Smuggling has always been a big issue on the North West coast of Scotland. Its remote islands, feisty seas, inaccessible bays and sea caves have created a paradise for anyone wishing to dodge the excise men and pocket the profits of the sales uninterupted. Folk tales have survived of witches bringing down a heavy fog in order to redirect excise men out to catch illicit stills. Legislation was even passed in the sixteenth century to clamp down on the highly profitable exploits of rogue fishermen out to make a few extra pounds in the Minch. The story of Eliza MacKay, as told to us by her niece, is not unique in the highlands, but that does not make it any less interesting. This story is based on the recollections of Madeline Macphail and a poem about Eliza which used to have pride of place on the wall of the Kylesku Hotel behind the bar.
Eliza Mackay, was the long-time manager, of the old inn at Kylesku at the end of the nineteenth century. She had a reputation as a formidable and feisty character, yet the Fishing Gazette of 1887 could not be more generous, stating that Miss MacKay had a voice that would immediately indicate a warm and generous Highland welcome. In addition to the pub she apparently had her own boat, and would arrange to rendezvous with boats bringing contraband whisky out in Loch a’ Chàrn Bhàin and make the illegal transfer at sea, away from prying eyes and the law. This was the standard practice for many highland landlords and ladies. The London Star, is quoted to have described the Assynt men as having, “a brisk trade in fishing and smuggling”. Sadly, her enterprising trade was not entirely unknown to the local police force and they would ultimately use any means possible to catch poor Eliza breaking the law!
One night a stranger came to the hotel from, apparently from Stoer. Several drams were had and the party escalated. Eliza, the landlady, produced a fiddle, as she was also an accomplished musician! A grand dance got going and a merry time was had by all. Unfortunately, there was some disagreement as the proceedings entered the small hours of the morning, which led to an altercation involving the burly stranger.
Eliza tried to break things up, whereupon the big man turned suddenly serious and official, producing a paper from his pocket with a flourish, announced himself as a policeman and proceeded to tell Eliza that she would be prosecuted for keeping unlicensed hours in a public hostelry. Whereupon Eliza called him every name under the sun, principally based on his having to sneak around in disguise and acting in such a deceitful and treacherous manner.
Eliza was not caught for smuggling in the end but, it does hint at the lengths that some policemen would go to to ensure that criminals, no matter big or small were punished for their misdeeds.
Eliza MacKay of Kylesku : Poem by Unknown Author
(Was previously behind the bar at the Kylesku Inn)
A burley policeman from Stoer made his way,
And went to The Ferry one old Winter’s Day.
To see what harm and mischief he could do,
To Eliza Mackay who lived in Kylesku.
His form it was bulky his face it was glum,
And more so that morning as he started from home.
The foot was his countenance would frighten a few,
But not the brave hostess who lived in Kylesku.
When he arrived at the Ferry a dram he did take,
And with the fishers great bargains did make.
He said he was a ourer both honest and true,
And would give them good prices for the fish at Kylesku.
Miss Mackay was delighted the ourer to see,
And took out her bottle and fiddle in glee.
The songs soon commenced amongst the Jacket of Blue
There was mirth and rejoicing that night at Kylesku.
He danced midst the rest till his head it grew light,
And then was requested to retire for the night.
Put into a passion big burly he flew,
That ended the dancing that night at Kylesku.
So then the big burly his mask off did throw,
And out of his pocket a paper did show.
He says good lady I mean this for you,
For selling your whisky too late at Kylesku.
Miss Mackay with disdain at the paper did look,
And his big beard with vigour she shook.
You are loose and deceitful or you never would do,
Such a treacherous act this night at Kylesku.
Kylesku Hotel: Copyright Highland Coast Hotels (Image from https://www.highlandcoasthotels.com/our-hotels/kylesku-hotel)
Kylesku Ferry:Copyright Highland Libraries, Highland Libraries Postcard Collection, Am Baile Ref: 35611