Historical Background
Abbey of Aberbrothock
The Smokie
Sir Walter Scott and “The Antiquary”
Stone of Destiny
Declaration of Arbroath
Smuggling in Arbirlot

The main character of this newspaper article was my last relative with the name of Taylor to die in Angus . . . William Taylor (1814-1903). He lived in Arbirlot, the ancestral home of our family, and was the cousin of my great-great-grandfather, Robert Stevenson Taylor (1810-1844), and nephew of Capt. David Taylor (1768-1843) of Bell Rock fame.

This article is interesting for it makes mentioned of the "Year Without a Summer" (1816) following the mighty volcanic eruption of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sambawa in 1815.

Reprinted from the Forfarshire & East Coast edition of the People's Journal, 18th May 1907.


A Veteran’s Reminiscences

How a boy beat the gaugers

Close on a century ago, when the wars with Napoleon were at their fiercest, when the whisky duty was high, and when every available Government servant was required in the fighting line, smuggling was rampant over the length and breadth of Scotland. Every river mouth, every rocky stronghold on the coast had its band of more or less daring bravadoes, and the tales of their stirring times, when men took their lives in their hands for an anker of brandy or a keg of tobacco, are full of interest for us who live in more peaceful days.


Entering Arbirlot village from the east. The village joiner's yard is on the right.

Few, very few, of those who took part in the stirring episodes are now alive – few even remember of them; but there recently passed away in the little village of Arbirlot, near Arbroath, at a patriarchal age, one who spent his earlier career in active co-operation with one of the most famous bands of smugglers who frequented the east coast of Forfarshire. William Taylor had some brave tales to tell of the good old days, and those who were fortunate enough to get him in a reminiscent vein; to watch him forget his old age, to mark his flashing eye, to see him wave his stick, as if in combat with a gauger, and transport himself wholly from the present to the distant past, can never forget it.

Old Willie was of a curious nature. Sometimes his reticence forbad him to speak at all; often he would repeat a tale he had told on a previous occasion; and if he thought any one came to see him solely to hear his stories his mouth was sealed. The writer of these articles tried hard to conceal the fact that he was taking notes, and when the old man suspected this he refused to tell more. For weeks he remained silent, but after much persuasion, and after promising that no use would be made of them till he was “deid and awa”, our old friendship was resumed, and many a cheery night I had with him, ere he was carried to sleep with his fathers in the little churchyard by the river Elliot.

Mostly farmers

The Arbirlot smugglers were chiefly farmers. Driven by bad harvests and big taxes, they supplemented their meagre incomes by the illicit traffic, and, assisted by the fishermen at Easthaven and a schooner – the Pride, owned by a sea-dog named Captain Forman - they did a very considerable contraband trade with France. Though the war spirit was high the smugglers on either side had not enough race feeling to cause them to stop the traffic.

Willie Taylor’s earliest memories of smuggling were firmly stamped on his mind. In recalling the old days he seldom talked of his own part in the stirring games, but he was especially proud of the fact, when a lad of ten, he was the direct means of putting to rout a whole band of gauger bluejackets who had enclosed the smugglers in a very tight corner indeed.

It happened well on in *October of 1816 – a bleak, cheerless month it had been, with the corn rotting in the stook – that the Pride ran ashore a cargo of brandy on the smooth beach half-way between Carnoustie and Arbroath. She had appeared suddenly, and the smugglers were in a measure unprepared for her arrival. With the utmost expedition all the available men were collected, and all haste was made to get the little kegs ashore. The fishermen lent a willing hand. Boat after boat was emptied of his content on the shore; an endless rope was fixed from the ship to the beach, and the barrels in slings were attached to it and dragged ashore. The ship was emptied and swung away silently long ere daylight broke to show that she had been there. The rest of the time was spent in disposing of the goods. It was too late, and there were too few at hand to carry away all the liquor to the various stores where it was hid within the parish, so it was quietly disposed of in various corners about the shore and left till the following night, to be removed in the dark.

All went well, every keg was got rid of, and the smugglers assembled in their old rendezvous – the ruined castle of Kelly – to celebrate so auspicious an event.

Kelly Castle

Kellie (or Kelly) Castle restored c.1870s.
In earlier times it belonged to the Irvines, Aughterlonys. Maules, and latterly the Kerr-Boyle family

The Smugglers’ Haunt

The castle was admirably suited for a smuggler’s haunt. Situated on a high knoll around which ran the river Elliot, it was surrounded by a dense black wood, long ere now cut down. Its empty window-places gave it a haunted appearance, and the strange shadows cast on it by the moon, and the weird sounds that often came from within when smuggling revellers held high wassail, had given it an unenviable reputation. Many a bitter struggle had its scene in the good old days when its owners, the Ouchterlonies, fought deadly feuds with the “lichtsome Lindsays”. It was undermined with secret passages, and these the smugglers used for hiding their contraband goods.

Willlie Taylor’s description of how a cargo was “broached” is at once picturesque and realistic. The function was termed with gruesome humour, “Jock Porteous' wake”, in derision of a Captain of that name whom, half a century before, the citizens of Edinburgh had lynched for the part he took in the execution of a famous Fife smuggler.

The company assembled in the old hall of the castle, the windows of which had been barricaded to exclude the cold winds, and also to keep in the light. A huge fire was lit to provide both light and heat, and the smugglers sat round it on upturned barrels, and the liquor for the evening was set in the midst. It consisted of a small keg of brandy, small barrel of wine, and a “skeil” (a small tub) of home-made beer.

Willie described such occasion to me admirably: – “Auld Andra Robertson – we ca’d him the King, maybe because he was heed billy, maybe because he was unco like His Greecious Majesty – sat i’ the middle. When we were foregethered he said a bit wird o’ thanks to Him wha had brocht the occasion to a successfu’ essue and then wi’ a bit hammerie he ca’ed in the heed o’ the brandy tubbie – ”

Here Willie would digress and explain that the hammer belong to Alec Petrie, the “wricht”, whose special function it was to provide the instrument.

“Then Andra wi’ muckle unction took ‘the horn’ (a silver-mounted horned cup) and dippet it in, and we a’ stood wi’ bared heed and heard drink ‘health to King Geordie and d---n to the King’s navee’.”

The cup was then passed round, and after the toast was honoured by all, ceremony was ended, and the proceedings that began with a prayer often ended in a free fight. Surely a strange commentary on times and manners!

Arbirlot village

This old postcard dates from the early 1900s. The cottage just above the left-hand parapet of the bridge was the old smiddy. It was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the new extension to the kirkyard opposite.

Gaugers Plan an Assault

Some such incident was in progress on the occasion of which I am about to tell. As related, a rich cargo had been got ashore and safely stowed, and all was going merrily in the old hall of Kelly. But the gaugers had got wind of the affair, and, reinforced by a body of men from Dundee, the planned an assault on the stronghold.

Willie Taylor it was who saved the situation for the smugglers, and that without a blow being struck or life lost on either side.

He was at the time far too young to take part in any such events as above narrated, but he knew all the ways of the gang, for his father was one of its most active members. On the night in question some untoward incident had occurred in the Taylor family when the father was at the revel in the castle, and his mother had despatched Willie to seek him out, and bring him home instantly. As he made his way through the dense wood, “A wee bit scared, nae doot,” he saw figures cautiously moving inwards and concentrating on a point that commanded the entrance to the castle.

They were not smugglers - Willie knew their ways too well – therefore they must be the enemies the gaugers. So at least was Willie's opinion, and there rushed through his mind the possible means of conveying the alarm to those within. Entrance by the door was impossible. It was already guarded by the enemy, and about a dozen men were gathered near at hand. The thought rushed into his mind of the secret passage. No time was to be lost. He rushed off instantly to the Tod Hill, where it entered the ground, and sped along towards the castle. Here an insurmountable barrier met him. The huge stone door was closed, and his strength was quite unequal to moving it. He heard faint sounds of revelry from within, but no response met his calls, so he crawled back to the entrance.

A Daring Youngster

About 30 yards from the stone door under the castle he stumbled on a barrel of gunpowder. Here was his chance - he would fire the barrel. Extracting some of the powder, he laid a thick trail towards the exit of the passage, and when his supply was exhausted he rushed to the entrance to get the flint and steel he knew lay there for lighting a lamp, and returning, fired the trail. Luckily for himself, he ran at top speed to the mouth to watch the effect, for scarcely had he reached the mouth when, bang! the powder exploded with terrific force, and, rushing along the tunnel as it does in the barrel of a gun, knocked him senseless just as he was leaping into the open. There he lay till he recovered early in the morning.

With the large open space of the tunnel in which to expend itself, the powder did little more than burst the roof under which was was exploded. But this was enough. The gaugers were gathered within half a dozen yards of the spot, and the tremendous subterranean sound and violent burst of stones and earth seemed to bring to them thoughts of the nether powers. At anyrate, they fled headlong. So also did the smugglers. Without stopping to think of the cause of the rumbling, they broke from the castle and rushed to their homes.

Arbirlot Kirkyard

Since this engraving was done in the 1880s, an extension has been added on to the church.
Many of these stones are still standing. I know, because the one to the immediate right of the church door is the memorial to my ancestors and their family. I am pleased to say that it now vertical!

Next day Willie returned and told his tale. The more daring spirits visited the spot and proved its authenticity, and little “Wowie” Taylor was held in high esteem by the community.

“It's a blessin' there were nae deaths,” said the old man. “A gauger is aye a livin' soul, ye ken; but had they nippet the smugglers there wad hae been a dizzen new recruits for Keeng Geordie's navy.”

* See this website - "The Year without a Summer"


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