Souvenirs – The Pirate John Gow’s boat tiller? Part 1

From Records of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper. Republished here with kind permission from The Stronsay Limpet.

John Gow was born in Wick in 1698 then, the following year, moved with his parents, prosperous businessman William Gow and his wife Margaret Calder, to Stromness where he was educated before sailing ‘before the mast’ for a number of years.

As an Orcadian who had spent his early life on or near the sea in Stromness, he quickly acquired all the nautical skills needed to sail and navigate a ship. He achieved notoriety in the early 1700s when he and a number of his shipmates mutinied and took over the ‘George Gally’, sometime known as the ‘Caroline’, an English merchantman of some 200 tons and carrying 18 guns, which they renamed the ‘Revenge’.

During the mutiny, which took place near the Canary Islands, the Captain and three of his officers were all murdered and thrown overboard, after which the mutineers appointed John Gow as their leader. Gow’s fame as a pirate has grown over the years, with a number of books being written based on his story, but it appears that his short career as a pirate was actually less than successful!

After taking over the ship and being appointed her captain, Gow and the Revenge spent some time sailing along the coast of North Africa and Spain, often being within sight of the coast there, looking for ships to plunder. Their first prize was a small sloop, the Delight, bound from Newfoundland to Cadiz with a cargo of fish. With little worth taking, the Revenge topped up her stores from the vessel and then sent her to the bottom. Nine days later, Gow captured a Scottish ship, the Sarah, only to find it too was carrying a cargo of fish, this time bound for Genoa.

A few days later, hoping for a more valuable cargo, the Revenge gave chase to a French ship, following her day and night for three days until eventually losing her in a bank of fog. Gow’s next prize was an American ship, the Bachelor, with a cargo of timber, again of little use to the pirates but, as their provisions were again running low, they were glad to avail themselves of some of the American ship’s stores.

On 27th December 1724, Gow made his most valuable capture when they caught and boarded a French ship, the Lewis Joseph, carrying a cargo of wine and fruit, some of which they took aboard the Revenge along with anything else of value they found. On 6th January 1725, Gow and his crew overtook and captured an English ship, the Triumvirate of Bristol, but found to their dismay that she too was carrying a cargo of fish!

This proved to be Gow’s last act of piracy on the high seas, bringing to an end his brief and fairly undistinguished career as a pirate. After this last act of piracy, believing he was being hunted by naval ships, he decided to head north to his native Stromness. After reaching his home port, he was greeted amicably by friends and residents in Stromness but soon news of his exploits reached the town and Gow, along with his ship and shipmates were forced to flee.

Before leaving, the pirates went to the house of Robert Honeyman, the High Sheriff of Orkney, and plundered it. Mr Honeyman was away at the time but his wife and daughter managed to conceal most of their valuables from the robbers, meaning that once again they had to abandon their target with little to show for their efforts!

Captain Gow headed northward once more and, on 14th February 1725, while negotiating the narrow channel of Calfsound between Eday and the small uninhabited island of the Calf of Eday, he mistook the wind and ran his ship aground on the of the Calf of Eday. At that time the laird, James Fea VI of Clestrain, was staying on his wife’s estate at Carrick House on the Calfsound shore. Coincidentally, John Gow had been a fellow pupil at school with James and Gow sent a small party ashore in their remaining small boat to ask for assistance. Gow’s reputation had preceded him and Fea, along with a small party of armed men, succeeded in seizing this party and the ships boat.

When James Fea first became aware of the stranded ‘Revenge’ and the nature of her crew, he had dispatched his brother John over to Stronsay and Sanday to muster reinforcements, which were to include his cousin James Fea of Whitehall, William Scollay from Odiness and his uncle Jerome Dennison from Warsetter in Sanday.

They quickly responded to the rallying call and made their way across the sea to Eday, offering their assistance to James Fea and his band of helpers, By some skilful tactics and imaginative trickery, James then proceeded to capture in instalments the whole pirate crew with no loss of life on either side.

In Carrick House to this day there is a stain to be seen on the floor of one of the rooms, reputedly caused by the blood of Captain Gow!

After informing the authorities of his capture of John Gow, Gow’s fellow pirates and his ship, James Fea awaited their response and this was soon to arrive in the form of HMS Weazel, an 8-gun naval sloop, which anchored in Linga Sound, before her captain made his way to Eday where he helped refloat the Revenge but, when she was afloat, he then tried to commandeer her, much to James Fea’s displeasure!

A naval frigate, the 20-gun HMS Greyhound, then arrived on the scene and her captain was able to reconcile Fea and the Weazel’s captain, with the Greyhound, the Weazel and the Revenge all heading southward in convoy to bring the pirates to London for trial. On 26th May, the trial of Gow and his shipmates began but was delayed by Gow’s refusal to plead. After the application of thumbscrews, then being ‘pressed’ (stretched out on the floor and heavy weight placed on his body) for several days, Gow unsurprisingly agreed to plead guilty to his crimes of piracy! He and nine of his shipmates were quickly convicted and sentenced to hang.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Archived story: The Groatie Hoose

Rebel Orkney - tales of insurrection from Orcadian history, available from all good booksellers now.

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