“Skillful Seaman, Gallant Officer, Honest Man”.
These descriptions on the gravestone of Captain Benjamin Oliver in Old Sandwick Cemetery sum up the life of one of Stornoway’s interesting characters who still lives on in the name “Oliver’s Brae” on the outskirts of the town.
Born in England, he joined the Royal Navy in 1806 and soon came to the notice of his superiors as an exemplary sub-lieutenant with good career potential. In 1811, he was appointed to the Scottish Excise in Leith, where he took command of the revenue cutter ‘Prince of Wales’. She had a burden of 199 tons, and was equipped with 14 guns and a crew of 45. He was to command this ship for the long period of 36 years.
In the early years of the 19″‘ Century, Leith was a fast-growing port with a new Custom House completed in 1812. After his marriage to Jane Ferguson, Benjamin Oliver lived at Taaphall, in what is now known as the Trinity area of Edinburgh. Later he moved to 20 Pilrig Street, just off Leith Walk. By 1825, he had fathered seven children.
Captain Oliver’s first forays against the smuggling fraternity of Scotland’s east coast, with Montrose as a notorious smuggling port, were in the waters of the North Sea. At that time almost everyone indulged in smuggling tobacco, wines, silks, spirits and anything else which would turn over a shilling or two. There were times when the task of the Excise men seemed impossible, no sooner were smugglers caught and sentenced, than others stepped in to fill the vacuum.
The Collector of Customs at Stornoway, Roderick Maclver, wrote to the Board of Customs in 1827, stating that “……luggers from Flushing with tobacco, spirits and tea make frequent calls at Barra, Uist, etc. On the arrival of one of these vessels, the peasantry flock to it from all quarters with all the money they can muster. Although the quantities sold to each individual may be trifling, the aggregate quantity disposed of is very considerable”.
Maclver noticed an increase in smuggling activity coincided with the times the local revenue cruiser made the journey to Stranraer or Campbeltown for provisions. He stated: “The smuggler never fails to profit by this temporary absence, particularly during the winter months”, and he requested that a revenue cruiser be stationed permanently at Stornoway. Soon after MacIver’s letter arrived at Leith, Captain Oliver was asked if he would like to go to the west coast: “….it is in contemplation to place a Revenue Cruiser on the Stornoway Establishment. The cruiser’s ground will be from Cape Wrath to Barra Head. Let me know and I will make the necessary arrangements…”
So Captain Oliver moved to Stornoway with his family, along with the revenue cutter ‘Prince of Wales’, soon to be a familiar sight in the waters of the Minch. He settled in Sandwick Cottage (now Knockgarry) and was to live there for twenty years until his death in 1847.
The Captain’s tour of duty, saw much success in clearing the Minch of smuggling vessels, among which were not a few owned and often mastered by Stornoway people. It was soon to be reported in the ‘Inverness Courier’ that there was “… not a drop of illicit whisky to be got from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head owing to the vigilance of Captain Oliver”. One or two smugglers got away, however. After one successful smuggling incidence which occurred when the Captain was away, the Collector at Stornoway wrote to the Custom House in Leith “… had the ‘Prince of Wales’ been on station, the activity and zeal of the commander is so well known and dreaded by the smuggler that no attempt would have been made”.
When the ‘Prince of Wales’ was not chasing smugglers, she had other duties to perform. As a government-owned vessel, she transported money, officials and important documents. Some of the crew assisted in the siting of the lighthouse at Arnish Point by placing a staff on the chosen spot and observing it from sea. The cruiser sometimes acted as pilot to help boats in distress. The ‘Greenock Advertiser’ once reported on how Captain Oliver rescued herring fishermen from the sea off the Caithness coast. He also assisted a ship sinking in the Minch, for which deed he received a letter of gratitude from the ship’s captain in 1845.
Catching smuggling vessels was a matter of playing cat and mouse, with both the revenue men and potential smugglers always on the watch for useful information about each others’ movements. As the Collector at Stornoway once wrote: “… we are informed that they (the smugglers) confidently stated to the inhabitants of Barra that no revenue cruiser would be on station for a month as they were all assembled on the coast of Ireland. From the times and places they choose to make their landings, we believe the smugglers are often
possessors of the best intelligence as to the disposal of the revenue cruisers”.
Captain Oliver had close ties with the Stewart-MacKenzies at Seaforth Lodge and used this connection to ask James Stewart MacKenzie to intercede to obtain a career for one of his sons in the Marines He was included in the painting (now hanging in Lodge Fortrose) of the group who attended the laying of the foundation stone at Lews Castle in 1847.
One of his daughters, Jane, married Alexander Rose MacLeay, the Collector at Stornoway. Another married the first mate on the ‘Prince of Wales’, while yet another married William Punshon, the vessel’s purser, who was Captain Oliver’s nephew.
Captain Oliver died in 1847, after which his wife left Stornoway to end her days in Liverpool with a daughter. Throughout his career, Captain Oliver commanded the greatest of respect. A testimonial was written by Captain Knight, Superintendent General of the Scottish Excise:
“I have the greatest satisfaction in stating that during the time Mr Oliver has served under my orders, he has proved himself a zealous, active and intelligent officer and seaman, and it is to his zeal and the high state of discipline at all times maintained on board the Brig under his command, that his success in protecting the revenue is to be attributed. He holds the most flattering testimonials of good conduct from the Flag, Officers under whom he was employed, and a letter from Vice Admiral, Sir P. Malcolm, which is particularly gratifying”.