He Comes as One Unknown …

He Comes as One Unknown: the story of Samuel Ford

Australia

The year was 1868 and the cold of the morning was still enveloped in the damp clinging fog of the night.  Sunrise was still an hour hence while the Australian bush was cloaked in silence.  Yet James Ford was awake, conscious only of the slow rhythm of breathing coming from his wife and baby daughters.  Slowly he unwound himself from the blankets and crept from beneath the cart which served as a shelter for the night, careful not to disturb the warm bundle of blankets that served as a cocoon for his young family.

By starlight, James pulled on his boots and made his way to the remnants of the nights’ fire fanning the few remaining embers coaching them to light.  He treasured this time, the time before dawn.  He had made camp away from the track, the Wallaby Track as it was known, to afford a modicum of privacy and quiet so that Elizabeth could feed the girls. 

James had learnt as he set out from Port Melbourne he would be following a series of well-known tracks made by the ‘new chum’ miners as they walked known as the Wallaby hat lead to the goldfields tracks to Ballarat and Bendigo.  While James had a cart and horse to carry his box of tools and his family, even so, it was tough going.  ‘You’re on the Wallaby now’ was the usual response to any comment made about the rigours of the track.

James could have travelled by train to Ballarat but such would have meant James would have been separated from his tools of trade, tools that allowed him to work which meant he could support his family.  Besides, James was conscious, following his experience with working for his father in law in New Zealand, that local knowledge was essential and no better place to gain that knowledge was mixing with those navigating the Track.  Besides, a horse and cart was always a good investment.  So he chose the Track.

1880 photograph of miners on the Wallaby Track from the archives of the National Library Of Australia.

The track was busy with any number of travellers negotiating their route to the goldfield.  Most were single men with a flour bag containing their few possessions thrown over a shoulder while they carried the inevitable blacken billy in one hand and a canvas water bag in the other.  They were good natured, filled with hope and tales of a new ‘find’ or someone ‘striking it rich’.  But there were stories too, along with the track, of deaths and misadventure, of snake bites, of broken axels and stalled wagons.  Aye, thought James, it is tough but Waikouaiti had honed his spirt and all this ‘talk’ served was to spur him on.

But at this hour there were no creaking carts, no bullocky calling his term to order, no chatter, no talk.  The track had laid most to slumber except for the odd few who were now awaiting the predictable cacophony of sounds that would herald another busy day on the Track.

The twigs spluttered and caught alight.  The damp smell of eucalyptus mingled with the lazy smoke as it arose from the embers.  Positioning the billy so as to allow the small flames to do their best James waited, waited for the predictable noisy cackling of kookaburras, a needless reminder that there was work yet to done and miles to cover before he reached his destination, Ballarat.

Work?  James was confident that he would have no problem finding suitable work when the family finally reached Ballarat.  In fact, two days on the track confirmed much of what he had been told and allayed much of his fears. 

His older brother, William, had arrived in Ballarat some years earlier and the intermittent letters he received while living in Waikouaiti, New Zealand spoke of opportunity and employment.  Like himself, William was also a wright and firmly stated that there was enough work to keep all wrights working long hours and earning good wages.  Besides, James had noted, the native trees were tall and straight and hard, they would make excellent timber.  He looked forward when his saws, axes, adzes, jacks, hammers and planes would be in his skilled hands once more.  

The ‘new chums’ passed by as did the cloud of flies that were part of the track as anything else.  Then there were the wagons, laden with building equipment, furniture and mining rigs.  And as each day passed the talk on the track circulated around a ‘better camp’ site, where water was obtainable, for a fee of course,  and warnings of the next creek inevitable crossing, which, to James relief, were mostly dry.

Then there were travellers heading south who looked bored, ‘down on their luck’, but most, James suspected, were government type people who did not share the happy exuberance of the northern travellers.  From one such man riding a bay gelding wearing a striped suit covered in dust James learnt that the colonial office in Melbourne was going to have ‘make some laws’ regarding gambling and liquor.  Not that James was interested in these activities but the news contributed to what he had learnt, that there would be no lack of opportunity ahead.  Once he was passed by a wagon heading back down the track surround by a troop of heavily armed police. The police could only mean that the wagon carried gold as James’ trained eye noted the creak and sway of the wagon as the driver negated his charges over the uneven and broken earth.  Heavy in gold and for James the presence gold meant hard currency.

Golden Fleece Hotel, Waikouaiti, New Zealand where James and Elizabeth were married.

After his experience in New Zealand James was optimistic but cautious.  Yes, William had motivated James and two years after meeting Robert Muir and marrying his daughter, his father in law had been declared fraudulent insolvent he realised that the colonial office was more than fitful in paying their government contractors.  Or perhaps the contract work had ended due to the felonious intent of those whom his father in law had trusted.  Whatever the reasons James had left Waikouaiti and the aftermath of uncompleted roads and bridges, of burning farmhouses and police warrants.  Yet, despite these unfortunate events James was reluctant in considering any future government contract work.  But the passing of the guarded wagon told of the presence of gold and indicated the prosperity of what might lie ahead.  This time, James promised himself, he could forgo chancy contracts, bills of lading, or promissory notes.   

A billy of boiling water first thing in the morning was something he knew bought a smile to Elizabeth’s face.  But for James, it was all so new, a rash newness, and it was newness with which he was now wrestling.  Yet his whole life had been something of a wrestle, ‘doing it tough’ in the language of the track.  Growing up in Millport, then his apprenticeship in Kilmarnock followed by a four months voyage to Waikouaiti and misadventure.  He had then worked his way north to Wellington and then saved for a passage to Melbourne.  But he did have a fine wife and two healthy daughters and a cart carrying his precious chest of tools.  Now he had to negotiate his family’s passage along a rough track bashed out of the bush making for a destination that had some ten years earlier been know for the Eureka Stockade, the place where miners and authority fought and died.  He was anxious, tense even.  His apprehension, James realised, stretched beyond the Track, beyond Waikouaiti, back to Millport, then back to Ireland back to a time when other men had fought and died, back to his father, Samuel Ford.  

Cumbrae

It had been in 1844, James Ford’s tenth birthday, always a big occasion for the growing youth of Cumbrae, when he learnt something of his father, Samuel Ford.  Tenth birthday or no, while others, even his mother, fussed over him, James had other thoughts preoccupying his mind.  He had reached double figures and it was time to confront the missing pages in his past.

His father, Samuel, had died in 1836 just shy of James’ second birthday.  He had never known his father other than a vague shadowy figure that existed largely at the margins of his mind.  His mother had referred to his father from time to time but such references only cemented the idea that he was not being told the whole story.  His older brothers and sister referred to ‘Pa’ now and then but they knew little more than James.  He had heard rumours of course and the small island of Cumbrae, surrounded by the Firth of Clyde, was alive with rumours.  No, he had wanted more than rumour and at the age of ten, he was old enough to confront the truth.

The man who would have known would have been his Grandfather, Robert Wright, his mother’s father, one-time coxswain of the Royal George revenue cutter.  Robert, more frequently known as Old Bob, had the youth of Millport hang on every word of his endless stories of the sea, of smugglers and the activities of the Royal George revenue cutter.  The old man had overhanging bushy eyebrows from under which peered two arresting eyes that fixed and captured his listeners as he yarned away many an hour.  But it was not the yarns, exciting as they were, that was of concern for James at the age of ten.  What he wanted to know was the story of his father, Samuel Ford, the real story.  And on this tenth birthday, James felt it time to fill in the gaps that his father had left behind.

Sadly, his grandfather was no longer alive having died not two months back so that avenue of investigation was closed.  James had considered asking his mother but she may not have known the full story anyway.  Women, James having already formed the opinion, seldom knew all that transpired between men, and even if she did know she probably wouldn’t tell him anyway.  But there was someone, nearing his eighties now and living on a pension, who may well know the story and it was to this particular tenement he found himself making.

Thomas Hunter lived on Stuart Street, just along from where the Ford family lived.  Thomas had served on the revenue cutter for most of his life and surely knew something of his father’s life.  But, unlike his outgoing grandfather, Robert Wright, ‘ole man Hunter’ kept to himself mainly but was always ready with a quick smile.  He rarely spoke of his days on the Royal George yet would join in the throng of crew and labourers in the Royal George Inn on Saturday nights.  It was not that he was unfriendly, just that he was different from his grandfather against whom James measured everyone else.  Yet the old man’s silence seemed to add a dimension that spoke of trust, that he knew things of which he would not speak, and it was this aspect that drew James towards the old man’s front door

As he rapped on the door, shut tight against the winds of winter, a thousand thoughts raced through James’ mind.  What could the old man know and would he be likely to tell of that knowledge?  What if he won’t tell anyway?  It was not that James was particular afraid, just, wondering.  Millport was a close-knit community where none unnecessarily spoke ill of another.  It was with these thoughts darting about in his head when he was aware of the door had opened.  

It was the old man who broke the brief silence.

‘Well now, if it’s not Mr James Ford.  Now, what could you be a-wanting?  Come in, come in’.

James stepped inside and was guided down the hallway by the shuffling of the old man’s feet that led into the warm kitchen beyond.   Here the old man’s tidiness was apparent.  The kitchen was tidy and had a well and often used feel about it.  All shipshape James had thought.

‘Now sit yer’self down’.  James obediently sat on the chair that was obviously the lesser used while the old man spoke on.

‘A cup of tea methinks might be in order’.  As the old man busied himself with tea making from the constant boiling kettle, James suddenly found himself tongue tired.  Sensing his silence the old man continued over his shoulder, ‘Would I be right in thinking it’s your tenth birthday Mr Ford?’

James warmed with the use of the word Mister.

‘Aye Sir, Mr Hunter.’

‘Well, my congratulations.  Double figures eh?  A milestone in anyone’s life’.

There was a pause as the old man look at hard James.  But there was that smile again.

‘Well now, let me guess, this not being exactly a social visit.  You being ten year old yer might be wanting to ask about your father methinks’.

How did he know that?  

‘Aye Sir, Mr Hunter.’  James paused for a bit.  ‘It’s just that the others have fathers but not me.  And I hear things’.  He trailed off not knowing what to say next.

Studiously concentrating on pouring the tea the Ol’ Man appeared not to have heard.  James felt anxious, waiting, but too frightened to say anything that might jeopardise a response.  Yet the silence lingered.  Then slowly the Old Man raised his eyes from tea pouring and looked intently at James.

‘James, you will learn eventually.  You have to understand that there are things better left unsaid.  There are some things men just don’t talk about’.

James felt crushed and bit his lip focusing on the untouched tea in front of him in an effort to hide his disappointment.  He controlled an urge to turn and bolt out of the house but when he looked up he sensed there was something more to come.

‘You are growing up James and yer father would have been proud of ye.  It’s not that there is anything to be ashamed of in yer father’s past.  It just that men don’t need to unnecessarily tread over past events’.

The old man paused and turned slightly reaching into a cupboard bringing out a bottle; whisky.  Without any more to do, he pulled the cork with his teeth and before James could say anything added a splash of the liquor to James’ tea before adding a dash to his own.

‘There now.  You are well on the way to being a man and if you don’t tell yer mother neither will I’.

Coaxed into the conspiracy James could not help but smile.  

The Ol’ Man raised his cup and winked at James, ‘Slanj-uh James, an’ it’ll keep the cold at bay’. James followed and sipped the tea which had a not unpleasant taste.   

‘And call me Thomas; we being men an all’.

‘Aye Sir.  Ah, Mr Thomas, thank you’.  

The Ol Man set his gaze on James. 

‘I’ll tell you what I know of yer father but ye cannot go around telling all of Millport now.  This is between me and thee, and yer father’.  

James nodded in consent, ‘How did father come to Millport?  He has no family here’.

‘Well now, where to begin?  Aye.  Ah, aye.  It would be around the time of yer birth methinks.  Let’s start there, the day you were born.  That I remember.’

And so the story unravelled, slowly and methodically.  As the threads knitted together James followed the pictures painted by the old man’s story.  Somewhere in that room, as dusk gathered outside, James realised he had quickly grown up.

Millport

It was six days after the winter solstice of 1834.  The tenements along Stuart Street Millport where being battered by wind and spray as another front moved in from the Atlantic, across the Irish Sea and up the Firth of Clyde.  And if one could see between the walls of stinging spray whipping across Stuart Street one might have seen the small figure detached itself from one of the tenements.  It was evening and the gas lights cast an eerie glow over the scene as a lad dashed from doorway to doorway dodging spume and spindrift. 

Spray over Stuart Street. North Ayrshire Heritage Council.

Ahead lay the Royal George Inn and it was Saturday night and a young Bill Ford had an important errand to fulfil.

Inside were the crew of the revenue cutter, the Royal George, after which the pub was named, which meant both William’s father, Samuel Ford, and his grandfather, Robert Wright, who served on the revenue cutter, would be enjoying a mixture of whisky, tobacco, talk and good humour.  It was always a lively mix when the cutter crew were in town.  However, amid the talk and the mirth, if one might have been observant, they would have noticed that both Samuel and Robert were keeping a weathered eye on the door now secured against wind and spray.  In the days before telephones, messages were hand delivered.  And it was through that door that young Bill burst and all lively conversation ceased as eyes centred on the wet figure standing before them.

The silence inside was only heightened by the sound of spray dashing itself against the solid stone walls of the inn.  Despite his bulk, Samuel Ford moved swiftly to his son placing a large callous hand on the lad’s shoulder as he anxiously explored his child’s face.

‘It’s a boy’. Young Bill said it loud enough so everyone could hear for he too understood that otherwise strong men can suddenly become weak where such issues are concerned.  But still, no one spoke.  ‘Mum’s just fine‘ he quickly added.  The pub erupted in a combined sense of relief and joy.  After much back-slapping and the pouring of more liquor down thirsty throats, the conversation promptly settled on more relevant matters.   

Young Bill Ford, never one to miss the opportunity, grabbed a nearby glass and drain the contents.  ‘Arran water’; Irish whisky.  It would be a late night for the men of Millport and with a bit of luck, his presence might go unheeded for a while.   

So it was that the birth of James Ford was announced to the world on the 27 September 1834 just two years since the passing of the Scottish Reform Act of 1832.  James Ford was born in a new era when men were entitled to have a say in their governance.

Men’s business, as Will knew too well, was contained within the walls of the Royal George or battling the elements to keep a job and earn a wage.   Birthing was women’s business.  So it was not until the wee hours of Sunday morn when Samuel Ford first saw his newborn son. 

James Ford lay in the small wooded cot which had seen nine other siblings come and go.  Samuel looked inquiringly at his wife who returned a smile full of understanding yet none of judgement.  He had been a good breadwinner.  But those years of toil at the quarry had taken their toll on him and the winters had become more a test of endurance as anything else eased only by the relief provided by the steady supply of smuggled liquor.

Even as Samuel gazed at his son he knew he would not see James through to his second birthday.  But first he had to get James’s birth recorded and on the morrow, the church would benefit from good French wine for the communion service and there would be plenty of Arran water left over to ‘wet‘ James’ head afterwards.   

“Ha”, Thomas Hunter added for James’ benefit, “yer see the tides in the firth had always seem tricky for poor French sailors trying to smuggle goods into Glasgow under cover of night.”  He chuckled, enjoying the humour the image of French smugglers struggling with vagaries of tide and wind in the firth bought to mind.  “Aye, Bob Wright would have seen the congregation right.”  

Sunday, the day after James’ birth.  With his daughter Janet, now thankfully married, and Mary and Margaret, along with Susanna, left at home looking after their mother and their new sibling, Samuel set off for church having given Robert, now aged fourteen, the responsibility of keeping the younger members of the family in line during the church service.  The island’s womenfolk made comforting sounding comments concerning the new addition and the welfare of his wife.  Some of the men had a quick wink at him here and there.  Well, he was nearing fifty and not a few comments came to him concerning his nocturnal habits.  But he always thought that Margaret was the sunlight that lit his day and the spark that warmed his nights. He could have done worse and was thankful for small mercies here in Millport.  

Samuel had come to these Isles out of darkness across the water and was ever mindful that he was something of a stranger here. It was not that Samuel Ford was ashamed of his past that he held his tongue.  It was just that he had been accepted in Millport without question which, in turn, questioned his own need to mull over that past.

But now, as Sunday came to a close, he was sitting on a crate on the wharf in front of the inn with the revenue cutter riding at anchor just off the Elains’.  In the chill of the late evening, the air was filled with the smell of the sea, whisky, and smoke from his father in law’s pipe and Ireland seemed both distant yet so uncomfortably close.

Ireland

Ireland.  For one thing, Samuel Ford’s family were not Catholic.  The other reason was his name; Ford.  Nothing Irish about Ford.  For most of his youth, Samuel had not thought about where he had come from, yet he knew he somehow did not belong in Ireland.

Perhaps it was the whisky, perhaps it was the sense that Samuel had not all that long to live, but all this thinking took him back to the time when two men eyed each other over the gunwale of a boat and liked what they saw.  Aye, his mind wandering back, it was the sound of a carelessly handled whisky flask that had changed his life. 

It had been a heedless moment to be sure and the sound would have carried far across the water in the stillness and silence of the morning. With no wind and caught in the talons of the surrounding fog the noise of a carelessly handled whisky flask falling on the wooden decking could only have signalled to the crew of lurking revenue cutter his position as assuredly as the motion on water attracts a circuiting sea eagle.  Without wind, the small craft would be no match for the cutter’s crew once they took to the longboat. ‘Fools’ he thought, but perhaps the biggest fool was himself. 

Maybe it had been a folly from the start.  His senses told him the two men were simpletons at best. Yet the need for money in the year of 1815 overweighed his natural caution as he reluctantly accepted the danger of running the gauntlet from Ireland to Scotland with two otherwise strangers and their contraband cargo.  While it may have been the year when Napoleon had been defeated, if Samuel Ford cared about such events, it was still a year when men needed work and taxes had to be paid.

Sleeping rough was something he was used to but it was the waiting that was getting him down. It had been two days since he had met the two strangers and agreed to their proposal.  Yet his hanging around waiting made him conspicuous and marked him for what he was.  The local villagers were well aware of his presence and while he was confident that such awareness was no need for alarm he was anxious to be gone from hereabouts.

Smuggling was not new to Samuel Ford and he was quietly confident of his own ability to survive. Well, he had been running for what, eight, ten years, without falling foul of soldiers, spies or the crew of the local revenue vessel and he was always willing to back himself when in a tight corner.  But an inner voice cautioned him that his time was running out and that one day the odds would not be so kind. He was near thirty years of age by his own reckoning and without a boat of his own, he was at the mercy of those who did have a craft that could run the northern channel between to Ireland and Scotland.  The alternatives of what was laughingly called work only confirmed his destitute condition and an impending sense of the inevitable.  Work Samuel concluded, only meant that labour was little more than a passport to an early grave.  On the other hand, stealth and nerve paid more reasonable dividends.  But perhaps he too would end up like many others, dangling from a gibbet or lying on some forlorn beach with a bullet through his breast.  He shrugged off his dark thoughts.

He ran over the plan in his mind yet again.  He would need some luck but Samuel Ford also knew how to work any luck that came his way.  Walking through the village of Carrickarege (present-day Ballintoy), some ten miles to the west of the much larger town of Ballycastle, he had outlined his plan to the two strangers noting the noisy closing of doors and baring of windows which marked the course of their passage through the village.  He was tolerated but not welcome here as he was not welcomed back home.  He shut his eyes tight to block out that particular memory.

Still, he was aware of a sense of apprehension which he could not quite shake. True, he knew neither of the men but this was not unusual in a business where identity only increased the risk of detection. What neither party knew was to their advantage. No, it was not his unknown accomplices that nagged at the corner of his mind.  What was really worrying him was the whereabouts of the revenue cutter the Royal George.  He had heard and had no doubt to question, that the namesake Royal George was now a cutter and not the heavy old brig that struggled to keep up with anything other than a dismasted lugger. A small well-trimmed craft handled by those who knew the business of sailing the tides of the North Channel could easily have outrun the floating hulk of the Royal George weighed down with twenty odd canon. 

A cutter, on the other hand, was a different matter altogether.  Built for speed a cutter was fast both into and off the wind.  And the Royal George, so he had been told, was now a cutter operating under whatever part of the government bureaucracy carried out such activities and not the previous contracted owner and captain. The name might have changed but the game of smuggling would still be the same.  And while the name may have changed the crew, he learnt, had not which meant that the status quo may still apply.  Graft was a language understood by all those involved in what was commonly known as ‘free trade’.  Still, Samuel Ford had no way of knowing for sure. 

Stirring from his shelter, which was little more than a rock overhang located above the village and road, but which offered a commanded a view of the channel, Samuel stretched and gazed out at the expanse of sea in front in him.  There, some miles off to the west was the distinct shape of a small yawl sailing close to the coast.  He let out his breath slowly.  The waiting would soon be over.  He ferreted around in his duffle bag and bought out some dried fish and stale bread, the leftovers from his previous meal at the nearby inn.  He stared at the meagre offering while noting that the tide was still on the ebb.  The small craft would be making again the ebb and hence some hours away from the shingle cove over which he kept watch.

Samuel gnawed on the bread and then walked down to the nearby stream to quench his thirst from the spring.  He was lucky he thought.  Lucky to be alive, if one had a mind to think that living was something he was doing.  Sometimes he wished he was dead.  Yet something drove him on.  Something had told him not to give up.  He did not like thinking like this but when there was nothing to do his own thoughts worried him more than a little.  Now he had nothing to do but wait and with waiting came thinking. 

Samuel Ford had no home. The last he remembered of a home was following in his father’s footsteps and breaking the sods that the plough left unbroken.  And with that memory also arose the images of his father’s steadfast resolution in the face of adversity and of his sisters cutting turf to sell in the village for a trifle.  He had been born of sterner stuff.

Yet even this existence had been tenuous.  Not only were the harvests poor and getting poorer Ireland was not the place for foreigners, nor for non-Catholics tenant farmers.  Death was his constant companion. 

Turf cutters. Unknown source.

In his short life, he had been to so many funerals that he had forgotten how to cry.  Then in the year 1798, his father goes out one evening and never returned.  Struggling with his memories, which still seem both raw and fresh, he stood beside his mother the next morning when two neighbours enter and tell his Ma that her husband is dead.  No grief, no crying.  Just a numbing acceptance.  The men said something about ‘the troubles’ and Samuel knew what was meant.  From that moment that his life changed.  It had been a lonely existence for a lad of twelve in an estranged land anyway and now, without a father to look up to nor a plough to follow, his world was empty and desolate.

A few days later he was also without his mother or sisters.  A cart had come and after a hug from his mother, they had gone, and simply disappeared out of his life.  Left stranded and deserted yet Samuel sensed something of a release, a new found freedom which he initially struggled to identify.  His father had died trying to protect what little he had and while Samuel had next to nothing he realised that his own resolve would now determine his own life.  He packed a hessian bag with the few things he could call his own and walked out the door and off the farm.

Before long he found himself again working on another farm but this time he knew neither the tenant nor the neighbours.  He never did find out what had happened to his mother or his sisters.  He heard things of course.  Of killings and hangings.  Of police and soldiers.  And words of resistance and revolution.  ‘Keep yer head lad’ he had been told.  ‘Don’t get involved’.  While Samuel could handle a horse he found that the older men on the farm got the job of ploughing while he was expected to work fourteen hours a day cleaning out the stables and raking hay all day, both chores which he hated at the best of times.  But the ‘troubles’ he left to others.  Samuel concerned himself with other things of which he was aware.  Of money and danger, and of the sea and the opportunities it offered.

It was then perhaps no accident that shortly after his fourteenth birthday, if the year 1800 had any significance for Samuel Ford, that he simply walked away from the farm during the night and set his tracks for the sea.  He had been indentured, whatever that happened to mean, and he knew some hew and cry would follow.  Still, the farm had worked his muscles up and a strapping fourteen-year-old lad would learn to handle life aboard a ship quickly enough for he found himself making for the sea from whence he sensed lay greater opportunities. 

So it was to be.  His large frame relished the constant hauling on halyards and trimming sheets while the timeless motion of the sea and the ever-present sense of danger challenge his youthful exuberance.  And with every North Channel crossing, he met others who looked to the sea not only as a means of living but a curial association of men engaged in ‘free trade’, who accepted one another as equals without the need to explain their past. 

He smiled to himself as the memories flooded back over the years.  Aye, Samuel had learnt a lot.  But most of that leaning had to do with knowing the tides and the currents and the winds which were part of that treacherous sea channel that separated the north of Ireland from the west coast of Scotland.  To know such things allowed him to live.  

Again he cast another anxious eye towards the approaching yawl.  The small craft now hugged the coast even closer avoiding the worst of the ebb while taking advantage of the westerly wind.  Good, he thought, at least the two strangers could follow orders.  Now if others, nameless others, could keep their end of the bargain.

From his vantage point, he watched the road and the village while also keeping the small cove in view.  Apart from the yawl approaching all seemed quiet. Yet he remained in the overhang, unmoved, preferring others to move first and expose themselves if they were around.  But apart from the few field workers no one moved on the coastal road. There were the lumbering square riggers much further out in the channel making their way to the Clyde.  What would they hold?  Cotton, probably, from a place called America to the dirty, dusty, dangerous mills of Glasgow.  The odd fishing vessel dotted the horizon here and there but they were expected.  The wind was fair from the west and should hold for another day at least.  That was all that he needed for the tides were predicted.  The wind had to hold and he sensed it would.

It was obvious the instant he met his the two men that they knew little if anything about wind nor the vagaries of tides and currents that circulate around this part of the North Channel.  Nor did they have any sense of danger the crew of the local revenue service might pose to their venture.  True the strangers had needed him as much as he needed what they offered, hard currency.  He knew the tides and the wind and the possibilities of being caught so Samuel made sure it was part of the bargain that he was in control of the channel crossing.  They had quickly agreed: too quickly perhaps.

So the deal had been sealed over of draft or two and now he watched as the yawl anchored some two furlongs from the shore as he had planned.  He nodded, so far, so good.  Now to wait out the tide to change from ebb to flood  The only movement any vessel in this part of the Irish coast could make now was from the east with the assistance of the last of the ebbing tide.  Samuel cast his eye in that direction.  Nothing.  With two hours of daylight left in the day, he felt secure that the authorities would not make any trouble.  Still, he would remain vigilant and wander down to the local inn at dusk to get a feel for the locals.  They would know if the authorities were about without actually having to tell him in so many words.  Language is not solely a spoken activity.           

Samuel eyed off the yawl again.  All seemed well and nothing further out on the seaway aroused his suspicion.  It all seemed to be going to plan.  His mind engaged more salient matters.  A six-hour run with a tide that made up to five knots in places meant the 30 odd miles across the North Channel would be traversed on the one tide.  Once around the Mull of Kintyre on the Scottish mainland, he would lay up in a small cove on the mull near Campbelltown where he would run in well before dawn.  It would not be difficult.  He was sure the wind would hold and even if the rumours were true that the local revenue vessel was now a cutter he knew that institutional care would dictate that its skipper would not dare operate close inshore at night.        

Settled in his mind that he had covered everything Samuel now walked down to the inn as the sun was setting and quickly summed up the atmosphere.  Nothing to fear here.  If the authorities were sniffing about some oblique and innocuous comment would have been made largely for his benefit.  Samuel did, however, get the briefest nob of a head from a drinker sitting alone at a table.  So the goods, whatever they were, would arrive at the appointed time and place.  After engaging in small talk with the innkeeper for the statutory period he said goodnight and left but waited in the dark just in case someone thought to follow.  No light had shown from the inn which might have otherwise signalled a quick opening and closing door.  

On the way to pick up his things, he smelt the wind again.  It was warm signalling it was coming off the warmer Atlantic current well to the west of the Irish coast.  At this time of year, it should hold for a couple more days.  After that, Samuel had no plans.  Two days was far as he thought ahead.  With his few possessions thrown over his shoulder, he made for the cove.

Once on the beach, he put his fingers in his mouth and let out a high pitch whistle: twice.  It was time to move and the quicker he was aboard the yawl the better.  He caught the sound of the anchor being bumped against the wooden hull and heard a man let out a muffled oath.  Clumsy.  A few minutes passed and then he heard the splash of oars being worked.  Presently the shape of the craft appeared out of the dark and gently crunched onto the shingle beach.  Two men jumped down and there were muffled greetings.  With Samuel’s bulk assisting they quickly turned the craft around and held the bow into the wash of the waves with the mainsail lazily flapping out to starboard.  It was a defensive move by Samuel.  If, perchance, the authorities did turn up it only required a nimble spring into the craft, a tightening of the mainsheet, a touch of the tiller to starboard allowing the sail to fill quickly catching the night breeze coming off the land, and Samuel could sail the vessel swiftly off the beach and away from danger.  Samuel had learnt it pays to think ahead.

They had not long to wait when the distinct creak of a cart and the hoof fall of a horse could be heard traversing the path to the beach in the darkness behind them.  The noise abruptly stopped, the horse cleared its nostrils and men spoke in muted voices.  The accomplices left Samuel and with others moved boxes, crates and barrels between cart and boat.  It took longer than Samuel had thought and when there was a pause in the activity he briskly let it be known that tides wait for no man.        

With some further urging, the task was completed within the hour and Samuel had the craft pushed off the shingle shore and clambered aboard with the two accomplices. He pushed the tiller over as the sail quickly filled and the yawl glided silently out of the cove.  The horse and cart would vanish into the night while some unknown benefactor would receive suitable compensation for his contribution to the night’s work and as the tide rose nothing would be left behind in the shingle to tell of the night’s activities. 

The Crossing

Samuel indicated that the jib to be unfurled as he felt the beginning of the flood tide grip the hull.  Once clear of the point of the cove Samuel eased off the mainsheet as he sailed east parallel to the Irish coast, the yawl being healthily pushed along by wind and tide. 

The elements had been kind on the outward leg as the smugglers left the sheltered cove in Ireland and sailed with wind and tide towards Scotland.  With the few lingering lamps alight on the Rathin Island to port, and the odd charitable farmhouse light that showed from an open door on the Irish mainland to starboard, allowed Samuel to slip his craft unseen between the island and the Irish coast. Even in the dark, it was like threading a needle.

Having cleared Rathlin Island Samuel sheeted in the mainsail fixing the tail of the mainsheet over the cleats, hauled the small jib in tighter while pushing the tiller over to starboard as he hardened up the craft and sailed on a broad reach towards the distant lighthouse that marked the Mull of Kintyre.  Keeping the wind coming over his left shoulder, both wind and tide pushed the yawl across the channel that separated the Irish and Scottish coasts.  

Samuel’s two accomplices sought protection from wind and spray behind the craft’s small focs’le, huddled beneath an old sail to protect them from wind and spray as they tried to light their tobacco pipes.  Samuel had no use for such activity.  Not only did the flame of the match destroy night vision but the ash blown by wind could cause eye damage even if the damn thing could stay alight that long.  Still, the activity served to keep the two men out of Samuel’s way which in turn allowed him to concentrate on more important matters.

Samuel did not need any lighthouse to guide him.  Wave direction, the wind across his face, the swing of the vessel as it moved over the crests and troughs, the slap up fo’ard as the bow pushed aside a wave, the snap of the jib, the creak and groan of the timbers, were a chorus of tremors that communicated direction and speed to Samuel.  A symphony of sounds that land-lubbers might hear yet never understand but which allowed a skilled mariner to navigate across a dangerous stretch of water, without lights, safely at night. 

The wind had stayed fair during the night as the small craft was carried steadily towards the Scottish coast.  Apart from the steady glow of the lighthouse high on the Mull of Kintyre cliffs, the channel was totally black, broken momentarily by the sparkle of phosphorescence that marked the passage of his small craft.   

The hours past and Samuel was both wet and numb.  But now he could see the white luminescence of the waves as they broke on the Mull.  His companions had lapsed into silence some time ago and were now either shivering or asleep.  While the lighthouse was designed for the square riggers negotiating the main channel, it was useless in helping to negotiate the narrow channel separating the coast from Sanda Island which lay slightly to the east of the Mull.  

Samuel was well aware that Sanda Island was a hangout for a more notorious band of smugglers with whom Samuel had no desire to encounter.  The gang smuggled contraband mainly between Islandmagee [present day Red Bay, Ireland] and Campbelltown in Scotland but it was their more notorious activities which Samuel questioned.  Not that Samuel was fearfully concerned for he too was part of the fraternal membership that surrounded smuggling.  After all, he had served some time with these men when he first left the farm where he had been indentured and knew well how they operated.  Still, he was anxious not to draw unnecessary attention to his presence.  If there were lights on the island it probably signalled local activity, an activity that Samuel would seek to steer clear of.   

Thankfully, there were no lights so his only guide around the mull was the break in the luminescence, marking the gap between the mainland and the island.  To miss this gap would mean Samuel would have to circle back around the island working the craft against wind and tide to come back up under the lee of the Scottish coast once more.  To do so marked not only poor seamanship but would result in the loss of valuable time.  

The dark of the night only served to brighter the radiance of the breaking waves on the rocks which allowed Samuel to steer through the gap unheeded and unsighted.  Then, keeping the eastern landmass of the Scottish coast close to port, Samuel eased off the main and jib to allow the craft, now out of the slop of the main channel, to make its way gently along the coast with only the sound and glint of waves breaking on his larboard side to guide him.  

Samuel had done similar trips several times previously to the caves and bays around Campbelltown but this time he was to head for a sandy beach further down the coast, Saddell Bay.  Samuel was confident he could locate the intended landing without too much difficulty but to get there meant he had to pass the Campbelltown inlet without attacking attention.  Allowing his craft to drift further away from the coast, Samuel steered a wide arc around the bay well known for its smuggling character, clearly marked by a mottled collection of lights off to port.  After clearing the inlet all he needed now was someone with a steady hand on a lantern for Samuel to run the yawl up onto the beach on the last of a rising tide.

Yet again, Samuel found himself steering another small craft onto another beach in the dark searching out for the flicker of lantern far off held aloft by another unknown accomplice whom he will never know by name.  Samuel’s two accomplices, now well awake, realised the business end of the trip was imminent.  They too were keenly fixed on the unseen but approaching shore.  And then, out of the blackness, a pinprick of light.  One, two, three, four flashes then blackness, a pause then four more flashes.  One of the accomplices struck a match which flared for longer than Samuel would have liked all of which meant that there would be a welcoming committee of some sort waiting for them on shore.   

Samuel let the wind spill from the sail as his two accomplices picked up the oars and pulled the craft over the quickly shoaling water.  Samuel was alert.  If it was the authorities who were waiting they would be disciplined and remain silent until his vessel was beached thereby allowing no retreat.  But Samuel could hear muffled voices which surely no officer would allow such laxness at this critical stage.  

And yet again, the landing and transfer had gone well.  Shadows of men moving silently between boat and cart, a muffled voice now and then, a cough, or was it a curse, a swig of whisky to still the night air and the nudge and the passage of small parcel between men and if one where listening would have also heard the clink of coin.

The craft was pushed off the beach with dawn a good hour hence.  Samuels hauled the sheets, set the mainsail, pulled the tiller over and set the craft to tack back to Ireland.  Samuel’s two accomplices had immediately begun drinking the local whisky and with luck, they would collapse into a drunken slumber before long leaving Samuel to pilot the craft back to Ireland comfortable alone.  With no contraband on board, he had little to fear.  It had all gone well as Samuel set the craft for Ireland.  

The tide had changed and was now on the last of the ebb which pushed the yawl along towards the mull and the last bit of Scottish coast.  The tide would make in an hour meaning that Samuel would have to beat to windward across the channel as the tide changed from ebb to flood.  But now Samuel was conscious that the wind, favourable on the outward leg, was dropping meaning he faced a long day at the tiller.

The Royal George

As the sun rose from out of the crags of the Scottish coast the wind dropped and the predictable mist came rolling down from the hills across the sea like a blanket the distinct outline of a gaff-rigged cutter appeared from behind the Scottish headland.  Samuel’s heart sank. Even without a glass, he could see the jack flying from the masthead.  It could only be the new Royal George and not five miles distant.  Had he been set up?  He dismissed the thought. 

Revenue cutter. Unknown source.


Simply too many variables.  Still, he had the last of the wind and with luck, the mist would descend obscuring the smaller vessel.

But the wind did drop which only served to increase the enveloping silence of the mist.  The two men where now little more than ballast and Samuel could expect no help from that direction. He knew as the morning wore on the sun would burn off the fog and his small craft would be exposed.  But as there was no indication that the revenue cutter was doing anything but moving with the tide manned by a crew anxious to get back home to Millport and some hard drinking.  The yawl should not raise undue suspicion.  All Samuel had to do was wait it out protected by the gathering fog.

But then it happened.

It was then a half-empty flask of whisky rolled out of a groggy hand and crashed to the deck.  The sound of the bottle hitting the thwart would not only carry across the water and would signal the very message Samuel had no wish to convey; dropped bottles equate with whisky and whisky could only mean smuggling which was the very reason for the presence of his craft.

Not a half an hour passed when Samuel could hear the sound of oars striking the water. The cutter crew had taken to the longboat and were coming and he had no escape.  How many did it take to man the cutter’s longboat, four, six perhaps?  Too many to fight.  It’s at such moments in a man’s life that the instinct to benefit from an otherwise seemingly impossible position takes over.  So it was with Samuel Ford.

With studious slowness, he lowered the sail and began furling it along the boom.  Under such circumstances, a furled mainsail was as good as waving a white flag.  His passengers remain either asleep or unconscious.  Either way, it would suit his purpose.  He was still tying off the main when the cutter’s longboat appeared out of the mist not two hundred yards from the yawl.  The coxswain abruptly altered course rtoward yawl’s position.  Samuel’s plan was simple but relied on the fact that the unwritten law still applied in these uncertain times. 

‘Heave to’, came the call across the water, and just to make sure the message was not misunderstood the morning’s silence was ruptured by a shot fired into the air by one of the longboat’s crew.  Samuel remained unmoved.  Any hasty movement now may equally be misunderstood and if Samuel was going to get out of this he had to convey the impression he was equally compliant with the unwritten rules.  

As the longboat approached the six oarsmen shipped oars as the coxswain, standing in the stern, guided the craft alongside.  It was not much smaller than the one from which Samuel stood gazing intently at the coxswain.  As the coxswain made eye contact Samuel’s hopes rose. The coxswain’s gaze said something more than a wink or a nod might convey.  Leaning over the gunwale to soften the impact of boat meeting boat, Samuel passed a small package to the coxswain, one which he had only received a matter of hours ago.

‘And where might you be going laddie’? the coxswain asked with exaggerated servility.  Well, he might, for it was obvious that Samuel and the yawl had nowhere to go.  So Samuel played the game. 

‘Just heading back home’, he responded knowing that such response was just as inane under the circumstances.

‘Aye, that may be truer then you care to think’, replied the coxswain.

And so with his two inebriated accomplices, Samuel is manacled as the yawl is searched as are the two accomplices, who were now somewhat more awake as to what is going on around them.  The yawl was searched, but apart from the empty wiskey bottle and Samuel’s bag of possessions, nothing was found.  His accomplices were relieved of two similar packets which Samuel had handed over.  The coxswain then stepped over the gunwale of the two boats and sat on the thwart beside Samuel.

Bending towards Samuel the coxswain quietly asked,  ‘Yer name laddie’.

‘Samuel Ford.

‘Married’?

A shake of the head.

‘Ireland’?

‘Aye’.

The coxswain was a man of few words but those few conveyed spoke of a man of the sea and Samuel warmed to him.  the coxswain spoke again, softer.  ‘I take it that the other two are not related’.

‘Aye, Ah, No.  They are not related. They hired me for the trip, that’s all’,

The coxswain was silent for a moment obviously digesting the situation.  Now in receipt of a considerable sum of money and having nothing else to show for the arrest the coxswain turned to Samuel again.

‘It’s like this Mr Samuel Ford, times are a-changing but you being a big strong lad an’ all, you may have a choice. You could swing off the end of a rope for King and country or you could help out our little community’. 

Samuel’s confidence returned. The unwritten law still worked. 

‘What’s this little job that you have in mind’?

‘Have you worked in a quarry before’?

Samuel Ford never did find out the name of the two men who accompanied him across the northern channel that night.  But he did find out the name of the coxswain, Robert Wright, and that he had a fine looking daughter, Margaret, to whom one day he would be wed.

It was now Sunday evening, in a time when temperance was neither political nor sanctioned, as Samuel sat alongside the blazing fire protected from the depth of winter by the solid stone walls of the Royal George Inn sharing a whisky with the coxswain.  Cumbrae, a place of refuge, was surely well named.  Since that day the island had served as a sanctuary for himself surrounding him with a family and friends, and him a feuar, a holder of land no less.  Samuel Ford was not given to mirth but at this moment he could not help a smile.

‘A penny for them laddie’, inquired his companion.

‘Tell me, whatever happened to those other two’?

A moments silence.  “Aye, they too were taken care of.  A cotton mill in Glasgow methinks’.

Another silence as Samuel looked into the eyes of his friend. 

‘Methinks I got the better bargain’.

Copyright John Ford 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.