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The Galloway guide to gruff-looking sea dogs

“Half Manx, half Dutchman, half devil, with a prodigious moustache, loose long cravat and wearing a curved sword and high boots. The terror of all the excise and custom house cruisers.”

Sir Walter Scott’s impression of an archetypal Gallovidian smuggler conjures emotive images of moonlight dancing on the crest of waves as they crash against jagged rocks. However, this romantic legend was inspired by a real life captain who became the scourge of the revenue men who had the impossible task of controlling the local trade in illegal goods.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Galloway was the centre for smuggling in Scotland. It’s proximity to the Western Isles, Ireland and the tax-free smugglers’ utopia, the Isle of Man, made it an ideal route for ‘free traders’. Also being just a stone’s throw from the English border allowed easy transport of goods to all parts of the country.


It’s impressively rocky coastline with many inlets, hideaways and an abundance of caves created the perfect opportunity to evade the excisemen and offload contraband. The most popular goods were spirits, tobacco, tea and salt, due to the excessively high taxes that were imposed upon them.


It’s from this time of intrepid individuals, crafty crofters and bold buccaneers that Scotland’s zeal for innovation begins to shine – although much to the dismay of the excisemen! It’s this same sense of innovation that runs in our veins at Crafty Distillery and something that can be experienced for yourself throughout Galloway as you tour this bonnie wee corner of the country.


Rather than allowing all these historical shenanigans and swashbuckling tales pass you by, we thought it would make a worthy read to uncover just how deep the smuggling trade and illicit distilling runs in Galloway. So the next time you visit, feel a little closer to Galloway’s rich and colourful history, and raise a dram to those gruff-looking sea dogs and innovative distillers who had a crucial role to play in Scotland’s heritage.


The Pirates of Kirkcudbright


Starting at the east end of Galloway, the whole area around Kirkcudbright was highly favoured by smugglers, or free-traders as they were commonly known. In particular Abbey Head, Rascarrel Bay and Balcary Bay were notable sites for offloading the prized stuff. Balcary House, which is now a hotel, was in fact at one point under the ownership of a smuggling company from the Isle of Man. As was the case with many buildings in the area, secret cellars and tunnels were constructed to stash illegal goods and access the beach without being easily detected.


Venturing along the cliffs around Balcary Bay, there are many geological anomalies that were utilised by smugglers. Adam’s Chair is a well-known rocky pinnacle that was reportedly named after a smuggler’s helper. Here he would sit on top of the rock, swinging his lantern to signal to ships when the coast was clear. Another notable feature is the enchantingly named Door of The Heugh, seemingly taking its name from a popular cave at the foot of the cliff. A heugh being a steep and rocky precipice.


Further west towards the town of Kircudbright, the Barlocco Caves include the vast yet inconspicuous Black Cave that was favoured by the intrepid ‘Wild’ Wat Neilson. The cave is wide and tall enough to skilfully sail a lugger deep inside on a calm day. A task that Wild Wat was highly adept at.


The Scots poet Robert Burns himself was famously stationed in the area during his time as an exciseman. As possibly the most well-known exciseman in Scottish history, Burns was appointed to the area in 1791, on a salary of £50 per year. On one particular occasion he was involved with intercepting a smuggling ship near Annan.


This particular lugger was literally loaded with illegal goods and a large crew who were armed with swords, muskets and canons. However, the ship was so loaded that it had become stuck on nearby sands and Burns kept a dutiful watch until reinforcements arrived. It was during his wait that he composed his famous song ‘The Deil's Awa Wi' The Exciseman’, revealing both his own views and those commonly held at the time at the time, that excisemen were bad people who should be taken away by the devil.


Wigtown Bay – a smuggler’s paradise


With its many concealed inlets, Wigtown Bay is somewhat of a smuggler’s haven. Wigtown itself and Creetown to the north certainly became the focus of much free-trader activity. One account from 1777 tells how over 100 smugglers defiantly marched within a mile of the towns, despite being under the gaze of 30 soldiers who were too outnumbered to take action.


To the south, the Isle of Whithorn presents a perfectly secluded bay with its narrow inlet. Story has it that once a smuggling lugger was being hotly pursued by a revenue ship after being spotted off the Mull of Galloway. It sailed at speed into the bay, but when the revenue officers arrived it had mysteriously disappeared.


Before the Isle of Whithorn's harbour was developed into it’s current configuration, it had two entrance points. However, one was only suitable for very small boats. After sailing into the harbour and using the receding tide to their advantage, the smugglers managed to squeeze through the shallow waters of the small entrance and escape. Once the tide was out, legend has it that deep gouges could be seen in the sand from its hull being dragged along the seabed.


Dirk Hatteraick's Cave


We began our tour with Sir Walter Scott’s character, a seafaring smuggler, with ‘a countenance bronzed by a thousand conflicts’, and ‘a savage scowl’, who appeared in the famous novel ‘Guy Mannering’. This gruff-looking old sea dog that answered to the name of Dirk Hatteraick was in fact inspired by the real-life Captain Jack Yawkins, the commander of a famously fast smuggling lugger, the Black Prince.


One tale describes how as Captain Yawkins was landing a smuggled cargo near Manxman’s Lake at Kirkudbright, two revenue ships appeared. One charged towards Yawkins from the east while the other came from the west. Using the speed of his ship, Captain Yawkins sailed directly between the two, so close that he could have tossed his hat onto one of the revenue ship’s decks, but understanding that they could not fire their canons until they were broadside. By then of course he was out of range.


Hence Dirk Hatteraick's Cave that overlooks Wigtown Bay has a long-standing connection to smuggling in Galloway. Not for the faint hearted, the cave is entered through a narrow shaft that descends into an opening. Situated on the north-east coast of Wigtown Bay, near Kirkdale at the west end of the Heughs of Barholm, the cave is at the very centre of smuggling in the area.


The Luggers of Luce Bay


Heading further round towards Luce Bay, you will find yourself passing Port William. Smuggling was so rife in Galloway that garrisons housing soldiers were strategically positioned along the coast, with one such famous garrison being at Port William. To stash their hoards right beneath the noses of the soldiers, many houses along this coastline were cunningly converted.


A living example is Clone Farmhouse which had a standard cellar that contained normal wares and legal goods. However, beneath this a hidden cellar was constructed, solely to hide away smuggled contraband. When this secret cellar, often called a ‘brandy hole’, was finally discovered it contained 80 chests of tea, 200 bales of tobacco and more than 5,200 litres of brandy!


Just behind Port William itself at Drumtroddan Farm, a smuggling company went to the lengths of constructing a fireproof brandy hole beneath the farm kiln. If excisemen were spotted in the area, the kiln would be lit to create a sure-fire way (pun intended) to avoid the goods being discovered.


It is often assumed that smuggling antics were undertaken deep into the night with only moonlight and the stars as a guide. However an article in the Whitehaven Advertiser dated 2nd October 1781 recounted how bold the smugglers had become:


“Tuesday se'nnight, the Cumbrae Cutter, revenue cruiser belonging to Glasgow, commanded by Mr. James Crawford, fell in with a large smuggling cutter, mounting 22 guns, and full of men, discharging cargo at the Clone in Luce Bay at eleven o'clock in the morning: Fifty-two carts were then employed on the shore. A running fight commenced... when the Cambrae Cutter lost her main haulyards, and was unfortunately very much damaged in other parts of his rigging, which obliged them to desist from the engagement.”




Venturing round the southern tip at the Mull of Galloway we find ourselves on the western coastline and the picturesque fishing village of Portpatrick. Giving rise to the name Barrack Street, a significant garrison was positioned in the town. However, in this instance an astute smuggling company was one step ahead of the game. The smugglers gave regular pay to two members of staff within the garrison. If any anti-smuggling activities were planned, the smugglers were some of the first to know.


Stills in the hills


With much of the smuggling in Galloway focussed on goods such as tea, tobacco, brandy and salt, it’s easy to overlook the vast illicit whisky distilling industry. To the Scots at the time, smuggling was not restricted to the import and export of goods but also included illegal distilling.


A change in law in 1814 prohibited the use of whisky stills below a capacity of 500 gallons. However, Galloway with it’s many secluded forests, hills and glens, plus a bountiful supply of fresh water, was the ideal place to hide whisky stills far away from the eyes of the devil’s exciseman. The tell-tale sign of course would be the plumes of smoke permeating through the tree tops, emanating from the fires that heated the stills.


Whisky making, like other acts of smuggling skulduggery, was a great asset to the local communities in and around Galloway. Therefore it was very often the case that smuggling was a community effort. Similar to a 17th century version of Neighbourhood Watch, people would keep and eye out in the local area. But rather than looking for thieves and burglars, they would be keeping an eye out for excisemen, ready to warn any whisky distillers in the area.


While whisky was highly valued and heartily consumed by the locals, a great deal was sent south of the border, and in true Scots spirit, often using extremely innovative methods. One such creation was called the ‘Belly Canteen’, a 2 gallon bladder forged from  sheet iron. Once filled with fine Scotch spirit, the Belly Canteen would be hidden under a lady’s garments as she rode horseback towards Glasgow, Edinburgh or England, giving the impression that she was expecting a baby.


Take a smuggler’s tour of Galloway


The next time you’re visiting us in Galloway, take some time to explore some of the villages, caves and cottages that played a crucial role in it’s history. Follow the old free trader routes than pass through Newton Stewart and up through Glen Trool and around Loch Enoch. Of course pop in and say hello at the distillery. You can book a whisky or gin tour here.

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