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4 Jul 2017

Smugglers of Culzean

Smugglers of Culzean castle
When our visitors approach Culzean and take in the long sweeping drive across the viaduct, all seems rather picturesque.

But for those who have been brave enough to scramble along the coastline and have viewed the imposing castle from a different angle, you will have perhaps caught a glimpse of a different story from Ayrshire’s past.

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Robert Adam’s magnificent cliff-top castle sits above a network of caves, only visible from the shore. The caves have a long history but are perhaps best known for what happened after nightfall during the 17th and 18th centuries: smuggling!

Smuggling was rife in this region; its proximity to the Isle of Man (where customs taxes were much lower) made it the perfect place to land highly taxed goods, such as tobacco, tea and brandy.

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It’s hard to believe that all this was happening directly under the castle without the Kennedy family knowing. Perhaps they chose to look the other way? Or maybe they joined in! The latter is more likely, given that records at Culzean show that in 1747 the estate factor Archibald Kennedy (no direct relation to the family) conducted a thriving business from the castle in partnership with George Moore (the most successful of the Manx smugglers) and Sir Thomas Kennedy (9th Earl).

They traded in port, claret, rum and Congo tea, which they smuggled in and sold locally. Smuggling was not only highly profitable for the Earl, but it was also a way for him to express his defiance against the Hanoverian government. 

The caves also have their fair share of ghost stories, which may be real or, more likely, elaborate ruses to deter locals and visitors from venturing too near and spotting what the smugglers were up to.

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One story was recorded by Sir William Brereton, who was travelling around Britain in the 1630s and made his way to Culzean:

"… only one of his sons, servants and others, took a candle, and conducted us to the cave, where there is either a notable imposture, or most strange and much to be admired footsteps and impressions which are here to be seen of men, children, dogs, coneys, and divers other creatures. “These here conceived to be Spirits, and if there be no such thing, but an elaborate practice to deceive, they do most impudently betray the truth; for one of this knight's sons and another Galloway gentleman affirmed unto me that all the footsteps have been put out and buried in sand overnight, and have been observed to be renewed next morning.”

Ghostly footprints or smugglers bringing in their goods? What do you think?

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