GUNSGREEN HOUSE & SMUGGLING

This stunning building clearly shouting its owner’s wealth and power over the town that is Eyemouth, has to be Gunsgreen House. Nestling as it does on the hillside overlooking the harbour, surveying the comings and goings of all the boats that seek entry and safe haven as well as watching for prying eyes searching for information for their own ends, the house has a grand story to tell.

Designed in 1753 to the commission of James Nisbit, a local merchant, by the Adam brothers, John and James of Edinburgh, Nisbet showed he was a man of substance. As with many of the Adam designs, the facade gives a sense of mass, mirroring their grand works on the massive redevelopment of Edinburgh New Town.

The dominant position placed the house on the seaward edge of Nisbet’s estate for a very good reason. The castellated bastion and extensive cellarage were probably constructed later in the 1780s or ’90s. This represented more obvious access to the cellars and enabled small boats to be pulled up from the beach for security.

After 1707 and parliamentary union, customs dues rose steeply in tobacco, lace, salt, malt, claret, brandy and many other items of trade considered essential by the people. Eyemouth was an entrepot for trade with the Baltic and Scandinavian states as well as later a recipient of French and low countries consumables.

John Nisbit was born in 1712 of parents David and Alison, nee young. Records of his early life as one might expect are thin but we know that his father died in 1746 when John was 34. By the age of 41 in 1753 Nisbit had enough confidence to commission the building of Gunsgreen House from his then base as a shopkeeper and merchant in Dunbar, an old port with a turbulent history itself dominated by ‘Black Anges Castle’ some 25 miles to the north of Eyemouth.

Clearly, our man had amassed a substantial sum to fund such an exercise and as we now know much of this came from handling smuggled goods. The proof lies in the building itself. During preliminary stages of restoration carried out in recent years, concealed hides have been found in walls, below floors and even secret passages into voluminous cellars have been uncovered. By far and away the most significant feature is the discovery of a tea chute. Or as historian Pete Aitchison suggests could this have been for tobacco; the problem here would be moisture and hence clogging of the tube section. However on the 4th March 1755:

The commissioners at London having transmitted to us an information of frauds being committed in Scotland and particularly about Eyemouth and the neighbourhood thereof by smuggling tobacco and conveying of the same into England by the artful management of certificates from the port of importation. We direct you to take an account of each merchant’s credit for tobacco, tobacco snuff and tobacco stalks and with the utmost diligence to make strict rummage in all of the cellars, warehouses and milns within your district, particularly Eyemouth

This structure started in the loft area where a large lead faced paper lining hopper was created with a funnel in the bottom-feeding into a pipe that ended in a controlled outlet in the ground floor. The capacity of the hopper was 700lbs or 317 kilos at any one time.

Further areas yet uncovered include another large hollow or cellar to the right front corner of the building. If proved, this may well be an interconnection with the much-reported but yet unseen swinging fireplace leading to a stairway down to hidden cellars. There is still one town resident who remembers playing in it as a child 90 years or more ago.

This centre for illicit imports involved the townspeople much as those of Rye, Romney, Dymchurch and Winchelsea on Romney March in Kent and Sussex did throughout the C17th and C18th. Here, gangs of more than 500 batmen, drovers, carters and seamen worked together to clear one night’s delivery from the boats offshore. Nearer to Eyemouth, the village of Robin Hood’s Bay, in North Yorkshire, operated similar services. As in Eyemouth, each house had a cellar connected to the next. Each room had two doors one for entry one for the exit.

Likewise, the catacombs of cellars provided an underground escape network. The real stocks of smuggled goods were hidden much less obviously in caches on cliff paths, caves, deep caverns in the nearby rock formations. Cellarage was only for good in transit and not for storage. The south coast runs – as the smuggling operations were called – with large gangs operating them, used overnight to take the landings from Dungeness Beach or Camber Sands to Bromley in what is now South London. There they would be stored in the famous cave system – used in World War II as air-raid shelters – for distribution to their tens of thousands of clients across the home counties.

In Cornwall, the many hundreds of tin mines were used as storage depots, here Holland’s Gin being the high-value product. At Poole in Dorset, in 1748, Jos Snelling and his band had pitched battles with the militia sent by the Excise to put down the smugglers, the battle of Muddiford involving some say, 1000 men being just one such. Indeed at Poole one of the most notorious acts took place when the Hawkhurst Gang from Kent raided the customs house. They brutally tortured and murdered two officers, Gally and Chatter, by placing stones on them and finally dumping them down a well.

Not all smugglers were rouges and blaggards though, at Prussia Cove in Cornwall the Carter family ran an enterprise on a very equitable basis and business-like basis. On one occasion when they were away on a run, the local excise officers came and raided Carter’s store at Bessie’s Cove, removing the contents to Penzance Customs House. On his return Harry Carter, or the King of Prussia as he was known from his game playing as a child. rode over with a few men and a cart, broke open the Customs House doors, recovered only what was his and left money on the side for the repair of the doors and locks.

Likewise at Beer in Devon Jack Rattenbury worked with the government of the day – whilst a smuggler by night – to land British government spies in Napoleon’s France. As with Harry Carter, both men published an autobiography telling their stories and as west countrymen laced it well with methodist principles. Indeed Napoleon constructed the port of Roscoff in Brittany expressly to encourage smuggling in the U.K. to undermine the British governments’ tax take, and therefore finances, during the war up to 1805 between the two countries.

So as we have shown by these few examples smuggling then and now was a big business. Drugs, people, diamonds, cigarettes and other commodities are still moved about the world illicitly to the general public detriment and often to their physical or financial harm.

We direct you to transmit to us a state of the credit of John Nisbitt, merchant Eyemouth for wine, distinguishing whether French or other wine, and how arising… whether by wine imported, bought coastwise, or condemned in the court of the exchequer and this to be done with secrecy.

There is no doubt that other evidence exists to prove he was under suspicion but not enough could be brought to court to commit him. Could this be because he was able to buy off his witnesses or prosecutors? For sure, payment of state wages to customs officers was made as a percentage of recovered goods, so it was often the case that officers agreed with the smuggler barons that certain cargoes could be apprehended and others let through. As such the officer would claim his 10% on the seizure and receive a kickback from the smuggler for the many larger cargoes that passed by undetected. Bribery was exercised to a huge level throughout society. To paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling:

Turn to face the wall as the gentlemen go by…

From the window tax records we find the following owners or tenants of Gunsgreen House:

Name Start Date End Date
John Nisbit C1760 1782
John Stewart 1782 C1786
Alex Robertson C1786 1797
George Home 1798 1836
Abraham Home 1836 1856
George Home 1856 1858
Patrick Anderson Home 1858 1874
Margaret Roberston Home 1874 1881
James Gibson 1881 1895
James Alexander Home 1895 1899
John Hogg 1899 1919
Elizabeth Hogg 1919 1920
Richard Hewat 1920 1926
Edith Hewat 1926 1936
James Hewat Sanderson 1936 1962
Margaret Sanderson 1962 1974
Scottish Borders Council 1974 2004

As this list of residents shows, Gunsgreen House through its time has forged connections with the Home family and their seat at Paxton House. In 1998 the trustees of Paxton formed a sister trust to take over management and long term restoration and security of Gunsgreen House. Its aims are to conserve, protect and develop the architectural and social heritage of the house and to secure the best future for the property.

A locally-based operational group has been formed from the trustees: Professor Alistair Rowan – Chairman, Peter Aitchison, John Bellamy, Col. Simon Furness, John Johnston, George Miller, David Smout, Fay Waddell, Allan Swan – Architect and George Russell – Secretary.

Regular use and income are essential to the long term future of the building. So far work has commenced on a redevelopment and conservation plan for the building and its coach house known as Nisbit‘s Tower.

In March 2002 an open day was held to view the work so far completed which consisted then of basement wash, shower, toilet and office facilities for use by visiting yachtsmen and a tenant for the offices in the University of the third age. On the ground floor, the Eyemouth International Sailing Craft Association have redecorated and tidied up the area including the panelled room pending full restoration as an office, library and meeting rooms.