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Photograph of the Solway Firth
Smugglers from the Solway Firth traded with the Isle of Man. Click picture to enlarge 


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Guide-Book: Scotland


Annan is on the A75 8m W of Gretna; Waterfoot and Kenziels are just S of the town at NY1965 red map button Ruthwell is 8m farther W (map 85).

There is a wealth of stories and legends about smuggling on the north coast of the Solway, and it seems clear that the enormous majority of goods smuggled into Scotland were landed here. The proximity of the wicked Isle of Man gave the local smugglers a considerable advantage over their competitors elsewhere on the coast. The island was effectively a free-trade area for many years, and the shortest crossing to the Solway was less than 30 miles. The sailors of southwest Scotland needed no encouragement to exploit this valuable trade link, and often sailed from the island in fleets of ten or more small ships and boats, in order to saturate the coast with landings, and outwit the over-stretched customs and excise services.

Walter Scott wrote of the area that 'Few people take more enthusiastically to the 'free-trade' than the men of the Solway Coast'. Another writer observed that ...

'Every little village along the Wigtownshire coast has its local tradition of some episode connected with the daring deeds of the smuggling fraternity...' [302]

A number of these little villages developed a special reputation for smuggling: Annan Waterfoot, Kenziels, Ruthwell and Borgue (near Kirkcudbright) were particularly noted, and the minister at Anworth, Gatehouse, was sacked for being involved in the smuggling trade. [303]

Some of these villages would also have been familiar to Scotland's most famous revenue man, Robbie Burns. Burns was appointed to a post at Dumfries in 1791, on a salary of £50 a year, and one of his superior officers there commented that, although he was not 'a bustling, active gauger...he does pretty well' [304]

A smuggling run on Solway
A smuggling run on the Solway. Click picture to enlarge 

The best documented incident in which the poet took part happened at Annan: a smuggling lugger was stranded on the sands nearby, and Robbie Burns was posted to keep watch while his superior officer went for help. During his long wait Burns composed a rhyme which suggests that his loyalties were more than a little divided...

'We'll mak' our maut an' bre our drink,
We'll dance, and sing, and rejoice, man
An' monie thanks to the muckle black De'il
That danced awa' wi' the Exciseman'

Burns took the surrender of the ship when the dragoons arrived, and his biographer describes the incident in euphoric terms. Custom house records, though, portray his actions in a slightly more mundane way, pointing out that the ship was listing badly, and could not therefore use its canons on Burns or the advancing infantrymen. Nor were Burn's later actions seen in such a heroic light by his superiors. When the smugglers' ship was broken up, he bought four brass canons, and sent them to France as a token of sympathy with the French Revolutionaries. This act earned his some disfavour when the canon was impounded at Dover.

At nearby Ruthwell in 1777, a tide waiter learned that a notorious smuggler called 'Morrow of Hidwood' had returned from the Isle of Man. Tracks in the sand confirmed that a landing had taken place, and the waiter and a police constable went to the man's house, finding there a substantial amount of tobacco. They were preparing to carry it away when a multitude of women pounced, making off with the contraband. To make matters worse, the revenue man was imprisoned in Hidwood House. When he escaped and returned to his headquarters, he received little reward for his bruised body and ego, and was sent back to the scene with ten men. This time they had more success, and located one pack of tobacco in a ditch. Nevertheless, they still had to run the gauntlet of '... a monstrous regiment ...' of women armed with clubs and pitchforks. Some of the women were tried at the circuit court, but revealingly were discharged because witnesses for the prosecution pretended to 'entertain malice against the prisoners'. [305]

This tale seems to show women in a role that is fairly typical of Scotland at this time — supporting their men folk, or attacking the revenue men, but not actually carrying out the illegal acts themselves. The same sort of attack also took place at Glenhowan, near Glencaple, the following month.

CAPTAIN YAWKINS aka Dirk Hatteraick

The Abbey Burn mentioned in this account is at Port Mary NX7545 red map button near Dundrennan Abbey (map 84).
Dirk Hatteraick's cave , reputedly used by Yawkins, overlooks Wigtown Bay (map 83): follow the A75 from Gatehouse of Fleet towards Newton Stewart, and half a mile past the turning on the right marked 'Holy Cairn', take a track off the road to the left. Follow this down, and take the left fork into a meadow; when the track runs out at the wood's edge, go down onto the shore. Continue along the beach in the same direction across a burn. About 1/4 mile farther on an outcrop of rock juts out to sea, and just after this there's a wooded valley and a track ascending to the cave. Descent into the cave is not for the old or stout — take a change of clothes if you plan to enter. There is no trace remaining of the sleeping platform smugglers built at one end, or of the special pigeon holes that once existed for the storage of the oddly-shaped Dutch flagons. Dirk Hatteraick's Cove is another name for Torrs Cove at NX6644 red map button (danger area) overlooking Kikcudbright Bay on its East side. A cave here used to have a door fitted, with a stone lintel above.

Various colourful figures crop up in the many smuggling legends of the Solway area, but in hindsight, Captain Yawkins stand head and shoulders above the rest. His exploits read like fiction, and Walter Scott indeed used him as the model for his character Dirk Hatteraick in Guy Mannering. Some of the stories about Yawkins are verifiable fact but others — such as the allegation that he had traded his own soul and a tenth of his crew with the devil — seem decidedly dubious.

All are entertaining, though. A typical tale has Yawkins and his crew buying a bullock at Drummore Bay on the Mull of Galloway watched by an outgunned and outmanned revenue cutter. The officer on the cutter declines a roast-beef supper on board Yawkins' Black Prince, but they arrange a picnic ashore. When the customs officer admires the smuggler's gun, he is presented with it as a gift, followed rapidly by a decanter and glasses. Yawkins wryly comments that, since the officer had the only thing he values, he may as well take everything else.

There are many other stories: the tale that Yawkins kidnapped a revenue man and sailed him over to Amsterdam echoes other verified accounts from elsewhere on the coast. In another he was landing a cargo at Drummore (some accounts place the incident at Manxman's Lake near Kirkcudbright) when two revenue cruisers appeared, one form the north and one from the south. Yawkins cast off, replaced his pennant with a mast-head cask to identify his chosen trade, and sailed directly between the two ships, close enough to toss his hat onto one, and his wig onto the other. While this may be an exaggeration, it's worth remembering that carriage guns were useless unless the target was broadside on to the ship, so there may well be a germ of truth in the yarn.

Yawkins was such a larger-than-life figure that when he had brushes with the law, the official accounts of them rather pale in comparison with the images perpetuated in myth and legend. Often Yawkins appears off-stage: In 1787 a run by Yawkins was interrupted by an 'Admiralty cruizer'. The local customs authorities heard gunfire off the Abbey Burn at around 10pm, and discovered that the Admiralty ship had indeed intercepted a smuggling lugger — but not before 17 boxes of tea had been unloaded and spirited away on the backs of waiting horses. The captured lugger had on board 80-90 boxes of tea, 400 ankers of spirits, and 'a quantity of silks and tobacco' A PS adds that the lugger 'was commanded by the noted Yawkins and that she was loaded at Ostend.' Yawkins' lugger, the Hawke, was delivered to the Liverpool authorities, but was found to be so leaky as to be of no use, and the ship was broken up.

Engraving of Dumfries
The collector of customs at Dumfries in 1876 despaired of ever defeating the smugglers. Click picture to enlarge


NX97. Caresthorn is at NX9960 red map button 10m S of the city, and Southerness Point is at NX9754 red map button on the A710 (map 84)

The centre for prevention in the Solway area was Dumfries, where there was a substantial legal import trade mainly in tobacco from Virginia, wine from Oporto, and some timber from the Baltic. Food imports, though, were banned by law, and in times of famine grain and oatmeal from Ireland won the local people over to the cause of the smugglers.

Tobacco smuggling at the port eventually became so extensive that by 1760 the legal traders in the town had been driven out of business. Duties on spirits in Scotland were lower than in England until the mid 19th century, so even legitimate imports to Dumfries (conveniently close to the border) were then clandestinely moved into England.

Silting of the harbours around the Solway served the interests of the smugglers: trade could take place legally only through the Royal Burghs, but the routes to them had become too clogged with mud to accommodate ocean-going ships. Cargo was thus transferred to barges for the last stages of the journey, but somehow, not all of the goods unloaded found their way into the official custom house quay. For example goods travelling to Dumfries on the River Nith were unloaded at the port of Carsethorn, and frequently completed their journey overland — to arrive untaxed via illicit salesmen, instead of properly inspected and duly levied at the custom house quay. On one occasion excisemen at Carsethorn found tubs of spirits at North Carse Farm and followed footprints in the snow to the local manse, where they located the minister's son with snow on his boots.

The authorities took great trouble to prevent such activities; Southerness Point at the mouth of the Nith estuary holds a dominant position overlooking the Solway, and was therefore a natural choice as the site of both a lighthouse and preventive station. Both can still be seen.

The custom house at Dumfries was of course the principal headquarters for activity against the smugglers, but at times the collector there despaired of any effective action being carried out against the free-traders. He wrote in the summer of 1761 that

'If smuggling is not more frequent ...the insolence and audacity of the smugglers is certainly much increased. Since the departure of two companies of Highlanders...[the smugglers] ride openly thro the country with their goods in troops of 20, 30, 40 and sometimes upwards 50 horses suffering no officer to come near to try to discover who they are, far less to seize their goods'.

Thirty years later

'...the business is of such a nature that it is not possible to ascertain very certain information [but] in the course of the last year, five cargoes were imported as under:

1st — A sloop from Guernsey, name the 'John and Mary', carrying about 350 packages of tobacco and spirits, the different quantities of each not know but may be valued at £1200-1300

2nd — The same sloop another trip taken by Captain Cook off Annan loaded with 1071 gallons brandy, 177 gallons rum, 549 gallons geneva, 8837 lbs Tobacco and 679lbs tea appraised at £1310/12/9

3rd — A brig from Guernsey supposed to carry 7 or 800 packages but the different species not known but believed to consist of a sorted cargo of tobacco, rum, brandy and Geneva and may be valued at £1900-2000

4th — A sloop from Ostend name unknown, carrying 350 or 400 pacckages of a sorted cargo, the contents unknown but valued at £12 or 1300

5th — A cutter from Ostend name the 'John and Jenny' carrying also a cargo of Tobacco and spirits, the different species unknown values also at £1300

Total £7210'12'9

Besides the above we have no doubt that very considerable quantities of tobacco and spirits have been carried up the Frith into this district from the different repositories and hiding places on the coast of Galloway where importations are made but it is impossible for us to ascertain either the extent or value.

These dry statistics, though, hide some ingenious activity by the local smugglers, including horse training worthy of a circus...

Individuals...had frequently seen one famous troop of these quadrupeds, heavily laden, at day-dawn, with contraband goods, unattended by any human being, and preceded by a white horse of surpassing sagacity, scouring along the Old Bridge, down the White Sands, and through the streets of Dumfries, without any one daring to interrupt their progress...on one or two occasions, when some individual more officious than the rest rashly attempted to intercept the leader of the troop, the wily animal either suddenly reared and struck its opposer to the ground, or by a peculiar motion swung the kegs with which it was loaded with so much violence that no one durst approach within its reach' [306]

Kirkcudbright area

NX6852 red map button (map 83). The Barlocco Caves at NX7946 red map button (map 84) are hard to reach without a boat. Balcary House overlooks Balcary Bay at NX8252 red map button near Auchencairn.

The whole area around Kirkcudbright had a reputation for the free-trade, but Rascarrel Bay and Abbey Head were particularly notable. At Balcary Bay, Balcary House was built with vast cellars that could accommodate the burden of 200 horses used on a run. The house was built by a smuggling company that called itself Messrs Clark, Crain and Quirk.

To the West, the Barlocco caves include the vast but well-hidden Black Cave and White Cave; the Black Cave was used by an intrepid smuggler called 'Wild' Wat Neilson. The mouth of the cave is vast — a hundred feet wide and fifty high — and though constantly filled by the sea even at low tide, sailing into it is a simple matter only on a calm day.

Watt was renowned for his ability to enter the cave in any weather, but one night even he found his seamanship tested to the limits. Worse than the weather, a revenue cutter was bearing down on the Watt's boat, the Merry Lass. As it drew closer, the smuggling crew saw that the revenue ship was in the charge of Captain Skinner; though Watt had never met Skinner, the captain was the 'maist feared man' in the service of the King.

Wild Watt hatched a plan. He stayed in the small boat, posing as an informer, and sent the Merry Lass around the coast to the Waterfit (sic) at Annan, where the confederates of the smugglers would be waiting to unload the cargo at double-quick pace.

Watt's plan worked. He claimed to be the brother of the gauger at Boggle's creek (the gauger himself was being 'entertained' for the duration of the run by the landlord of Fell Croft) and offered to pilot the ship up the Solway in hot pursuit of the Merry Lass. A deal was struck, and the real Watt took the helm. With the sails full, the lugger sped along into an area of the Solway that was unfamiliar to the King's Men; nevertheless, they had the Merry Lass in good sight until a cloud crossed the moon. At that very instant, the smuggling boat rounded the headland, and ...'wi' a' sails brailled she wa cuddlin intae the shadows amang a cluster o' ither boats in the Annan.'

When the Merry Lass disappeared, Captain Skinner began to get impatient with his informer. But known only to Wild Watt, things were happening in the shadows of the Annan. Two small boats appeared in the river mouth, and when Skinner hailed them, threatening to pepper them with grapeshot, they quickly surrendered. In the commotion, none of the revenue men noticed the Merry Lass (now unloaded) slipping out to sea, 'ready tae tack and rin wi' the turn o' the tide'. The revenue men had their eyes fixed on the two small boats, apparently laden with rolls of tobacco, sacks of salt, and barrels of brandy.

The situation began to change, though, as the outraged boatmen were hauled aboard, hurling abuse at Skinner for interrupting an honest night's work. Far from ferrying contraband, they were simply out rowing provisions to the farms at the head of the Solway: 'As ye kenna reach them when the tide is oot, can ye think o' onything mair sensible than tae gaun when the tide is in, and the folk stervin' for their meal?'. Sure enough, the tubs contained only herrings, the sacks innocent oatmeal, and the 'tobacco' turned out to be dried fish. Wat chuckled at the captain's discomfort as he surreptitiously swung himself over the side and into one of the small boats. The 'wronged' boatmen returned to the oars, and they made haste back to the Merry Lass. The duped revenue men watched helplessly as the smuggling ship hauled an empty half-anker to the mast-head, and swept out of the channel on the tide. [307]

Kirkcudbright itself has a history of smuggling — or, more precisely, of resistance to it. The Tolbooth there held many desperate and violent smugglers who were unlucky enough to get caught. Those who were found guilty were hanged in the town.

One who got away was Billy Marshall — who besides smuggling, followed the callings of gypsy and robber. Among his aliases he counted the King of the Gypsies, and Caird (gypsy) of Burullion (after the area he controlled). He died aged 120, and was buried in St Cuthbert's Churchyard. However his gravestone has now been removed.

Wigtown Bay

(Map 83) Ardwall Island at NX 5749 red map button can be reached on foot at low tide. It is close to Knockbrex, 6m W of Kirkcudbright.

Wigtown Bay is really the estuary of the river Cree, and concealing inlets made detection here unlikely: Ardwall Island, just a few hundred yards from the east coast, was a useful headquarters — one of the bays on its perimeter was known locally as Smugglers' Bay. Dirk Hatteraick's Cave also overlooks Wigtown Bay (see here for location).

Wigtown and Creetown at the north of Wigtown Bay were both hotbeds of smuggling. One vivid account tells how in 1777 a defiant procession of 100 or more smugglers led twice this number of horses within a mile of the town, despite the attentions of 30 soldiers who had been sent to stop the run. An eye witness described how four horses were overcome by the smell of tobacco and the heat of the day, and dropped down dead.

Isle of Whithorn

NX4837 red map button 3m SE of Whithorn. Now an island in name only; the channel has been filled with silt, though you can still identify the places described in the story, and the yarn makes more sense on the spot than it does in print. (map 83)

On the west side of the Wigtown bay the Isle of Whithorn overlooks a narrow inlet, which was at least once used by smugglers to effect a cunning escape. Their ship was sighted off the Mull of Galloway, and a revenue cutter gave chase. The two ships sped around nearby Burrow Head and the smugglers made for the harbour under the Isle of Whithorn — effectively a cul-de-sac. Seeing this, the revenue men shortened sail, and made a leisurely entrance to the harbour. When they had tied up, they were astonished to find no trace of the ship of which they had minutes before been in hot pursuit. The smugglers had skillfully piloted their vessel out of the harbour through a channel so narrow that it was normally passable only to small boats. They had the full tide on their side, it's true, but low water revealed what a tight squeeze it had been: the ship's keel had cut a deep furrow in the shingle lining the channel.

Luce Bay

Philip and Mary Point is at NX325455 red map button High and Low Clome Farms are at NX3445 red map button off a minor road, signposted Mochrum and Barrachan, that joins the A747 about ¼ mile north of Port William. There is no public access to either farm. (map 82)

This bay close to the mouth of the Solway has some gently sloping beaches, and a great deal of contraband came ashore here. Not all of it was unopposed: one clash that was particularly humiliating for the preventive forces took place just off Philip and Mary point on the east side of the bay. Local troops heard about a landing, and lined up on the beach, while the two smugglers' luggers, armed with a total of 36 guns, and with a complement of 100 men, hovered offshore. The smugglers shouted to the troops that they should retire a little, as a run was about to take place, and they did not care to be observed too closely. The alternative — a fight against far superior forces — was declined, and the dragoons retreated. When the excisemen returned, there was a reward waiting for them — a row of barrels on the shoreline.

Most of the buildings in the area had hiding places for a tub or two, and some still bear mute witness to the illegal activities that took place here. At Clome Farm, on the outskirts of Port William, the 'brandy-hole' was covered by a fireproof trapdoor — the farmer lit a fire in the kiln above it when he expected a visit from the revenue men [308]. The 'farmer' was actually a smuggler in disguise, for the farm was the headquarters of a smuggling company, and an underground passage from the cellar of the farmhouse led to the nearby beach. The passage was revealed to the authorities by an informer, whose life was spared only by luck — a sniper from the betrayed smuggling gang would have shot him as he walked on the beach if the traitor's female companion had not stepped into the line of fire.

At the farm in 1777, there was a haul of 80 chests of tea, 140 ankers of brandy, and 200 bales of tobacco.

The farmer there can still point out evidence of the brandy holes: a combine harvester parked over an underground chamber began to sink into the ground, and a depression in the farmyard bubbles as water seeps into the tunnel below. The entrances to the tunnel and brandy hole have long been lost, though.

Stairhaven close to Glenluce was also much used by smugglers, and other favourite landing spots in the bay were Crows Nest and the Bay of Auchenmalg below Synninness Head.

Engraving of Galloway
This observant engraving of the Galloway coast casually takes in the overlap between the trades of fishermen and smuggler: note the small tubs on the right. Click picture to enlarge  

Mull of Galloway

(Map 82) Saltpans Bay is at NW965615 red map button From the junct of the B3783 and the B7043 nr Lochnaw Castle, take the B3783 N, then 1st minor road on the left, just beyond a radio beacon. Follow the road past a castle, then footpath to the bay.

Parts of the Mull of Galloway are actually south of the Scotland/England border, and the whole region was an isolated (and therefore discreet) place to ship in contraband. On the west side, the area round Laggantalluch Head was a popular spot, especially Breddock Bay. Low Clanyard farm-house supposedly had a cellar with an entrance in a nearby bank.

A major contraband item along this coast was salt, which at one stage carried a tax burden of 15s a bushel. The principal sources of rock-salt was Carrickfergus in northern Ireland, just 35 miles away, and ships landed the salt at Float Bay, Ardwall Bay and Clanyard Bay. Farther North, Saltpans Bay was an occasional landing place.

At Dally Bay further north a smugglers' haul was rescued by an attractive local Amazon, Maggie McConnell. She charmed the one exciseman left on guard into shaking her hand, then wrestled him into an arm lock and blindfolded him with an apron until the goods had been restored to the smugglers and carted away!
Engraving of AIlsa Craig
Ailsa Craig was a staging post for smugglers from the mainland. Click picture to enlarge

Ballantrae and Ailsa Craig

Some 15 miles north of Stranraer, Ballantrae was at one time the centre for a vast smuggling ring, and the local fishermen helped land and conceal the cargoes of brandy, tea and tobacco.

'...vessels, then called Buckers, lugger rigged, carrying twenty and some thirty guns, were in the habit of landing their cargoes in the Bay of Ballantrae, while a hundred Lintowers (sic), some of them armed with cutlass and pistol, might have been seen waiting with their horses and ready to receive them, to convey the goods by unfrequented paths through the country and even to Glasgow and Edinburgh.' [309]

Off-shore to the north, Ailsa Craig was reputedly a smuggling base, and McNall's Cave was used by a smuggler for storage — he is even said to have lived there. The cave is 100 feet deep, 12 wide and 20 high. A later inhabitant was one David Bodan, who, it is said, took on and defeated six revenue men when they backed him unarmed against a rock. [310]

[302] Gallovidian Annual 1931

[303] Gallovidian Annual 1931

[304] Cunningham, Life of Burns

[305] Mc Dowall, 1867

[306] Mc Dowall 1867

[307] Gallovidian Annual 1936-7 Milligan Warrick — Salt Spray

[308] Another writer, Irving, places this trick at Drumtrodden

[309] Simmonds, Jean, and Hewat

[310] Hewat