes close to where contraband, such as tea and illegally stilled whiskey, was landed on shore (places like St Abbs Head). Houses often had secret cellars and passageways, and smugglers chose inventive places to hide their goods, for example, beneath fireplaces. Gunsgreen House ( ‘Smuggler’s Palace’) was built in 1753 by prolific tea smuggler John Nisbet and is now a smuggling museum.There are many secret openings in the walls connected to passages that lead directly down to the sea.
In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the government reduced tax on tea and other goods, making such smuggling less profitable.The creation of the coastguard in the 1820s also made it more likely that smugglers would be caught.
Smuggling stories and the characters within them seem like they are taken straight out of a novel and it can be difficult to believe they actually took place. So, next time you find yourself near the coast, set your eyes on the horizon and imagine a world under sail, with smugglers bringing contraband to shore surrounded by a palpable aura of secrecy – an atmosphere captured by Rudyard Kipling in his poem A Smuggler’s Song:
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street, Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.