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Issue 58 - A Man in his Element

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011


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A Man in his Element

James Irvine Robertson looks at Scotland's Nelson.

For centuries kings, great men and their armies struggled up and down rough tracks, wound through paths, across bogs and fought their battles on terrain that was often inimical and could be decisive in itself when it came to the outcome of a battle. The exception was the Isles where smooth maritime freeways allowed a magnate to deposit his army where he wanted and, equally critically, keep it properly supplied.

The Hebridean chiefs used birlinns, oar-driven galleys closely akin to the Viking long ships, which had a single square sail that could be used to advantage only with a following wind. By the 15th century, the Portuguese had developed the caravel with up to three masts and triangular or lateen sails.

These were much more maneuverable and could beat against the wind. They could also be larger, commonly up to 300 tons or more, and such vessels came to dominate the trade routes of the world.

And the North Sea was no exception.

Scotland’s premier port was Leith and skillful captains could build great fortunes importing wine from Bordeaux, continental luxuries from Flanders and, more mundanely cartwheels and wheelbarrows in exchange for the hides, furs, timber, wool and even grain from Fife and the Lothians. But there was no proper navy. The sea was a dangerous place; piracy was commonplace.

Crews rather than cargo were the prize and they would be ransomed back to their principals. As well as being a seaman a successful ship’s master needed to be a skilled entrepreneur and be able to fight.

Towards the end of the 1400s, one Scotsman stood above all others. In a nation with few great sailors, Andrew Wood has been called the Scottish Nelson or its John Paul Jones. Born in Fife, he carved his reputation and fortune in trade with the Hanseatic ports, in particular Sluys in Flanders. He was already high in the favour of King James III when he first appears in history. He had two ships, the Yellow Carvel which had been supplied by the king and the Flower. As the name of the former implies they were caravels, each about 300 tons.

They were armed. Although larger cannon were beginning to be fitted, ships such as his would have relied on smaller firearms, culverins, sakers and falconets, that would be set on tripods on deck before actions. They carried archers and crossbowmen who would fire on enemy from masts. They closed with enemy ships and locked onto them with grappling hooks for desperate hand-to-hand combat with swords and pikes while stones as well as bolts and arrows showered down from upper works.

By 1487, Wood had been knighted and appears to have devoted himself to the king’s service by whom he had been granted an estate at Largo in Fife. Sources are scanty but he seems to have beaten off some English ships at a siege of Dumbarton Castle. His was the responsibility for carrying the King to the Isle of May at the mouth of the Firth of Forth where his Grace liked to visit the shrine of St Ethernan. Now this mile-long island has seabirds as its only year-round inhabitants but had been a place of pilgrimage since the Bronze Age and its popularity in the Middle Ages was confirmed by the discovery in 1996 of a 10-seater communal lavatory for a Benedictine Community of no more than nine monks.

Wood was a seaman, associated with none of the factions that plotted for power and land. He was totally loyal to the King. When the Border barons rebelled in 1488 with the King’s eldest son as their titular leader, Wood ferried the King north where he gathered an army from the clans. In June, when the Royal army met the rebels at Sauchieburn near Stirling, Wood’s ships were cruising the meanders of the Forth ready to give assistance if the day went badly for the King. It went disastrously. The royalists were defeated. Wood took on wounded men but, unknown for several days, the King had been murdered after fleeing alone from the field.

The suspicion grew that the monarch was sheltering on Wood’s ship. The rebels moved to Leith to ensure that he could not be landed there.

Under the seal of James’s heir, the Duke of Rothesay, they demanded information on whether the King was on board. Wood denied it. He was summoned ashore to account for himself. He agreed, so long as Lords Seaton and Fleming were hostages on his ship. He met the young prince, already James IV, denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of his father and showed contempt for the rebel barons. He returned to his ships and released the hostages. The rebels were furious and tried to commission vessels of their own in the harbour to venture out to destroy Wood. No captain would dare, however much the reward.

The following year Henry VII permitted five English ships to sail north and attack Scots merchantmen in the firths of Clyde and Forth as well as the coastal villages of Fife. With every other Scots captain cowering in port, the young James IV was forced to turn to Wood. He accepted the task, refused any help and sailed out with the Yellow Caravel and the Flower. He met the English flotilla off the Bass Rock and, after a bloody battle, took each ship and their captains and sailed them back to Leith under the Scottish flag and presented the prizes and his captives to the King.

Henry was not amused. He offered a pension of the huge sum of £1000 to anyone who could rid the seas of Wood. Sir Stephen Bull took up the challenge and with the three most powerful warships in England. He waited until intelligence arrived that Wood was escorting a convoy of Scots merchantmen to Holland before sailing north. He sheltered in the lee of the Isle of May and sent parties to seize every fishing boat on the Fife coast and there he waited, secure in the knowledge that Wood would have no warning of the ambush. Two sails appeared above the horizon. With a bit of persuasion, a fisherman that Bull had taken on board identified them as the Yellow Carvel and the Flower and the warships raised anchor. Coming round the island, Bull launched his attack. Wood had time to prepare and the battle raged all day with the ships locked together in combat. People lined the shores as the vessels drifted up the coast.

They broke apart overnight in the estuary of the Tay and the combat resumed the following morning. The larger English ships needed a greater draft and, eventually, they ran aground on the sandbanks and surrendered. Once again Sir Andrew returned to Leith with his captives and presented them to the King. ‘Since they fought for glory, not for gain’, James sent them back to Henry’s court.

James continued to use Sir Andrew long into his old age. The admiral had complete control of the waters round Scotland, He was given more ships and used them to carry out James’s policy of subduing the western clans since the birlinns of the chiefs were no match for them. He took a squadron to the Baltic to assist John of Denmark in his struggle with Sweden. James, on the back of Sir Andrew’s maritime supremacy, decided to greatly expand his navy and built the Great Michael, the largest warship of its day and made his admiral its first captain.

Sir Andrew retired to his estates in Fife and died in 1515. Being a man who preferred water-born travel to land, he built a canal to convey him from his house to the kirk every Sunday. He was a man who dominated his element and his time and was utterly loyal to James III and James IV. And a source of great frustration to the fractious nobility of the country because they could do nothing to constrain or threaten him.