Seeking a steady wage, Burns worked as an Excise (Customs) Officer in Dumfries for some years.
She was called the “Rosamond”, and everyone all along the Solway coast knew her. Da especially was hoping for something in the hold, or at least a sniff of it. We’d all been waiting for the fair weather so she could make land. Everybody was poised to help, and even us young folk caught something of the excitement, tearing up and down the path to the beach a dozen times a day.
But fair weather is hard to come by that early in the year, and by the time the weather improved, the Excise had caught wind of the ship hanging up and down the coast and set their sights on her and her gear. One Crawford in particular, got up a band to try to take her, but they were pushed back by those on board.
So, Crawford, he sent to Dumfries for more help – Dragoons, four and twenty of them, while he patrolled the roads hereabouts. They hit upon the idea of rowing out to the ship, and they searched the coast for every available boat. Strangely they found every boat in town or village was out of action. The country folk knew that theirs would be the loss if the ship was taken and weren’t minded to aid the Excise in gaining what should have been theirs, so they stayed in their boats rather than help the government.
The support from Dumfries arrived promptly – with their red jackets and rattling sabres, mounted on fine horses that put our dusty mares to shame. The Dragoons caught the eye of all the ladies in town, and more than a few of the boys as well, who stamped up and down the closes brandishing sticks and wishing themselves old enough to enlist. In all, there were forty-four mounted men, in three divisions, headed up by members of the Excise, including a man called Burns, who had stopped by our door to crave a glass of water after his long ride.
By this time, the “Rosamond” had drifted a little further down the coast and foundered on a sandbank. All us boys watched from a distance as the Dragoons mustered on the beach. I and a few other lads ran down to get a closer look. At first, they tried to make the assault on horseback, but they were soon halted by the quicksand along the shore and had to pull back.
They all dismounted, and the horses stood patiently by. One of the men spotted me and beckoned me over. As I drew nearer, I saw it was Burns. He asked me to hold his horse for him, for she was not as well trained as the others and likely to run away. ‘Her name’s Jenny Geddes…and like me she’s mair suited to tramping the roads than nonsense like this…’ he said with a smile as he walked back to join the others. Despite the fact he’d come to foil our plans, I liked the man. He had an honest face, and a frank way of talking that made me feel like a man grown, and not a beardless lad.
They drew their swords and pistols and waded into the water; all the while being shot at from the ship. The way the ship had stuck on the sand, she couldn’t bring her big guns into use. The Dragoons were chest high in the water by this point and moving with remarkable speed. At one hundred yards or thereabouts, we saw with disappointment the crew leaving their posts and leaping over the other side of the ship.
I could see Burns clambering up the side of the ship, but he soon disappeared out of sight. Later we found out that the departing crew had staved a hole in the port side with their cannon so we had to be satisfied with this small act of vengeance. There was an article in the paper a week after the incident, stating that the ship was to be repaired before being auctioned off.
I later heard a rumour about Mr Burns, that he had bought four small cannon in the auction, and sent them off to France to help with the revolution there. It would be like the man I met, who didn’t seem altogether at ease with his government position, but then, it would have jeopardized his job prospects so maybe it was but a tale.
EXCISEMAN: an official responsible for collecting excise duty and preventing infringement of the excise laws (especially by smuggling).
Written by: Rebecca McCallum Stapley
Illustrations by: Hali Campbell
Audio by: Liam Stewart
Audio recording and mixing by: Scott Andrew