Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Smugglers - Johnny Cullen

This wee story sees a hapless local criminal trying his hand at smuggling down in Inverkip...

Johnny Cullen - A Smugglers Tale by Auld Dunrod

If you want to see a wee bit of local history, Gourockguy's channel on Youtube has loads of videos of Inverclyde's nooks and crannies, including the Shielhill Cave, believed by some to have been used by smugglers

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Whisky Galore

These days, Inverclyde markets itself as "Scotlands Export Capital". Central to this impressive title is our position on the river, which has long served a commercial purpose for the people of the area. For hundreds of years ships have traded with the ports of Greenock and Port Glasgow and placing the area at the heart of Scotlands economy. However, three hundred years ago, Inverclyde was more famous for its imports, though not everything that came ashore was legal. Indeed, during the 18th and 19th centuries, smuggling was a significant part of the economy of Scotland, and the Firth of the Clyde became a favourite haunt of merchants dealing in Contraband. Completely unlike today of course. Duties imposed on goods such as tobacco, whisky and tea after the Union of the Crowns in 1707 meant that illicit trade in duty free goods became a particularly profitable endevour for anyone with a boat.
By the barrel and crate…

The trade found a foothold in Inverkip where the bay provided the perfect location for landing goods. It seems that in this quiet little village "whisky was landed by the barrel, and tea by the crate." And just like many other parts of Scotland at that time, if it meant cheaper whisky, everyone was content to be involved, sometimes even the local minister! Normally, watertight bundles of contraband would be floated in the bay after nightfall. Then the smugglers would go ashore and check the area for customs officers. If the coast was clear, the float would be retrieved. From here, the goods could be stored safely in the numerous cellars of sympathetic villages, or quickly transported to Greenock or Glasgow by coach.

The Increase of Smuggling

John Galt in his famous work of fiction Annals of the Parish, widely believed to draw heavily on the history of Inverkip, gives an interesting account of smuggling in the mid 1700’s:

“It was in the year 1761 that the great smuggling trade corrupted all the west coast, especially the laigh lands. The tea was going like chaff, the brandy like well-water, and the wastrie of all things was terrible. There was nothing minded but the riding of cadgers by day and excise men by night – and battles between the smugglers and the king’s men, both by sea and land. There was a continual drunkenness and debauchery; and our session, that was but on the lip of this whirlpool of iniquity, had an awful time o’t.  Before this year, the drinking of tea was little know on the parish, saving amoung a few of the heritors’ house on a Sabbath evening; but now it became very rife.”

3 Pints and a dram

The incidents of smuggling in Inverkip are numerous and well documented. One well known case is that of Thomas Finnie, a local milkman, whose tale is recorded in the records of the Innerkip Society:

“Early in the morning of the 22nd of December, 1809, about 6 am, Thomas Spence, Supervisor of Excise in Greenock, could have been seen – suitably armed with pistol, etc – riding through the slush to Inverkip accompanied by two other officers. Almost exhausted and perished with the cold after their unusual errand they espied Thomas Finnie’s milk cart. They lay in wait near the Daff burn and when Thomas had reached that point on his way to the “big house” with his morning delivery, the command to halt came from Spence. Mr Spence immediately searched the cart and in addition to the usual and necessary commodity of milk, he found three casks of Highland whisky containing in all 30 gallons. The horse, cart, milk and whisky and, of course, Thomas, were seized and taken in charge when, suddenly, Spence spotted Robert Cochrane some distance off. Cochrane was also searched and his cart was found to contain 50 gallons of Whisky. Both carts, their contents and their owners were marched on to Greenock Bridewell.”

Pistols at the ready

While many of the incidents at Invekip were tame and relatively free from violence, this as not always the case.  Encounters between the excisemen and smugglers or their customers for that matter were at their worst when the cargo consisted of food, and people  were hungry.One account tells of riots at Greenock when a ship tried to land a cargo of food from Ireland.:

'...a most violent and outrageous mob has risen at Greenock and by force broken open the hatches and carried away the sails of the vessels laying in that harbour laden with oatmeal...and taken and carried away all the said meal despite of whatever could be done to prevent it...'

The complement of 20 dragoons stuggled to  control the mob of several thousand locals. The intervention of a local magistrate almost ended in tradgedy, and would surely have resulted in his death, were he not dragged off to the custom house for his own safety.

Another case also tells of violent side to the smuggling industry, when during an encounter with smugglers at Lunderston Bay, a revenue officer was brutally killed as he tried to prevent the criminals from escaping.

Customs HQ

The extent of the smuggling industry on the west-coast was in part responsible for the creation of the new Custom House at Greenock. The building was finished in 1818, and stood as a warning to all on the Clyde that the excise men were present in force.  It is thought that this is the last of a long line of custom houses sited in Greenock; previous ones included a building in Cathcart street and an office at the West Quay. The Customs service of Greenock sports some famous connections; Burns spent some of his career as an excise man in Greenock and while the location of the very first excise office remains unknown, it is recorded as having been in operation during the cattle raids of Rob Roy, when local men were sent out to deal with the Highland rogue on a number of occasions.

Inverkip – Import Capital of Scotland

The last reported case of smuggling occurred in Inverkip in 1888, when a large amount  of tobacco was seized. However, the customs maintained a presence in Inverkip for many years to come and until the 1900’s, tow coastguard officers were a familiar sight in the village, keeping watch over the bay with a keen eye and polished binoculars. Today, there is little to link the village to its days a smuggling den, only the romantically named, though somewhat unimpressive Smugglers Cave stands as a memorial,  a few miles behind the town. Some people have speculated that the mysterious skull and crossbones headstone in the villages old cemetery marks the final resting place to one of Inverkip’s shadowy smugglers; a fitting monument to this dark and romantic chapter in the history of this little village.

(text by Neil Bristow)

Monday, 16 January 2012

Saint Fillan

January 19th sees the feast day of a Celtic Missionary associated with the area, Saint Fillan...

After the victory of the Christian forces at the epic Battle of Arderryd, the growth of Christianity continued unabated in Scotland. The Celtic saints played a great part in this, Saint Columba having unified the many disjointed missions into a whole. For the next 150 years, the Christian word carried to the furthest reaches of Scotland. It was against this background that St. Fillan arrived in this country, some time around the early 700s.

Fillan, whose name literally translates as ‘wolf cub’ was born to Federach, a prince of the race of Fiatach Finn, and Kentigerna, a princess of Ulster. As the legend has it, he was born with a stone in his mouth. Federach saw this as a sign that this child was a curse to him, and threw him into a lake. However, Fillan was kept safe by angels, who watched over the child until he was discovered by Bishop Ibar. The Bishop raised him as his own child, in the Christian faith. Kentigerna kept a distant but watchful eye on her son, and was thankful to Ibar and his monks for caring for her son. Fillan’s mother, too, would later become a missionary.

When Fillan landed on our shores, his mother and cousin Comgan accompanied him, they first settled in Lochalsh, in Wester Ross; later Fillan would travel to Glen Dochart, his mother retiring to Inch Cailleach, ‘The Nun’s Isle’, on Loch Lomond, where she died in 734 A.D.

The Exploits of St. Fillan
To this day, stories are rife of Fillan’s trials and adventures during the years when he was founding his missions. One such famous tale tells of a wolf who attacked and killed one of Fillan’s oxen while he was ploughing his fields; the wolf subsequently returned and allowed himself to be yoked. The animal would go on to aid Fillan in his ploughing, and help him build his priory. This tale is seen by some as an allegory for Fillan ‘taming’ the wilder elements of ancient Celtic culture.

Another legendary tale speaks of Fillan’s battle against a fearsome boar in Killin. Fillan arrived there having parted company with St. Columba’s biographer, Adoman, at Tyndrum, only to hear the town’s tales of woe concerning this hideous beast, said to have ‘tusks the size of plough shares.’ Fillan set off into the forests to hunt down the boar, accompanied by his dog Dileas. Finding the enormous creature three days later, rooting beneath a rowan tree, Fillan held onto his simple wooden club as the boar turned on him and charged. Fillan brought the club down on the monster’s head, killing it with one blow.

Tales of saints killing great beasts are far from uncommon; it is said that St.Columba defeated a mighty boar on Skye in a similar legend. These stories, true or not, play a part in idealising the saint figure, making him almost Godlike, and ensuring that his name will carry on through history; such is the Ossianic tradition of the hero in Celtic culture.

The focal point of St. Fillan’s labours in Scotland appears to have been Strathfillan in Perthshire, where a long stone known as St. Fillan’s seat still remains. Nearby in a mill thought to have been built by the saint, seven holy stones, believed to have healing powers, are still preserved to this day. Strathfillan is not the only site with strong links to the saint, and during his many travails throughout the country he seems to have founded churches in both Skelmorlie and, more importantly, in Kilallan, near Kilmacolm.

The name itself seems to be a corruption of Killfillan, i.e. Cella Fillani - the Cell of Saint Fillan. Here, on the Kilmacolm road to Houston, stand the ruins of a medieval church said to have been established by the saint during a long period of labour in the area. Nearby, a large stone with a hollow in the middle is also remembered as St. Fillan’s Seat, the place where he is thought to have preached to a small number of followers. Such frequent and personal references to the saint certainly attest to the significance and impact of his work in the region.

However, the most famous shrine with a connection to the saint is St. Fillan’s Well, a stone’s throw from Fillan’s Seat in Kilallan. Here, under a rock, shaded by overhanging bushes, it is said that countrywomen would bring their weak and sickly children to be healed by the holy waters, leaving a small keepsake or offering hanging from the bushes. A similar practice was followed at Fillan’s well in Skelmorlie; the plethora of wells associated with Fillan testifies to his reputation as a healer. In Kilallan, pilgrimages to the well went on until the end of the 1600s when the local minister, one Mr. Hutcheson, had the well filled with stones. Fillan’s feast day was still celebrated with a fair on the same day for many years to follow, and in the nearby village of Houston the parish church still bears his name, as does the episcopal church in Kilmacolm. There are loads of great images of the church here at Derelict Places.

St. Fillan’s death is recorded on the 9th of January 777 (this, of course, is a date on the Julian calendar; on the Gregorian calendar, Fillan’s death is marked as the 19th of January).

Fillan’s followers preserve many relics associated with the saint; the most famous of these is the Mayne, the arm-bone of Fillan, which was kept in a silver case after his death. Such is the significance of this object that King Robert the Bruce requested it to be brought to him on the eve of the Battle of Bannockburn; however, the keeper in charge of the relic feared it would be damaged or lost, and brought the Bruce an empty case. As the king meditated over the case, praying for guidance during the coming battle, a mighty crack was heard from the silver box, and when opened it revealed the Mayne. The keeper, dumbfounded, admitted that he had not brought the bone with him. Whatever the truth of this story, the bone was undoubtedly carried into battle the next day, and the story may well have inspired the Scots to new bravery in this battle which liberated Scotland from the English rule.


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Some Art Is Useful

It's a typically grim New Year Monday, so here's just two things that have cheered us up over the weekend.

We were delighted to see the arrival of a facebook page to celebrate the legend of The Greenock Giant Squid. And it wasn't even us that set it up. What legend? Well..the legend printed in popular music paper NME in a live review for the band Tailgunner in Rico's Wine Bar...an event now itself the stuff of legend. We reckon the squid might be a wee bit of a retake on the Legend of the Gourock Monster....which this year, celebrates it's 70th Anniversary of being dead and buried under some Gourock school or other.

Also down in Gourock, we've been slowly won over by the arrival of the new Gourock statue "Girl on a Suitcase". It's dead easy to be cynical about public art, I've done it myself loads of times. Generally though, it works best when it connects with people, whether that's about involving community in the design, or selecting a subject that resonates with the community that surrounds it. That's why a wood nymph and a big daft dead horse might reasonably struggle in Greenock town centre, but a wee lassie on a trip "doon the watter" fits just right at the Gourock riverside. And apparently the kids involved on the day of the unveiling called her Annie...not sure if that's official, but it has a nice ring...Annie Kempock.

Nope. Not everyone likes it. Why would they? It's art. But it's nice, just for a change, to see at least some people liking something, making her part of the community by dressing her in hats and scarves for winter...

Wee Annie Kempock, watched over by her Granny up on the hill.

Gaun yerself.