Scotland’s Smugglers’ Coast

by Robin McKelvie, 15th April 2024
Eyemouth | Scottish Borders
Scotland’s Smugglers’ Coast

Journalist Robin McKelvie visits Scotland’s Smugglers’ Coast, discovering the secrets of Eyemouth’s role in the smuggling trade and viewing the inlets and harbours along the Berwickshire Coastal Path that made the area famous and at times notorious.

“The town we’re having dinner in was the epicentre of what was Scotland’s smuggling coast,” whispers Dr Derek Janes, historic advisor to Eyemouth’s smuggling headquarters of Gunsgreen House, as we tuck into local seafood on the Eyemouth waterfront at the Oblo restaurant. “In the eighteenth century this rugged coastline was alive with smuggling. It’s said that in those days more business was done below ground in Eyemouth’s cellars and secret passageways than happened above ground.” Deliciously you can still taste the legacies here on the Berwickshire Coast today.

Dr Derek Janes, historic advisor to Gunsgreen House and historical smuggling expert.

Delving outside into fittingly murky weather I lose all sense of time exploring the winding lanes, wee alleys and secret corners of Eyemouth’s old town. I chance upon mysterious old rowing boats balanced against walls, shops with fishing nets in their windows and architecture that takes its cues from the old Eyemouth trade markets in the Netherlands and around the Baltic. It’s easy to conjure up images of savvy smugglers unloading their illicit cargos under the cover of darkness, as hapless excisemen lose the almost comedic cat and mouse game.

“Smuggling was serious business,” Janes had cautioned back at Oblo. He talked of smugglers sometimes needing to warn off the prying excisemen. And in a small place the local connections were often complicated. John Nisbet, a known smuggler, employed a clerk who was a nephew of Daniel Dow, a customs officer for Eyemouth. Sometimes those exciseman may not always have been trying that hard. After all the nearest Scottish customs house was in Dunbar 20 miles away.

Today Eyemouth Harbour is a far quieter place than it would have been in the 1750s.

Just across the water from the old town is that smuggling headquarters, Gunsgreen House, the lair of John Nisbet, the aforementioned notorious figure who Janes describes as a “merchant smuggler”. “Smuggling here really got going in 1750s and his name keeps cropping up. He was an apprentice to a merchant in Dunbar in the 1740s and church records accused him of being responsible for fathering a child. Later on in his will he left money to his ‘housekeeper’ and his ‘niece’. At the height of his business dealings he had a ship seized for smuggling booze. At the time you just had to pay the duty and you got your ships back, so he got off the hook. He seemed to be always up to something,” remarked Janes.

Gunsgreen House built by renowned Scottish architect John Adam.

Delving inside Gunsgreen House is quite an experience. This grand Palladian edifice was fashioned by renowned Scottish architect John Adam to be elegant and impressive. It also turned out to be eminently practical for a smuggler, with a vast cellar, a fireplace that swept back to reveal a secret room, hidden compartments and a tea chute connecting multiple floors. If you ever dreamed of pirates and smugglers as a kid, this place will have your imagination soaring and your heart leaping. It’s currently closed to the public pending a revamp, although you can stay in its self-catering rooms and occasionally visit, with special events like afternoon teas.

Gunsgreen House is full of hidden spaces ideal for smugglers.

Walking south of of Gunsgreen, I follow a deeply dramatic section of the Berwickshire Coastal Path. It winds its way around a littoral that could have been sculpted with smuggling in mind. Craggy cliffs hide prying eyes from secret coves, wee inlets reveal themselves, just wide enough to take in a small boat loaded with contraband. The soaring rock faces are not as foreboding as they appear from a frigate patrolling out at sea. Up close they yield to narrow zigzagging trails and slopes you could drag a boat up. If you really needed to.

Robin on the Berwickshire Coastal Path.

I find the ‘Smuggler’s Bothy’ too, overlooking Lamberton Beach. It was built in the eighteenth century by a suspected smuggler, John Robertson. Robertson was alleged to have smuggled in the precious cargo of tea, which at the time was coming from China rather than India and Sri Lanka. As with so many things on Scotland’s smuggling coast, he is then said to have gone on to make his fortune and even acquire Gunsgreen House. His earlier bothy looks like something drawn straight out of the rich literary world of Robert Louis Stevenson. Or more locally accurate, ‘The Smugglers of St Abbs’, a Victorian novel that talks of a ‘Mr Jessop’ in a grand Eyemouth house that was surely Gunsgreen. Mr Jessop was most likely based on John Nisbet.

I push on following the path ever further south, joining the East Coast Mainline on a sinewy section where I’m peering right over the edge. A freight train gallops past carrying tonnes of goods, a bountiful cross-border trade. My imagination, though, is immersed in the black economy that once thrived here. I feel its dreadful romance, inevitable darkness and its ghosts. On the breeze is that the yell of a smuggler relieved to finally sight his precious cargo making landfall? Or maybe it’s a musket-wielding exciseman hellbent on stopping any dodgy dealing on his watch, or at least profiting from it.

At the picturesque wee village of Burnmouth I think of the tales Janes told me about local families immersed in smuggling. He spoke of the Lyles, farmers who hid their contraband in the local haystacks. Once – after their goods were seized – they daringly raided the warehouses to get them back.

Picturesque Burnmouth also once harboured families of smugglers.

Back in Eyemouth I spend another night at the Ship’s Quarters, a graceful guest house set on the harbour. The lovely owners – who are as far from the world of skullduggery as you can imagine – give me the fuel my imagination doesn’t even need, telling me that they’ve found a mysterious chamber below their own cellar – an archaeologist friend had said there would have been a street down there. In Eyemouth and Scotland’s Smuggling Coast the past and present constantly, deliciously intertwine. Is that the dark shadow of a skiff packed with barrels of brandy and a tea chest I see below my window making its way silently through the mist?

If you want to follow in Robin’s footsteps and that of the Eyemouth smugglers you can follow the walking trail around Eyemouth. Or head out exploring the Berwickshire Coastal Path.