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Solway Smuggling

Researched and Compiled by Frank Bewley

  • About 1650 Solway shipping began to develop for the transportation of passengers and freight. By 1790 there were some 500 trading vessels averaging 150 tons, with crews of between 5 and 20 men plying the firth, as this picture of Maryport harbour illustrates.
  • By the 18th century duty on whiskey was 10s 2d per gallon in England and only 6s 2d in Scotland


Maryport Harbour

  • Salt carried 15/- per bushel in Scotland and only 6/- in England, an active and profitable smuggling trade developed all round the Solway Coast. In 1795 an estimated million gallons of gin alone was smuggled.
  • In those days much of the revenue for Government and King had to be raised through customs duty on imports and excise duty on home produce such as whisky, beer, salt and candles - money was not used much and income tax unknown.
  • The Isle of Man became a smuggler's warehouse and during the 18th century the annual trade to the Island was in the region of £350,000 whilst customs seizures amounted to £10,000.
  • Smuggled goods were transported by mule and horse - north to Scotland's central belt and also to Yetholm in the borders, where a distribution along the east coast, was organised a gypsy family called Faw.
  • Between Southerness and Fleet there are some 30 secluded bays and coves, ideal for landing and transferring cargo to pack horses. There are also many caves, where goods were stored temporarily. Many houses had hiding holes in concealed cellars, behind the fire grate where a good fire could deter the excise men, under pigsties and even under fake gravestones. Smuggling was looked upon as fair game by the majority of Solway residents throughout all strata of the society, indeed many relied upon it for a living.

Kippford Slip

Kippford Slipway


  • Boat building supplemented the local economy and there large yards at Annan, Glencaple, Kelton and Kippford, building vessels of 20-tons or more. At Kirkcudbright an Excise Cutter of 60 tons was built.
The Urr Estuary
  • In February 1778 it is recorded that a patrolling customs boat was attacked in the mouth of the Urr Estuary by 3 smuggling boats. The crew sustained injuries and had to be taken to Mr. Ferguson a surgeon, his services cost 3 guineas.
  • In April 1779 two 200-ton cutters from Dunkirk unloaded contraband at Balcary (OS Map ref NX 822 497). Revenue Officers from Kirkcudbright and a Whitehaven Revenue cutter intervened. Twenty sailors armed with muskets and bayonets drove off the smugglers and found more than 200 horses were waiting to transport the goods. They recovered 18 bags of tea and 20 ankers of brandy.
  • Round Balcary Point ordinance survey maps show Adams Chair on the cliffs (OS Map ref NX 822 487). This took its name from a smuggler Adam who sat with a lantern to signal the way clear for landing and to guide the smuggler's boats into Balcary.
  • Smugglers, Clark, Crain and Quirk built a large ostentatious dwelling, Balcary Bay House. It has walls 5 feet thick and large cellars for storage of smuggled goods. It is now Balcary Bay Hotel.
  • The story behind the grave of Joseph Nelson which lies adjacent to the shore path between Rockcliffe to Castle Point (OS Map ref NX 852 528) is told in the History of Galloway dated 1841: -

    'At the mouth of the Urr the headland of Castle Hill stands out boldly, bearing on its summit vestiges of an old Norse fortress. Here, in January 1791 a smuggling vessel from the Isle of Man went ashore and all hands were lost. Only one body, that of Joseph Nelson of Whitehaven, was cast up the following July. It was buried where it was found and where later his widow caused a stone to be erected

Hestan Island
  • The lighthouse and cottage appear to have been built about 1850. The Hestan light was initially powered by acetylene gas produced by water dripping onto carbide powder. It was later changed to butane cylinders, it is now solar powered.
  • Prior to 1927 a family called Tweedy occupied Hestan Island Cottage. They were followed by the McWilliams. A Mr. Houston lived on the Island alone for some 10 years.
  • In 1957 a couple called Scott took the tenancy and supplemented their income by manufacturing church organs with materials and the finished products rowed back and forth to the Island, from Balcary.

East of the Urr

  • Colvend Manse was equipped with a large cellar with concealed entry, which gives some indication of the attitude of the locals and indeed the clergy, to smuggling.

Maryport Shipping


  • In February 1760 Whitehaven Revenue Officer Dan Fearon seized 5 Manx boats, 3 at Southerness Point and 2 at Urr Waterfoot; they had managed to land some goods. He returned one of the boats empty, to the smugglers; and made for Whitehaven with the other four boats and five cargoes. The Collector at Dumfries complained about this behaviour to the Board in Edinburgh.
  • Port O'Warren (OS Map ref NX 879 537) a popular smugglers cove and until 1970, could only be reached by steep steps down the side of the cliff. Here that the revenue cutter Ernest Augustus, which was in service in 1774, under the command of Sir John Reid, challenged two Isle of Man smugglers.

A young groom and his future brother in law were landing a small cargo of contraband salt; the soon to be married groom, was anxious to earn some extra money. On being challenged, they ran, a shot rang was fired and the groom was killed. His accomplice escaped and made it back to the Isle of Man. The groom was buried in Colvend churchyard.

However, deceased's relatives obtained special permission to recover the body and sailed over. They exhumed the body and set sail for the Isle of Man but all were lost in a storm. There was great public indignation and Captain Sir John Reid was tried for murder in Edinburgh but was acquitted.

  • In April 1760 Robert Huddart mate on the Revenue Cutter Ranger seized 13 bags (710 lbs) of tea and 25 casks of spirits (225 gallons) on the coast near Colvend. It is reported that:

    'He took the goods aboard his ship, it being impossible to safely transport them to any Customs House in Scotland by reason of the number of inhabitants who were assembled on different parts of the shore, to assist in running the said goods and the wind being favourable for Whitehaven, he brought them hither'

  • Arbigland House lies between Southerness and Carsethorn (OS Map ref NX 994 574). In 1711, Robert Stewart an Excise Officer watched an Isle of Man boat lying off Arbigland from 11am to 11pm, when it came into Wherry Creek, about half a mile from Arbigland House. About 4am, two servants, with horse and cart, made their way down to the beach where they loaded 120 gallons of Brandy for Adam Craik, Squire of Arbigland House. The customs man dare not intervene. It is of interest that John Paul Jones' (founder of the American Navy) father was a gardener at Arbigland House.

West of the Urr
  • Further west we have the great caves of Barlocco (OS Map ref NX 796 472), the largest on the Galloway coast. The Black Cave entrance is 60 feet high; it is 256 feet deep and 150 feet broad at the extreme end. The White cave is 252 feet deep.
  • Isle of Man smuggler Captain Yawkins was half Dutch, half Manxman and based in IOM. He was a daring operator who sailed in his luggers Black Prince and Hawk. He preferred not to operate too far up the Solway so he had sea room to aid his escape from the Revenue Cutters. He also practiced a policy of landing when there was an offshore wind to help him outpace the customs cutters who then had to beat upwind to catch him.

    He was eventually arrested and taken to the high court in Edinburgh for trial, where success was more likely - local juries were too sympathetic - for smuggling cases. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on Leith sands.

  • In 1813 a Richard Ayton, visited Kirkandrews (OS Map ref NX 602 483) near Kirkcudbright not long after a raid by Revenue Officers, this village had successfully pursued a life of smuggling until this raid. Their boats were seized, magazines broken up and their hiding places sacked - in one fell swoop the whole equipment of their trade was gone. The village was destitute and the funds of the whole of the village were insufficient to provide a single boat.

    He concluded that, "Smugglers, like gamblers, become unfitted for every occupation requiring patient and steady industry; accustomed to sudden gains, they prefer them, with a life of risk and anxiety, to the slow rewards of a secure and toilsome pursuit".
  • The Ordnance Survey Map of Kirkcudbright Bay shows Manxman's Lake (OS Map ref NX 822 497). Additionally Dirk Hatteraick's cave, located on the shore at Ravenshall 4 miles east of Creetown (OS Map ref NX 518526), it is entered by a small discreet entrance and inside has tier upon tier of pigeon hole recesses, said to be capable of holding Dutch bottles