Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Thursday, 20 March 2008

18 Mar 2008 - "The Smugglers of Kyle"

The annual joint meeting of the four Ayrshire Family History Societies took place on Tuesday. 18th March, 2008 and was hosted by the Troon club in Portland Church Hall, Troon. A large audience, including fifteen of our own members, heard short reports from representatives of the four societies and then welcomed the Speaker, Frances Wilkins, acknowledged world authority on the smuggling history of the Ayrshire coast and author of many publications on this topic. The title of her presentation, "The Smugglers of Kyle", which was beautifully illustrated by a slide show of relevant documents and pictures, repudiated many preconceived notions and gave us all an in-depth awareness of how our own area was part and parcel of this eighteenth century trade. First surprise was that so many respectable Ayrshire merchants were involved; second surprise was that this illegal trade appears to have been carried on by almost all the inhabitants of Dundonald; and the third surprise was that the wherries ferrying contraband goods, firstly from the staging point of the Isle of Man and later from Gothenburg or Dunkirk, were actually legally insured against loss while at sea, even though they were all involved in illegal trading. Smuggling of tea, brandy and anything else from the East Indies which was liable for high taxation in Britain, was Big Business indeed at this time and, as such, had its own high-flyers like David Dunlop and John Cullen, its own cartels and its own need of large-scale financial backing.

Although some smugglers would ruthlessly attack other wherries, the main danger occurred at the actual landing points, mainly in the dark of the moon during winter months, on the Ayrshire coast particularly at or near Troon. There the merchants involved had to organise the fast removal of the goods from the shore to their customers often running the gauntlet of Excisemen and soldiers. We had to laugh at the incident where a shipmaster mistook one bay for another and landed his cargo on a deserted cove north of Culzean while the would-be recipients were anxiously waiting at another. Particularly impressive is the wealth of written information surviving in e.g. letters between merchants and shipmasters and in Scottish customs records which Frances Wilkins has unearthed over years of what must have been fascinating research. Who knows what we might yet discover about our local eighteenth century forebears!

The meeting ended with a lovely supper organised by the Troon club and greatly appreciated by their guests. 

Sheila Dinwoodie

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