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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XXX – Smuggling


The illicit distilling of whisky was never considered a crime, so long as smugglers kept clear of the officers of the law. It was rather regarded as one of the legitimate industries of the country. Men of all shades of character were connected directly or indirectly with the trade – from the lawless ruffian, who would not scruple to commit murder, if need be, to the simple-minded cottar, who was incapable of doing any mischief.

About the beginning of the present century, a small government vessel, called the ‘Cutter,’ was stationed on Loch Lomond, with the twofold object of searching the small boats which conveyed contraband traffic down the loch from the north, and of assisting the land officers, when occasion required. These excise officials, however, differed materially in their views as to the discharge of their duty. While some were stern and rigorous, and never missed an opportunity of bringing the offenders to justice, others were of opinion that they only deserved to be caught when they did not keep proper hours. The former class were certain sooner or later to meet the reward of their temerity at the hands of the smugglers, by being waylaid and thrashed, and in some instances murdered; whereas the latter class fared sumptuously at their hands in houses kept "het and reekin’," which simply meant fully stored with meat and drink.

Some seventy years ago, there lived in the parish of Killearn a man of the name of James Gilfillan. He belonged to respectable parents, was stout, of a fine appearance, and for his station in life had received a somewhat superior training. James, however, had rather a chequered career. When a young man, he was taken by the "press-gang," and placed on board the ‘Loch Lomond Cutter,’ and thence conveyed to a training ship on the Clyde. Ultimately he found himself under service with the renowned Nelson; but, disliking the life, he and a companion took the first opportunity of deserting his Majesty’s ship. One night, when the vessel was lying about a mile from the English coast, he and his friend slipped overboard, and, being expert swimmers, soon reached the shore. On his way home he made some very narrow escapes, being pursued for a whole day by a sergeant of marines and his men, but eventually reached Killearn in safety. Shortly after this, he set about employing himself at the only "industry" that the country offered, namely, that of smuggling, and as this required a companion, he associated himself with a person called Bryson, and the two certainly made a most formidable pair.

In those days a Mr. Hosie was excise officer in Bucklyvie, who had charge of the ride district. He was somewhat short built, but was of a proud disposition, and waged war against the smugglers with considerable rigour. Having got information against Gilfillan, and not daring to run the risk of apprehending him, he cited him to attend a sheriff court to be held in Drymen with a view to his capture. Hosie called in the assistance of the ‘Cutter’ men, and had them waiting in an adjoining room. The sheriff duly arrived, accompanied by a number of county gentlemen, among them being the late Captain M’Lachlan of Auchentoig. James attended, not expecting anything serious. But when about to enter the court-room he observed a number of blue jackets through a slit in the door. Turning the key cautiously in the lock, and slipping it into his pocket, he walked into the court-room. The excise officer was sitting near the window, and on the smuggler’s entry rose to state the complaint, when James was asked if he had anything to say in his defence. Looking around he observed that two officers had taken their place at the door. He seized the lower sash of the window, pulled it to him, and dashed it with great violence over the officer’s head; then vaulting into the road below, walked quietly away, none daring to follow him. The old captain exclaimed – "That’s a rare man-of-war’s trick," while the other gentlemen indulged in a hearty laugh. Hosie was rather seriously cut, and some difficulty was experienced in getting his head extricated from the pane.

A man of the name of M’Farlane, a cattle-dealer in Aberfoyle, also kept a regular working still. During his absence from home on his dealing business his men carried on the distilling. On one occasion, when absent with lambs, an excise officer of the name of Shortus paid a visit to the domicile. The servant in charge, on seeing the officer approach, fled and left the still at his mercy. Shortus, being a man of a rigourous nature, at once proceeded to demolish the utensils, which he did most effectually. The exciseman, believing the servant who fled to be M’Farlane, had him summoned to appear at the J.P. Court. M’Farlane brought witnesses from Glasgow to prove that he was there on that day, and that his presence at the still was an impossibility. This evidence was overruled in favour of the officer’s oath, who swore positively that it was M’Farlane he saw running off, and he was fined 30 pounds sterling. The cattle-dealer paid the fine, but when leaving the court was heard to mutter, "that he would take the worth of it out of his English hide." Shortly after this M’Farlane waylaid and nearly murdered Shortus at the mill of Aberfoyle, but escaped suspicion by hurrying to a neighbour’s house, where he joined some friends at card-playing. Shortus was discovered by the miller, who ran for assistance to the house where M’Farlane was, and who assisted to carry in his almost lifeless victim.

Stationed over the country to assist the regular excisemen were officers, with smaller or larger bodies of assistants, as the necessity of the district might require. These were commonly called "rangers," the chief of whom was an officer of the name of Dougal. He was a very quiet and inoffensive man, but powerful and of a self-reliant nature. He was much liked by the smugglers, and often told them that a smuggler deserved to be taken if he did not keep smuggler’s hours. Mr. Dougal had been repeatedly warned of the threatening character of one of the most villainous of the class, but treated these warnings lightly, and said he was a match for him at any time. Once when riding between the villages of Arnprior and Fintry, and on looking accidentally round, he observed this wretch priming his pistol behind a dyke on the roadside. Being at the time unarmed, but possessed of considerable presence of mind, he suddenly dashed his hand into his pocket and took out a small spy-glass. Springing from his horse, he rushed to the place where the ruffian lay concealed, crying, "Come on, I am ready for you, my lad." The would-be assassin, taking the spy-glass for a pistol, fled into the wood, and Mr. Dougal rode on his way to Fintry. Some short time after this the officer went amissing, and dark suspicions floated about that he had been the victim of foul play. Ultimately his body was discovered on the farm of Glins. Traces of a scuffle, and some articles identified as his, were found on the shore of Loch Laggan, and it is believed he was murdered there and his body carried to where it was found, upwards of a mile. Well-grounded suspicion soon fell upon this man, who was afterwards totally rejected by his former companions, and died a wandering outcast.


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