Alexander Brebner (Laird Brebner) - Smuggler



Researched by Findlay Pirie

The Residence of Alexander Brebner at The Old Harbour, Portsoy

From a manuscript of 1843 by Dr. Greig, Portsoy; published in the Banffshire Reporter Aug 1893 to Feby 1894 and the Banffshire Journal of 20th. Sept. 1938: -


The bold line of the coast in the vicinity of the town (Portsoy), indented by several creeks, afforded a ready access to the surrounding country, and rendered it singularly adapted to the purpose of contraband trade. Accordingly, we find that during the greater part of the last century every merchant in the town and of various places in the neighbourhood became engaged in smuggling. The articles imported in this manner were all kinds of foreign wines and spirits, tea, tobacco, chinaware and various kinds of soft goods.

Several vessels, well manned and armed, were employed in the trafficking and many of the old houses display numerous secret nooks and corners for concealing smuggled goods. The most noted of the merchants engaged in it was Mr. Alexander Brebner, (better known as 'Laird Brebner') who lived in a large house near the Corfe House, Portsoy, which is still standing and occupied as grain lofts.

This individual, besides other branches of business, owned no fewer than eight vessels wholly his property; also the house, now occupied as the 'Commercial Inn' with the adjoining feus and the houses surrounding that piece of ground in the lower Aird. He had besides, the estate of Bracken Hills about four miles from the town where he built a small mansion house and laid out an excellent garden, the remains of which are still to be seen. He also possessed the estate of Pitgaveney in Morayshire. He kept his carriage and it was long remarked that his daughter had the first umbrella to be seen in the streets of Portsoy.

He also kept a lawyer in his house and gave him a handsome salary. He acted as a clerk and also managed the law processes in which he became involved, in consequence of his many infringements of the laws. His vessels generally delivered their cargoes at the small pier on the west side of the harbour (taken down in the recent improvements), which came to be called from thence 'Brebner's Pier', a name which it retained as long as it had existed.

His house is reported to have had many concealments in it, several of which are said still to remain undiscovered, although most of them were found when the partitions were taken down; and certainly from the extent of the premises, it must have afforded vast accommodation for any purpose of the kind. An extensive concern such as this could not eventually be carried on with success. He became involved in tedious and expensive lawsuits and most of his ships were lost or captured by revenue officers. He was finally reduced to bankruptcy and died in prison.

Notes: -

Alexander Brebner was the son of David Brebner, merchant in Fordyce.

David Brebner died between 4th. October 1741 and 1st August 1745.

Alexander Brebner's mother was Ann Allan.

Alexander Brebner married Margaret Brown.

Alexander Brebner had a sister by the name of Helen Bremner who married John Frigg, merchant in Findhorn.

It is thought that Alexander Brebner died 1781 - 1784

Alexander Bremner's house near the Old Harbour at Portsoy still stands and is occupied.

List of Indentures 1740 to 1755


The first entry dated 1740 records that the apprentice was bound to David and Alexander Brebners, merchants in Portsoy.

Andrew Monro, son of Thomas Monro, wright in Dornoch, has also to look after the cooking victuals and boil the ship's kettle.

Entry in 1755 shows that Alexander Brebner owned the ship "Margaret of Portsoy" and that apprentices had to serve for 5 years on board a vessel.

The last entry records Alexander Brebner as "Alexander Brebner of Pitgaveney".

From the book “Annals of Banff Vol. 1” by William Cramond


The treasurer has received £2 13s. 10d Stg. From Alexander Brebner merchant in Portsoy, being the fifth of the value of two masts thrown in upon the bounds of the town in the name of salvage.

Banffshire Journal, Tuesday, May 24 1938: -

CHURCH ANNALS OF CULLEN - In the pastorate of Mr. Lawties successor there occurred: -

“A singular case in which the Earl of Seafield prosecuted one Alexander Brebner, merchant in Portsoy, and factor for Mr. Jacob Brandt, merchant in Amsterdam, for the price of wreckage collected by defender in 1748 betwixt Spey and Fraserburgh, and the perquisite of the Earl as Vice Admiral of Scotland. In July 1753 the court had given judgement for the pursuer, and as he had generously divided the sum for which he got decree between four parishes - Cullen being one - the Session empowered the Minister to collect their share. This amounted to £8 odd.”

Aberdeen Journal, Tuesday, September 7th. 1756: -

PUBLIC NOTICE - There is just now imported by Alexander Brebner, merchant in Portsoy, a quantity of best Swedish iron of different sizes, and will be sold at a lower price than iron has been sold for some time past. This notice is given that merchants may have the opportunity to provide themselves before Keith Market.

Gentlemen who want iron axles for chaises, carts, stanchions for windows and any who want coulter irons will find a very particular good choice.

RS 29/7 folio 357 - 17th. April 1762 (at Elgin)

ALEXANDER BREBNER ACQUIRES PROPERTIES - Recorded that Alexander Brebner, merchant in Portsoy, had acquired the lands of Hiltown in the parish of Kinneff and Caterline in Kincardineshire which he purchased from Alexander Schank of Castlerigg at a 'voluntar roup' for £1,600 sterling. It would appear that he did not have the money to hand and so had granted a heritable Bond to Alexander Schank and had engaged John Innes of Muiryfauld as his cautioner. John Innes of Muiryfauld became somewhat concerned about being Alexander Brebner's cautioner and so this sasine recorded that he had been granted an Obligation of Relief and also the town and lands of Pitgavenie (sic) in the barony of Lethem and parish of Kilmalemnich.

From the book “The Parish of Spynie” by ? Young

Previous to the date of the decision, the heiressesportioners had exposed the estate to public roup, and it was purchased, by Alexander Brebner, Merchant, Portsoy, for £33,000 Scots (£2750 stg.), but under deduction of £4800 Scots, as the value of the liferent of Barbara.Gordon widow of David Brodie of Pitgaveny. The date of the sale was the 6th October 1747 ; but in consequence of the law-suit, the price was not paid, nor the disposition granted to the purchaser, until 31st July, 1751. Mr. Brebner did not keep the estate long. He got embarrassed in his circumstances, and granted securities over it, and on 29th April, 1765, with consent of Margaret Brown, his wife, for her liferent right, he sold the property to Alexander Brander, junior, Merchant in Elgin (afterwards Provost), for behoof of James Brander, Merchant in Lisbon, second lawful son to John Brander, Merchant in Elgin. The price paid was £4185 10s. sterling, being a rise of more than £1400 on its value from the time Mr. Brebner bought it in 1747.

Notes: - From Elizabeth Beaton, Hopeman 19th. August 1996: -

Lethen (also Lethin, Lethem) is in Nairnshire, the home of Brodie of Lethen whose family owned Pitgaveny, selling it to James Brander, merchant, c 1765; Brander built the present Pitgaveny House in 1776. Kilmalemnich (there are various spellings), probably a chapel site, was incorporated within the parish of St. Andrews, Lhanbryde in 1780.

Pitgaveney House belongs to Alexander Dunbar, having inherited it from his uncle, James Brander Dunbar.

April 1764

ALEXANDER BREBNER IN DEBT - Alexander Brebner was taken to court in Banff by Helen Brebner over debts owed to her. He was also in debt to Alexander Ogilvie of Culvie.

Aberdeen Journal, Monday, July 9th 1764: -

PORTSOY VESSEL FOUND ABANDONED: - On the 3rd. current, was towed into Fraserburgh by the "Princess Ann" yacht, a sloop which they found to the eastward of Buchan-ness, full of water, with no living creature on board. By her cargo she appears from Bergen. When the tide went out of the harbour they looked round to find a leak, and found that the crew had bored her through in the forepeak before they had left her.

Our custom-house has received information from the officers in Fraserburgh, and Mr. Murray, mate of the "Princess Ann", that she is the "Free-mason" of Portsoy, William Stables, master.

RS 29/7 folio 391, 27 July 1764

ALEXANDER BREBNER, FINANCIAL DEALINGS - Recorded that Alexander Brebner of Pitgavenie, merchant in Portsoy, had delivered the Bond for £1600 which he had granted to Alexander Schank to John Innes of Muiryfauld. He recorded that the Bond had never been accepted by Alexander Schank nor had he raised any diligence against him and so John Innes was free to cancel and destroy the bond and so became freed as cautioner. This document was a Discharge by John Innes and so Alexander Bremner redeemed Pitgavenie which incidentally is described as having been sometime in the barony of Lethem. The Discharge was signed by Bracco House

RS 29/7 folio 409 10th. May 1765

This sasine recorded the sale of Pitgavenie by Alexander Brebner to Alexander Brander, junior merchant in Lisbon for James Brander merchant there, second son of John Brander, merchant in Elgin. He sold it for £4,185/10/- Sterling.

Custom House Letter-books CE87 1/4 - 1st. October 1765

PETITION OF MR. ALEXANDER BREBNER IN PORTSOY - The whole of the goods mentioned in the petition were found on board the sloop "Expedition" of Portsoy which vessel was taken up at sea in the month of July 1764 by Mr. Murray, late mate of the "Princess Ann" yacht, and by your Honours directions of the 7th August last, the goods were unload at Portsoy in order that the ship might be repaired.

RS 29/7 folio 434 17th. April 1766

A list of all the debts owed by Alexander Brebner to Helen Brebner, widow of John Frigg, merchant in Findhorn. Also mention of a case before the Sheriff Depute of Banff and the Lords of Session in Edinburgh.

The actual sasine records the handing over of the lands of Cotts to Alexander Ogilvie of Culvie, which Alexander Brebner had purchased at a roup. It had belonged to Mr. Robert Innes, minister of Udny, then to his eldest son, James, who had sold it to Alexander Brebner. The arrangement with Alexander Ogilvie of Culvie appears to have left provision for the lands to be redeemed.

8 September 1768

A Bond of Relief, involving Alexr Brebner; John Farquhar; John Greig; John Gordon; Patrick Brown; George Robertson, Robert Taylor and William Muir. (This would involve debts. They were all merchants in Portsoy)

SC2/9/105 11th. August 1771

Summons by Captain John Gordon of Park versus Alexander Brebner, merchant in Portsoy over his apparent non-payment of a bill dated 1st. August 1764 for £132/6/3. With the Summons were various papers, including a letter from Alexander Brebner. It would appear that he himself had in his possession a letter dated 8th. December 1764 from Gordon of Park acknowledging receipt of £70 Sterling and another dated 16th. December of the same year acknowledging receipt of £30 Sterling. He also said that Captain Gordon was due him £33/11/11 and that he would much rather the affair was settled amicably and out of court. The case had evidently dragged on till August 1772 and Captain Gordon stated then that Alexander Brebner had a year in which to pay the balance owed to him and had not done so.

SC2/9/114 24th. January 1775

Petition by John Innes, writer in Aberdeen, factor for Mr. Douglas of Fichle (Fechil). Apparently, James Stewart, messenger in Huntly by virtue of a Captain at the instance of Mr. Douglas apprehended Alexander Brebner in his dwelling house at Portsoy 'where he still remains prisoner and that it is necessary to have further assistance (sic) for transporting him to the prison at Banff, Mr. Brebner having attempted Deforcement last evening and his party being too few for that purpose.' He requested that more officers and their assistants be sent to James Stewart to take Alexander Brebner to the Tolbooth. John Innes produced his factory from Mr. Douglas and letters of horning upon which the Caption proceeded. The Sheriff agreed to supply the necessary officers.

1776 - ALEXANDER BREBNER IN FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES - Letters of Caption raised against Alexander Brebner by John Berengin Frodnam, merchant in Bergen, Norway, his factor being Alexander Keith W.S.

Note: - This is probably the reason why Alexander Brebner died in prison. The outcome of Letters of Caption was imprisonment of the debtor.

RS 29/8 folio 479 17th. April 1778

Recorded that Sergeant Robert Innes, son of James Innes, gave a precept of sasine to Alexander Bremner in Pitgaveney, merchant in Portsoy, of the lands of Cotts.

Note: - Margaret Brown wife of Alexander Brebner had a liferent of a house in Pitgaveney