Smuggling and the Royal George

Scotland boasts 10,000 miles of generally rugged coastline punctured by a myriad of islands, estuaries, firths, rivers, creeks, bays, and backwaters, all ideally suited for the activity of smuggling.

A classical and romantic painting of smuggling (George Morland).

 During the period from 1700 through to 1900 smuggling was rife throughout Europe, the UK and the Clyde.  However gaining access to the hard data on such activities is difficult other than through secondary resources which are more a collection of antidotes and stories.  Often these stories get repeated with some further superfluous massaging with the result that the truth is often more about what is not said rather than what is said.  Nevertheless, we can glean from the myriad of sources available, all claiming some authority on the matter, something about the activity generally known as ‘free trade’.

I need to be clear in how I define ‘smuggling’.  Here I use the term to describe that activity which results in the transportation of goods from one location to another without incurring payment of some form of tax, or excise, or other revenue or custom fee.  I am not dealing with pirates or privateers who were nothing more than criminals aimed at enriching themselves by stealing from others often with murderous intent.  Smuggling was more of a rebellion against paying taxes, not about thieving someones else property, although governments saw it very differently. 

Smuggling, in the time period under discussion, 1720 to 1840, may have started out as a social rebellion against the imposition of a repressive tax regime on what were generally considered small items of luxuries for those otherwise anchored in generalised poverty.  But smuggling grew exponentially into something approaching ‘big business’.  The government responded by imposing harsh sentences on smugglers and many were hanged.

The Caroline unloading a cask of rum and 5 cwt. of coffee over the ship’s side into a waiting boat. E. Keble Chatterton, King’s Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855 (1912).

There were two main ways in which smuggling took place; the overseas trade coming from Europe but particularly from America, and the internal local trade.  For example, ships arriving from the Americas bringing goods to the ports of Glasgow were prone to ‘drop off’ the odd quantity of tobacco, or rum, or sugar to waiting boats as they sailed up the Northern Channel towards the Clyde to deliver their cargo.  As J. R. D. Campbell in his out of print publication Clyde Coast Smuggling (1990) notes, the ‘waiting boats’ just happen to be fishermen who just ‘happen’ to pick up goods that had apparently ‘fallen’ overboard from a passing vessel thereby resolving themselves from actually engaged in smuggling. 

Then there was the locally produce items which were transported to Scottish markets.  Whisky, and perhaps more importantly salt, were items that attracting increasing excise.  V. W. Mackenzie, making reference to the production of whisky on Arran, goes on to observe that in engaging in smuggling whisky people were;

maintaining a fight against an oppression which sought to derive them of a legitimate method of turning their industry to account in the only way possible for them, and by which alone they could secure the means of meeting the rent which provided an income for the very men who, as magistrates, had to convict them (The Book of Arran, Vol II, 1914: 130).

Whisky we might understand, but salt?  A tax on salt was first levied in 1702 and rose to 2/- (two shillings) a bushel by 1789 but then increased to 15/- a bushel, an increase of 200% (Mackenzie, 1814: 129).  In the days before refrigeration salt was the only method of preserving food and was needed not only for the herring industry but by ordinary tenant farmers in order to preserve food over the winter months, much of the precious commodity being shipped from Ireland (Adamson 2019:19).  Imposing such an exorbitant excise on salt only served to create problems for hard pressed people who had nothing to loose by circumventing the system.  

Excise therefore, in whatever form it might be collected, was an imposition on already struggling tenant farmers, or those employed as labourers in the industrial towns that now sprang up throughout Scotland as a result of the Industrial Revolution.  These were people who had little to look forward to other than the monotonous repetition of struggling to stay alive.  Their only source of any sort of relief from the constant stress was to be found in alcohol or the purchase of some trifling item that might be thought of a luxury.  The pedantic nature of the imposition of excise therefore had an enormous impact on their lives.  As a result, and unlike piracy, smuggling was largely socially acceptable as the citizenry generally sided with the smugglers.

Although produced in 1932 Ogden’s Cigarettes card depicts people taking Rudyard Kipling’s advice to ‘watch the wall … while the gentlemen go by’ thus relieving them of actually witness any ‘free trading’ (Bristol Radical History Group).

The accepted tolerance of smuggling was further assisted by the fact the excise service operated ‘in the complete absence of an effective civilian police force’ (Campbell 1990: 26) which meant they had to appeal to army for help, again, doing anything but endearing themselves to the local populace who, in any event, would be suddenly busy themselves by concentrating on ‘watching the wall’ when suspect smugglers moved through a village.  When questioned by authorities one could always legitimately respond that they saw no such activity.

In his book, The Naturalist of Cumbrae: A True Story Being the Life of David Robinson (1891), the author, Thomas R. R. Stebbing, tells the story of David Robinson born in Glasgow in 1806 who later became a Professor of Natural History.  Robinson, as the story unfolds, worked his way through university and relates any number of ‘adventures’ including his time spent at Millport ‘engaged in scientific pursuits’ and visiting  ‘his favourite watering hole’. Stebbing’s book outlines the life of a young man as he comes of age in a world where universal education did not exist and where personal fortitude, courage, and experience were matters of individual motivation supplemented with a fair slice of good luck.  What is of interest is David Robinson’s brush with smuggling (pages 30-41) when he was about fifteen years of age and reveals much;

There were many raids made on the smugglers by the excise, although in most cases the smugglers had timely notice of the approach of danger, and it was wonderful how soon they could make a clearance of their valuables, that is to say, of all the plant used in distilling.

In one instance within our hero’s experience, two or three hours after dark the smugglers were surprised and made prisoners by the excise officers and a small company of soldiers. Two farmers’ wives, who happened to be paying a visit to the bothy or smugglers’ shed at the time, were also seized.  The still had just been filled with what they called singlings, for the second or final distillation.  The smugglers agreed to run it off for the excisemen, wishing, so far as they could, to appear friendly with them. A cart was wanted to carry the spoil away, but, it being so late, it was thought best by the excise officers to wait till morning, when they would be able to see where they were being taken, as otherwise it was possible they might intentionally be led into a quagmire and be plundered in the dark.

During the night both soldiers and excisemen were taking a “wee drap” to keep them cheery, and the night passed with friendly jokes on both sides, whatever the prisoners may have thought inwardly about the humour of the whole affair. As soon as daylight appeared, the two excisemen went to procure a horse and cart, and were directed to a farm where they were not the most likely to obtain what they wanted on the shortest notice, the prisoners having some obscure hope that something might yet be saved. As the officer in command of the soldiers had received strict charge, when the excisemen left, to take care of the prisoners, these had no hope of making their own escape. In the absence of the excisemen, the officer was careful of what spirits he himself took, and did what he could in an easy way to make his men equally careful ; but the drinking-measure the end of a cow’s horn was an ample one, and the spirits were stronger than the men were used to drink, and these things had their effect.

In the mean time the smugglers very civilly offered to give their assistance in carrying their confiscated goods and chattels some little distance out to a place which the cart could approach. Their offer being accepted, they had the opportunity to roll “the valuables” into a deep ditch where they were not easily to be seen. The soldiers, it was clear, had become sympathizers, and the officer believed, or in his helpless position pretended to believe, that the smugglers were giving their help in good faith, and that his only duty was to make sure that the prisoners did not escape. When the excisemen returned with the horse and cart, and saw the general state of affairs, and that there were only a few of the empty worthless movables piled up to be taken away, they were glad to get the prisoners and drunken soldiers into the cart without anything else, letting the two women go free, and sacrificing the spoils, for which indeed the small country cart, filled as it was with living occupants, would have had no room.

The material available is replete some similar stories.  For instance, the renowned Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, was himself, later in life, an excise officer but had sympathy for the smugglers.  The paradox that Burns represents is contained in his poetry, particularly The Deil’s awe wi’ the Exerciseman penned in 1792, which effectively celebrates the joy experienced by the community when the Devil takes away the hated Excisemen as they enjoyed their whisky.


Even though the poem is subversive of the established order the words were published while Burns ‘sent a copy to one of his supervisors in Edinburgh and tells him that he has already sung it at one of the Excisecourt dinners in Dumfries.’  Apparently this seditious libel did Burns promotion aspects no harm as he was promoted to King’s ceremonial bodyguard in Scotland grandly known as the Royal Company of Archers.

Robbie Burns epitomises the irony of the nineteenth century.  Although Napoleon had been finally defeated in 1815 the British economy was still staggering from the cost of the war with the result that the imposition of high tax, tariffs and excise continued.  Essential, the governments action encouraged smuggling and the distilling of illicit whisky as a means of meeting rent payments for without land on which to grown food people simply starved.  Further, in the early 1800s fishing vessels across the Clyde were numbered in their hundreds.  Two ports were of importance, Campbelltown on the Argyle coast, and Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, could each boast of a fleet some nearly one hundred craft.  But while these vessels were indeed used for fishing some, many perhaps, engaged in the extra curricular activity of smuggling.

Gregor Adamson in his Arran Water: an Island Whisky History (2019) recounts some of the exploits of the fishermen cum smugglers.  He relates a story, quoting the Perthshire Courier (6 December1822), that not only illustrates the general tolerance which smuggling enjoyed but highlights the audacity of the smugglers when confronted with inexperienced and unprepared enforcement officers;

On Tuesday forenoon, an Arran wherry, manned by three strong fellows, and to appearance laden wholly with potatoes, pushed into the harbour at Ayr with all the confidence of a fair trader courting inspection.  This bold countenance, however did not prevent two customhouse officers who were on the spot from boarding the vessel; whether they had benefit of previous information, or merely acted upon the notoriety of Arran smuggling, they immediately set about rummaging the cargo, and soon brought into view two casks of whisky.  More might probably have been discovered had not the Highlandmen interrupted the process by cutting their cable and setting off to sea with their cargo, officers and all, in the sight of numbers on the beach, who were much amused with the spectacle.  With the exception, however, of having the glory and emolument of their capture turned into shame, the officers did not otherwise suffer, the smugglers having put them safely into the first boat they met with (2019: 60-61).

The fact that a newspaper could print such an article in itself tells a story. There are other stories, as related earlier, that did not end in such a charming and peaceful manner.  A tragic and documented incident on the Isle of Arran dated 25 March 1817 serves to illustrate the depth to which local allegiances ran with fateful results. 

The Isle of Arran as seen from Cumbrae. Arran was classified as being part of the Scottish Highlands and one can see why from this photo taken by Jack Boyle on Christmas Eve 2019 (Millport Photos)

On that fateful afternoon William McKinnon and his son Donald attempted to smuggle some whisky out of Arran when they spied the revenue cutter Price Edmond and turned back to shore.  Their movements obviously arouse the interest of the Commanding Officer, Captain Sir John Reid, who followed ordering the Mate to send a party ashore to investigate.  The cutter’s Mate, John Jeffery, took a detachment of twelve heavily armed soldiers and searched the surrounding shore finding four casks of illegally distilled whisky which they seized.  In returning to the revenue cutter Jeffery and the soldiers were accounted by a ‘curious group of islanders who followed closely’.  No doubt fearing that things were likely to get badly out of hand, Jeffery order the soldiers to fire on the ‘islanders’ which they did killing both William and Donald McKinnon and a woman, Isobel Nicol.  There was a court case of sorts but given that the government was anxious in eradicating illegal distilling of whisky any conviction would have seriously undermined their efforts in this respect (Adamson 2019:91 – 93).  Importantly for this discussion is the reference to the ‘curious groups of islanders’ who were, no doubt, the local clachan endeavouring to recover their investment. 

Nevertheless, it may be guessed from these and other narratives the enigma that surrounding smuggling.  The ready sympathy between farmers, excisemen, soldiers, smugglers and the odd magistrate in bending, if not subverting the law, created a social environment where the community stood to gain rather than loose through its tolerance of smuggling.  

As I noted above, the real aspect of smuggling is more about what is not said rather what is said.  Such stirring words suggesting smuggling is ‘a fight against an oppression’ or an ‘amusing spectacle’ romanise the activity and serve to trivialise the real issues involved.  It is, therefore, incumbent to recognise, whether writing or reading about smuggling in 2020, social security was non existent for the general population.  Effectively the populace were on their own.  Tax or excise on everyday type items as ‘beer, bricks, candles, coal, coffee, glass, hops, kelp, leather, malt, paper, salt, soap, sugar, tea, timber, tobacco, vinegar, wine and wool’ (Adamson 2019:17) severely impacted on live’s that were precarious at best.    

Without security of tenure in their work or in the life, people only had one another to rely on when things got rough, as they often did.  The most important thing on which they might rely were the relationships they formed through marriage and membership of a clachan (pronounced klak-en or village).  In Scotland a clachan was a form of collective living where one individual held the ‘tack’ (lease of land) and was responsible for paying the rent while others worked communal with shared ownership of cattle and crops.  According to Adamson (2019) the ‘tackman’ would collect annual rent from each member of the clachan in order to pay rent to the landholder.  Security, therefore, lay with an individual’s allegiance to their clachan not to some far away entity whom they generally never saw nor ever heard.  And if that security could be sustained by some illegal distilling or smuggling then the collaboration of all within the clachan was essential for one’s own survival.  

A reference to smuggling in Kilbride in the Country of Bute, an island about four miles from Cumbrea, is more expansive.  When noting the decline in the parishes’ population the author writes; 

Of these [the decline in population], the most important are the extensive migration to Canada and Chaleur Bay … the decline is smuggling, which, at one time, afforded a sort of occupation for a great number of young men … (NSA Vol V, 1845).

But not all ministers of the Church are the same.  There is this reference to one particular minister of the Kilbride Parish, the Reverend Archibald Beith, which is not so pleasant. The sorry tale of Beith exposes the excesses with some went in an effort to curtail smuggling much to their own chagrin. 

On April 27 of the same year [1671], a boat with such a cargo put into Lamlash, and Beith with an armed company took possession.  In his temporary absence the crew forcibly recovered their property and set sail, but the Rev. Mr. Beith and his party pursued in a second boat, and, when the others refused to surrender, fired on them, killing Allan Gardiner, a merchant of Irvine, and one of the crew. For this exploit the militant churchman was tried in Edinburgh before the High Court, and sentenced to be hanged at the Cross. The sentence was remitted by the King, but apparently Beith was not again inflicted on Arran, for, on his way back, he solicited the Town Council of Rothesay for help and Uberty to beg for a living. He got £20 (Scots) but no licence as a beggar. (Book of Arran Vol II page 140)

Smuggling was big business and at times whole economies and towns were, in some overt form or another, participants in the what was known as ‘free trade’.  The government acted, albeit clumsily and awkwardly at times.  Perhaps the most definitive book on the subject is E. Keble Chatterton’s, King’s Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855 (1912) which is readily downloadable from the internet.  Chatterton draws attention to the error of romancing smuggling and writes at length from authoritative sources.  However, he fails to acknowledge the impetus that lay at the heart of the activity, poverty.  In a time before social security, public schools or hospitals the poor had only themselves and their communities on which to rely.  The heavy handed approach by the ‘preventative service’ simply pitted people against the government in their bid to stay alive.   

But change did happen and that changed effected the local population on Cumbrae as it had effected others.  However, the impact of this change on Cumbrae was somewhat different to the general experience.  When the revenue cutter the Royal George with its large crew was station at Cumbrea in the 1780s housing became the critical issue.  Interestingly, the housing shortage was overcome by the innovation of granting land to the mariners on which to build their dwellings.  In a somewhat circuitous manner smuggling and the government actually benefited those living on Cumbrae

One who benefited from the distribution of land was Alexander Wright, the father of Robert Wright who was to become Samuel Ford’s father in law.  In marrying Margaret Wright, Samuel Ford inherited more than a wife, he inherited property.


Gregor Adamson, Arran Water: An Island Whisky History, Neil Wilson Printing Ltd (2019).

J. R. D. Campbell, Clyde Coast Smuggling: or a Hundred Years of Clyde Cutters and Smugglers, Largs and District Historical Society (No date but probably 1990).

E. Keble Chatterton, King’s Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855, George Allen and Company Ltd: London (1912).

Devil’s Awa Wi the Excisemen, accessed 28 January 2020,

Rev. James Drummond, Island and Parish of Cumbray in The New Statistical Account of Scotland Vol. V (Ayr-Bute), William Blackwood and Sons: Edinburgh (1845) page 69 (found as a separate section in the rear of the volume with its own page numbers).

W. M. Mackenzie, The Book of Arran Vol. II, Hugh Hopkins: Glasgow (1914).

Rev. Thomas R. R. Stebbing, The Naturalist of Cumbrae: A True Story Being the Life of David Robinson, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co Ltd  (1891)