It was in the early hours of Saturday the 5th of March 1938 that a tremendous fire ripped through the buildings occupied by Gardens drapery, bakery and stores, Bridge Street, Kirkwall. Hampered by a lack of water the fire brigade managed to prevent the blaze from spreading but residents in surrounding streets had to be evacuated. So great was the fire that there were serious concerns that the recently established Shell Mex oil depot nearby would be reached.
The damage was estimated at £12,000 and the building, once known as O’Connor’s Hotel, destroyed. The Hotel in the 18th C had been the fine townhouse of the Provost of Kirkwall, retired Edinburgh lawyer, James Traill of Woodwick. All that was left was a stone folly in the remnants of his garden.
The area was built over, the garden folly became engulfed by the structures around it and forgotten about.
Known as ‘Gow’s Folly’ or ‘The Groatie Hoose’, the garden feature had been constructed for James Traill from volcanic rock which was once ballast material in the vessel ‘George’. Under the flag of Pirate John Gow the ‘George’ sailed as The ‘Revenge.’ In a short and rather unsuccessful career The Revenge had plied the Portuguese Spanish coast seeking wine plunder. How it came to be in Orkney is the story of its Captain.
John Gow (aka Smith) grew up in Stromness where his father was a merchant. We know a lot of details about his few months of piracy because top reporter of the day Daniel Defoe wrote about it and Sir Walter Scott fictionalised the story in his novel ‘The Pirate’ where John Gow becomes Captain Cleveland.
In 1724 Gow is 2nd Mate aboard the ‘George’ collecting beeswax to transport from North Africa to Genoa. One night, Captain Freneau, the Chief Mate, the Supercargo and the Surgeon all get their throats cut, shot and tossed into the sea in a mutiny led by Gow, Williams and 4 others. 8 other men rather reluctantly join them. What then follows is a span of a few months when the pirates capture ships mainly transporting fish, holding officials of Porto Santo hostage until supplies are produced and finally seizing a wine consignment.
With every theft of cargo, the crew and ships are also captured. Gow took these men aboard as prisoners, sunk the first two vessels and then ‘gifted’ the following ones to crew he had released. The big plan, of course, was to sail to The Caribbean where the best booty was to be had but that was not to be. Gow had a little mutiny of his own to deal with when Williams argued with him and pulled a pistol. It misfired. Williams was taken prisoner by his fellow pirates and subsequently put into the custody of law officers.
Gow then persuaded his men that sailing northward was the best plan. They could hunker down in Orkney and if need be there were a few wealthy homes which could be plundered.
When Gow arrived back in Stromness on the ‘George’ it was as a successful trader. It is part of his legend that he married Helen Gordon, a merchant’s daughter, by clasping hands through the hole of The Odin Stone, Stenness.
Money quickly ran out and Gow’s pirates raided a house on Graemsay, a small island off Stromness. Amongst the loot they also took 2 servant girls and a piper. The girls were later put ashore on the Island of Cava with money and some silver spoons.
Many of Gow’s crew had been ‘pressed’ into his service and some managed to escape. Henry Jamieson did so dressed as a woman and ten men took the ship’s longboat and rowed across the Pentland Firth. Robert Read reached a local farmer who gave him a horse to ride to Kirkwall and raise the alarm.
The ‘George’ had to move and did so quickly, intending to anchor off the island of Eday. Wealthy James Fea, a friend of Gow’s, had a house there. The currents and tides in Eday are strong and the ‘George’ grounded. There followed a bizarre exchange of letters between Fea and Gow which culminated in the surrender of Gow under a white flag. He was immediately clasped in irons to be transported with his crew to London .
Refusing at first to enter a plea at The Old Bailey, Gow was returned to prison to have his thumbs crushed with whipcord several times before the cord broke. For a person accused of witchcraft, piracy or treason, torture was permitted if they refused to plead. Gow was reminded by the Judge what would happen next:
to be laid upon his back, with his body bare; that his arms be stretched forth with cord… that upon his body be laid as much iron and stone as he can bear and more…to death.’
Daniel Defoe records, ‘next morning he yielded, and petitioned to be allow’d to Plead’.
Gow, Williams, Belvin, Melvin, Winter, Petersen, Rollson and Mackauley were taken in 3 carts to Execution Dock, Wapping and executed on 11th of June 1725. Gow hung for four minutes when the rope broke. He climbed the ladder for a second time and was hung again. The bodies of Gow and Williams were cut down, tarred and rehung in Chains facing each other.
James Fea, Gow’s friend was well rewarded for his part by the Government: £1,000 and £300 for ‘The Revenge’ plus a reward from the Merchants of London of £400. Plagued by law suits brought against him by the innocent among the crew he did not fare well.
Helen Gordon is said to have travelled to London to clasp the dead hand of John Gow to release her from her betrothal.
In 2005, The Groatie Hoose, was transported stone by stone from its Bridge Street enclosure to a new location within Tankerness House Garden. It stands there today, its volcanic rocks and shells glittering in the sun. A rather beautiful reminder of a bloody episode in Orkney’s past.
By Fiona Grahame, Images by Martin Laird.
This story first appeared in iScot Magazine