Customs & Excise; smuggling

In the eighteenth century high duties were charged on basic commodities like tea and even salt. There was an extensive smuggling trade supplying people along the coast and also some distance inland with these goods, duty free. This smuggling trade was highly organised. It involved a complete cross-section of the community, from the suppliers to the customers, who included the poorest and the richest people in the area.

With the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, Customs and Excise records begin, and we can see the constant struggle between smugglers and government officers. The smugglers came from the Isle of Man, which had lower import duties. It was easy for small boats to bring salt, brandy and tobacco across the Solway by night. Or cargo vessels from Virginia and the West Indies would send boats ashore. Country people saw no reason why they should pay heavy government duties, so there was a ready sale for contraband. Smuggling often provided extra income in times of need. 

An early incident was reported in July 1711. On hearing of a cargo of tobacco from the Isle of Man landed at Glenhowan near Glencaple, the Supervisor of Excise went to investigate and duly found the tobacco. He attempted to confiscate it, but was attacked by "a multitude of women armed with clubs and axes". 

Another of the Excise officers' difficult tasks was to try to enforce a week's quarantine, at the mouth of the Kirkbean Burn, on any ship found to be from a plague-stricken port. 

By the 1760s, the Supervisor reported that smugglers were now "riding openly, allowing no Customs Officer near them". Excise officers routinely carried swords and guns in the course of their duties and a ship of the Royal Navy was stationed at Carsethorn to intercept smugglers. 

Writing in 1867, William McDowall remembered that when he was a boy in Maxwelltown, he used to wake up at two in the morning to the noise of a train of twenty or more ponies, with baskets full of smuggled goods, galloping over the Old Bridge and through the streets. Nobody was with them, they were trained to stop at a farm just outside the town.

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