Clan Hay Gathering 2021: The Smugglers’ Coast

Plans for Clan Hay's 2021 annual gathering are now taking shape, for the long weekend of Friday 6 to Monday 9 August 2021.  You can find out more about the outline programme here:  and that page will also enable you to register to receive regular updates about any new developments in the activities planned for the four day event.  The Clan Hay Society is grateful to Visit Scotland, which has provided a grant of the maximum sum allowed to support these activities.

One of the four themes of Clan Hay's 2021 gathering will be 'The Smugglers' Coast.'  The gathering weekend will see regular boat tours of the spectacular Aberdeenshire coastline, taking in some of the caves which were hives of illegal activity two or three hundred years ago.

One of many smugglers caves, only seen from the sea

Through the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th centuries, smuggling was a prime activity here.  Although illegal, during the 18th century it was believed smuggling was not actually wrong, especially after the union with England in 1707 saw the imposition of English customs tariffs on Scottish traders.  Aberdeen had long been a large port, trading with the Netherlands, Flanders, France and Germany as well as Scandinavia and the Baltic, well policed by customs officials.  But the coastline to the north of the city, studded with secluded bays, caves and hidden beaches, was ideally suited to trading under the radar.  By some reckonings, there was almost nobody living on the Aberdeenshire coast during the period who was not, in one way or another, involved in the smuggling trade.

Smuggling encompassed a wide spectrum of activity.  On the one hand, there was low-level offending involving a few undeclared bottles of spirits for personal or local consumption.  On the other, there existed very high-level, organised, criminal activity.  In between, respectable gentlemen from the professional and landowning classes operated well-run smuggling businesses, for all the world like a modern import, export concern, except for the inconvenient fact that their trade was against the law.

The author's mother's rolling pin, inherited from her mother's family, glass, hollow and corked at either end

The ordinary folk of the coast had their own part to play, as every available receptacle was pressed into service to hide illicit material from the dreaded excisemen, even down to the production of glass rolling-pins with a cork at each end, which could be filled with illegal spirits.  They would be hired by the ringleaders to assist with carrying off and concealing the contraband, before disappearing into the night, with any luck one step ahead of the 'gaugers,' as the customs officers were known.

Slains and its hinterland was a hotbed of smuggling activity.  For much of the 18th century, it is estimated 1000 gallons of Dutch gin entered the country every month via the tiny village of Collieston alone.  And it didn't begin and end with alcohol.  Contraband landed here included writing paper, Swedish iron, molasses, raisins, currants, figs, white starch, soap, aniseed, twine, oil, pepper, earthenware pots and sweet liquorice.  This was a major industry, some of it directed by uncompromising and ruthless operators.

The grave of the notorious Philip Kennedy in Slains churchyard

Among these were the Kennedy family, tenants of the Earl of Erroll at the Ward of Slains.  The head of the tribe was the eldest brother, Philip, who ostensibly made his living as a crofter and shoemaker.  He was killed by the blow of a gauger's sword in December 1798, when his band was surprised by the authorities under the command of one William Anderson, who would stand trial for Kennedy's murder.  This is usually represented as a romantic tale of the dashing, swashbuckling smuggler mercilessly brought to his death by the murderous government man.  The evidence, though, suggests otherwise.

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

Everything we know about the Kennedys suggests they belonged to the more dangerous end of the smugglers' spectrum.  We hear that Philip was a large, powerful man, with 'a direct look and a direct manner.'  We know that, on the night of his death, he and his brother John were armed with wooden clubs, into which a hole had been bored, then filled with molten lead: these were deadly weapons and it is clear they would not hesitate to use violence if interrupted.

On that fateful night, Kennedy and his band were to take delivery at Cransdale of 16 ankers of gin from the Crooked Mary, an infamous smuggling vessel which the authorities were anxious to apprehend.  Most of the gang took to their heels, concerned to avoid arrest.  The Kennedys themselves, though, stuck around to put up a fight, perhaps because of the very great financial reward they would otherwise lose.  John Kennedy was brought down by a gauger's sword, and arrested.  Philip then seized two of the customs men and threatened dire consequences if his young brother wasn't released.  It was then that he received the fatal blow to the skull from Anderson's cutlass.

In the event, both men escaped.  John Kennedy's face carried the mark of the gauger's sword until his death, near 50 years later.  Philip managed to crawl the quarter mile to the farmhouse at Kirkton of Slains, where he expired on the 'dais' as it's known locally, which could still be seen in the farm kitchen, stained with the famous smuggler's blood, until not many years ago.  Years later, a gravedigger accidentally unearthed a skeleton in Slains churchyard, identified as  Philip's remains by the great crack in the skull inflicted by William Anderson.

The story of the Crooked Mary, the ship that brought the doomed cargo that night, is instructive of how smuggling was viewed by Scots of the time.  The ship was owned and skippered by one John Gordon.  Time and again, he had outwitted Captain Eyre of the Royal Navy, who was determined to nail him, whatever the cost.  (Think Captain Jack Sparrow versus Commodore Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean.)

Shortly after the Kennedy incident, Captain Eyre finally succeeded in boarding the Crooked Mary.  Its skipper was unconcerned and offered no resistance, knowing that his arrest was illegal on the basis that he was too far offshore, and outside Captain Eyre's jurisdiction.  But having finally cornered his quarry, Captain Eyre was not to be cheated.  He lined up a series of witnesses, who were persuaded to swear they saw the incident from the coast, and that the ship was well inside the prescribed limit.

Charles Hay, Lord Newton

Charles Hay, Lord Newton

The case came to court before Charles Hay, Lord Newton, a judge of uncommon shrewdness.  Captain Eyre very nearly came to grief: Lord Newton had an intimate knowledge of this coastline, his family estate of Cocklaw situated just a few miles distant.  Eyre's first witness gave a detailed account of what he had seen, swearing that the ship was well inshore.  Where, specifically, did he live, asked the judge?  Where was he standing when he witnessed what happened?  By his front door, answered the witness.  Unfortunately, Lord Newton knew the house, and that the door faced west....away from the sea.

The next witness was a Mrs Collie, who told the judge she had seen the whole thing with her own eyes, from the beach.  This made matters considerably worse, for the judge well knew that there was no beach, only cliffs.  Under pressure from his lordship, the wretched Mrs Collie was forced to concede she in fact lived in New Deer - 10 miles inland from Slains - and that she had never in her life even seen the sea.

In any modern courtroom, the case for the prosecution would have failed.  But Lord Newton knew John Gordon was a crook, and that his ship, the Crooked Mary, was well named.  He imposed no sentence on Gordon, but confiscated his ship and awarded it to Captain Eyre.

So Captain Eyre's face was saved, and John Gordon escaped prosecution.  Events then turned full circle, when Eyre sold the ship straight back to his old adversary, making himself a profit of £30.  So maybe everybody was happy in the end.

Everybody, that is, except poor Philip Kennedy.  The Kennedys survived to become the most upright pillars of the local community.  Philip's daughter Isabella, aged 11 at her father's death, became a schoolteacher in Cruden Bay and survived until 1879, revered by generations of former pupils.  The Kennedy brothers' descendants farmed in the lands of Leask well into living memory, those of John at Whitefields, and Philip at Byreleask.  They were as respectable a kindred as ever drew breath, elders of the Kirk and generous benefactors of local charities, their ancestors' shady past long forgotten.

© Alan Hay 2020