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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
County Smuggling in Old Times


THE traffic in smuggled or contraband goods in the latter end of last century and beginning of the present, on the coasts of Haddingtonshire and Berwickshire, not to speak of homemade spirits, salt, &c., was extensive. It was thought no harm by a great part of the rural, and shopkeeping, and trading community at that time to “cheat the king.” Lord Stanhope says, in his "Interesting Life of William Pitt,“ That so vast was the prevalence of smuggling, so numerous were the frauds on the revenue, that the income of the country during the year 1783 had fallen far below its reduced expenditure. The farmers near the coast have already changed their occupation, and instead of employing their horses to till the soil, they use them for the more advantageous purpose of carrying smuggled goods to a distance from the shore.” Tea, brandy, and gin were the principal goods smuggled at that time. All the way from Prestonpans to Berwick, including Gullane Point, North Berwick, Dunbar, The Cove, Redheugh, Coldingham shore, Eyemouth, Burnmouth, &c., there was a regular trade carried on in contraband goods from French and Dutch luggers, and many a conflict took place with the revenue and coastguard officers while running them ashore, and in their transit over the Lammermuir Hills to places of concealment in glens, scaurs, and caves, when the kegs could be removed, as opportunities occurred, to villages and towns. French brandy, and Holland gin, from Flushing, &c., were to be found not only in the houses of the middle classes, but often in the houses of rich farmers, and even of his Majesty’s justices of peace.

Many curious adventures happened, and many strange stories were told by old people of the means taken to “cheat the gauger,” and to get the kegs, or ankers, safely concealed; but when they were seized, they were lodged in the excise cellars, and the smugglers fined or imprisoned. An old respected farmer in Lammermuir used to relate that the excise officers once came to his house expecting ten carts of kegs of brandy to pass his way from Burnmouth, which they were ready to seize in the king’s name when they appeared. The farmer saw how the land lay, and hospitably entertaining the officers, as was his custom, sent word to the smugglers to alter their route, and take the road to Longformacus, and they thus escaped the enemy. On one occasion a conflict took place on Edington Hill, between Ayton and Chirnside, when Collector Watson, at that time an officer at Chirnside, long respected, and well known in Haddington for the faithful discharge of his duty, was severely cut and wounded with a cutlass, and lay for some hours in a ditch insensible. A desperate character of the name of Tait was once stopped by a gauger near the White-castle Nick, with his cart full of kegs. The officer ordered him, in the king’s name, to stop and surrender, presenting a pistol at him. On Tait drawing his pistol from his pocket, and crying out “First to-!.” the gauger made off. On another occasion, a boatful of ankers had been landed at Danglas Dean, and lodged in a barn for future delivery: an officer going his rounds found out the place of concealment, and after securing the door, went off to Dunbar to get assistance to lift the ankers. In the meantime, “Pat was up to the gauger,” and the whole cargo was soon removed out of the way. When the officer returned with a party to secure their prize, they found the “bird flown.”

It is a fact that cartloads of kegs were frequently driven from the Cove, near Cockbumspath, to Edinburgh. On one occasion William Christison, long the Dunglass carrier, had his cart well filled, and when travelling on the post-road, two excise officers came up to him and walked a considerable distance with him. He was in great dread as he heard the liquor in the kegs rattling; however, they left him, to his great joy, without making any remark, and William duly delivered his kegs in Edinburgh.

An exciting incident, still fresh in the memory of some East Lothian ladies, betwixt a smuggling lugger and a revenue cruiser, happened on a fine calm Sunday, in the month of July, somewhere about the year 1822, betwixt Canty Bay and the Bass, and opposite Castleton and Tantallon Castle. The smuggler had been on the coast for some days running kegs at different places, when she was descried by the cutter, which chased her and fired into her. The lugger came close in-shore, and threw the greater part of her kegs into the sea, which being done, she set all sail, and, aided by a favourable breeze which had sprung up, she made off to the German Ocean, followed hard by the cutter. Being a quicker sailer, lighter, and well managed, she escaped, thus disappointing the cutter of a prize—she was painted white on one side and black on the other. John Whitecross, then the tenant of Canty Bay and the Bass, with his men, along with the residents at Castleton, &c., were not long in noticing what was happening with the lugger’s kegs. A general scramble for them at low water, with the aid of boats, took place; when landed, many a one got “bleezing fou” with the contents. A number of kegs were carried to places of hiding at Castleton, &c., and the consequence was that excise officers made a search of the house of Mr Robertson, the tenant of Castleton, the hinds' houses, sheds, barns, thrashing-mill, &c., and took away a number of kegs. Mr Robertson, however, frankly owned to the officers that he had two kegs in a box, which he showed to them, and which he was allowed to keep. George Hogg, the grieve at Castleton, a practised hand, had placed some kegs up in the windmill, and when the officers went up there to search, he put on (by accident) the “wings" and they were glad to decamp. Some of the hinds’ wives, when the officers appeared to “rype” their houses, feigned sickness, and went to bed, and got some of the kegs placed in beside them under the bed-clothes. It would not have been decent in the officers to disturb the sick women.

A story is told of an old worthy Haddington merchant, who did a little in contraband. He and his maid (he was unmarried) one dark night, went with a hand-barrow up to Winton’s Barns, on the Gifford Road, to meet a cart from Danskine with kegs. On returning with several on the barrow, while rejoicing and muttering to himself, “Fine wark! Get on, lassie; a' safe noo —Cleuch and Veitch (excise officers) baith drunk" the two officers came up to him at his shop door, and tapping him on the shoulder, asked him what he had got on the barrow. He cried out, “Oh, jist look ower it—look ower it!” “Oh, sir,” said the officers, “we have been looking over it all the time.” Danskine was a noted place, long ago, for concealing kegs. John Miller, farmer and innkeeper there, was long well known in the trade, and many a journey was made in a dark night, on a bare-backed horse, with a sack, to bring down to Haddington a couple of kegs, one in each end of the sack.

Spilmersford and Winton were also great places for concealment, being on the way to Edinburgh from the hills. The old “Horners” of Winton were well known. The Dunbar and neighbouring smugglers were men of desperate character, and did not mind a brush with the officers. A thorn tree, called to this day “The Gaugers’ Bush,” at the corner of the road to Lochhouses, leading from Tynninghame entry, is pointed out as the place where a gauger was shot and killed by a party of smugglers. Aberlady Sands, Gullane, and Dirleton Links, Tyne Sands, &c., were great places for concealing the kegs, by burying them in the sand, whence they were removed at convenience.

The kegs were of a nice, handy size; a man could easily carry two of them in a sack over his shoulder. They were made of oak, and had six light iron hoops on them, were 20 inches long, 34 inches in girth, and 24 inches at each end. The writer of this obtained several of them lately, and has had two of them varnished and put in order. They are fit to be placed in a museum, and kept as a relic of former times. They can be seen at Mr James Lyle’s, wine-merchant, Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. They represent many thousands which were run and landed—filled with brandy, gin, and wine — on the coast from Prestonpans to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and other places during the high days of smuggling in the end of the last and beginning of the present century. They are still sometimes to be met with (empty of course) about old farmhouses.

Those who “kent their trade” always knew when the stock of cognac or hollands ran low in the farmer’s or family bunkers, and they only needed a hint to bring a fresh supply. The trade now, from the close surveillance' of the coastguardsmen who perambulate the coast every night, may be said to be completely annihilated ; and the deeds of the old smugglers, who were daring, resolute men of the “Dirk Hatteraick” stamp, are now only handed down and narrated by old people secondhand. It is curious now to note that, eighty to a hundred years ago, the Town Council of Haddington, as well as the heritors of the county, subscribed resolutions to the effect “That the use of French wines and spirits in public-houses and private families, which liquors were, in a great part, clandestinely imported, and smuggled through the county in defraudence of the revenue, as also the drinking of tea, especially among the people of lower ranks, had arrived to such an extravagant excess, that during the war with France they should not drink French wine or liquors in any public-house, or use them in any way in private houses, and that they should moderate or discourage the drinking of tea in their families.” Tea was then ten shillings per pound.

“When beef and ale on the table were spread,
Our men were stout and our women bred,
And glorious old Bess would have laughed with me
At the sight of a Scotchman sipping tea."

The late Mr Andrew Howden, senior, farmer of Law-head, used to relate that when he was at a woman’s school in Tynninghame village, she used to let her scholars out at three o’clock that she might take her cup of “herb,” which she masked “hidely-ways” in her cupboard. Whisky “stells” were at one time common enough in the wild parts of the Lammermuir hills, and a brisk local trade was carried on; but as the old hands have died out, the trade, it is believed, has now become extinct. Cooper Neillans and “Old Bannety” (James Robertson), of Garvald, used to tell curious stories about the “stells working bonnily,” and of the narrow escapes the smugglers made from the gaugers. The hill farm of Wanside, now part of the farm of Stobshiel, was in its day a great place for “stells.” Many a gallon of “Lammermuir dew ” was made there. The steep side of a mountain bum, well covered over with whins and ferns, was an excellent place for the manufacturing operations which continued undiscovered for many years. An old respected shepherd—John Wood, of Bentyhall—lately dead at an old age, used to tell that he often got his “ morning ” there, fresh from the worm-end.

Salt at one time paid a very heavy excise duty. That such a necessary article of life should have been so heavily taxed, seems to the present generation to have been a downright shame to the Government of the day, and from this feeling the smugglers of salt received more encouragement and support from the public than those of any other excise article. It was estimated at one time, that one-half of the salt used in the country was smuggled, and it was thought no ill to buy it. Government had at last, from the universal outcry against it, to repeal the tax. A famous old fishwife of Cockenzie, called Jenny Pow, was a noted smuggler of salt Jenny used to come into Haddington, sitting on the top of her cart, driven by her “guidman" Davie Hastie, crying *caller haddies,” while the bottom of her cart was well filled with salt Jenny was often unlucky enough to get her cart and contents seized by the officers and carried off to the excise office, when the salt was confiscated. She was often fined in the Justice of Peace Court Jenny, however, continued the trade at all risks, more or less, until the duty was taken off. Bakers’ carts, which took bread to Cockenzie and Prestonpans, often brought back a bag of smuggled salt, and were often seized, and the owners fined. Salt, like barrels of beer and ale, &c., long ago, could only be legally vended and transferred under authority of a permit granted and signed by an excise officer, and which had to accompany the goods. The permits were something like the old five-pound Scotch notes. A good story is told about a famous trader in Dunbar, who collected a lot of salt permits and paid a farmer of his acquaintance, who was rather blind, an account with them. His banker, however, soon undeceived him, when he presented them to be placed at his credit with the bank, by telling him they were salt permits. When "Sandie Campbells” (the hinds’ pigs) were about ready for the knife and pork tub, the owners generally deferred killing them until an excise salt sale took place—every two or three months or so—when they obtained what they required at little more than the duty. It would make a long paper to note down all the stories which have been handed down about smuggling of worts by-brewers, and of candles, soap, starch, leather, whisky, &c. Happily, now, the public know nothing of the heavy taxes which were levied long ago on home-manufactured articles of necessary and daily domestic use.


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