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A Smuggling Document
By David Grewar

In the early years of the last century smuggling was the staple industry in Glenisla, as well as in many other Highland districts. Small holdings and crofts abounded, but it would have been impossible for their occupants to have existed had they not grown a large proportion of barley, and converted it into the potent produce of the sma’-still. Excise and preventives raided the district to put down the practice, but so warlike were the smugglers and so successful the defence they put up, that latterly the assistance of the military was requisitioned.

Dalnamer, near the head of Glenisla, consisted of a little coterie of small holders, whoso buildings stood close together, and whose land provided them with the raw material necessary to enable them to prosecute their real, but illegal means of livelihood. In a word they were inveterate smugglers.

Of course they soon attracted the notice of tho revenue officials. The officer in charge of the district was a supervisor, named M'Leod, located at Coupar-Angus. He was a diligent officer — on some occasions perhaps too zealous — and as a natural consequence was hated and feared by the smugglers. The illicit operations at Dalnamer did not long escape his notice, and his visits there soon became alike as hazardous to tho preventive officials as unwelcome to the residenters. At the period of which we write they had two very narrow and successive escapes of being captured red-handed, and enduring considerable loss. It was only their own ingenuity and fertility of resource that saved them on both occasions.

On the first of these occasions the supervisor was within sight of the hamlet ere the residenters became aware of his approach. Liquid products hud been disposed of, but the whole smuggling apparatus stood intact whore operations had been prosecuted. This was enough to incriminate them, and even the confiscation of the articles in question would entail a serious loss to them. There was little time for deliberation, but that little proved sufficient. Seizing an old pitcher one of the smugglers dashed off to the hill with it. M'Leod, of course, saw the man, and that he carried something. Deeming that this something was the coveted “head,” which the man would attempt to hide in some of the large cairns of stones that littered the hillside, the supervisor gave chase. Meanwhile the other smugglers were busy removing and obliterating all traces of their illicit operations, and it was only when M'Leod returned, and searched the buildings with no result that he realised how cleverly he had been outwitted.

Even narrower was their next escape. A large quantity of malt lay in one of their barns, when they became aware of the supervisor’s approach. Concealment of such bulky material was impossible in the time at disposal. Detection seemed inevitable, when a master mind suggested a simple, but feasible expedient. The season was early spring, their ground was ploughed and ready for sowing. Put the malt in sacks and lay it down in the fields, as if it were seed oats, was the man’s proposal. This was done with all haste, and though the last load was only leaving the homestead as Mr M'Leod rode up, he never once suspected the ruse that had been played upon him. Tidings of what had been done afterwards leaked out, and when they reached the supervisor’s ears his mortification at again being duped, may well be imagined.

Twice outwitted, M'Leod determined on his third attempt to take all measures deemed likely to ensure success. The period chosen for this raid was the late autumn. By that time the crops were secured, and the smugglers, having little else to do, with plenty of the raw material at hand, would almost certainly be engaged in illicit operations. The military being at his command, and knowing that the smugglers would put up a stiff fight for their goods and gear, M'Leod ordered ten troopers, including a sergeant, to accompany him. Thus, strong enough to overcome any opposition likely to bo offered, he timed his departure from Coupar Angus so that he would enter Glenisla after nightfall, when tidings of his approach would not likely precede him.

In the early hows of the morning M'Leod and his satellites arrived at the scene of action. Everything seemed to indicate that his approach was unsuspected. No one was stirring, not a light was visible; the whole community was wrapped in slumber. Elated with prospects of success, M‘Leod sprang from his horse, and ac-compained by several troopers, began the search. A sheep-cot at the northern extremity of the buildings, where illicit goods had been previously found, was first visited. Nothing incriminating was discovered here, however, and a search of the other out-buildings was no more successful. M'Leod was foiled, again. His feelings of elation now gave place to those of chagrin and revenge. In his wrath he ordered the dragoons to set fire to the sheep-cot. A stack of peats, thatched with heather, stood near by, and the troopers tearing this off in armfuls, threw it down on the cot-floor piling peat and turf on the top of it. On a light being applied, the inflammable material leapt in flames to the rush-covered roof, and in a very short time the erection was a mass of smoking ruins.

Meanwhile the dragoons left in charge of the horses had led them to the stackyard, where, after fastening them up, they pulled sheaves out of the stacks as food for the animals. The horses were, however, fastened within roach of the stacks, and helped themselves, tearing out and destroying a great deal more than they consumed.

When the inhabitants of Dalnamer became aware that they had nocturnal visitors, they hastened out of bed to view a scene of devastation. Their sheep-cot lay a mass of smoking ruins, from which fate their thatch-roofed cottages must have had a narrow escape, and their stackyard was strewn with straw and grain, trampled and destroyed by the hoofs of the troopers’ horses. Little wonder that they became incensed at the ruthless and wanton waste confronting them. The emissaries of the Government had clearly acted in a most unwarrantable and unlawful manner.

On M'Leod, as leader of the expedition, their wrath first found vent. The chagrin of this officer when he first realised that what he had fondly hoped would be a success had proved nothing but a complete failure, was now very considerably modified. He recognised the serious position in which he had placed himself, and, dreading that even worse would happen, began to wish himself away. To the accusations of the smugglers he admitted having fired the cot but denied all responsibility for the damage done to the stackyard.

The sergeant of dragoons was next approached, and a reason for his having destroyed so much of their crop was demanded. To this they received a haughty and insulting reply. Matters now began to assume a dangerous aspect. High words seemed likely to give place to blows. Threats were bandied about. The sergeant drew his sword, the smugglers armed themselves with whatever came handiest, and the fire that lurked in their eyes told plainly that they had no desire to evade any scrimmage that might ensue.

The supervisor, now thoroughly alarmed at the turn affairs were taking, assumed the role of peacemaker, and interfered between the disputants. He pleaded, urged, entreated, and finally peremptorily ordered the sergeant to put up his sword and draw off his men. This the officer rather reluctantly did, and M‘Leod, after vainly endeavouring to pacify the outraged community, leapt on his horse and rode after the soldiers.

Thoughts of retribution did not, however, depart from the smugglers’ minds with the departure of the exciseman and his party. They were well aware that he had exceeded his commission, and resolved to bring his conduct under the notice of his superiors. With this object a letter was drafted, stating the full particulars of the case, and addressed to the civic dignitaries then in power. This letter is now in the writer’s possession. From its contents it would appear to have been written shortly after M'Leod’s departure, and while the wrongs they had endured rankled keenly in their minds. It would also appear to have been a mere draft, intended to be copied or rewritten, for a blank is left for the date and signature. The document is an interesting one, not merely as an illustration of the life of the time, but as affording a glimpse of the educational abilities of the humbler class of country people. The spelling is rather shaky, but no worse than many of the same class at the present day; while the handwriting and composition are decidedly better than might have been expected. All smugglers were evidently not ignorant and illiterate. The following is an exact copy of the document:—


“To his Majesty’s justice of the piece, Colector of Excise, and gentlemen of the County—we, the poor pendiculars in Dalnamer, in Glenisla, doth find ourselves under the Dissagreable needsesity of giving you our complaint on the misconduct of a party of Excise and Dragouns that came to our Countray on the night of ----under the command of M'Loud, Supervisor in Couperangus, who came, not as Excise, But as plunderers, and thieves of the neight. they went to our stack y cards and pulled, down our corn stacks to the ground, fas[tened] there horses to the number of Eleven, they thrang more of our Corn before them than was Sufficient for six times the number.

“they then went to a sheep cote, where they some time before had found some smuggled stuff, and when not finding anything belonging smuggling, they went to the said sheep-cote, carring pets, turf, and hether to it, and then set it a' burning, which, had it not been the goodness of providence in turning the wind from the north to the north-cast, our whole houses, our solves, Wives, and children, along with our corn and cattle, being in the Dead of the neight, had been all Burned to ashes.

“What the monsters' desire was we know not, only they could have no ground for so baise an action, nor doth the Uwe of our Count nay alow such practises, and if the county gentlemen dos not pay, or cause to be pay’d, the loss of our Corn, of course we must aplay to the fiscal of the county to look after such thifts and volinces,

“true there were smugglers in our countray, yet such as was not, cannot be robed by the Excise—nor do we deserve such usag from them, for had they call'd on us, and asked it of us, we would have given them as at other times, meat for themselves, and corn or hay for there horses. But in place of that the Serjeant of the Drogouns threatened us with a drawn syord in his hand, that if we said annoy more about our corn he would satisfy himself with our Blood.

“So if the fiscal of the county doth not put a stope to such Barbaras practices Blood for Blood must be allowed.”

Whether this letter was extended and forwarded I cannot definitely say, but am inclined to think it was not. At all events, nothing further was heard of the incident. The writing of the document had probably acted as a safety-valve to the pent up feelings of the injured smugglers. If it had not been immediately despatched (and facilities for doing so were then far from common) it is not improbable that their feelings having cooled down; no further action in the matter was taken by the smugglers.

David Grewar.

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