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Eyemouth, Gunsgreen Mansion
Gunsgreen Mansion at Eyemouth, newly opened as a smuggling museum, was once the home of smuggler John Nisbet. He used its vast cellar and tunnels to hide his untaxed goods. Click picture to enlarge









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Guide-Book: Scotland


To visit Salter's Road at NT423627 red map button leave Edinburgh on the A68, and after going through Pathhead turn left at the sign 'Fala Dam 1'; then take the first left signposted Costerton. Salters' Road leads down the hill across Salters' Burn. Salters' Wood is on the left of the road. Sauters' Ford, six miles east of Selkirk , is more accurately located in Border country, at NT558264 red map button Leave Lilliesleaf travelling east on the B6400, and follow the road right at the T junction, then left. Where the main road bears right again, instead turn left to reach the ford.

Illegally stilled whisky and contraband salt brought in from Ireland created a flourishing transport trade across the Cheviot hills, so in the border areas smuggling tales are to be found surprisingly far from the coasts. Kirk Yetholm, close to Coldstream, and Newcastleton were storage places for the salt in transit [314], and at Yetholm between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 people were at one time involved in smuggling.

The yarns that are passed down about the border smugglers are populated by colourful figures — Turkey Wull, John of Skye, Jock o' the Deck. All of them carried their contraband cargoes on horseback along the green lanes that criss-cross the Cheviots. In some places there are still reminders of the trade: there's a path called 'Sauter's Road' near Pathhead, and in Roxburghshire 'Sauter's Ford' crosses the River Ale.


NT5015 red map button (map 79) The Auld Brig Pool can still be seen, though the eponymous inn has now gone.

This border town supplied carriers: one tale tells how a smuggler from Hawick, Alexander Mitchell, was resting with his father at Carter Toll Bar, on the way back from Boulmer, when he spied approaching customs men. The gin was hidden in a hay-loft, and the two ran up to ensure that none would fall into the hands of 'the Philistines'. In the dark of the loft, the battle was confused, but the two men — both of whom were stocky and tall — fought off the threat. The fight didn't end without injury: the son was bitten in the leg, but bravely bore the attack without a murmur. After the battle his father commented: 'A've left the marks o' ma teeth on yin o' their legs at ony rate!' and his son sighed 'It was me ye bate, father! Was aw no guid game no te squeel?'

Another Hawick smuggler, Wat the Candlemaker, lived at 2 Tower Knowe. He was a prominent merchant locally, and had a reputation as a practical joker. He had acquired a barrel of gin, but word reached him that the customs men were on his trail. He took the gin to the house of a friend whom he trusted, and sank a tub filled with water in the Auld Brig Pool behind his house, then spread rumours around the town to the effect that the much hunted gin could be found in the pool. Triumphantly the government men swooped, carried the barrel back to the weigh house, and broached it to sample the quality. The first jug was symbolically offered to the Wull the Cutler, who had recently been a victim of one of the candlemaker's tricks. Needless to say, as soon as Wull sipped, he knew he'd been tricked again.

The story ends with a twist — Wat the candlemaker's friend who had been trusted with the contraband refused to give it up, and Wat had no redress, since he could hardly complain to the authorities. [315]
Engraving of Eyemouth
To accommodate the huge volumes of contraband landed here at Eyemouth, local people built huge cellars, so that there was more of the town below ground than above it!. Click picture to enlarge


NT9565 red map button 8m N of Berwick

On the east coast close to the border, the rambling architecture of Eyemouth has been attributed to the need for concealment: in the 18th and 19th centuries smuggling was rife in the town.

An immense contraband trade was carried on along the coast of Berwickshire...the precipitous cliffs, creeks and caves providing the essentials for successful free-trade.

The numerous alleyways of Eyemouth served as escape routes when landing goods from boats in the bay, and a number of houses had secret cellars and passages. According to some reports, the place was riddled with passages like a Swiss cheese, and there was more of the town below ground than above.

The centre of the trade in the eighteenth century was a house that is now the library: passages ran underground to the adjacent premises, and stairs near the top of the house concealed a compartment big enough to store a tub or a few bottles. Just around the corner in Chapel Street there were underground windings leading from the shop on the corner opposite the butchers.

Gunsgreen Mansion — across the harbour — was reputed to have an opening in its walls which formed a slipway giving direct access to the sea, and from the opening a passage led to the house. Beneath the lawn there was a vast cellar and according to tradition, tunnels led to a cottage on Gunsgreen Hill above the mansion, and on to Burnmouth. Indoors, there were tales of concealed passageways, and

'...a massive grate or fire-place, which, by moving some knob or lever, could swing out of its place like a gate being opened. This strange contrivance was the door-way into a secret passage'.

The Mansion is now a museum devoted to smuggling. It's open Thursday to Monday from April to September, and weekends in October & March. Opening times are 11.00 - 5.00, and admission (2009) costs £4.00 for adults; £3.50 for retired; £2.50 for children, and further concessions for families and season tickets. You can even stay the night here. The Visit Scotland website has a page on the museum: click here to see it.

Some of the most popular landing spots near to Eyemouth were Scootie Cove near Hurker's Haven, between Eyemouth and Burnmouth; Coollercove, near Killiedraughts; and St Abbs Head, where recesses in the headland served to conceal cargoes.
Engraving of Dundee
The bustling port of Dundee was the centre of Tayside smuggling. Goods came here from Scandinavia, Holland and France. Click picture to enlarge


The smuggling trade in the Tay area was principally with Holland and Scandinavia: a typical incident in December 1724 involved the Margaret of Dundee which arrived in the port from Rotterdam with just a half load of cargo. This aroused suspicions that the remainder might have been run nearby, and a search 5 miles west of Dundee revealed 8 casks of wine hidden in a barn. The party of customs officials quizzed a labourer threshing in the barn but learned nothing, so they left a guard of four men there to protect the seizure. This proved a wise precaution, because at about 9pm a group of 40 people attacked the guard with staves and pitchforks, injuring the sergeant, but failing to take the wine.

Some Dundee vessels travelled from farther south: in 1766 the Dundee customs officers seized the French smuggling sloop Friendship, and took the precaution of removing all sails, tackle and provisions. Nevertheless, the wily crew got a new set of sails and yards made onshore, and sneaked out of the harbour at midnight.

Other incidents point less directly to trade with France. In 1738 Dundee smugglers bringing casks of French brandy from Arbroath met a landsurveyor and three other customs officers at the Muire of Craigie (now an industrial estate). The landsurveyor was separated from the party, armed with only a sword, and he was beaten so badly that the smugglers left him for dead, taking their cognac with them.

Whisky, though, was more often the cargo, especially in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the summer of 1816, for example, 7 North Highlanders smuggled whisky across the Tay in the early hours of the morning, and hid in woodland near Birkhill House waiting for a chance to load the 19 kegs onto a cart for transport south. Customs men landed at Balmerino, captured the cargo, and took the barrels back to their boat. While they were doing this, the smugglers mustered 11 extra men and attacked the 7 officers with sticks and stones. However, they were beaten back by the King's men, who were armed with cutlasses and guns.


The harbour here was very unfavourable, and subject to silting, but smuggling nevertheless went on in the town, and was boosted by considerable anti-English feeling and a strong Jacobite element [316]. The customs authorities were never popular, and they frequently had to be supported by the military.

Help from the dragoons proved an effective deterrent, as an incident that took place in 1725 illustrates. Perth customs officials met a group carrying uncustomed goods, but orders to the smugglers to stop were ignored. The comptroller of customs sent for reinforcements, and meanwhile succeeded in keeping an eye on one of the hogsheads. It was taken into a pub called the Thistle, so the customs authorities put a guard on the door, and searched the place. However, the search was interrupted and on returning to the yard, the group found that one of the sentries had been separated from his comrades and was lying on the ground apparently dead. He had been cut and half strangled. This prompted a general alert among the soldiers, which so frightened the runners that they abandoned their hogshead near the cross.
Engraving of Montrose
The controller of customs at Montrose considered that he could do his job effectively only if he had several score of soldiers constantly within hailing distance. Click picture to enlarge


As at Perth, Jacobite sympathies caused problems for the customs authorities here — and made friends for the smugglers. The port was famous for its legitimate commerce in tobacco, flax and corn, but the town also did a roaring trade in contraband goods. Much of this took place quite openly on the town quay, but when officials could not be bribed there were plenty of suitable landing places up and down the coast, with secluded coves and wide sandy bays to suit a vessel of practically any shape or size.

Much of the smuggling was of salt for curing fish caught locally. The regulations governing salt imports were enormously complicated, and even a 20th century historian of the customs and excise commented that he could not see how the local fishermen managed to cope with the complexity of the laws governing the use of salt.

Brandy came in through the port, too. In 1709...

'...there is a clandestine trade of running brandy andc ...carry'd on by Dutch and Danish ships to the prejudice of the Revenue and due not in the least doubt that the same is countenanced and encouraged by the merchants, skippers and others ...for their own private advantage...Brandy is imported in anchors and half anchors to the number of 1000 or 1200 at a time.

Though many of these barrels were seized, they didn't all stay long in the Montrose custom house...

'This morning between the hours of 12 and 2 the door of His Majesty's Warehouse was broke open and 107 ankers of brandy...carried away. At 2 O'clock in the morning when the guard came to relieve the two centrys that were placed at the warehouse door they found the door open, the centrys gone, their muskets lying near the warehouse and one of the bayonets lying broke before the door....we went round the town and finding everything quiet...sent some souldiers to the [golf] Links to patroall where they found the two centrys lying tied neck and heel. The officer asked them why they had left their posts, they told him that 14 or 15 men had come upon them with clubs and other weapons and had knocked them down and tyed them...and afterwards dragged them to the links. [317]

Not all robberies of the custom house were so blatant. in May 1734 smugglers retrieved 60 ankers of brandy by tunnelling through the wall from the cellars of the shipbuilders, Dunbar's, next door. The sentries outside heard nothing, and despite the fact that the barrels were rolled through Dunbar's house, and out the window...

'Mr Dunbar pretends he knew nothing of it which is very odd.'

Engraving of Aberdeen
Besides contraband staples such as spirits and tobacco, smugglers brought to the city of Dundee liquorice, starch, writing paper, figs, soap, twine and pepper. Click picture to enlarge


Aberdeen was the major east-coast port, even in the 18th century. The whale fishery there was the principal industry, but smuggling ran a close second at some stages: in 1788 it was estimated that there were 3 luggers and 2 small sloops smuggling goods into Aberdeen — totalling 350 tons. Each made 6 trips a year, employing 100 men, smuggling spirits and tobacco — 200 hogsheads a year. The annual overheads were judged to be £10,000 or more.

The customs authorities were hard pushed to contain such a trade. They had a coastline of 72 miles from Cullen to Caterline to manage, and constantly complained about lack of resources. The collector commented in 1721 that...

the dangerous smuggling trade carried on at the creeks of this port which is now come to a very great height, we having account that two other ships....are arrived upon the N creeks of this precinct in ballast both of which we have good ground to believe are come from Bordeaux load with wine and brandy which they have run upon this coast.

Besides wine and brandy, the principal cargoes smuggled into the town were the old favourites tea and tobacco, but wool was also moved from Aberdeen around the Scots coast to other towns, and on overseas from there. And the port record books point to a fascinating diversity of other goods seized:

80 ankers containing 672 gallons of brandy
5½ hogsheads and 11 ankers containing 446
gallons brandy
35 matts containing 3059 lbs leaf tobacco
10 small casks containing prunes
4 small casks containing raisins
2 small casks containing figs
1 small cask of currants
2 small casks of sweet liquorice
3 small casks of white soap
2 hampers of earthenware
2 casks containing molasses
1 anker of coarse oil
1 cask black pepper
1 small matt of twine
32 firkins and 10 half firkins of soap
6 casks of anniseed
22 reams of writing paper
7 casks of white starch
111 bars of Swedish iron.

This was for November 1721 (though the period over which all this was seized is not stated)

Smuggling ships would by preference favour a landing place where they could unload their cargo unobserved, away from Aberdeen itself. Favourite spots were Caterline, or Collieston and Newburgh to the north. At Collieston two smuggling syndicates operated, supplying spirits that 'were sold in every tavern between Peterhead and Aberdeen'. If the smuggling ships could not simply land goods at the creeks around Aberdeen, they would hover offshore, and ferry the contraband to the beaches in smaller boats, stopping at several points on the coast to make deliveries.

The trade enjoyed the support of some highly-placed figures in the town, and interference from the customs authorities was frowned upon, as the King's men learned to their cost in the summer of 1744. On the basis of information received, they had sent out a party to the Denburn to ambush smuggled goods coming into town. There, though, the customs men were set upon by armed men dressed as women, and in the affray the son of a prominent Aberdeen merchant was killed. As a result of the clash, the smugglers escaped punishment, but two tidewaiters were arrested and thrown in the Tolbooth, and several days later the collector of customs (the most senior custom house official) joined them.

A favourite trick of the Aberdeen-bound smugglers was to obtain a bill of lading for Bergen. Since this was the legal point of import for dutiable goods bound for Scandanavia, the smugglers caught running contraband on Scotland's east coast simply claimed to have been blown off-course. Another equally popular trick was a false declaration of cargo value, though this required the collaboration of the tidesmen. The ruse was eventually stamped out by sending the land-surveyor along to supervise the unloading. (1721)

Smuggling in the Aberdeen area was all but eliminated after 1825, but a few French boats, ostensibly fishing for herring, succeeded in bringing in goods much later in the century [318].


Slains Churchyard is just outside Collieston at NK0429 red map button (map 38), and the grave is by the bell-rope which hangs on the outside of the church.

Caves in the coast between Aberdeen and Peterhead were widely used for storing smuggled spirits, and near Collieston and Slains, 1000 ankers of foreign spirits were landed monthly at the start of the eighteenth century. The caves at Slains were particularly extensive, and at a dance on a farm close to Slains Castle, the earth gave way, dropping the dancers into the cavern beneath. [319]

The smugglers also hid contraband on the beaches, digging elaborate pits deep in the sand, big enough to hold up to 300 tubs of gin. The precautions taken by the smugglers seem extraordinary: an account written in 1858 [320] describes how the barrels were taken from the lugger to a temporary resting place while the pit was dug. Sand from the pit would be turned onto two pieces of sail-cloth — dry sand from the surface on one, and the damper sand from below onto the other, so that the completed hiding place would not be betrayed by a change in the colour of the dunes. The pit was lined with bricks or timber, and the roof was always at least six feet underground, because the probes used to locate hidden caches on the beach were six feet long. Once the labourers had been paid off, the 'partners' in the run themselves transferred the barrels to the pit, sealed the entrance, and took bearings to landmarks so that they could locate the hoard. Within hours, wind-blown sand would cover all traces of activity.

Even this elaborate procedure was no guarantee of security, and if an informer revealed information about the cargo the consequences were often catastrophic, and sometimes tragic. A simple gravestone in the Slains Kirkyard is now the only visible reminder of a 1798 run that went disastrously wrong...

information of this [landing], together with that of the intended transfer of the cargo to the interior during the succeeding night was conveyed to the exciseman. Anderson, the officer in question, having secured the assistance of two others, proceeded in the evening to a spot about a quarter of a mile north of the Kirk of Slains, where the cart with the booty was expected to pass. Soon after the officers had taken up their position the carts were heard approaching, but, as usual, preceded by several avant couriers to 'clear the way'. One of these, Philip Kennedy, a man of undaunted courage and resolution, was the first to encounter [the excisemen]. Seeing the danger, he seized hold, successively, of two of the officers, calling to his companions to seize the other. But these, possessing neither the courage nor the devotedness of poor Kennedy, decamped, and hid themselves among the tall broom which at that time clothed the neighbouring braes. Anderson, the officer who was still at liberty, attacked Kennedy, who was still holding on to his prisoners, and, with his sword, inflicted repeated wounds on his head; but Kennedy still kept his grasp on the prostrate officers, and Anderson was observed to hold up his sword to the moon, as if to ascertain whether he was using the [sharp] edge, and then, with one desperate stroke, cleft open the poor fellow's skull. Strange to say, Kennedy, streaming with blood, made out to reach Kirkton of Slains, a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, where, in the course of a few minutes, he expired. His last words were 'If all had been as true as I, the goods would have got through, and I should not now be bleeding to death' [321]

Anderson was tried for murder in Edinburgh, and acquitted.

Engraving of Banff
Wealthy merchants from Banff financed smuggling trips here: ships returning to the town unloaded in creeks a discreet distance away. Click picture to enlarge


Castle Stuart is 4m NE of Inverness at NH7450 red map button on a turn in the B9039 road to Dalcross Airport (map 27)

A considerable amount of smuggling took place in the creeks around the twin ports of Banff and MacDuff: at Redhyth, 2 miles from Portsoy, coals were landed, and at Cullen coals were imported, and tiles and bricks exported; and at Macduff grain and fish were exported, and again, coals came in illegally.

Merchants from Elgin financed much of this trade, and one of them sent these highly specific instructions regarding smuggling procedures in 1710:

'I have ventured to order Skipper call at Caussie, and cruise betwixt that and Burgh Head, until you order boats to waite [for] him. He is to give the half of what I have of the same sort with his last cargo, to any having your order...The signal he makes will be all sails furled, except his main topsaile; and the boats you order to him are to lower their saile when within muskett shott, and then hoist it again; this, lease he should be surprised with catch-poles...' [322]

West from Elgin, Petty Beach, five miles east of Inverness was a popular landing site. According to local legend, an elaborate code system alerted the smugglers to danger: when goods had been landed, one of their number would take a snuff-box into an Inverness tobacconist. If the coast was clear, the shopkeeper filled the box. If he half-filled it, there were excisemen about. (Presumably if the shop was empty an ordinary conversation replaced this subterfuge.) Nearby, Castle Stuart was the home of Bailie Stuart, the most intrepid and wealthy of the local smugglers.

[314] The Countryman Summer 1981 David Fergus

[315] David Fergus

[316] Perth outport records

[317] Custom-house records for October 1789

[318] Clark, Victoria

[319] Allardyce, John

[320] Pratt

[321] Pratt

[322] Dunbar, Edward Dunbar