Smuggling Around Portsoy

The Hidden History of Smuggling in Portsoy

Portsoy was for many years a smuggler’s paradise, with an army of ‘free traders’ engaged in the illicit import of foreign wines and spirits, tea, tobacco, crystal and china wear.

Written sources suggest that in the greater part of the 18th Century, every merchant in the town became engaged in smuggling.

It was a vast and violent industry – well-manned and well-armed vessels were involved in the trafficking and many of the old houses had secret nooks and corners for concealing smuggled goods.

The most noted of the smuggling merchants was Mr Alexander Bremner, better known as Laird Bremner. This wealthy character owned eight vessels and kept a lawyer in his house who was involved the legal actions resulting from his many infringements of the laws.

An extensive concern such as his could not continue without failing. He became involved in tedious and expensive lawsuits and most of his ships were lost or captured by revenue officers. He was finally reduced to bankruptcy and died in prison.

Messrs Robertson were also deeply engaged in smuggling and had one of their vessels, the Neptune privateer, fitted out with eight guns to discharge against the French and Spaniards.

Mr Robertson junior, better known as Mr Sandy, a man of great commercial talent but of profligate character, died in the Abbey of Holyrood Sanctuary not without suspicion of having come to his own death by an unfair means.

These failures sent shockwaves through the town, yet the clandestine trade continued.

The Board of Excise took a hard line and established a guard boat here under the orders of Mr Cooke with one of their cutters, the Royal Charlotte (Captain Aird), constantly cruising the Firth.

Smuggling was prosecuted with unremitting vigour, inducing smugglers to employ small vessels. A small sloop named the Bush of the Garden but more commonly known as the Bussey, was the most successful. She never failed to land her cargo and be off to sea before the cutter or guard could approach.

One morning she came into the bay and Mr Cooke, knowing she had returned from Holland and judging from her being heavily laden that she would prove an easy prize, manned his boat and attempted to board her.

Her crew stood to their arms and a sharp action with musketry took place. But although within pistol shot, he never could get near enough to attempt boarding. At length after a good deal of firing on both sides, the Royal Charlotte hove in sight and the Bussey sheared off and made her escape.

Several of Mr Cooke’s men were wounded, none severely, although it’s said that if the fight continued, he would have been beaten off or sunk.

On another occasion Mr Cooke wanted to examine a vessel in the harbour which he had under suspicion, but the crew made a determined resistance and a scuffle ensued in which the mate had the fingers of one hand nearly severed by the blow of a cutlass. Mr Cooke effected his purpose but found nothing to justify his suspicion.

A considerable time after, the Bussey, while lying in Banff Bay for the Master who had gone on shore on some business, was pounced upon and captured by Captain Aird after a smart action in which the mate William Gray, who commanded, was killed at the helm before the vessel surrounded and the unfortunate Bussey was carried off in triumph.

The late Mr William Park, for many years shore master at Portsoy, was cabin boy on board the Bussey at the time of her capture and was standing close by the mate when he fell.

Losses of this kind and the establishment by the Excise of an active riding officer in the town, Mr Alexander Geddes, afterwards superior of Excise at Elgin, who traversed the country armed to the teeth and being a man of resolute and determined character whom none of the smugglers cared to encounter with, led to the end of the covert trade.

Portsoy’s links with its smuggling past was rekindled in the discovery by the burgh surveyor, during excavations, of a smuggler’s secret passage leading from the harbour to Culbert Rig, as noted in The Third Statistical Account of Scotland (Fordyce, 1961).

More recently, the 2016 remake of the classic film Whisky Galore, which popularises the battle between Scots people and excise officers, was filmed at Portsoy, also revived connections with the notorious trade.