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.
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)