Tales of the smuggler's coast - Berwickshire

15 February 2016
4100082.jpg-17758.png Smuggler's Trail
Derek Janes explores the archives of the Scottish Board of Customs to reveal tales of smugglers on the Berwickshire Coast, to mark the opening of the new Berwickshire Smuggler's Trail this spring.
Tales of the smuggler's coast - Berwickshire Images

The chief landmark of the Smugglers Coast is Gunsgreen House in Eyemouth. It was built in the early 1750s for local merchant-smuggler John Nisbet. These accounts of smuggling incidents are all taken from the official records of the Scottish Board of Customs.

In the summer of 1760 there was an informer called John Page who joined John Nisbet’s ship Molly at Great Yarmouth. He later described to the Customs how Molly sailed to

...the Coast of Scotland near Eymouth, where sundry Tubs and Hogsheads containing French wine and Foreign spirits and also four Chests of tea were unshipped into Boats under the direction of James Grey, who called himself clerk to John Nisbet, merchant in Eymouth.

This is one a several accounts of John Nisbet’s involvement in smuggling. He was undoubtedly the ‘Mr Big’ of the business in SE Scotland. He was not alone, however.


A daring attack took place on 28 July 1780, just by the harbour in Eyemouth and was described in the official records:

between 11 and 12 o’clock of the night thirty armed smugglers, after landing out of a boat, broke open the King’s Warehouse, and carried off 23 whole and 34 half ankers of spirits and 6 Bags of Tea which had been seized the 24th and 28th of last month by the Tidesmen at Eymouth and Coldingham;

Some witnesses described what they saw:

... the Witnesses declare the party was disguised: that Peter Nairne however declared that by his Size, Voice & Shape, he knew James Crawford to be one of the Rioters tho his face was blacked.

The Customs further reported that:

... most of the Goods lodged in the Warehouse had belonged to or been landed by Charles Swanston son of James Swanston at Northfield, and that many of the Witnesses declare that Charles Swanston, his Brother Robert & James Crauford at Coldinghame went aboard the Smuggling Cutter the 28th July Last, and were not seen to come on Shore that Day

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On that same day in 1780, another incident took place at Greystonelees, near Burnmouth:

... five Ankers of Spirits were likewise seized by the Customs Officers among the corns of George Lyell Tennant in Graystonlies in presence of him and Christopher his son, the Smuggling Cutter at that time lying off shore in their sight – when the son Christopher at that time threatened the officers with getting twenty or thirty of the Smugglers to land and take back the goods again out of the Warehouse and in fact a boat from the Smuggler having soon after landed and convened with the Lyels, the Crew fired immediately after the Officers , and the Warehouse was also broke open that night

In 1785, the customs received a tip-off about John Lyall:

Having received information that Frauds to the prejudice of the Revenue have been committed from on board the Sloop John of which John Lyal was several years the master and is now the reputed owner, which vessel is at present commanded by one Whitehead and has for the above time generally cleared from Newcastle for Hamburgh, Norway and Sweden under the command of one of them, and delivered a cargo of lumber at Newcastle, having previously discharged her Contraband goods at or near a place called Graystonelees near Eymouth (near which place lives George, the father of the abovementioned John Lyal)…..

John later went to live in Findon in Sussex, where he became a respected resident, operating ships out of London. One of his sons became a Conservative MP and a director of the East India Company, another rose to be Dean of Canterbury and another was a Colonel in the East India Company.


The Smuggler's Trail is a new walking trail developed in conjunction with historian and curator Derek Janes, who has been researching the history of smuggling on the Berwickshire coast.

The trail runs from Eyemouth to Cove and has interpretations of various smuggling stories along the way, as well as stop-offs at viewpoints which have a place in smuggling history. Eyemouth House also has displays on smuggling history.

Find out more at the trail website.

Discover more about Scotland's history in every issue of History Scotland magazine.

(Images copyright Hannah Longmuir)