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.
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.
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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