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Saltcoats Old and New

The House the Smugglers Built,
and the Day of "Derring Do".
Red Coats in Saltcoats.

Chapter 05

Pretty and picturesque is the view up the street that was once "the Hill", with the rickety old roadway corkscrewing to the top and the church spire rising over the houses, its slender outline giving impressive dignity to the setting. At the foot of the little declivity, at the point where the mail coach swung round from the Saracen's sits an old artistic looking house bulging on the roadway. This, according to a venerable chronicle of the district, is "the house the smugglers built". The man who built it in 1710 and who first lived in it, we are told, was a mariner named Robert Lusk, who became coal grieve to the Auchenharvie Coal Work. It sat there alone while the Saracen's had still to come, when the street of the hill was a bridlepath and the brae seawards took a precipitous dip to the water edge. In those days and for a century later, many a gallon of the precious Geneva was run ashore and brought up from "the Ferryboat Gut" to be buried in its vaults. In the reign of the second George, a Kilbride ship, the "Prosperity", put into Saltcoats for salt, with some more valuable exchanges. The master delayed sailing on pretence of damages and the vessel lay a month in the dock without suspicion. Towards the end of its time, a mob, in sympathy with the smugglers, attacked and robbed the vessel, severely beating the officer in charge, whose life was for a time despaired of. Such an occurrence was nothing uncommon in the early days in Saltcoats, where smuggling was cultivated with the zeal born of seafaring adventure and fortune making, the most opulent being then engaged in the traffic. The struggle with the Preventive men was fierce. More than once the streets, debouching on the quayside, rang to the clatter of soldiery, the rattle of firearms and the hoarse shouts of men in conflict. A stirring memory of a stirring time is that of the loud infantry in their picturesque habiliments high mitred hats, red coats, long gaiters and powdered wigs with ribboned tails, marching to defend the officers of the Goverment

Such a scene was presented in the winter of 1730, when a party of fifty soldiers poured into the town, all the little community in the frenzy of combat and ready to defend to the last their illicit possessions others were brought in from Irvine and Beith. The smugglers were not easily vanquished and a great cargo was placed on board the "Moses" of Saltcoats, bound for Drontheim, the master which was George Auld, a mariner of daring. When the revenue officers came to inspect what should have been tobacco, three-quarters of the store was only peat and stones. In the summer of 1733, a revenue officer, named Hamilton, had charge of some brandy, when the smugglers deforced and beat John Boggs in charge, and landed tobacco, which was taken to the smugglers' private store house; and so large was the haul that it took a whole week, with double-horsed conveyances, to carry it to its destination. Speaking of "the house the smugglers built", a veteran of better days says, "I saw the vaults myself and was down in the depths of them, almost to the knees in water and I saw remains of the barrels used by the smugglers". The house, so romantically reminiscent of rifled ships and liquid spoil, came into the possession of Hannibal Lusk and, at the end of that eventful century, to Captain Kirkwood. Ultimately, by the singular irony of fate, it fell to the officers of Excise. So that which had been so long the centre of adventure and "derring do" passed out of the old world into the prosaic present.