Scottish Life Magazine masthead
scotish life magazine special subscription offer
rule
Gunsgreen House of John Nisbet in Eyemouth, Scotland

Smuggler's Lair

Built by smuggler John Nisbet, Gunsgreen House, filled with secret chambers and hidden chutes,
is a fascinating museum by day and an unforgettable holiday apartment by night.

BY SHAN ROSS

Standing at the window of Gunsgreen House, his imposing 18th-century Georgian mansion overlooking Eyemouth harbour, John Nisbet trained his spyglass on the fully-laden ship which had been "hovering" for the past two days off the Berwickshire coast in the east of Scotland. The tide was due to change that night and when darkness fell, Nisbet masterminded a well-practiced operation to relieve the vessel of its precious contraband cargo of rum, brandy, silks, playing cards and, most profitable of all -- tea, highly prized by the wealthy and taxed at a staggering 119 percent.

Ordering his men to flash lantern signals from a nearby cliff top, Nisbet then sent six small boats to row out and meet the ship as it edged closer to one of the coves dotted along this stretch of the coast.

Before long the packhorses waiting on the shore were loaded with goods and led back to Gunsgreen House. This was the most dangerous moment, when Nisbet and his men could be caught "in possession," seized by customs men (often aided by soldiers) and marched off at gunpoint to prison.

But, yet again, Nisbet, by day a respectable merchant, but by night a leading smuggler (or "free trader" as such fellows preferred to be called), was successful. Back at Gunsgreen House his men stashed the contraband in underground cellars before hoisting crates of tea to be stored away in secret hiding places believed to be deliberately built into the mansion when it was designed in the early 1750s by John Adam, the most experienced architect in Scotland at the time. Only a few trusted lieutenants knew the true layout of the elegant house. Indeed, on many occasions this privileged knowledge had kept them their freedom, providing a bolt-hole during raids by custom officers tipped off by Nisbet's rivals.

Fast forward from the 18th century to April 1997 and Gunsgreen House lies neglected and empty. Its dramatic secrets were long forgotten and would have remained so if it were not for an extraordinary twist of fate.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2011 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Scotland's Emotive Ruins by Richenda Miers.

Click here to preview our column on Scotch whisky by John Lamond.

Click here to preview our Notes From The Isles column by Kate Francis.

Photos courtesy Gunsgreen House