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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


DURING the second half of the last century, and somewhat more than the first quarter of the present one, smuggling, in various forms, prevailed extensively. In the earlier time it was confined mainly to seaboard districts. Kegs of gin from Holland and other foreign goods were landed contraband at many convenient creeks and baylets along an extended line of coast. The statement has been made, that there was scarcely a family along the coast, from Don to Spey, who were not more or less implicated in this particular system of "free trade." Some of the landed proprietors even quietly countenanced the practice, and participated in its gains; and all the more readilyif their sympathies happened to lie with the Jacobites. In that case, so far from disgrace, there was actual merit in the contraband operations; it was not depriving the King of his due, but simply avoiding the exactions of an unrighteous usurper. Along the coast, from Stonehaven to Peterhead, the business of smuggling foreign goods was pursued systematically and perseveringly. On parts of the Euchan coast, it had evidently engrossed the exertions of a large part of the population. They acted under leaders, and had their own cant watchwords, aliases and soubriquels; and there was an oath of secrecy administered all round among those who took an active part. In addition to the available natural caves, artificial places of concealment, "capable of containing from sixty to two or. three hundred tubs of gin," were constructed where necessary, by digging deep down into the soft earth or sand, and forming a pit with bricks or planks of wood. These pits, which were covered over to the depth of several feet, in order to be safe from the searchings of the excisemen, were exactly measured off, from some conspicuous point, so that the precise spot could be ascertained, and the pit opened, as required, even on the darkest night.

When one of the smuggling luggers had arrived off the coast, the skipper would run pretty close in shore, during daylight, and exhibit preconcerted signals to some of those on the outlook in the neighbourhood. Satisfied that his movements were understood, he then hauled off again, and stood out to sea in an indefinite sort of way. Meanwhile, the news spread for miles around. A primitive system of telegraphing, sufficiently intelligible to the initiated, had been established; as, for example, by spreading a plaid or blanket out, as if to dry, on the to~ of the peat stack. Messages, in cant phrasuology, were sent from hamlet to hamlet, by children, if need were, there being no risk of their indiscreetly communicating what outsiders would nOt understand, even when they heard it. And then, by night-fall, there was a silent but rapid ~and watchful muster about the point where the signalling lugger was expected to approach; and, in all probability, a busy night followed at the landing, and concealment of her freight, in the safety of which all those taking part were, to a greater or less extent, directly concerned. The time when coast smuggling seems to have been carried on most extensively, was in the years between 1660 and 1680; the profits attending the successful prosecution of the business tempting many to engage in it. It was by and by seen, however, by those who had a stake in the country, and especially by the landed proprietors—even those not disinclined quietly to enjoy a drop of Hollands, dutyfree—that the questionable gain effected was purchased at an enormous loss, in diverting the attention of the people from the cultivation of the land and other honest industrial pursuits, and teaching the male part of them at least dissipated and reckless habits. And, though during the last ten or fifteen years of the century coast smuggling still continued, it had got considerably discredited amongst all the more respectable classes of the community; and, under that feeling, and the increased efforts of the excise, was getting more limited in extent. With inland smuggling the case was entirely different. It was only through the increase in the duties on malt liquors, made not many years before the close of the century, that the temptation to the private manufacture of malt and distillation of whisky first occurred; and the practice, by and by, became very general, alike in the Lowlands and Highlands. Among the Lowland peasantry, male and female alike engaged in it, there being no more persistent devotees of "the worm" than some of the "gina’ goodwives" who had got into the habit of "rinnin’ a drap," and getting it quietly marketed as they best could. There was nothing disreputable in the practice in the public opinion of their neighbourhoods; and nothing disgraceful in being caught by the gaugers. Such a mishap might, indeed, be inconvenient; but then the awards of their honours, the Justices, were not of formidable severity. They would at times sit a whole day adjudicating cases of private malting or distillation, and, in the course of the entire sitting, impose no higher penalty than half-a-crown or so upon any one of the dozen or score of delinquents arraigned before them. It would be quite the exception where a culprit of a superior class came up, as happened at a certain Court of Justices, at which my Lord Kintore presided. Amongst the offenders cited by the Excise, was Robert Fraser, of "Folla," who was fairly entitled, as he would probably have claimed, had the title then been common, to be recognised as a gentleman-farmer. At any rate, it was Robert’s weakness to wish to be considered very wealthy; and of this some one had given the Preses of the meeting of Justices a hint. When the tenant of Folla was called for sentence, his Lordship, accordingly, with a sly insinuation, and doubtless anticipating a very different style of reply, remarked—" Mr. Fraser, I understand you are very rich I" "Vastly so, my Lord," replied the undaunted tenant of Folla, promptly and gravely. "Well then, you are fined five pounds I" "Five pounds—My Lord, I’d rather pay fifty pounds than stand there a whole day among a parcel o’ poor things !"

In the case of the Highlanders, smuggling was conducted with perhaps fully as much system and perseverance as anywhere; at anyrate, the whisky the Highlanders made seems to have had a more distinctive reputation than that made in the Lowlands. It may well be doubted if either the one whisky or the other would be much relished by connoisseurs of the present time; certainly much of the smuggled Lowland whisky was very detestable stuff. At any rate, when the Highlander went abroad to seek a market for the results of his private distillation, it was to the Lowland towns that he came, either singly, or more commonly in a company joined together, and sharing the perils of the way in common; the string of shaggy ponies carrying the kegs of whisky, and the smugglers keeping a due outlook against being trepanned by the detested gaugers.

And while there were many amusing episodes in connection with smuggling, first and list, there was not a little rough and demoralising work, especially when a set of stout smugglers encountered an equally stout and better armed posse of gaugers. To outwit the commonplace gauger in the ordinary run of business was a feat to which the female, as well as the male, smuggler was frequently found adequate. And in the case of the masculine contraveners of the law, the exciseman was deemed a fit subject for rough handling as occasion offered. To tie his legs together, fasten his hands forcibly behind his back, and leave him lying helpless on the lone hillside was not deemed much out of place by any means. One of the most tragic smuggling incidents locally recorded is that of the death of Philip Kennedy, at Ward of Oruden, in 1798, the circumstances connected with which are powerfully reproduced in Guy Mannering. A smuggling lugger had been in process of landing her cargo, part of which was being conveyed inlsnd at night in carts. The gaugers had, however, got notice, and three of them, fully armed, lay in wait near the Kirk of Slams. The smugglers had taken the precaution of sending several of their number pn in advance to see that the way was clear. One of these who first encountered the excisemen was Kennedy, and being a man of fearless courage, as well as powerful physique, he seized and threw down two of them, calling to his companions to secure the third. But so far from doing their part, they fled, and taking shelter amongst the bushes to watch events, left him to his fate. Kennedy held on to his two prostrate foes with grim determination, when the third, with surely needless barbarity, drew his sword and cut him repeatedly about the head. The smuggler, even then, refused to relax his grasp, and was still able to keep down the two excisemen. It was moonlight, and the savage gauger who was still free, was then observed by some of the cowards lying perclu in the adjacent bushes; to hold his sword above his head as if to make certain that he was using the edge, when next instant, with a sweeping and relentless stroke, the smuggler’s skull was laid open with a frightful gash. With the blood streaming in torrents from his wounds, the poor fellow got to his feet and staggered on to Kirkton of Slams, distant nearly a quarter of a mile, where he expired in the course of a few minutes, his last words being, "If a’ had been as true as I was, the goods wud ‘a been safe, an’ I wudna hae been bleedin’ to death." His age was but thirty-eight. The men who were the cause of his death were tried on a charge of murder, but were acquitted.

At the Aberdeen Circuit Court of Justiciary, in September, 1827, my Lords Pitmilly and Alloway tried a somewhat notorious culprit, in the person of Malcolm Gillespie, officer of excise, whom the jury found guilty of forgery, and who was sentenced to be hanged; a sentence which was duly carried out, on the ensuing 16th of November. During the period of his incarceration, Gillespie had employed part of his time in writing an account of his experiences as an excise officer, during nearly twenty-eight years. His story is marked perhaps by a little of the braggadocia spirit, but enough is known independently, to enable us to shape the story to about its proper dimensions, and obtain a reliable glimpse or two of the actual state of matters. Malcolm Gillespie, who was a native of Dunblane, and apparently of respectable parentage, had entertained the wish to serve in the army, but was disappointed in getting into active service throug~i the deeinature of his relatives to buy him a commission—a matter probably to be regretted, as the man most clearly had in him qualities that would have been of value where hard fighting was going on. After a short experience as a recruiting agent, he turned his energies in another direction by joining the Excise. Gillespie’s service was at first on the coast, and latterly inland. When stationed at the fishing village of Collieston, on the Buchan coast, in 1801, he states that upwards of 1000 ankers of foreign spirits were landed in that regitn every month. He continued at Collieston till 1807, when, at his own request, he was appointed to Stonehaven, the inspiring motive being zeal against the contrabandists. He had broken up their trade at Collieston, and they yet flourished at Stonehaven. A five years’ residence there sufficed to make him "a complete terror to these depredators," and to reduce their nefarious traffic to limited dimensions; and accordingly, in 1812, again on his own application, he was removed inland to the Skene Ride, where he might intercept the Highlanders on their way to the Aberdeen market The experiences of Gillespie, while in this situation, where he remained up to the date of his trial, seem to have been much according to his taste. The "first engagement worthy of notice" occurred, he tells us, on a certain night, when, in the attempt to intercept a cart of whisky, single-handed, the four "notorious• delinquents" in charge of it fell upon him with bludgeons, mauling him unmercifully. To prevent the possibility of his prize—which turned out to be eighty gallons of whisky—escaping him, he pulled out a loaded pistol, and wounded the horse. And he takes credit to himself for so commanding his temper as to resist the temptation to subject one or more of his assailants to similar treatment. With the assistance of people who had been alarmed by the report of the pistol, a full victory was gained, and the two principals in the assault in due course stood their trial, and received sentences of several months’ imprisonment. A few similar encounters convinced Gillespie of the utility of a properly-trained dog to accompany him in his nightly excursions; and he accordingly procured one " of the bull kind;" from a famed breed. Under proper traiuing, the dog by and by learnt to seize the Highlanders’ horses "one by one," till, by tumbling them, or making them "dance about," the kegs they carried were spilt off their backs: the dog’s owner and the smugglers, meanwhile, carrying on the struggle for the mastery, with bludgeons, or still more dangerous weapons. And we speedily find the dog so employed during an engagement, in which "a deal of bloodshed occurred on both sides." But indeed the dog got so perfect at his work, that when any of the horses were running past him, that had no load on their backs, he paid no attention to them; and when he seized any of them it was always by the nose, which he would never quit, " until the goods were either thrown off," or in possession of his master. The ultimate fate of this valuable animal—to the great grief of the zealous gauger—was to be killed by a shot "promiscuously" fired in a preliminary skirmish that occurred on a certain night while he stood by, muzzled, waiting his part in the play.

Gillespie had in his pay no fewer than five assistants, men who doubtless possessed - qualities fitting them. for his purposes, but of whose moral character even he does not seem disposed to give us any strong warranty. And in his various encounters he ordinarily had the support of more or fewer of his men. Meeting a couple of smuggling carts in the woods of Drum, with a "strong hardened desperado, named Hay," employed to go along as a protecting bully, a severe engagement ensued, during which one of the excise force got three balls lodged in his groin, by the accidental discharge of his own pistol; Hay’s cheek was nearly severed from his face, by a stroke from a sabre wielded by Gillespie himself,, and another smuggler got an arm broken, which terminated the fight. On another occasion, in an encounter with ten or twelve Highianders, near Kintore, Gillespie got thrown down, with three or four fellows above him, "beating him in a most unmerciful manner." The sabre was twisted out of his hand, and, while he was still kept down, a stroke from the weapon laid open his chin to a great extent. He then discharged his pistol at the smuggler, the ball lodging in his thigh; a second shot in the shoulder was necessary to drive him off finally, and in the meantime Gillespie had saved himself from strangulation by getting another assailant’s thumb diverted from his windpipe into his mouth, where he bit it so savagely and tenaciously that the smuggler, in his wild struggles to get free, greatly aided him in once more regaining his feet. One of the greatest fights recorded occurred on a January night in 1824, near Inverurie, as he lay in wait for a formidable gang of Highianders who were coming down with a large quantity of aqua, which they had publicly declared their determination to accompany to Aberdeen, despite the officers of excise, of whom they were prepared to make short work. He came suddenly on the cavalcade of ten carts, with twenty-five to thirty men, while his party were scattered, and only one assistant with him. "This formidable group were very indifferent to his threats, and looked upon him with his assistant in a scornful way, and were proceeding onwards, when he immediately fired and killed a horse. The next shot he had occasion to discharge went through the shoulder of a robust delinquent, while in the very act of bringing down upon Mr. G.’s head a large bludgeon, which would undoubtedly have felled him to the ground, if tl~e ball had not taken proper effect. The whole gang were now upon Mr. U., but by this time the rest of his party had assembled through the firing, when a terrible conflict ensued. Bloody heads, hats rolling on the road, the reports of alternate firing and other noise, resembled more the battle of Waterloo than the interception of a band of lawless desperadoes ;—.-but in the end they were obliged to lay down their arms, and submit to the Jaws of their country. Mr. U. and his party were all and each of them much debilitated by severe wounds and bruises, and loss of blood; but the greater part of the smugglers were in a much worse situation. It was fortunate," adds the narrator, "that no lives were lost on this memorable occasion ;" but he does not doubt that he himself would carry some of the wounds be then received to his grave.

In summing up his story, which, he says, gives but a faint outline of ~ few of the many severe encounters in which he had been engaged, Gillespie informs us that he had received "no less than forty-two wounds on different parts of his body, and all inflicted by these extraordinary characters." The drift of his narrative is to make out that he was triumphantly successful in his object on all occasions. But without going quite so far as to accept thaf view without qualification, he was, beyond doubt, a fellow governed by a determined will and a sort of coarse reckless courage; and animated by an unflagging zeal in a line of duty that accorded with his tastes. Into his character and connections otherwise we need not enquire too curiously; only there is evidence to show that the rough and dangerous, if unscrupulous, service he rendered was not unappreciated by the legitimate traders of the district. And the facts that are beyond dispute concerning the transactions in which he was engaged, and the seizures he made [For Abstract of Gillespie’s Seizures, see Appendix (5).] illustrate, in a somewhat vivid fashion, both the extent and character of the smuggling that prevailed up to fifty years ago.

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