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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Scottish Pirates
By Cindy Vallar

LongshipSpùinneadair-mara (spoo-nuder mara) in Gaelic means plunderer, spoiler, or robber on the sea.  Or more specifically, pirate.  All that is known about some Scottish sea raiders are their names, like Alan of the Straws, and some tidbit of fact or legend, such as he lived in Torloisk on the Isle of Mull.  The earliest pirates, of whom some record exists, were Vikings.  In 617 pirates--perhaps Vikings, perhaps a band of female warriors from Loch nam Ban Móra--attacked a monastery on Eigg. Saint Donan, the founder of the island monastery, celebrated mass with fifty-two monks.  At his request, the pirates permitted him to finish the mass before they beheaded Saint Donan and the others.

According to the Icelandic Annals, Sweyn (Svein) Asleifsson pirated around 1150.  He spent winters in Gairsay, then swept down on the Hebrides and Ireland in the spring.  One of his more renowned acts involved the seizure of two English ships laden with cloth and wine off the coast of Dublin.  On the journey home, Sweyn and his men sewed the bright-colored material to their sails.  They also drank so much wine they had no memory of the return trip.  They christened the voyage their “Cloth Cruise.”   His last raid centered on Dublin, which he held for ransom.  The citizens agreed to his demands, but instead of paying, they staged an ambush in which they killed Sweyn.

Norse PirateThormod Thasramr, whose aliases included Thormod Foal’s-leg and Uspak the Hebridean, plundered the Hebrides during the summer months with twelve longships.  He and his men took anything made of silver and coins.  He also pillaged a sacred Norse island.  When he returned to Norway, the bishops censured him for his piracy.

Holmfast and his cousin, Grim, raided the Hebrides and slew Earl Asbiorn Skeria-blesi.  Among the seized spoils were his wife, Alof, and his daughter, Arneid.  The men drew lots.  Holmfast got Arneid, whom he presented to his father as a bond woman.  Grim married Alof.

An innkeeper, wine merchant, customs inspector, and the Provost of Aberdeen, Robert Davidson, was charged with piracy in 1410.  As the Earl of Mar’s agent, he had traveled to Harfleur in Normandy to sell cargo taken from a captured Dutch merchantman.  He carried a French safe conduct, which should have protected him from any action the ship’s owners might take, but the cargo belonged to the powerful Hanseatic League, whose mission was to protect maritime trade and end piracy.  When Davidson returned to Scotland, he was arrested as a pirate.  He somehow managed to escape hanging; the following year he led a group of Scots against the Lord of the Isles at the Battle of Harlaw, where he died.

King James I of ScotlandOne piratical act, involving the second son of King Robert III, had a profound effect on Scottish politics.  After the murder of his heir, Robert sent twelve-year-old James to France for safekeeping.  Pirates from Great Yarmouth captured The MaryenKnyght, and sold James to King Henry IV of England, who imprisoned the lad in the Tower of London.  News of his son’s capture devastated Robert.  He refused to eat, and died within a fortnight at Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute.  While Robert’s brother, the Duke of Albany, became Regent, Henry made certain that James received a good education.  The lad became a scholar and musician.  He remained a prisoner for eighteen years until twenty-one hostages stood as security for payment of a £40,000 ransom payable in six yearly installments.  The following year, 1424, he was crowned King James I of Scotland at Scone.

Piracy plagued the western isles of Scotland.  It proved such a problem on Canna, a small island southwest of Skye, that the Abbot of Iona pleaded with the pope to excommunicate the pirates if they didn’t cease their raids.  The tiny island of Pabay, across the Soay Sound from Skye, was a haven for sixteenth-century pirates and “broken men.”  In 1549 Dean Munro said it was “full of woods, good for fishing, and a main shelter for thieves and cutthroats.” (Haswell-Smith, p. 123)  Pirates also frequented Longay off the coast of Scalpay.  The isle’s name in Gaelic, long spùinnidh, meant “pirate ship,” and it was a favorite haunt of pirates who preyed on Dutch, Lowland Scottish, Flemish, and English merchant ships and fishermen.

Calum Garbh MacLeod, also known as Lusty Malcolm and son of the ninth Chief of Lewis, moved to Rona in 1518.  On the western coast was a hidden natural harbor, then known as Port nan Robaireann (the robbers’ port) because of the many pirates who frequented it.  From his lair, Brochel Castle, MacLeod and his descendants made a tidy profit from his sea-robbing ventures.

The MacNeils of Barra had a long piratical tradition and lived off their plundered treasure since the agricultural conditions on the island provided little sustenance for the clan.  One particular chief was quite adept at piracy. Ruari Og or Ruairi an Tartair hid in sheltered coves until he sighted a prize, then swooped down on the merchant vessel.  Not even the stormiest weather kept him from attacking unsuspecting ships.  Legend says he melted down some of the captured gold to make horseshoes for his six black horses, and the other captured booty filled his wine cellars and provided sumptuous meals for his table.  After dinner, “a bugler… ascend[ed] the tower of his stronghold and announce[d] to his kinsfolk that, since Ruairi, their Chief, had dined, all kings and princes of the earth were now permitted to do likewise.” (Hebridean)

King James VI of ScotlandMacNeil particularly enjoyed robbing English vessels, so much so that Queen Elizabeth I offered a handsome reward for his capture and demanded that King James VI of Scotland put an end to Ruairi’s piracy.  When MacNeil refused to heed James’ summons, the king sent a MacKenzie of Kintail to arrest Ruairi.  Lured aboard a galley anchored near Kisimul Castle with the promise of drink, he was instead imprisoned.  Under cover of darkness the vessel weighed anchor and sailed to Edinburgh.  When asked why he attacked English ships, Ruairi said he did it to avenge the cruel treatment Mary Queen of Scots, James’ mother, had suffered at the hands of the English.  The king granted him a pardon and spared his life, but seized his lands.

During the seventeenth century, Hugh Gillespie lived in Caisteal Huisdean in Trotternish on the Isle of Skye.  Although his death came from plotting against the Macdonald rather than from his piracy, it mirrored the severest form of punishment listed in Bartholomew RobertsArticles of Agreement--marooning.  Instead of being abandoned on a deserted spit of land, Macdonald sealed Gillespie in the dungeon at Duntulm.  A serving of salted beef and an empty water jug substituted for the traditional day’s supply of water.  Since his treachery didn’t warrant a pistol, powder, and shot to bring a swift end to his imprisonment, he died a slow, agonizing death from starvation.

Although hanged for piracy, James Browne was a Scottish privateer with a French letter of marque from Governor Bertrand d’Ogeron of St. Domingue.  Browne and his crew, comprised mostly of English, French, and Dutch sailors, left Jamaica in October 1676.  Early the following year, they seized the slaver Goude Zon (Golden Sun) near Cartagena.  The ship’s captain and several crewmembers died in the attack.  May found Browne and his men off the coast of Jamaica, where they offloaded most of the slaves with the intention of selling them to plantation owners.  The governor of Port Royal, Lord Vaughan, learned of Browne’s plan.  When soldiers arrived at the remote bay, Browne’s ship had departed, but they captured several of his men, who betrayed the location of Browne and eight others.  Vaughan decided to make an example of Browne, and tried him for piracy on grounds that he held an invalid privateering commission because Governor Bertrand had “been dead above a year.” (Marley, p. 69)  While his crew was pardoned, Browne was condemned to die.  He appealed to the House of Assembly, which twice pleaded with the governor to grant a reprieve.  Instead, Vaughan ordered Browne’s immediate execution.  Thirty minutes after he died, the provost marshal arrived with a stay of execution from the assembly.

John Alexander, a Scottish buccaneer, accompanied Bartholomew Sharp and twenty-two others to the island of Chiva off the coast of Peru in 1681.  Among the prisoners they seized was a shipwright--a valuable addition to any pirate crew.  They loaded all his tools and a significant quantity of iron into the boat, and rowed him back to their ship.  The excessive weight caused the boat to capsize, and Alexander drowned.  His fellow buccaneers found his body on 12 May.  The next day they “threw him overboard, giving him three French vollies for his customary ceremony.” (Gosse, p. 28)

George Dunkin and George Ross of Glasgow and William Eddy and Neal Patterson of Aberdeen sailed aboard Stede Bonnet’s Royal James.  Found guilty of piracy, they were hanged at Charleston, South Carolina on 8 November 1718.

Twenty-two-year-old John Hincher, a physician who had graduated from Edinburgh University, found himself aboard a vessel captured by Captain Low.  Since he possessed skills in high demand amongst pirates, they forced Hincher to go on the account.  He stood trial for piracy in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1723, but was acquitted.

James Francis Edward, the
                Old Pretender, led the Rising of 1715Black Sam Bellamy’s Whydah sank during a savage storm off Cape Cod in 1717.  Among the pirates who drowned was the surgeon, James Ferguson.  Born in Paisley, he left Scotland, possibly after participating in the failed Rising of 1715 to return the Royal House of Stewart to the British throne.  One artifact recovered from the shipwreck was a syringe that might have belonged to this pirate surgeon.

John Gow, from Stromness on Mainland (an island in the Orkneys), went on the account in November 1724 after a mutiny aboard the George Galley.  He and his cohorts slit the throats of the surgeon, chief mate, and supercargo.  One of the mutineers “cut his [the captain’s] throat, but not so as to kill him” then “stabbed him in the back….”  Gow “fired a brace of balls into the captain’s body,” after which the corpses were tossed overboard. (Sanders, p. 59)  The pirates renamed the ship Revenge and seized several ships off the Iberian Peninsula before heading to the northern islands of Scotland.  When their attempt to rob Clestrain House failed, Gow landed on Cava where he kidnapped two or three girls and took them to his ship.  They returned home several days later; some accounts say they brought with them riches, others that their severe beatings caused one girl to later die.

Newgate PrisonFrom Cava, Gow and his men sailed to Eday, where they the Revenge ran aground.  After their capture, they were taken to Marshalsea Prison in England.  Gow refused to plead at his trial.  To change his mind, his thumbs were “bound together and squeezed with whipcord.” (Cordingly, p. 127)  When that failed to work, he was transferred to Newgate Prison where he was to be pressed to death under the weight of stones laid on his prone body.  Rather than endure such torture, he opted to plead not guilty.  Tried at Old Bailey before Sir Henry Penrice, an Admiralty judge, Gow was charged with murder and piracy.  Three pirates, including a Scotsman named Robert Teague, were found not guilty, but Gow and nine others were sentenced to dance the hempen jig.  Twenty-year-old Daniel Machauly (also spelled Maccawly, McCawley, or MacAulay) of Stornoway and seventeen-year-old William Melvin of Edinburgh died at Execution Dock at Wapping with their captain on 11 June 1725.  John Gow’s execution, however, did not go as planned.  The rope broke, which necessitated he be hanged a second time.  After his death, his body was displayed as a reminder to others of what happened to those who followed the sweet trade.

One of the last Scottish pirates gained fame as a Barbary Corsair.  Born Peter Lisle (or Lyle) in Perth, he became the Grand Admiral of Tripoli’s navy and Bashaw Yusuf’s son-in-law.  Prior to his enslavement and conversion to Islam in 1796, Lisle sailed aboard the Betsy, an American schooner.  He adopted the name of a famous corsair of the sixteenth century--Murad Reis (or Rais).  The bashaw gave him the Betsy to command, which was renamed Meshuda.  The vessel carried twenty-eight guns and had a crew of three hundred sixty-six men.  He displayed the national flags of ships he captured in the order in which he regarded them; the American flag held the lowest rank.

Burning of the Philadelphia
                by Edward Moran, painted 1897In 1803 he led the boarding party that captured the USS Philadelphia after it grounded on a sand bar in Tripoli’s harbor.  When he questioned the captured Americans, now slaves, about William Bainbridge, he wanted to know whether their captain was a coward or a traitor.  The sailors defended Bainbridge, to which Murad Reis replied, “Who with a frigate of 44 guns, and 300 men, would strike his colours to one solitary gunboat, must surely be one or the other.” (Wheelan, p. 175)

Lyle, who may have had a wife and five children in London prior to his “turning Turk,” was “a ‘slight’ man, of ‘indifferent morals,’ with a blondish beard, a foul temper, and an above-average thirst for hard liquor.  Reports of his drunken, violent behavior--such as beating servants or cursing strangers--often bobbed up in consular reports.” (Zacks, p. 46)  Around 1816, he engineered a vicious attack on the American consul to Tripoli, Richard B. Jones.  To satisfy the Americans, the bashaw banished Lyle for three years.  On his return, Lyle resumed his position as Grand Admiral.  He died in 1832 when a cannon ball hit him during a failed coup.

The most famous Scottish pirate, however, was a man named William Kidd.

Read more about Captain William Kidd

For more information on Scottish pirates, I suggest:

Allison, Robert J. “Chapter 5: American Captives in the Muslim World,” The Crescent Obscured. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. HarperCollins, 1994.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. Random House, 1995.

Davidson, James D.G. Scots and the Sea. Mainstream, 2003.
Defoe, Daniel. An Account of the Conduct and Proceedings of the Pirate Gow. Burt Franklin, 1970.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500-1286. Collected and translated by Alan Orr Anderson. Paul Watkins, 1990.
Expedition Whydah Pirate Profiles, National Geographic.

Gosse, Philip. Pirate’s Who’s Who Book of Pirates. Rio Grande Press, 1924.

Haswell-Smith, Hamish. The Scottish Islands: a Comprehensive Guide to Every Scottish Island. Cannongate, 1996.
Hebridean Pirates,” Behold the Hebrides.  Electric Scotland.

Lampe, Christine Markel. “Surgeons of the Sweet Trade,” No Quarter Given (July 1999), 8-9.

Marley, David F.  Pirates and Privateers of the Americas. ABC-Clio, 1994.

Orkneyinga Saga: the History of the Earls of Orkney translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Hogarth Press, 1978.
Rogozinski, Jan. Pirates!  Brigands, Buccaneers and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. Facts on File, 1995.

Sanders, R. "John Gow," The Complete Newgate Calendar (III:57-68), 1760. [http://www.scotsites.co.uk/ebooks/johngow.htm -- link no longer active 98/4/2015]

Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War. Carroll & Graf, 2003.

Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast. Hyperion, 2005.


© 2005 Cindy Vallar

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