16 December, 2020

By Lucy J. Massaar Hunter-Weston

Smuggling is not necessarily synonymous with Scotland, however the fjord-like coastline with lochs stretching inland for miles on end their deep, dark waters protected by high hills and craggy peaks, does seem to offer the perfect backdrop where secrets might be kept.

Additionally, quick changes in weather conditions in Scotland, have also provided a useful camouflage for covert operations in the past! Deep glens and many kilometres of coastline were a Valhalla for the smuggling of contraband: whisky, wood and brandy from Holland were luxury commodities that carried a levy in the form of tax imposed by the government. This made it expensive for the local community to enjoy the luxury of a wee dram, but by dealing ‘on the quiet’ the smugglers could sell the goods a little cheaper to a wide market and still make a profit. A win, win situation. Smugglers had to be canny and creative but often did not escape the men of customs and excise. Our own poet Robbie Burns, often in need of some extra cash, was one the most famous of excise men working the busy coastlines close to the English border. 

Artist: David Octavius Hill, from the 1840 publication ‘The Land of Burns’. Depicts smugglers at the ancient standing stone now close to Turnberry Golf Course.

In the early days, whisky was distilled by local farmers as a way of extra income in the winter time. The first taxes on this popular beverage were levied in 1600 to raise money for the civil war efforts against the English. Needless to say, taxes raised for this purpose, was met with hostility amongst local communities who had little enough provision as it was. Defending your distillery and keeping it hidden was a full-time occupation.

The Glenlivet Estate

The Glenlivet Estate in the Cairngorm National Park in the North-East of  Scotland was probably one of the first estates to legalise the distilling of whisky in the early 1800s. The then Duke of Gordon of the Glenlivet Estate, realised his farmers needed the income from the sales of illicitly distilled whisky to pull them through the harsh winters and to pay him his rent, so he turned a blind eye. However, the Duke, a powerful man, persuaded the government of the time to relax the levies and set out some regulations for distilling and selling the beverage on legal terms. Again, a win, win situation: the farmers (and the estate) actually profited from the arrangement and the government received regular income tax.

Smuggling was big business carried out on an industrial scale. Virtually everyone in the country was involved at some level and profited by it. Nearly every house had a cellar or store where whisky and other contraband was kept before being moved on to the client when the coast was clear. Smugglers were far from the romantic and intriguing figures often portrayed in novels! They were businessmen and the stakes were high.

It is no wonder then, that Robert Burns carried out his duties somewhat reluctantly. The life of an excise man was not without risk of injury. 

He wrote a satirical poem about it:

‘The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town,And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, “Auld Mahoun,
                               I wish you luck o' the prize, man”.                               
The deil's awa, the deil's awa,
The deil's awa wi' the Exciseman,
He's danc'd awa, he's danc'd awa,
He's danc'd awa wi' the Exciseman.’

We'll mak our maut, and we'll brew our drink,
We'll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man,
And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil,
That danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman.
The deil's awa, &c.

There's threesome reels, there's foursome reels,
There's hornpipes and strathspeys, man,
But the ae best dance ere came to the land
Was-the deil's awa wi' the Exciseman.
The deil's awa, &c.

deil = devil
Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard and reluctant exciseman, 1792

Smuggling at Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle

Intriguingly, as recently as 2018, a secret door was found in the cliff underneath Culzean Castle on the coast of Ayrshire by volunteers working with the National Trust of Scotland. Beneath this mighty castle, once the seat of the Kennedy Clan, archeologists have found caves and evidence which suggests they were occupied by folk as far back as the Iron Age. There is a labyrinth of tunnels and caves which, allegedly, were used for smuggling during the17th and 18th century and it even boasts its own ghost! For full details click on the website:

Smuggling along the Clyde is nothing new and is still going on today. In 2014 police discovered a stash of cocaine in a ship from Columbia bringing coal into Hunterston. Four Dutch nationals were also arrested and tried at Leeds crown court. The police working with their international colleagues, were able to make more arrests in the rest of the UK and abroad which were connected to this incident.

Smugglers Trail:

A beautiful walk of about 2 hours will take you along breathtaking views of the Clyde and the west Highlands beyond. The walk starts at Dundonald Castle which is about half an hour south of Hunterston by car along the coast road. You walk through woodland and villages to the coastal town of Troon. The route was a well-worn path for smugglers. Click here for the leaflet with more information and a map. And click here for video of the route.

For more about smuggling and other stories visit: Roger McCann’s blog: Whisky Smuggling in Glenlivet.

Do you have a Hunter story or annecdote to tell? Would you like to share a special event? Please contact me at

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You will find us off the A78 just north of West Kilbride. Look for our driveway marked by stone pillars and "Hunterston Estate" 


Hunterston KA23 9QG
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Acccess to Hunterston Castle is strictly by appointment. Note that as a historic monument, wheel chair access is limited. More visitor information is available on our visitors page .  Please email us to arrange a visit.