Home Up Pre-History The District The Streets City Industry The Tenement Family Names North East Art

The Doric Columns



A Highland Whisky SmugglerAberdeen was the major east-coast port, even in the 18th century. The whale fishery there was the principal industry, but smuggling ran a close second at some stages: in 1788 it was estimated that there were 3 luggers and 2 small sloops smuggling goods into Aberdeen — totalling 350 tons. Each made 6 trips a year, employing 100 men, smuggling spirits and tobacco — 200 hogsheads a year. The annual overheads were judged to be £10,000 or more.  The customs authorities were hard pushed to contain such a trade. They had a coastline of 72 miles from Cullen to Caterline to manage, and constantly complained about lack of resources. The collector commented in 1721 that...the dangerous smuggling trade carried on at the creeks of this port which is now come to a very great height, we having account that two other ships....are arrived upon the N creeks of this precinct in ballast both of which we have good ground to believe are come from Bordeaux load with wine and brandy which they have run upon this coast.  Besides wine and brandy, the principal cargoes smuggled into the town were the old favourites tea and tobacco, but wool was also moved from Aberdeen around the Scots coast to other towns, and on overseas from there. And the port record books point to a fascinating diversity of other goods seized:


80 ankers containing 672 gallons of brandy
5½ hogsheads and 11 ankers containing 446
gallons brandy
35 matts containing 3059 lbs leaf tobacco
10 small casks containing prunes
4 small casks containing raisins
2 small casks containing figs
1 small cask of currants
2 small casks of sweet liquorice
3 small casks of white soap
2 hampers of earthenware
2 casks containing molasses
1 anker of coarse oil
1 cask black pepper
1 small matt of twine
32 firkins and 10 half firkins of soap
6 casks of anniseed
22 reams of writing paper
7 casks of white starch
111 bars of Swedish iron. 


This was for November 1721 (though the period over which all this was seized is not stated)  Smuggling ships would by preference favour a landing place where they could unload their cargo unobserved, away from Aberdeen itself. Favourite spots were Caterline, or Collieston and Newburgh to the north. At Collieston two smuggling syndicates operated, supplying spirits that 'were sold in every tavern between Peterhead and Aberdeen'. If the smuggling ships could not simply land goods at the creeks around Aberdeen, they would hover offshore, and ferry the contraband to the beaches in smaller boats, stopping at several points on the coast to make deliveries.  The trade enjoyed the support of some highly-placed figures in the town, and interference from the customs authorities was frowned upon, as the King's men learned to their cost in the summer of 1744. On the basis of information received, they had sent out a party to the Denburn to ambush smuggled goods coming into town. There, though, the customs men were set upon by armed men dressed as women, and in the affray the son of a prominent Aberdeen merchant was killed. As a result of the clash, the smugglers escaped punishment, but two tidewaiters were arrested and thrown in the Tolbooth, and several days later the collector of customs (the most senior custom house official) joined them.  A favourite trick of the Aberdeen-bound smugglers was to obtain a bill of lading for Bergen. Since this was the legal point of import for dutiable goods bound for Scandinavia, the smugglers caught running contraband on Scotland's east coast simply claimed to have been blown off-course. Another equally popular trick was a false declaration of cargo value, though this required the collaboration of the tidesmen. The ruse was eventually stamped out by sending the land-surveyor along to supervise the unloading. (1721)  Smuggling in the Aberdeen area was all but eliminated after 1825, but a few French boats, ostensibly fishing for herring, succeeded in bringing in goods much later in the century and of course there were the Polish Fishermen


Caves in the coast between Aberdeen and Peterhead were widely used for storing smuggled spirits, and near Collieston and Slains, 1000 ankers of foreign spirits were landed monthly at the start of the eighteenth century. The caves at Slains were particularly extensive, and at a dance on a farm close to Slains Castle, the earth gave way, dropping the dancers into the cavern beneath.  The smugglers also hid contraband on the beaches, digging elaborate pits deep in the sand, big enough to hold up to 300 tubs of gin. The precautions taken by the smugglers seem extraordinary: an account written in 1858 describes how the barrels were taken from the lugger to a temporary resting place while the pit was dug. Sand from the pit would be turned onto two pieces of sail-cloth — dry sand from the surface on one, and the damper sand from below onto the other, so that the completed hiding place would not be betrayed by a change in the colour of the dunes. The pit was lined with bricks or timber, and the roof was always at least six feet underground, because the probes used to locate hidden caches on the beach were six feet long. Once the labourers had been paid off, the 'partners' in the run themselves transferred the barrels to the pit, sealed the entrance, and took bearings to landmarks so that they could locate the hoard. Within hours, wind-blown sand would cover all traces of activity.  Even this elaborate procedure was no guarantee of security, and if an informer revealed information about the cargo the consequences were often catastrophic, and sometimes tragic.


A simple gravestone in the Slains Kirkyard is now the only visible reminder of a 1798 run that went disastrously wrong...information of this landing, together with that of the intended transfer of the cargo to the interior during the succeeding night was conveyed to the Exciseman. Anderson, the officer in question, having secured the assistance of two others, proceeded in the evening to a spot about a quarter of a mile north of the Kirk of Slains, where the cart with the booty was expected to pass. Soon after the officers had taken up their position the carts were heard approaching, but, as usual, preceded by several avant couriers to 'clear the way'. One of these, Philip Kennedy, a man of undaunted courage and resolution, was the first to encounter the Excisemen. Seeing the danger, he seized hold, successively, of two of the officers, calling to his companions to seize the other. But these, possessing neither the courage nor the devotedness of poor Kennedy, decamped, and hid themselves among the tall broom which at that time clothed the neighbouring braes. Anderson, the officer who was still at liberty, attacked Kennedy, who was still holding on to his prisoners, and, with his sword, inflicted repeated wounds on his head; but Kennedy still kept his grasp on the prostrate officers, and Anderson was observed to hold up his sword to the moon, as if to ascertain whether he was using the [sharp] edge, and then, with one desperate stroke, cleft open the poor fellow's skull. Strange to say, Kennedy, streaming with blood, made out to reach Kirkton of Slains, a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, where, in the course of a few minutes, he expired. His last words were 'If all had been as true as I, the goods would have got through, and I should not now be bleeding to death'  Anderson the Exiseman was tried for murder of Kennedy in Edinburgh, and was acquitted.

Tidesmen were Excise (or Customs) officials who boarded a ship as it came into a port “on the tide” in order to supervise the unloading of the cargo. Since Elizabethan times, all cargo was required to be unloaded at the “legal quays”   This was primarily to prevent avoidance of payment of duties.  All ships, therefore, had to dock at such quays where the Tidesmen boarded and escorted the vessel to the Port of London.  The Tidesmen also escorted ships out in order to ensure that goods, where rebates on Excise Duty had been claimed, were not re-landed.  There were several classes of Tidesman, and began as a “Glutman”; that is, they did not have a permanent appointment but was used to supplement the regular 

North of Aberdeen, undulating hillsides sweep down to shifting dunes and wide stretches of golden sands. To the south, spectacular rock formations provide sanctuary for thousands of sea birds, and rocky beaches reveal caverns once used by smugglers.

The Ghost Of Muchalls Castle
An underground passage connected the Castle to a smugglers cove at Gin Shore. In the 19th the Lord Justice General of Scotland Lord Robertson had the passage sealed when he was a tenant of the Castle as he felt it was not in keeping with his title and position. The room which led to the tunnel is still called the Cave Room.  When the passage was used by smugglers, the daughter of one of the Castle's tenants had a lover who used the passage to smuggle contraband. One day she saw her lover's boat approach and she ran to the underground passage to meet him. Unfortunately she slipped and fell into the water and was found drowned by her lover. Since then the ghost of a beautiful girl has been seen in the Castle, making herself presentable in front of a mirror, as if to meet a lover. She also appears as a Green Lady in what was called the withdrawing room, which in modern days is now the dining room. 

Smugglers Britain

The Smugglers and the Whisky Roads

view towards the river DonScots had long had a reputation for being inveterate smugglers even before the 18th century began. But in 1707, parliaments of Scotland and England were united and thereafter the English system of customs duties and excise was introduced into Scotland. Not only was this regarded as an imposition by most Scots, it also saw a period of inefficient application of the English system. The result was that, especially with the lucrative English market to the south, smuggling boomed, with many from the highest to the lowest in the land either actively participating or happy to take the benefits of it. It was widely regarded as no crime and the resultant political corruption supported it. Since the major goods smuggled were imported tobacco, wine, or spirits like brandy, basically this was a nation in the grip of drug smuggling, a condition that even today proves difficult to remedy in a modern nation.

However, the story that most closely attaches to our bridges, is not that of imported smuggled goods but the locally produced one – namely whisky. The Scots seem to be the only nation in the world who have a major, internationally consumed drink named after them, namely Scotch whisky. The word itself comes from the Gaelic phrase “uisge beathat”, meaning “water of life.”. And yet Scotch whisky as we know it did not evolve until the mid 19th century, indeed, the British courts did not decide, exactly what Scotch whisky was until the London Borough of Islington case in 1906! The case centred on whether Scotch whisky had to be only malt whisky or whether it could be mixed with grain spirit, now generally spirit distilled from maize, a crop not normally associated with Scottish agriculture. In fairness, they also decided that Scotch could only be Scotch after a minimum three years of maturation.

It was the introduction of a tax on malt, an essential ingredient in the making of whisky that helped spur on the illicit distilling of whisky – that is the distilling of whisky without a licence, which cost a lot to purchase. As much as anything, the driving force behind the trade, as in some countries today that grow marijuana or other drugs was poverty. Much of the Highlands, where hundreds of illicit stills operated, had and have low agricultural productivity. Even the landless who could equip themselves with distilling equipment could enter into the trade, sending their goods south in barrels, hung on long strings of ponies, over the hill tracks and roads.

Bridges 1, 2, and 3

Highlanders showed a mix of apathy and outright hostility to the roads. They were after all the creation of an alien government imposing its rule upon them. They allowed government forces to move around the Highlands more freely than ever before, as they were intended to do. Highlanders, who had moved with ease among the Highlands on foot before the roads saw little benefit from them and saw only benefits for the “invaders.”

As the 18th century moved to its end and the 19th began the threat of Jacobite rebellions became remote, but the military roads still had to be maintained at very considerable cost. Also, the steepness of parts of the military roads made them unsuitable for the stage coaches that became an important form of public transport. Central government grew ever more reluctant to meet this annual bill of several hundred pounds and the Commissioners of Highland Roads and Bridges sought to reduce the cost. Some little used roads were simply abandoned, others that had become widely adopted for civilian use were transferred to local government to maintain.

Corgarff was a major centre of distilling as were the glens to the north of it such as Glenlivet, now the source of a famous malt whisky from its legal distillery. A watcher on the military road and bridges would have seen many a long string of pack animals passing secretly by at night carrying locally illegally distilled whisky. The government officials charged with the responsibility to suppress the illegal trade and collect the revenues due on the whisky, the “excise men”, were not idle. Fierce fights developed between smugglers and the excise men they encountered and the bridges and military road would have been the scene of some of these. The road system, built to suppress the local population, was now actively if illegally, used by them to support their needs. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the system of military roads built by Wade and Caulfeild was falling into disrepair and disuse. It was the communications built by the great Scots civil engineer Telford, who constructed some 705 miles of new road and 1,000 bridges that then aided the distribution of the smuggled goods.

But the activity did not meet with everyone’s approval. As the minister of Strathdon put it in 1801, “The inhabitants of Corgarff, the glens and not a few in the lower part of the parish were professed smugglers, The revenue officers were set at defiance. To be engaged in illicit distillation, and to defraud the excise, was neither looked on as a crime, nor considered as a disgrace. As may be supposed, such a system of things proved most pernicious, productive of the grossest demoralization, irreligion, and sin, destructive of every habit of regular industry.”

Undoubtedly, the profitability of illicit distilling helped maintain the populations of remote parts of the Highlands such as Corgarff and Strathdon where our military road is situated. The Statistical Account of Scotland of 1843 declared,” While this infamous and demoralizing practice prevailed, population increased through the facilities by which families were maintained in the hills and valleys by its profits.”

By mid 19th century however, the practice was dying out. What stopped it? Undoubtedly, the activities of the excise men had its effect. In 1827 for example, Corgarff castle was restored at a cost of £1,200, a huge sum in those days, and a body of government troops, light dragoons, (mounted infantrymen) were stationed there to suppress the smuggling. They became known as the “terror of the smugglers” and presumably earned their reputation.

However other measures were probably more effective. The Duke of Gordon of the day pointed out that whisky was the natural beverage of the highlander and distilling was in their blood. A more effective way to control the practice was to make it cheaper to do it legally by lowering the cost of a licence to distil whisky legally. The degree to which this illegal drug was widely supplied made effective control impossible. Even George IV reportedly limited his consumption to Glenlivet whisky after being offered it by a local Laird! Legislation legalising the distillation of whisky was introduced in 1823. Also, pressure was brought to bear on the landowners who could evict tenants who distilled illegally and this perhaps had more impact than anything.

Today, no whisky smugglers pass this way (we think!). Whisky has evolved from a rather ill-defined and often not very fine drink that the smugglers carried into the high quality “Scotch” that the world enjoys and which is one of Scotland’s main exports. But there are fewer, far fewer people in the glens.

Send mail to jazzmaster@jazzeddie.f2s.com with questions or comments about the design of this web site.
Last modified: 01/09/2013