Plans for Clan Hay’s annual gathering in 2020 are now well advanced and will include a tour of coastal sites associated with smuggling on Hay lands in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Visit Scotland’s theme for the 2020 season is ‘Coasts and Waterways’, ideally suited to Clan Hay’s principal base on the Aberdeenshire coast.

One of many smugglers caves, only seen from the sea

Smuggling was a major industry in the area at the time and some historians estimate that there was scarcely a family on this part of the coast that wasn’t, to some extent, involved in the illicit trade.  Aberdeen, just to the south, was already a major trading port, well policed by customs officers, but the Slains coastline was ideally suited to smuggling, studded with caves and numerous well-hidden rocky inlets and bays.

Smuggling took many different forms: some was relatively harmless, the illegal importing of contraband for personal or local use, but it also had a dangerous and violent side, in some cases taking place on an industrial scale.  At least some of the smuggling activity at Slains could almost fit the definition of ‘organised crime.’  In the early years of the 18th century, 1000 ankers (barrels of 16 gallons capacity) of foreign spirits were entering the country every month via the village of Collieston alone.  Nor did it stop there.  Ships came into the Slains coastline carrying soap, molasses, Swedish iron, raisins, currants, aniseed, figs, sweet liquorice, earthenware pots, twine, oil, pepper, white starch and writing paper.  A sophisticated business indeed.

This one is visible from land, but easily missed if you don’t know where to look

Among the perpetrators were the infamous Kennedy brothers, tenants of the Chief of Clan Hay in the Ward of Slains.  The elder, Philip Kennedy, was killed by a customs officer in December 1798, during the delivery of a 16-anker consignment of Dutch gin.  This is nowadays seen as a romantic tale, related in terms that show the bravery of the smuggler faced with the dastardly customs man.  However it is clear that the Kennedys were not the figures of romance we are led to believe.  Philip Kennedy’s daughter, 11 years old at her father’s death, became a schoolteacher in nearby Cruden Bay and survived until 1879.  Philip’s descendants remained in the area, farming on the lands of Leask, well into living memory and the tour will give previously little-known insights into this notorious family.

The grave of the notorious Philip Kennedy in Slains churchyard

The caves, well hidden from plain sight, were ideal for the storage of contraband.  Next year’s Clan Hay gathering, over the extended weekend of 31 July to 3 August, will introduce visitors to these secret places, still largely unknown, even to local residents.  Guided clifftop walks will be available to the able bodied, but it is possible to walk the cliffs without being even aware of the caves, which are under the feet and can’t be seen from the land.  Consequently, there will also be boat trips, starting from Cruden Bay, travelling south to the Ythan Estuary, then north to Boddam.  Very few people ever see this coastline from the sea and to do so gives a perspective that is entirely different.  Your guides, the tide permitting, will introduce visitors to a few of the more spectacular and well-hidden gorges and caves associated with smuggling all those years ago.

The Smugglers’ Tour is just one of many activities over the weekend of the gathering; keep an eye on the website for more detail as it emerges!