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Newhaven Beach with boats 1845Scotland’s most important trading partner during the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was the Low Countries.  Wool, coal, salmon and other products were exported through the port in Leith whilst in return a huge range of goods were imported such as luxury items from the Dutch East India Company — tea and coffee, tobacco, spices, brandy and the distilled base, genever, which was used to make gin.  

Official figures for 1782 show that 2.5 million gallons of Dutch genever was imported into Britain. Unofficially the figure would have been much bigger as vast quantities were smuggled. Indeed Newhaven, next to Leith, was a great centre for smuggling. Fishing boats could easily undertake the short journey across the North Sea and land contraband to avoid the excise.

The lore of Newhaven contains very little in the way of smuggling tales yet smuggling was part and parcel of Newhaven’s fishermen.   The Firth of Forth dominated the contraband trade and the fishing villages from Anstruther to Eyemouth all participated with Newhaven playing its part.  In the dark of night, the cargo-laden fishing boats would offload their booty and fellow villagers and sometimes even the wives and children would hurry to spirit the goods away.  Some of the houses featured open backed cupboards to allow for escape should the house be raided by customs men.

To most of those who participated, smuggling was a game — albeit a highly profitable one.  It was a way of cocking a snoot at the city fathers in Edinburgh who benefited from the import duties paid yet held little regard for Newhaveners as was evidenced by how little money they spent on the village.  After the Union of Parliaments in 1707, indeed ”jinking the gauger” as it was termed, had an air of patriotism.


Newhaven beach 1847

Artist : David Octavius Hill

A man and two boys sit beside a moored fishing boat on Newhaven beach, Edinburgh. The boats are clinker built and there are several on the shore. A building in the background has a tiled roof.

Picture courtesy of Edinburgh City Libraries and Museums —