Smuggling in East Lothian

Smuggling between Prestonpans and Berwick upon Tweed was at its height in the early 1800’s. Increased taxes covering the expense of the Napoleonic War had communities pursuing novel ways to “cheat the King” from his excise duty. Tea, Brandy and Gin were the principle goods smuggled at this time. His Majesty’s Revenue officers also known as ‘Gaugers’  had many a conflict with smuggling gangs and tales of “cheating the Gauger” can be found in early editions of the Haddingtonshire Courier.

East Lothian’s trade in contraband from French and Dutch ships was prevalent. These goods were not only discovered in the houses of the middle classes and rich farmers but also in those of his Majesty’s Justice of the Peace. Lord Stanhope wrote 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.

Smuggling was carried out in one of two ways: through the ports or away from ports. When smuggling through a port, gangs would try by concealment or by disguise. Those who preferred to avoid the ports arrived ashore in secluded locations along the coast. On occasion the authorities would permit locals the use of goods gathered from a wreck. Light high valued items made ideal contraband and a record from an 18th Century custom house letter book records the wide range of these items. Aniseed, French salt, chocolate, currants & figs, sugar candy, coffee berries, Dutch cotton, Indian handkerchiefs, gunpowder and snuff  just to name a few. Contraband was often found in containers made by the smugglers, therefore it was hard to determine the taxable quantities. Goods arrived in stone bottles, ankers, casks, hogsheads, pipes, canisters and firkins. Kegs were of a practical size and  were easily carried two at a time in a sack and over a shoulder. An article in an 1870’s edition of the Haddingtonshire Courier recounts a boat full of ankers landing ashore at Dunglass Dean, Cockburnspath. The ankers (barrel measure of spirit or wine) were hidden in a barn for future delivery, when a Gauger doing his rounds found the place of concealment. He locked the door to the barn and took off to Dunbar to get assistance. In the meantime, “Pat was up to the Gauger” and the cargo was removed from the barn. The officer returned with his help only to find the “bird flown”. Fooling the Revenue officers proved to be a popular pastime and was considered harmless by many residents, shop keepers and traders.

Aberlady sands, Gullane point, Dirleton links, North Berwick, Dunbar and Cockburnspath were all ideal locations for hiding kegs. ‘Smugglers Cave’ in Aberlady located on the Kilspindie coast was not only a well known tale passed down from the older residents but also featured in “The Skipper’s Daughters” by James Pringle Reid. This sought after publication would lead researchers to the caves whereabouts.

Postcard C.1910-1936

Smugglers Cave Gullane Postcard C.1910-1936

Danskine was also a well known location for hiding kegs. The farmer and Innkeeper would take a late night journey on a bare-backed horse to bring kegs into Haddington. Farmers were well known for putting their horses to the use of carrying contraband from the shore. An old respected farmer from the Lammermuir Hills recalled a time when revenue officers came to his house to wait on a delivery of ten smuggled carts concealing brandy kegs from Burnmouth. The farmer, with his knowledge of the land, sent word to the smugglers and while he was entertaining the officers they changed their route to the Longformacus road, therefore escaping the law. The Baro Barracks located in the Lammermuirs stationed the Royal Scots Greys. Positioned there inhibited smugglers taking goods across the border or seeking places of concealment within the glens. Illicit whisky Stills were a common find in the Lammermuir Hills and witnessed a good local trade that had “many a gallon of Lammermuir dew” produced.

Punishment for handling contraband was subject to the worth and sum of the goods and usually warranted a fine, imprisonment or if a violent conflict the death penalty.  Some viewed smugglers as romantic adventurers and as a way of keeping expenses down but in reality smuggling was a savage business. Gangs would earn significant sums of money and were frequently prepared to use violent acts against the revenue officers. It was common knowledge in the 1800’s that Smugglers from Dunbar and the surrounding area were “men of desperate character” and were not put off by the threat from authority. A Thorn tree called “The Gaugers Bush” was once sited on the corner of a road to Lochhouses near Whitekirk. The tree marked the unfortunate scene where an officer was shot and killed by a gang of smugglers. Today this road is named ‘Gaugers Bush’.

Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

For the revenue men it was a perilous occupation and many turned a blind eye to the illegal trade. The threat of violence and murder from the gangs also ensured the communities silence. An infamous gang of wreckers who worked the coast between Cockenzie and Berwick were called the ‘Pagans of Scoughall’. It was said that the gang would tie a horse’s neck to its knee and attach a lantern to the rope. The horse was then slowly lead along the cliff, ships out at sea would think it was another lugger safely anchored and sail towards the shore. Wrecked on the rocky sea bed it would then be plundered. This account was relayed to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and inspired his famous novel “The Wreckers” and “Catriona” writing of the “lights of Schoughall”. In an opposing tale of smuggler tragedy, the winter of 1787 saw a ship from Banff containing contraband getting into difficulties at Pease Bay and was wrecked at Thorntonloch, its entire crew perished.

Ultimately the 1840’s saw the British government introducing a free trade policy and the taxation of goods was reduced to a realistic level. The additional effectiveness of Coastguards and Blockademen patrolling the shores brought an end to large scale smuggling in East Lothian.




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