Posts Tagged ‘smuggling’


‘Shanter Farm and Bay, Carrick’ by David Octavius Hill, from the 1840 publication ‘The Land of Burns’.

This image encapsulates the themes of all of the talks at the 2016 South Ayrshire History & Family History Fair at the Walker Halls, Troon on Saturday 4th June.

In one of his illustrations for the 1840 publication ‘The Land of Burns’, the artist and pioneer photographer David Octavius Hill imagined the farmer and smuggler Douglas Graham and his companions about to set off from the coast of Carrick. Their horses carry casks of smuggled brandy. The Fair’s first talk at 10am will be ‘The Smuggling Coast from Stranraer to Girvan’ by Frances Wilkins, a leading authority on this subject.

The scene is located at the ancient standing stone now on the edge of Turnberry Golf Course, with Maidens Bay in the background, and two of the day’s talks are about early human activity – ‘Ayrshire before History’, about the county’s early sites and their archaeology, by Tom Barclay of South Ayrshire Council Libraries at 11am, and ‘A Founder’s Workshop from the Bronze Age? Excavations from the shadow of Hunterston’ by archaeologist Thomas Rees at 3pm.

On foot and speaking with the smugglers is the teenage Robert Burns, taking time off from his school classes at Kirkoswald. (He is unlikely to have been so well-dressed at that time.) It is claimed that he later based his best-known character Tam o’Shanter on Douglas Graham. The 2pm talk is by Professor Chris Whatley and is ‘Men at War: securing Burns’ memory in the West of Scotland c.1859 – c. 1896’, about the race between towns in the region to have a statue of Burns.


The ancient standing stone overlooking Maidens Bay.


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The first instalment told how Ayr lawyer and banker Thomas McClelland began his diary with an account of the career of the former Irish revenue cutter Lord Charles. She came into the possession of William Brackenridge, tenant of Dowhill Farm north of Girvan and head of the smuggling company based in the nearby hamlet of Ladyburn. At Red Bay on the Antrim coast (where contraband shipped from overseas was unloaded before being brought over to the Ayrshire coast in open boats) she was seized by a revenue cutter and Taylor her captain was killed. However, she again passed into the ownership of William Brackenridge. During the summer of 1791, wrote McClelland, she ‘performed a voyage to Gothenburg and brought a cargo of wood and iron to Ayr under the command of a Captain Thomson’.

McClelland was well acquainted with the Ayrshire seafaring community, and as he does not seem to have known Captain Thomson, this may indicate that he was Irish, as were most of the smuggling skippers – his predecessor the ill-fated Captain Taylor probably was as well.

This on the face of it was a perfectly legitimate trading voyage, no doubt with the return cargo consigned to William’s brother John Brackenridge, merchant burgess of Ayr, but Gothenburg in Sweden was the main source of tea smuggled into Ayrshire. This was too early in the year for ships of the Swedish East India Company to have arrived back from the Far East, but business arrangements were probably being made with the smugglers’ agents in Sweden.

In August the Lord Charles, having completed unloading her cargo from Gothenburg, sailed from Ayr bound for Guernsey, in preparation for a winter smuggling run. McClelland wrote that she ‘called at Dowhill to take merchants on board who meant to have taken a passage in her thither, but, a gale having sprung up while she lay there, the crew were obliged to get her underway’. This required the anchor to be raised in a hurry. In small craft like a cutter this was done not with a capstan but with a horizontal ratchet windlass operated by vertical bars. On this occasion, however, the ratchet mechanism apparently failed and the weight of the anchor caused the windlass to kick back. McClelland continues: ‘In heaving up the anchor by the windlass, a bar struck Captain Thomson on the head and fractured his skull in so dreadful a manner that the cutter had to run here (to Ayr) with him, where he lay despaired of for some months’.

A new commander for the Lord Charles had now to be found at short notice if she was to continue to Guernsey, and John Clacher, whose father was the miller at Ladyburn Mill and who apparently had seafaring experience, took Thomson’s place. The merchants which the Lord Charles had called at Dowhill to pick up seem to have been William Brackenridge’s brothers John (married to John Clacher’s sister) and James, as they were involved in legal action before Guernsey Admiralty Court in late September 1791, with further mentions in December and the following February. This may have prevented them from returning to Scotland aboard the Lord Charles. In the meantime, disaster overtook their brother William. It may well have been to make preparations for the receiving of the return cargo of the Lord Charles that he set out to make the crossing to Ireland, but he never got there.

In Thomas McClelland’s diary he is referred to as: ‘William Brackenridge in Dowhill, who was lost in his passage from Sanda to Red Bay in Ireland last October’. In fact it was on 28 October 1791 that he was lost at sea, aged 43, as recorded on the family gravestone in Kirkoswald churchyard. Presumably he was in a small boat which was caught by a storm and overwhelmed.

(Gravestone) - William Brackenridge’s death at sea is recorded on the back of the family gravestone in Kirkoswald churchyard.

(Gravestone) – William Brackenridge’s death at sea is recorded on the back of the family gravestone in Kirkoswald churchyard.

Unaware of this tragedy, the crew of the Lord Charles loaded a cargo of contraband in Guernsey, and in due course she arrived back in the North Channel. She was almost certainly the large cutter which the officers on the Campbelltown customs boat, acting on information received, found anchored at Rathlin at mid-day on Wednesday 21 December. They thought at first that she was one of the revenue cutters (understandably, as the Lord Charles had been built as one) and only realised when they got closer that she was a well-armed smuggling vessel. The smugglers made off towards Ailsa Craig, and then continued eastwards, heading for the Galloway coast. A severe gale forced the customs boat to take shelter at Sanda overnight, but it got back to Campbelltown on Thursday the 22nd.  John Clacher knew that the revenue cutters would soon be alerted, and decided to take the risk of landing his contraband directly on the Ayrshire coast. That night, Thomas McClelland tells us, the Lord Charles put part of her cargo ashore at Ladyburn. She was also carrying goods consigned to the Loans smugglers – a rare piece of evidence that the Ladyburn Company was also supplying them in this period – and having probably spent Friday out at sea, she came in to Troon Point in the early hours of Saturday 24 December. Before daylight, unloading was completed and she headed back out to sea, only to be caught in yet another storm blowing up from the north west. Clacher seems to have tried to take shelter in Ayr harbour, but he missed the narrow entrance and was driven onto the beach to the south. Here is the full entry with which Thomas McClelland of Ayr began his diary:

 ‘On Saturday the 24th ultimo (December 1791) a little before eight o’clock in the morning during a dreadful gale of wind with snow showers from the N. W. a large smuggling cutter mounting several guns, with a chest of small arms, having eighteen men on board, and named the Lord Charles, belonging to the heirs or creditors of William Brackenridge in Dowhill (who was lost in his passage from Sanda to Red Bay in Ireland last October) commanded by John Clacher from Ladyburn nigh Girvan, in ballast, was drove on shore in our bay just under the town’s washing green, and owing to the great surf, none of the crew could be got on shore till nigh one in the afternoon, when a boat from land reached the cutter and found one of the crew dead and three others despaired of from the severity of the storm – the three latter are since recovered. The vessel went to pieces in a day or two afterwards. She and all her materials were seized by the Customhouse officers.’

(Diary) – Part of Thomas McClelland’s diary entry recording the loss of the Lord Charles.

(Diary) – Part of Thomas McClelland’s diary entry recording the loss of the Lord Charles.


McClelland then went on to relate the unhappy career of this vessel, and added the information that the greater part of the goods she had landed before being wrecked were seized on the shore.

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On the first day of 1792 the Ayr lawyer and banker Thomas McClelland began keeping a diary. Shipping movements would figure prominently, and in his first diary entry, McClelland described the wreck of the smuggling cutter Lord Charles at Ayr. He then gave a detailed account of her career.

(Cutter) – Royal Navy armed cutter. Those used by the Revenue Service and by smugglers were similar.

(Cutter) – Royal Navy armed cutter. Those used by the Revenue Service and by smugglers were similar.

‘This has been a remarkably unlucky vessel’ wrote McClelland of the Lord Charles, and he went on to catalogue the misfortunes which befell those most closely associated with her. According to his information, she had been built at Dublin for the Irish Revenue Service, and her first captain had shot himself aboard her in Dublin Bay. ‘She was afterwards sold’ he wrote ‘and purchased by William Brackenridge in Dowhill for the smuggling service’.

Dowhill Farm) – William Brackenridge’s farm of Dowhill. The mouth of the Lady Burn is just beyond the alginate factory buildings.

Dowhill Farm) – William Brackenridge’s farm of Dowhill. The mouth of the Lady Burn is just beyond the alginate factory buildings.

William Brackenridge was the tenant of Dowhill Farm, on the coast north of Girvan. He was also the head of the Ladyburn Company, which carried on a little legitimate trade as a front for its extensive smuggling activity. It was based in the hamlet at Ladyburn Mill, near the mouth of the Lady Burn which flows into the sea just south of Dowhill. The Brackenridge family and their associates had arranged for cargoes of smuggled tobacco, tea, rum and brandy brought from overseas ports – especially Guernsey in the Channel Islands – to be unloaded and concealed at the sheltered anchorages of Red Bay, on the Antrim coast of northern Ireland, and Sanda Island off the Mull of Kintyre. The goods were then brought over to Ayrshire’s exposed Carrick coast in large open boats.

  (Longboat) Smuggled goods stored at Red Bay in Ireland were brought over to Carrick by boat.

(Longboat) Smuggled goods stored at Red Bay in Ireland were brought over to Carrick by boat.

In 1789 the Lord Charles made her first trip in Brackenridge’s service, to Guernsey. On 12 November that year a customs spy reported no less than 14 smuggling vessels lying loaded at Guernsey awaiting the first fair wind to sail for Ireland and Scotland. According to this report, which reached the Board of Customs in Edinburgh in December, these included Captain Craig’s for Ladyburn or Ballantrae, and Captain Taylor’s and Captain Neil’s for Red Bay and Rathlin in Ireland and Sanda in Scotland. The entry in the Board’s records has the added comment ‘It appears that Taylor’s vessel is arrived and has been seized’. Taylor’s vessel was the Lord Charles, and Thomas McClelland takes up her story: ‘Captain James Dowie of the revenue cutter Prince Augustus Frederick, stationed here, (Ayr) fell in with and seized her fully loaded at Red Bay after shooting Captain Taylor and his mate both dead on deck.’

Captain Dowie does not appear to have been a particularly ruthless individual – there are many testimonies to his decency and humanity, and it is likely to have been violent resistance on the part of Captain Taylor and his mate which cost them their lives.

The captured Lord Charles was in due course put up for sale, but her smuggling career was not over. No doubt through the agency of a middle-man or middle-men, she passed once more into the ownership of William Brackenridge. Thomas McClelland gives a detailed account of her activities in 1791, the year in which both she and William Brackenridge would go to a watery grave, and all this will be related in the next and final instalment.

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