Islandmagee’s reputation as a haven for smugglers in bygone centuries

Smuggler's Cave, Islandmagee.
Smuggler's Cave, Islandmagee.

The small fishing smack arrived off Barr’s Point at the north end of Islandmagee without incident.

But as the sailors off-loaded her cargo – bales of leaf tobacco – a revenue cutter also appeared on the scene.

The Maidens Rocks, site of at least two smuggling wrecks. The lighthouses were built in 1829. INCT 23-752-CON

The Maidens Rocks, site of at least two smuggling wrecks. The lighthouses were built in 1829. INCT 23-752-CON

The smugglers were caught red handed. The crew did not speak English and were captured, but the locals who would have been receiving the goods had time to make themselves scarce on shore. The revenue officials also found an artificial cave, in which the tobacco was to be stored (and doubtlessly many other similar cargos had been too). The cave was 30 feet long, four feet long and four feet wide. It was lined with boards designed to keep the tobacco dry. The discovery was a death knell for Islandmagee’s smuggling enterprise.

The Island had once been “celebrated” for smuggling, the OS Memoir tells us, adding that in the early 1800s tobacco had been found concealed under the seats of the Seceding (Presbyterian) meeting house by excise men. The arrival of the coastguards, located at Portmuck and Browns Bay, seems to have played an important part in bringing about an end to smuggling.

The key figure in smuggling in Islandmagee was a well-to-do farmer named William McClelland, who lived at Portmuck. McClelland had trade links with the Netherlands – one of the smuggling routes – and whenever the authorities tried to clamp down on him they arranged to build coastguard cottages in his farmyard, where they can still be seen today. In 1829 the farmer had built a new pier at Portmuck; a sign either that he had reformed, but the pier would certainly not have been a hindrance for smuggling.

McClelland was a leader of the United Irishmen in the area and had to flee for a time after the ill-fated rebellion in 1798, emerging as a solid citizen in Albany, New York, for several years but later returning to Islandmagee. Historian Dixon Donaldson outlined that one of the caves said to have been used by McClelland as a hiding place for smuggled goods was discovered to have an artificial floor of stout timbers, concealed under a covering of shore stones and shingle. On these being removed a cavity, hewn out of the bed rocks, was also found underneath.

William lived to May 1859 and was survived by his sons Samuel McClelland of Dundressan, Islandmagee, and William McClelland of Portmuck, his daughters Ann Browne of Balloo, Islandmagee, Jane Martin of Whitehouse and Eliza Davis, who, ironically, married a coastguard officer on the Portmuck station. In Islandmagee there is a Smuggler’s Road or Wrecker’s Lane which alludes to the smuggling which went on in the area and also a Smuggler’s Cave at the Gobbins. Just south of the cave is the Heughs area, where underground pits were created to conceal contraband. In the 19th century, no longer used, the pits came to light quite literally as their timbers rotted and cattle fell through them.

Caves at Blackhead and Whitehead were used for concealing gin and tobacco in the 18th and 19th centuries, both commodities which had a high duty on them. Smuggling was focused on such goods, and the Isle of Man was an important base for smuggling, until it was purchased by the Crown in 1765. And on the Antrim coast, goods were brought in for distribution both locally and across to the Scottish coast.

In 1805 a customs report described Rathlin Island as ‘a considerable depot of smuggling goods’ and outlined that an American schooner was at that time unloading tobacco on the island, some of which was probably bound for the Scottish coast. In December 1791 a customs boat had been captured by smugglers with nine guns on each side of their ship. The smugglers threatened the customs boat to anchor alongside or be sunk. In the afternoon they headed for Ailsa Craig and ordered the customs boat to stay alongside, but in a storm instructed her to make for Campbeltown. The authorities were angry at the audacity of those involved and in January 1792 a raid was made on Rathlin, with 22 men put onshore. They recovered matts of tobacco leaf and two small casks of muscovado sugar in a loft at Alexander McDonald’s house.

Red Bay became centre of an illicit trade, with goods imported from France, Holland or Guernsey and then re-shipped for Scotland or the north-west coast of England in small vessels without a customs clearance. In 1784 a committee commented on the activities of loggers and wherries and large open rowboats of 12 to 16 oars and 40 feet long, “which are almost constantly employed in bringing over tea, spirits, tabacco (sic) etc from Red Bay and the north east part of Ireland”.

It was reported in 1788 that the Breckinridges of Red Bay had taken over the island of Sanda as a central location for conveyance of smuggled goods from Ireland to the coast of Ayr. A few years later, in 1791, cattle were being exported from County Antrim to Kintyre and horses were being imported. There was no duty on the cattle, but payment of 5/6 per head on horses was, needless to say, being ignored.

The Revenue Collector was to note that “everything where Irish men are concerned is disorder and irregularity”. This was after an incident involving the ship Flower of Carrickfergus, which had put black cattle ashore. One of these irregular individuals was Mr. Gibbons of Carnlough who landed 14 black cattle without the presence of a customs officer at Kintyre in August 1797.

Meanwhile, customs men who boarded a vessel at Glenarm, the Nancy of Ayr, found 18 pieces of ash timber without dispatch papers as were required. The Glenarm Customs officer put three of his men on board to prevent the boat sailing, but the master and his crew forcibly carried the boatmen to Campbeltown and ordered them ashore.

Elaborate support networks and systems of signalling to vessels were developed; in the south of England this was perfected to the point in Norfolk where the sails of windmills would form a St. Andrew’s Cross if it were safe to land goods, a St. George’s Cross if the ship was to abandon a landing because of the revenue men. Generally, however, the authorities were outnumbered by smugglers and their supporters. In Kintyre and elsewhere the smugglers had ‘kents’, which were large bats loaded with lead. The support for smuggling was based on a resentment of duties payable to the government. At Greenock on the Scottish coast there were riots and a crowd of 5,000 defied the military and offloaded cargoes of oatmeal from Ireland in 1770, for example.

The sentence for smuggling was death, which meant that it was in the smugglers interest to ensure they were not captured, and extreme violence and murder were sometimes the result. The authorities eventually became more lenient and passed an Oblivion Act which was an amnesty for smuggling on condition of service in the army or navy; the seafaring skills of the smugglers were particularly sought for the navy. As duties were reduced on goods – William Pitt lowered the duty on tea from an outstanding 129% to just 12.5%, for example – it was not profitable to smuggle.

Little remains of the smugglers but distant anecdotes. Whether seen as heroes or villains, one thing is clear: smuggling was dangerous.

There are at least two smugglers wrecks at the Maidens Rocks. One is from 1781, when a large smuggling cutter was reported in the London Chronicle to have been wrecked on the rocks. She had 16 guns and a crew of 47, 31 of which were saved. The ship had engaged and fought off a revenue cutter about six weeks before and she was from Kintyre and en route from Gothenburg in Sweden, carrying 1,400 chests of tea, 100 chests of silk and 60 ankers of spirits.

Another vessel, with cargo valued at £15,000 was en route from the Channel Islands, the captain a young man named Morrison. Aware that the King’s cutter was cruising in the south Irish Sea, he elected to return to the Solway round the south and west of Ireland, entering the Irish Sea near the Giant’s Causeway. At night, Morrison ended up striking the Maidens rocks and his vessel was reduced to splinters. Only one man on board, by the name of Thomson, survived and was rescued. He was found the next morning clinging to a piece of the wreckage.