Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Illicit Distilling and Smuggling

From about the close of the seventeenth until well on in the nineteenth century, smuggling was carried on to a large extent in the Border counties of England and Scotland, not only as regards the evasion of customs duties on imported articles, but as well in the form of illicit distillation.

In the good old times, better than half-way through the eighteenth century, cargoes consisting of ankers of French brandy, bales of lace, cases of tobacco, boxes of tea, and what not, were "run" almost nightly on certain parts of the coasts of Berwick, Northumberland, and Galloway, borne inland by long strings of pack-horses, and securely hid away in some snug retreat, perhaps far up among the Border hills. Few of the inhabitants but looked with lenient eye on the doings of the "free-traders"; few, very few, deemed it any crime to take advantage of their opportunities for getting liquor, tea, and tobacco at a cheaper rate than they could buy the same articles after they had paid toll to the King. Smuggled goods, too, were thought to possess quality and flavour better than any belonging to those that had come ashore in legitimate fashion; the smuggler's touch, perhaps, in this respect was—

". . . sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes

Or Cytherea's breath";

it imparted to the brandy, apparently, a vague, unnameable something that tickled the palate of the drinker, to the tobacco an extra aroma that was grateful to the nostrils of those who smoked it. Nay, the very term "smuggled" raised the standard of those goods in the estimation of some very honest folk, and caused them to smack their lips in anticipation. Perhaps this superstition as to the supreme quality of things smuggled is not even yet wholly dead. Who has not met the hoary waterside ruffian, who, whispering low,—or at least as low as a throat rendered husky by much gin can  whisper,—intimates that he can put the "Captain" (he'd promote you to be "Admiral" on the spot if he thought that thereby he might flatter you into buying) on to the "lay" of some cigars—"smuggled," he breathes from behind a black and horny paw, whose condition alone would taint the finest Havanna that ever graced the lips of king or duke—the like of which may be found in no tobacconist's establishment in the United Kingdom. There have been young men, greatly daring, who have been known to traffic with this hoary ruffian, and who have lived to be sadder and wiser men. Of the flavour of those weeds the writer cannot speak, but the reek is as the reek which belches from the Pit of Tophet. However, in the eighteenth century our forefathers, for a variety of reasons, greatly preferred the smuggled goods, and many a squire or wealthy landowner, many a magistrate even, found it by no means to his disadvantage if on occasion he should be a little blind; a still tongue might not unlikely be rewarded by the mysterious arrival of an anker of good French brandy, or by something in the silk, or lace, or tea line for the ladies of his household. People saw no harm in such doings in those good old days; defrauding the revenue was fair game. And if a "gauger" lost his life in some one or other of the bloody encounters that frequently took place between the smugglers and the revenue officers, why, so much the worse for the "gauger." He was an unnecessarily officious sort of a person, who had better have kept out of the way. In fact, popular sentiment was entirely with the smugglers, who by the bulk of the population were regarded with the greatest admiration. Smuggling, indeed, was so much a recognised trade or profession that there was actually a fixed rate at which smuggled goods were conveyed from place to place; for instance, for tea or tobacco from the Solway to Edinburgh the tariff was fifteen shillings per box or bale. A man, therefore, owning three or four horses could, with luck, make a very tidy profit on the carriage, for each horse would carry two packages, and the distances were not great. There was certainly a good sporting chance of the convoy being captured in transit, but the smugglers were daring, determined men, and the possibility of a brush with the preventive officers merely added zest to the affair.

Of the other, the distilling branch of the smugglers' business, a great deal was no doubt done in those lonely hills of Northumberland and Roxburgh and the other Border counties. There they had wealth of fuel, abundance of water, and a plentiful choice of solitary places admirably adapted to their purpose; it was easy to rig up a bothy, or hut of turf thatched with heather, in some secluded spot far from the haunts of inconvenient revenue officers, and a Still that would turn out excellent spirit was not difficult to construct. With reasonable care the thing might be done almost with impunity—though there was never wanting, of course, the not entirely unpleasurable excitement of knowing that you were breaking the law, that somebody might  have turned informer, and that at any moment a raid might be made. Every unknown face necessarily meant danger, each stranger was a person to be looked on with suspicion till proved harmless. Even the friends and well-wishers of the illicit distiller did not always act in the way most conducive to his comfort and well-being, for if his still turned out a whisky that was extra seductive, he speedily became so popular, so run after, and the list of his acquaintances so extended, that sooner or later tidings of his whereabouts leaked round to the ears of the gaugers, and arrest, or a hasty midnight flitting, was the outcome. Besides, such popularity became a severe tax on the pocket of the distiller, for the better the whisky the greater the number of those who desired to sample it, and the oftener they sampled it, the more they yearned to repeat the process. Nor was it safe to make a charge for the liquor thus consumed, lest it might chance that some one of those who partook of it might, out of revenge for being charged, lay an information.

About the end of the eighteenth century there lived in a remote glen on Cheviot a Highlander, one Donald M'Donald, who was famous for the softness and flavour of the spirit he distilled. Whether it was a peculiar quality imparted to his whisky by some secret process known only to Donald himself, a knowledge and skill perhaps handed down from father to son from generation to generation, like the secret of the brewing of heather ale that died with the last of the Picts, one cannot say. Only the fact remains that, like the heather ale of old, Donald's whisky was held in high esteem, its effects on the visitors who began in numbers to seek the seclusion of his bothy, as "blessed" as were ever those of that earlier mysterious beverage beloved of our Pictish ancestors:

"From the bonny bells of heather

They brewed a drink long-syne,

Was sweeter far than honey,

Was stronger far than wine.

They brewed it, and they drank it,

And lay in a blessed swound

For days and days together

In their dwellings underground."

Donald M'Donald had formerly been a smuggler, but he had wearied of that too active life, and he had longed for an occupation more sedentary and less strenuous. Distilling suited his temperament to a nicety. It was what he had been used to see as a boy when his parents were alive, for his father before him had been a "skeely" man in that line. So Donald built to himself a kind of hut in a wild, unfrequented glen. A little burn, clear and brown, ran chattering past his door; on the knolls amongst the heather grouse cocks crowed merrily in the sunny August mornings, and the wail of curlews smote sadly on the ear through the long-drawn summer twilights. Seldom did human foot tread the heather of that glen in the days before Donald took up his abode there; to the raven and the mountain-fox, the muir-fowl and the whaup, alone belonged that kingdom.

From afar you might perhaps smell the peat reek as he worked his primitive Still, but unless the smoke of his fire betrayed him, or you knew the secret of his whereabouts, it had been hard to detect the existence of Donald's hut, so skilfully was it constructed, so gently did it blend into the surrounding landscape. Even if it were accidentally come upon, there was nothing immediately visible which could excite suspicion. At a bend in the stream, where the banks were steep, and the burn tumbled noisily over a little linn, dashing past the rowan trees that clung there amongst its rocks, and plunging headlong into a deep black pool, stood Donald's hut. Little better than a "lean-to" against a huge rock, it seemed; at one end a rude doorway, filled by a crazy door that stood ajar, walls of turf, windowless and heather-thatched, innocent of chimney, but with an opening that allowed the smoke of his fires to steal up the face of the rock before it dispersed into the air. That was all that might be seen at first glance—that and a stack of peat near the door. Inside, there were a couple of rough tables, made of boards, one or two even rougher seats, a quantity of heather in a corner, tops upper-most, to serve as a bed; farther "ben," some bulky things more than half hidden in the deep gloom of that part of the hut that was farthest from the door and from the light of the fire. And over and through everything an all-pervading reek of peat that brought water to the eyes of those not inured to such an atmosphere, and caused them to cough grievously. To the Highlander it was nothing; he had been born in such an atmosphere, and had lived in it most of his days. But to visitors it was trying, till Donald's Dew of Cheviot rendered them indifferent to the minor ills of life.

One day, as Donald was busily engaged with his Still, a charge for which he was just about starting, there came to the door of his hut a man leading a horse from which he had just dismounted. This man did not wait for an invitation to enter, but, having made fast his reins to the branch of a neighbouring rowan tree, walked in and sat down, with a mere "Good day."

"A ferry goot tay," politely replied Donald. But he was not altogether happy over the advent of this stranger; there was a something in the manner of the man that roused suspicion. However, there he was. It remained only to make the best of it, and to be careful not to show that he suspected anything. Perhaps the man was harmless after all; and, in any case, it might be just as well to pretend that he was not possessed of any great knowledge of English. There was nothing to be gained by talking.

"Have ye not such a thing as a drop of spirits in the house?" inquired the stranger. "I'm tired with my ride."

Donald "wasna aaltogether sure. Mebbes perhaps there micht pe a wee drappie left in ta bottle." But there was no dearth of fluid in the bottle that, with Highland hospitality, he set before the strange man, along with cheese and oatcake. Donald took a liberal "sup" himself, and sat down, purposely near the door, just in case of any possible coming trouble, and out of the corner of his eye he kept a wary gaze on his uninvited guest, who had also helped himself liberally to the whisky, and was already making a great onslaught on the cheese and oatcake.

"Aye, capital whisky; cap-i-tal whisky," said the stranger graciously. "And I daresay there's more where that came from, if the truth were kenned."

But that was a suggestion which Donald found it convenient to ignore. He had "ferry little English," he said.

"And I daresay, now," pursued the stranger, in tones if anything perhaps a trifle over-hearty, "I daresay, now, the devil a drop of it will ever have helped to line the King's pocket? Eh?"

But here, again, Donald's knowledge of English was at fault; he "wad no pe kennin' fhat his honour's sel' wad pe sayin'."

"And what might your name be?" presently inquired this over-inquisitive guest.

"Ach, it micht joost pe Tonal," said the Highlander.

"Donald? Aye, and what more than Donald?"

"Ooh, there wull pe no muckle mair. They will joost be calling me Tonal M'Tonal."

"Donald M'Donald? Aye, aye. I thought so. Well, Donald, I'm an excise officer, and you've been distilling whisky contrary to the law. I'll just overhaul your premises, and then you'll be coming with me as a prisoner. And you'd best come quietly."

"Preesoner?—Preesoner? Her honour will no be thinkin' o' sic a thing. There micht aiblins pe a thing or twa in ta hoose tat his honour wad pe likin' to tak' away, but it iss no possible tat he can do onything wi' her nainsel'."

"It's no use talking, my mannie. Duty's duty. You must come wi' me."

"Ochon! Ochon! Tuty wull pe a pad thing when it's a wee pit pisness sic as this. Yer honour wull joost be takin' the pits o' things in ta bothy, an' her nainsel' wull gang awa' an' no say naething aboot it at aal."

"I'm not here to argue with you," cried the exciseman, getting impatient. "You're my prisoner. I confiscate everything here. If there's any resistance, I can summon help whenever I please. You'd best come quietly."

"Oh, 'teed tat's ferry hard; surely to cootness very hard indeet. But she wull no pe thinkin' aaltogether tat she wull pe driven joost like a muckle prute beast either. Her nainsel' wull mebbes hef a wheen freends tat could gie her help if she was wantin't. Could ye told me if there wud pe ony o' them tat wad pe seem' yer honour comin' in here?"

"Not one of your  friends, my mannie. Nor nobody else."

"Then, by Gott, there wull pe nopody tat wull pe seem' ye go oot," shouted Donald in an excited, high-pitched scream, as he snatched a heavy horse-pistol from behind the door, and cocked it. "If ye finger either your swort or your pistol, your plood wull pe on your ain head. She wull pe plowin' your prains oot."

A very different man this from the submissive, almost cringing, creature of a few minutes back! Now, there stood a man with set mouth and eyes that blazed evilly; the pistol that covered the gauger was steady as a rock, and a dirk in the Highlander's left hand gleamed ominously as it reflected the glow from the fire in the middle of the room.

The exciseman had jumped to his feet at Donald's first outburst. But he had underrated his man, and now it was too late. To attempt to draw a pistol now would be fatal—that was a movement with which he should have opened the affair. The exciseman was disposed to try bluster; but bluster does not always win a trick in the game, more especially when the ace of trumps, in the shape of a pistol, is held by the adversary. In this instance, after a long glance at the Highlander, the gauger's eyes wavered and fell; he swallowed hard in his throat once or twice, and lost colour; and finally he sat down in the seat from which a minute ago he had sprung full of fight. Then slowly, and almost as it seemed, against his own volition, his hand went out and closed on the whisky bottle. He helped himself largely, drank copiously, without diluting too much with water, but still said never a word. Now his colour came back a little, and he nibbled at the oatcake and cheese. Then more whisky. Gradually the man became talkative—even laughed now and then a trifle unsteadily. And all the time Donald kept on him a watchful eye, and had him covered, giving him no opportunity to turn the tables. For here the Highlander saw his chance. He had no wish to murder the gauger, but, at any price, he was not going to be taken. If, however, he kept the man a little longer in his present frame of mind, it was very evident that presently the exciseman would be too tipsy to do anything but go to sleep. And so it proved. From being merely merry—in a fashion somewhat tempered by the ugly, threatening muzzle of a pistol, he became almost friendly; from friendly he became aggrieved, moaning over the insult that a breekless Highlander had put on him; then the sentimental mood seized him, and he wept maudlin tears over the ingratitude and neglect shown to him by his superior officers; finally, in the attempt to sing a most dolorous song, he rolled off his seat and lay on his back, snorting.

As soon as he had satisfied himself that the enemy was genuinely helpless and not shamming, Donald promptly set about saving his own property. The exciseman's horse still stood where his master had left him, hitched to a rowan tree a few yards from the door. Him Donald impressed into his service, and long before morning everything in the hut had been removed to a safe hiding-place, and scarcely a trace was left to show that the law had ever been broken here, or that illicit whisky had been distilled.

Before daylight came, however, the exciseman had awakened in torment—a racking headache, deadly thirst, a mouth suggestive of a bird-cage, all, in fact, that a man might expect who had partaken too freely of raw and fiery whisky. He felt, indeed, extremely and overpoweringly unwell, as, with an infinity of trouble, he groped his devious way to the open air, and to the burn that went singing by. Here, after drinking copiously, he lay till grey dawn, groaning, the thundering of the linn incessantly jarring his splitting head. Then, when there was light enough, the unhappy man rose on unsteady feet, and started looking for his horse. A fruitless search; no sign of a horse could be seen, beyond the trampled space where he had stood the previous night, and a few hoof-prints in the soft, peaty soil elsewhere. There was no help for it; he must tramp; and with throbbing temples he pursued a tottering and uncertain course homewards. Next day he returned, full of schemes of revenge, and with help sufficient to overcome any resistance that Donald and his friends could possibly make, even if they thought it wise to attempt any resistance whatever, which was unlikely.

It was a crestfallen gauger that reached Donald's bothy on this second visit. He found his horse, it is true, pinched and miserable, and with staring coat, and without saddle or bridle. But of Donald or of the Still, or the products of that Still, not a sign—only a few taunting, ill-spelled words traced in chalk, with evident care and much painful toil, on the knocked-out head of an old cask.

In another part of this volume mention has already been made of Frank Stokoe, who, after being "out" in the '15 with Lord Derwentwater, died in great poverty. His family never again rose to anything like affluence, nor even to a status much above that of the ordinary labouring classes, but his descendants were always big, powerful men, perhaps slow of brain, but ready with their hands, and there was at least one of them who was afterwards well known in Northumberland. This was Jack Stokoe, a noted and very daring smuggler.

Jack lived in a curious kind of a den of a house far up one of the wild glens that are to be found in that moorland country which lies between the North and the South Tyne. It could scarcely be claimed that he was a farmer—indeed, in those days there was nothing to farm away up among those desolate hills—and therefore Stokoe made no attempt to pose as anything in the bucolic line; it was a pretty open secret that his real occupation was neither more nor less than smuggling. But he had never yet been caught while engaged in running a contraband cargo, and, whatever reason there may have been for suspicion, no revenue officer had ever had courage to make a raid on his house. There came, however, to that district a new officer, one plagued with an abnormally strong sense of duty, a "new broom," in fact, an altogether too energetic enthusiast who could by no means let well alone, but must ever be poking into other people's affairs in a way that began at length to create extreme annoyance in the minds of those honest gentlemen, the smugglers.

Now it chanced that this officious person had lately received sure information of the safe landing of an unusually valuable cargo, large part of which was reported to be stowed somewhere on Stokoe's premises, and he resolved to pay Jack a surprise visit. Accordingly, the Preventive man went to the nearest magistrate, demanding a warrant to search. The magistrate hummed and hawed. "Did the officer think it necessary to disturb Stokoe, who was really a very honest, douce lad? Well, well, if he must, he must, and there was an end of it! He should have the warrant. But Jack Stokoe was a man, he'd heard say, who had no liking to have his private affairs too closely inquired into, and if ill came of it—well, the officer must not forget that he had been cautioned. A nod was as good as a wink."

Notwithstanding these well-meant hints, the gauger made his way across the hills to Stokoe's house. He was alone, but then he was a powerful man, well armed and brave enough, and never in all his experience had a bold front, backed by the majesty of the law, failed to effect its end. If he found anything contraband there was no doubt in his mind as to the result. Stokoe should accompany him back as a prisoner.

There was no one at Stokoe's when the officer arrived, except Jack himself and a little girl, and when the gauger showed his warrant and began his search, Stokoe made no remark whatever, merely sat where he was, smoking. The gauger's search was very thorough; everything was topsy-turvy before many minutes had passed, but nothing could he find. There remained the loft, to which access was given by a ladder somewhat frail and dilapidated. Up went the gauger, and began tossing down into the room below the hay with which the place was filled. Quite a good place in which to hide contraband articles, thought he. And still Stokoe said never a word. Then, when all the hay was on the floor below and the loft bare, and still nothing compromising had been found, down came the gauger, preparing to depart.

"Hey! lassie," at length then came the deep voice of Stokoe; "gie me Broon Janet."

The little girl slipped behind the big box-bed, and handed out a very formidable black-thorn stick. Up then jumped Stokoe.

"Ye d——d scoundrel, ye've turned an honest man's hoose upside doon. Set to, and leave it as ye fand it. Stow that hay where it was when ye cam' here; and be quick aboot it, or I'll break every bane in your d——d body."

The gauger backed towards the door, and drew a pistol. But he was just a fraction of a second too late; "crack" came Stokoe's cudgel and the pistol flew out of his hand, exploding harmlessly as it fell, and before he could draw another he was at Stokoe's mercy. There was no choice for the man; Stokoe took away all his arms, and then compelled him to set to and put back everything as he had found it. There was nothing to be gained by obstinately refusing. Stokoe was a man of sixteen or seventeen stone, a giant in every way, and as brave as he was big—a combination that is not always found. He could, literally, have broken every bone in the gauger's body, and the chances in this case were strongly in favour of his doing it if his adversary chose to turn rusty. Truly "the de'il was awa' wi' the exciseman."

So for hours the unhappy Preventive officer toiled up and down that rickety ladder, carrying to the loft again all the hay he had so lately thrown down, and putting the whole house as far as possible again in the state in which it had been when he began his search. And all the while Stokoe sat comfortably smoking in his big chair by the fire, saying never a word.

At length the task was ended, and the gauger stood dripping with perspiration and weary to the sole of his foot and the foot of his soul, for all this unwonted work came on top of an already long day's duty. Then:

"Sit doon!" commanded Stokoe, an order that the poor man obeyed with alacrity and thankfulness. Stokoe slipped behind the box-bed, was absent a few minutes, and then returned, bringing with him a keg of brandy. Setting that upon the table, he was not long in drawing from it in a "rummer" a quantity of spirit that four fingers would never half conceal. "Now, drink that," he said, handing the raw spirit to his involuntary guest. Then when the liquor had all disappeared, said he: "You are the first that has ever searched my house. See you be the last! Ye're a stranger i' thae parts, so we'll say nae mair aboot it this nicht. But mind you this—if ever ye come again, see that ye be measured for your coffin before ye start."

Tradition has no record of Jack Stokoe having ever again been disturbed.