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Issue 59 - Smuggling, Ancient Feuds and the Odd Curse

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Smuggling, Ancient Feuds and the Odd Curse

Sally Toms makes landfall at the major city of Aberdeen and ventures beyond.


Last issue left us in Stonehaven, so let us begin part four of our journey in the granite city of Aberdeen, so nicknamed because it is almost entirely built from the local grey granite, whose mica deposits sparkle like silver in the sun (and also in the wet, which is handy in this part of northern Scotland).

The city, Scotland’s third largest, sits on a stretch of sandy coastline between the mouths of the river Don and the river Dee, and is home to thriving modern industry, belying a turbulent past.

Its strategic location has meant that Aberdeen has been a human settlement for about 8,000 years, and by the early 12th century Aberdeen was a bustling town. War, fire and plague all conspired to finish off the inhabits during the Middle Ages, but still the city grew.

By 1639 Aberdeen was the second largest city in Scotland, owing to its hugely important harbour and trades such as fishing and ship building. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the town continued to prosper, this time in whaling and textiles, and later in the export of the local granite.

However, following its discovery in the 1970s, nearly all these industries eventually succumbed to the unstoppable power of North Sea oil. Today, it is Aberdeen’s main industry, and brings a considerable amount of prosperity, and a great many helicopters, to this thriving city.


Heading north, past pretty Newburgh which is something of a des-res for prosperous Aberdonians, is the Forvie National Nature Reserve: a haven for birds and a vast landscape of bleak and beautiful sand dunes comprising more than 1000 hectares.

Humankind have, at times, tried to reclaim these shifting sands. The last time was during the 15th century, when a storm buried the last remaining foothold in sand. It is said that this storm was the result of a curse put upon Forvie by three sisters who were due to inherit the parish, but were driven out to sea in a leaking boat by jealous townspeople. In a rage, they cursed: Yf evyr maydenis malysone dyd licht upon drye lande, let nocht bee funde in Furvye’s glebes bot thystl, bente and sande!

The sisters’ curse whipped up a storm that continued for nine days and nights. By the time it ended, sand had buried the village. To this day, all that can be seen are the walls of 12th century Forvie village church.


Collieston is a pretty village with a long history for fishing, and other associated pastimes, for wherever there are secluded caves, there is smuggling. In 1707, excise duty on spirits in Scotland was greatly increased with the aim of putting spirits out of reach of the lower classes.

Consequently, the lower classes found other ways to acquire their drink.

The north east of Scotland was ideally situated for this smuggling trade, and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries Collieston became one of the main centres for the landing of smuggled goods.

Writing in 1801 an Aberdeen Customs official described the village as ‘the principal haunt of the smugglers for landing goods,’ and the villagers as ‘a turbulent riotous pilfering set’.

Local man Philip Kennedy was arguably one of the most riotous and pilfering, for he met with a sticky end in December 1798.

Kennedy and his associates had taken ashore at 16 ankers of Holland gin at Collieston, and were transporting it to a farm for concealment, when they were surprised by a gang of excisemen.

In the fight that followed, Kennedy managed to pin down two of the gaugers (excisemen) and shouted for his companions to seize the third. Being not as riotous as brave Philip, the smugglers fled, and the remaining officer was free to attack Kennedy with his sword, inflicting repeated wounds on his head. Still Kennedy would not release his hold, and so the customs officer held up his sword to the moon and cleaved open Kennedy’s skull in one fell stroke. Badly wounded, Kennedy staggered for almost a mile to the farmhouse of Kirkton of Slains where he is reported to have lamented before he died, “If all had bin as true as me the prize wid a bin safe and I widna bin bleedin tae death.”

Cruden Bay

A few miles north of Collieston lies Cruden Bay and spooky Slains Castle, a clifftop ruin that is thought to have been the inspiration for the castle of Count Dracula, after Bram Stoker visited the area in the late 19th century.

It is, in fact, New Slains Castle, the ‘old’ castle having been blown up by James VI in 1594 to punish the Earl of Erroll for being involved in a Catholic plot against him.

Rather sadly, there are plans to turn these atmospheric ruins into holiday apartments.


Continue along the coastal road and you’ll inevitably reach Peterhead, Scotland’s most easterly point. More austere than pretty, Peterhead has a relatively short history by Scottish standards, having been founded in 1587 by George Keith, the 5th Earl Marischal of Scotland. Like all the towns along this coast, it’s the sea that has shaped the history and development of this town.

Peterhead has weathered the rise and fall of industry many times. In the 19th century it was one of Britain’s largest whaling ports until gaslight eradicated the need for whale oil. This was followed by herring, then white fish, and in 1987 Peterhead was Europe’s biggest whitefish port, landing nearly 120,000 tonnes a year. Since then, declining fish stocks and EU quotas have hit this town hard, and the fishing industry has had to work hard to survive.


Nearby Fraserburgh, as well as being an important historical port and seaside resort, is home to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses – an essential stop for coastal tourists.

This award winning museum contains a nationally recognised collection of glass lenses, lighting technology as well as social history artefacts covering the lives of the men and families who guarded Scotland’s coastline for more than 200 years. But the highlight of any visit is a 45 minute guided tour to Kinnaird Head lighthouse, the first to be built on mainland Scotland. It was installed in 1878 by engineer Thomas Smith, the father-in-law of Robert Stevenson who went on to succeed him as Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. The lantern chamber is located at the top of the four storey structure, and the bank of whale oil lamps it contained were visible for up to 14 miles out at sea.

As a brief aside, The museum is currently looking for crafty knitters to fill their exhibition room with knitted fish for an upcoming project.

Perhaps Scotland Magazine’s very own Editor, who has recently taken up the hobby, would like to volunteer some fish of his own?


The pretty fishing village of Pennan, just a few miles along the coast, may be familiar to fans of the 1983 film Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster, where it featured as the fictional village of Furness.

Film enthusiasts still come from all over the world to make a phone call in the red telephone box which featured in the film. In fact, the original phone box was just a papier mâché prop for the film, the telephone box visitors see today was installed later in response to public demand. It has since become a listed building in its own right.

In 2007, this humble telephone box was made famous further when 16 people squeezed inside, setting a new world record for most number of people in a telephone box.

Banff and Macduff

If the excitement of telephone boxes is getting a bit too much, head to Banff and Macduff, two charming seaside towns connected by a bridge over the River Deveron.

In Banff you’ll find Duff House, widely thought to be one of Britain’s finest Georgian buildings. It was commissioned in 1735 by William Duff of Braco, first Earl of Fife, who employed the services of Scotland’s foremost architect, William Adam. Unfortunately, animosity erupted between the two men and work on the house was halted in 1741. A long legal battle ensued, from which Duff was so embittered that he could not bring himself to finish the house, live in it, nor even look at it, drawing the blinds on his carriage whenever he passed by.

Adam, though matters were eventually resolved in his favour, died soon after.

Later, this beautiful building was destined to become a sanatorium and, during World War II, a German Prisoner of War Camp which was, ironically, hit by German bombers.

Today Duff House sees much happier times as part of the National Galleries of Scotland, housing a range of art treasures and superbly furnished rooms.