The last in the Clan Hay Society’s 2022 lecture series was given by Alan Hay, the society’s Archivist, on the subject of smuggling in North East Scotland.  This was ‘unfinished business’ from the Clan Hay Gathering in Aberdeenshire in July when this talk was one of the events that time pressures caused to be cancelled, which the promise that it would be delivered online at a later date.

Boddam Castle, powerfully situated on its cliff-bound promontory

Clan Hay’s principal heartland is on the coastline of North East Scotland, to the north of Aberdeen itself.  Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, this area was a hotbed of smuggling activity, of such intensity that it is estimated there was scarcely a coastal family between Aberdeen and Banff that wasn’t, to some extent, engaged in this nefarious activity.

Taxation had been a familiar fact of Scottish life from the reign of David I (1129-53) although it was less onerous in Scotland that elsewhere.  Tax in medieval times was largely a matter of funding national ambitions abroad, specifically of fighting wars.  After the War of Independence was over, Scotland was hardly ever at war, and so by comparison with England, for example, a far more warlike nation, taxation in Scotland was lighter, less regular and, because of our geography, harder to collect.  The Scottish economy was principally concerned with the export of raw materials and the import of finished goods, so there was less requirement for protectionist tariffs to protect domestic manufactures.

With the Act of Union of 1707, though, the position dramatically changed.  English taxation, necessarily high due to England’s near permanent state of conflict in Europe, was also used to protect English manufacturers in the textile and other industries, principally against French, Dutch and Flemish competitors.  With the Act of Union, English customs duties were extended to Scotland and, at a stroke, goods which had been within the reach of most Scots became unattainable luxuries, unless the tiresome business of paying taxes could somehow be circumvented.  Smuggling became Scotland’s biggest industry and in the years after 1707, Scotland’s total tax take fell by near 70% as a result of the British Government imposing levels of taxation beyond anything remotely affordable.

One of many smugglers caves, only seen from the sea

Aberdeen’s old Customs House can still be seen on the harbour’s Regent Quay, but the whole of Scotland’s North East corner had only three customs posts, at Montrose, Inverness and Aberdeen itself.  It was a straightforward matter for those involved in the illicit trade to avoid customs officers, particularly in light of the geography of the coastline between the Rivers Ythan and Deveron.  Secluded bays, hidden beaches, towering sea cliffs studded with inaccessible caves all contributed to a landscape perfect for the illegal import of goods, which came from France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and even as far afield as Spain.

This was a sophisticated business.  Scottish ships taking cargoes of, for example, timber, beef, herrings and hides to northern Scandinavia, would operate at speed to turn round in the Baltic before the ice set in for the winter, returning with cargoes of Swedish iron and copper.  Further cargoes from Europe included raisins, currants, molasses, writing paper, playing cards, figs, white starch, earthenware pots, twine, oil, pepper and soap.  On the Hay lands north of the River Ythan, it is said that 1000 gallons of Dutch gin entered the country every month through the tiny harbour of Collieston alone.  Brandy came from France.  Claret, the red wine of Bordeaux, had been the preferred drink of the Scots gentleman since the early medieval period, and vast quantities of it were imported from the Bay of Biscay.  Such were the financial rewards attached to smuggling, that the smugglers estimated they could lose one cargo in every three and still be substantially in profit, a return that significantly outweighed the risks involved.

Several attempts were made to reduce duties to make smuggling less attractive, or at least to render the risk involved not worth the return, but it was not until the 19th century when the doctrine of Free Trade  became fashionable that tax began to reduce.  Most taxes were eventually swept away altogether by Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in the 1840s, chiefly as a means of relieving famine in Ireland, which finally brought down the curtain on this illegal but romantic occupation.  But the stories of smugglers and their exploits remain, an indelible part of our shared folklore.

Clan Hay’s lecture series for 2023 is nearly complete and resumes on 4 February when we hear from the Very Rev Dr Emsley Nimmo on Jacobitism and the Scottish church, and how it impacted on our forebears’ lives.