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Issue 24 - Scotland'smaritime legacy

Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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Scotland'smaritime legacy

The exhibition Books on Ice: the British and American Literature on Polar Exploration which was due to be held at the Grolier Club in New York City over Christmas and New Year marks the end of an impressive series of initiatives to commemorate the United Kingdom as a sea-faring nation.

SeaBritain 2005 has been a national maritime celebration on a grand scale illustrating the ways in which the sea touches all of our lives in the UK, whether we live by the coast or inland.

The catalyst, of course, was the bi-centenary of the British naval victory under Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson against the Emperor Bonaparte Napoleon’s French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. However, for those who took time to reflect upon such matters, it also served as an important reminder that the British (encompassing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are an island race. That has always been our strength.

And particularly that of the Scots, whose historic dependence upon the sea tends to be forgotten in an age of road transport and jet travel. From the earliest days of Dalriada, virtually all communication with the outside world, and in particular with England, was by boat.

On the Western Seaboard there was constant trafficking between the Isle of Man, Ulster, the Hebrides, and the Scottish mainland. On the East Coast, the tiny ports of the Firth of Forth and Firth of Tay opened up a network of routes to Holland and the Low Countries, and to the south along the coasts of Northumberland, Norfolk and East Anglia to Normandy, Portugal and Spain.

Scottish Crusader knights thought nothing of embarking upon hazardous trips across continental Europe to the Holy Land, but to do so were obliged to set off across the equally hazardous North Sea by boat.

Norse Scots, such as the St Clair family, led expeditions to the Baltic, and to Iceland, Greenland and to Nova Scotia, 100 years before the Spaniard Christopher Columbus ever set foot on the South American mainland. It was James IV of Scotland, that most enterprising of Stewart kings, who built the Great Michael, a massive carrack, constructed in 1504 to upstage his brother-in law, Henry VIII King of England.

Its principle purpose was to take part in a crusade against the Ottoman Empire to reclaim Palestine for Christendom, but that was put on hold when Scotland invaded England to divert Henry from his war with the Louis XII of France.

There had never been anything like it before - 240 feet (73.2 m) long and 35 feet (11 m) abeam, with four masts, 24 guns, purchased from Flanders (later up to 36 guns), and carrying a crew of 300 sailors, 120 gunners, and up to 1,000 soldiers.

Is it any wonder that by the 19th century, shipbuilders on the River Clyde were considered among the best in the world?

Scotland has also had its naval heroes, again unfairly overshadowed by their southern counterparts. Adam Duncan, for example, born near Dundee in 1731, and who, as an Admiral of the British Navy, led his fleet to victory against the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown, fought in the waters off the Dutch Coast north of Haarlam in 1797.

And last, but far from least, there was John Paul Jones, not exactly a UK hero, but a remarkable son of Scotland nonetheless. Born in Kirkcudbright, he went to sea aged 13 and emigrated to the British colonies in North America where he added ‘Jones’ to his name.

As a First Lieutenant in the American Navy, he was the first to hoist the Grand Union flag on a Continental warship. In 1777, he sailed for France, and exchanged gun salutes with the French Admiral La Motte Pique - the first time that the Stars and Stripes, the flag of America, was officially recognized by a foreign government.

Thereafter, commanding four other ships and two French privateers, Jones harried English shipping around the British coastline, later moving into the service of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

John Paul Jones died at the age of 45 in Paris in 1792. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt sent four cruisers to bring his body back to the U.S, and these ships were escorted up the Chesapeake Bay by seven battleships.

Today he lies in the crypt of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, and a guard of honour stands duty whenever the crypt is open to the public. Not bad for a son of Scotland’s Solway Firth!