As a boy I was told stories of pirates, smugglers and shipwrecking along the coast of Buchan and especially at Rattray. Ive tried to find out more and put some flesh on the bones of these stories from my childhood.
Were there pirates operating here? As far as I can tell the answer is Yes and No.
I have found no record of pirates operating from these shores. It also seems very unlikely since it wouldn't be easy to hide a ship here and there are no sheltered anchorages are remote enough. They would surely face certain detection and capture.
On the other hand, ships along the coast were certainly prey to pirates from France. these were known to pursue their quarry to within sight of harbours. One vessel being chased went aground on the beach between Fraserburgh and the Waters of Philorth. The pirates went ashore, plundered the cargo and burnt the ship all under the eye of onlookes in Fraserburgh and without any intervention from the militia.
One Last Hope
With high taxes imposed on luxury imports - brandy, tea, tobacco, silk, etc. - smuggling had become widespread throughout the country. In 1743 it was estimated that half of the tea drunk in Britain had been smuggled into the country.
Smuggling would have been going on all around the NE of Scotland but with Rattray being so remote it would have been a prime choice.
Smuggling may sound romantic but it could also have a darker side - intimidating locals, reprisals against any suspected informers, attacking customs officers and murder. Even if they were caught, bribery would often see the perpetrators go unpunished.
Smuggling was so bad here that around 1825 a force of Preventive or Revenue officers was established at Rattray which all but eliminated smuggling activities in the area. It would also have prevented any other dubious activities.
The Statistical Accounts of Scotland, 1834 1845, raises the possibility that the rocks at Rattray were used by ship owners to deliberately wreck old ships for their insurance. "..shipwrecks have occasionally occurred on Rattray Head in so mysterious and unaccountable manner...".
Were these cases of insurance fraud or were some of them the actions of shipwreckers?
If shipwrecking wasn't practised around Rattray then plundering the numerous wrecks certainly did. Stories abound of it which are backed up by an entry in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, 1791-99.