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The smuggler, the exciseman, murder most foul and the BBC
By Ross N. Hutton


My late mother, whose middle name was Kennedy, used to tell a tale that the name came from one of our ancestors named Phillip Kennedy who in addition to being a small scale farmer on Scotlandís North East coast was also involved in smuggling.

She continued the tale by saying that one night, when offloading a cargo of smuggled brandy from a French ship, Kennedyís band (for he was not the only one involved) were set upon by the local excisemen.

A sword fight ensued and the story continued that Kennedy killed an exciseman. The authorities acted swiftly and he was arrested the next day and sent to Edinburgh for trial where he was found guilty and hanged.

That's all there was and as a small boy I was, of course, fascinated by the story and wished that there was more to it. But it was still impressive enough for me to be pleased to be related to this smuggling swordfighter...the fact that he was also a murderer I seem to have conveniently overlooked. Anyhow we apparently had a real skeleton in the family cupboard.

I didnít know if it was true but there were details in the story, for example the name, the fairly specific location and the swordfight, all of which seemed to indicate more than a grain of truth.

Over the years I had done some family history research but had never seriously got around to looking for Kennedyís in the family but I never forgot my mothers little story.

Then, one day about six years ago I noticed a request in the Radio Times asking for anyone to contact the programme makers if they had a family history mystery that would make interesting programme material. On a whim I wrote and told them the Kennedy story.

About a year later I got a call from the producer advising that they had researched the story and were going to use it on BBCís Radio 4, Making History programme. I was quite excited by the call because I was told that their research had shown that Phillip Kennedy had existed, he was a farmer, he lived in the Parish of Slains in Aberdeenshire, he had been a smuggler and he was involved in swordfight in 1798. But, and here is the most fascinating bit, he did not kill the exciseman but rather he was killed by the exciseman.

Well, a remarkable discovery and with an amazing twist to my motherís story.

I was visited by the BBC and had my story recorded and it was subsequently broadcast on August 4th 2000 on the Radio 4 Making History programme.

I had, in the meantime, been making some more detailed enquiries and via the Internet was able to track down some missing portions of the family tree. I was able to establish that Phillip Kennedy (1760-1798) was my ggggg grandfather.

I have no idea, however, when the family story got changed to Kennedy being the killer as opposed to having been the victim. Evidently at some point it was considered a better story for him to be a killer than to have died as a "common criminal" in a fight with the authorities.

Additional details were provided from the radio programme, for instance the name of the exciseman, Patrick Anderson, who actually committed the foul deed, the exact location of the fight, the fact that is was gin being smuggled and the burial place of the unfortunate Kennedy. This all proved to be tremendously exciting and was the springboard for the retrieval of even more information. A book, by Frances Wilkins, on the subject of smuggling, emerged and in it the whole Kennedy story is recounted. Frances Wilkins was also on the radio programme where she provided a wonderful outline of the life and times of Kennedy as well as a vignette of the whole smuggling ethos in 18th century Aberdeenshire.

The details provided by Frances showed that the band of smugglers had, in fact, been "shopped." The excisemen were thus expecting them and lay await in ambush. When the fight started Kennedy was left alone, his companions having run off never to be identified. Anderson felled him with a "cutlass blow to the head". For reasons not clear, the excisemen also left at this point but Kennedy was not dead. He managed to struggle to a nearby farmhouse at Kirkton of Slains where he perished. Francesís book also records the fact that Anderson was sent to Edinburgh for trial on a murder charge, but, quite properly, he was cleared as it had been committed in the performance of his duties.

Following the programme I visited Collieston, in the Parish of Slains, just to see the grave and the location of where it had all happened. In this picturesque seaside village I went to see Rear Admiral Steve Ritchie (who had also been on the programme) because, amazingly, in his possession is the deas (a sort of wooden settee) on which Kennedy had breathed his last. I had a photograph taken of me sitting on this tangible link with my ancestor.

I realise that all this information was there for me to find if I had set about it methodically....but this way was much more fun!!

It really is fascinating stuff when your family history comes to life.


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