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Issue 36 - Pirates of the Atlantic

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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Pirates of the Atlantic

Scotland's a long way from the Caribbean glamour of Jack Sparrow and crew. But as Dominic Roskrow reports, it's still well and truly on the pirate map.

Sunday afternoon at Madam Tussaud’s in London, and a large throng of tourists are going through the ritual of having their photo taken with a wax dummy of someone famous they will otherwise never get close to.

All the stars of film, politics and sport are here, and some attract more interest than others. But the biggest queue – the one with all the youngsters in – is for a small darkened room where pirate Jack Sparrow sits in all his bohemian glory.

We have a strange relationship with personalities of the past. Like cowboys, pirates have taken on a mystical quality, a heady mix of glamour, drama and danger.

Time acts as a crash barrier between the present and the gory, vicious and violent past. We are happy to condemn a DVD, music or computer pirate today, but we’ll revel, almost idolise, men who hundreds of years ago terrorised people, slit throats and went around with a patch over their mutilated eyes or wore hooks to replace severed hands.

Not only that, we have completely reinvented some of the characters, portraying them in the role of pantomime goody or baddy as we see fit.

Take the case of the Orkney Pirate John Gow, who committed murder, attacked the Orkney homes of old friends, and abducted two women, who were either released bearing gifts a day later or so brutally treated that one died from her injuries, depending on whose account you read.

On the internet you’ll find robust defences of him, with some pointing out that his part in the murder of three senior officers on the ship he mutinously took command of was relatively minor as he only shot the captain dead. That’s alright then.

Daniel Defoe, who is credited with reporting the abuse of the two servant girls, is denigrated for ‘journalistic licence’ and a deliberate attempt to sully Gow’s name because his actions didn’t suit Defoe’s more dramatic portrayal of events and his stereotype of the evil pirate.

And what about this from The Short Career of Pirate Gow,by G Walsh: “After 250 years we can afford to be charitable and thankful that he brought a splash of colour to our past, even if it was blood red.” Yes, thank you very much for butchering someone’s son, father and/or brother. And the irony of all this is that he didn’t really need to kill anyone because we’d have made it all up anyway, just as most pirate and cowboy stories are embellished and/or sanitised for children’s books.

Hold fire a minute though, is this correct?

Pirates from Orkney? Can Scotland lay any claim to links with the buccaneers and mutineers that plundered the seas off the West Indies and North America?

Oh yes indeed. In fact Scotland can lay claim to arguably the two most famous pirates in history: Captain James Hook and Captain William Kidd. Truth be told, though, both are probably as fantastical as each other.

Scotland has done more than its fair share to contribute to the romance of piracy throughout the ages. Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Sir James Barrie all sought inspiration from villains on the High Seas at various times.

And Scotland itself has a long history of piracy, stretching from the first raids by the Vikings that would establish Norse bases on the Orkneys and Shetlands through to the sea raids by clans on their neighbours.

Even here, though, there is a blurring of the line between the romantic role of a pirate and a common criminal. This distinction between hero and villain was particularly acute during the 17th and early 18th centuries when sea exploration, conflict and piracy were all at their height.

We may say today that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter but in those days one country’s privateers were another country’s pirates. The dubious difference between the two is that privateers were employed by countries to plunder enemy ships, steal their wealth and sap their morale.

In other words, they were hard men employed to do society’s dirty work and could be – indeed were – abandoned when the politics of the era dictated it.

Even John Paul Jones, born on the estate of Arbigland at Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in south Scotland and destined to be an American naval captain who excelled in battle against the English, is branded a pirate by author Jim Hewitson in his book Skull & Saltire – Stories of Scottish Piracy.

More amazingly still, the ‘notorious’ ‘infamous’ pirate Captain William Kidd quite possibly wasn’t a pirate at all.

Kidd was born at Greenock, Renfrew, some time around 1650 and joined the navy as a youth. He became a legitimate privateer for Great Britain against the French, seeking out ships off the West Indies and North America to plunder for booty.

By 1690 he was well off, owned property and was married and he had influential friends including the Governor of New York, Governor Bellamont. He could have settled in the city and had a career in Wall Street.

But the lure of the sea was too strong, and his decision to take a commission to hunt down pirates in late 1695 would start a series of events that led to his demise but have since immortalised him.

Having crewed his ship with good sailors he was boarded by the Royal Navy who were able to take the best of his crew for national service. As a result he was forced to recruit shadier characters bent on crime.

And when after months of searching he had failed to apprehend a single legitimate target, and hunger and scurvy were rife, unrest grew. There were calls for an attack on any target, legitimate or not. When Kidd refused to commit an act of piracy on a British ship a gunner was killed in the ensuing fracas. Finally Kidd found and overcame a legitimate target, one rich in treasure and with French naval papers on board, making it an enemy ship.

Meanwhile, though, the tide was turning against the use of privateers and the politicians who had backed Kidd came under attack in parliament. Tales grew that Kidd had become an outlaw and that he had even murdered one of his own crew. The dubious activities of privateers had started to become an embarrassment for the Government of the day and then, just as now, they distanced themselves from an issue that threatened to undermine their careers.

When he heard that he had been branded a pirate Kidd headed for New York to plead support from Governor Bellamont. On an island close to New York he buried his treasure – one of the few examples where treasure was actually buried by ‘pirates’ – in the hope he could use it as a negotiating tool.

It didn’t work. He was arrested as a pirate, sent to London, tried and executed. Papers that may have shown his innocence disappeared while in the possession of General Bellamont and his log book was burned.

For all the reputation then, Kidd was at worst not a pirate at all, and at best not a very good one. This, it seems, is a theme running through Scottish pirate history. Indeed, Jim Hewitson writes: “Scottish pirates were a particularly odd breed. They were either extraordinarily successful and heroic – in the mould of John Paul Jones – or they were simply not very good at the job, pretty poor pirates who would not have made the piratical top 10.” Maybe not, but if you’re planning a tour down the north and west coast of Scotland with younger children, then set them the challenge of discovering and finding out about Scotland’s pirates. They’re there if you look for them and many of them have fascinating tales to tell.

Not as glamorous as Jack Sparrow maybe.

Not as famous as Captain Hook or Captain Kidd. But almost certainly more real than any of them.


The MacNeils of Barra
John Alexander, late 17th century
George Dunkin, Glasgow, hung 1718
George Ross, Glasgow, hung 1718
William Eddy, Aberdeen, hung 1718
Neal Patterson, Aberdeen, hung 1718
James Ferguson, pirate surgeon from Paisley,
drowned 1717
Peter Lisle (or Lyle) from Perth, became Barbary
Corsair. Shot 1832

James Browne, privateer hanged for piracy
because he used an out of date privateer’s licence
John Hincher a physician educated at Edinburgh
University and served on a pirate ship, probably
under force. Acquitted of piracydom