Smuggling was part of everyday life in a port like Greenock in the early 18th century. Local seafarers knew all the best places locally to land some of their cargo before having to declare the goods to the customs officials or Revenue. This report of rum smuggling and revenge appeared in The Scots Magazine of 1776.
Ninian Scott was a shipmaster of Greenock. He and his father owned the brigantine Bell which returned to the Clyde from a trip to Barbados with a cargo of rum. At Cape Clear in Ireland and at Arran in the Clyde quantities of rum were smuggled from the ship. As the vessel approached Greenock harbour, Alexander Thomson, Customs Officer at Greenock boarded and discovered that not all the cargo was present. He placed some of his men on board so that no more of the cargo could be “disposed of”. He then went off to chase the boats which had taken the rum to Arran managing to seize one of them.
After consulting the Collector and Comptroller of Customs at Greenock, he seized Scott’s vessel, put his own men in charge of her and took her into Greenock harbour. Some casks of rum which did not appear in the ship’s books were seized. Scott “threatened vengeance against Thomson and his men and returned to his ship on 12 August and demanded that his ship be returned to him. He was told that the Board of Customs would have to agree to this, he again threatened violence. Thomson went ashore to report Scott’s behaviour at the Custom House. Scott followed him and “struck him two blows on the head”. One of Thomson’s men on coming to his defence was also attacked and this started a “rammy” between the Scott's friends and the customs officers.
The Board of Customs called in the Sheriff and Captain Scott was charged with the offences. Scott retaliated by bringing an action against Thomson.
Scott did not appear at the trial, which proceeded in his absence. During the trial it was discovered that Scott had also managed to “persuade” two material witnesses for Thomson not to appear. A warrant was issued for the apprehension of Scott and the witnesses. The witnesses had disappeared, but Scott was found and taken to the court. He stated that he knew who the witnesses were and had walked down the street with them, but denied that he had spoken to them about the trial. On further questioning he admitted that the had “carried away” the witnesses and bribed them to “conceal themselves until the trial was over”.
Thomson and his men were acquitted and found entitled to expenses of £100. Scott was committed, but later liberated on “finding caution” – paying expenses.
It would appear that Captain Thomson, the customs official was not a popular man. A year later in 1777, a report in the Glasgow Journal states that he and his men were attempting to board a ship that was smuggling spirits. The crew assaulted them with sticks and stones and one of the customs men fell overboard and died, another had a broken arm and bruised head the rest of the men gave up and returned to their ship. The article ends “It is thought that the perpetrators will be brought to condign punishment”.
Just a couple of the many smuggling stories from Greenock.