Souvenirs – The Pirate John Gow’s boat tiller? Part 2

From his series, Records of a Bygone Age, by Ian Cooper. Republished here with the kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet.

In part 1 we left John Gow and 9 of his shipmates languishing in a London jail awaiting their fate.

The story goes on……

On 11th June 1725, sentence was carried out at Execution Dock at Wapping where Gow and his shipmates were hung. In a bizarre twist to this tale, it appears that Gow was slow to die and, after four minutes, one of his executioners grabbed Gow’s legs and pulled in an effort to hasten his end. At this point the rope broke and Gow fell to the ground, still alive and quite sensible, whereupon he had to again climb the ladder to the scaffold to be hung for a second time!

James Fea was, quite rightly, rewarded well for his efforts, receiving £1,000 from the Government for his capture of the pirates, an additional £300 for the salvage of the Revenge and her cargo and a further £400 from the grateful Merchants of London. With this fame and resulting windfall also came unpopularity, due in some part to jealousy but thought in the main to be due to his active support for the Jacobites and their cause. A number of court cases were brought against James Fea, all of which had to be defended at his own expense and which saw his fortune almost completely disappear. Some years later, due to his active support of the Jacobite Prince Charles Edward Stewart, Fea was forced into hiding and his house of Sound on Shapinsay burnt to the ground.

That could well have been the end of the story, with John Gow and his failed efforts as a pirate fading into obscurity, but this wasn’t to be; Daniel Defoe came to hear of Gow’s tale and took a great interest in it, publishing a book, ‘The Pirate Gow’, loosely based on Gow’s exploits. This book was published in late 1725, the year of Gow’s execution, and it was to help keep Gow’s name and exploits alive.

Almost 100 years later, it was again Gow who inspired a book, this time the novel ‘The Pirate’ by Sir Walter Scott. This book was set in Orkney and Shetland and the main character in this book, Captain Cleveland, was loosely based on Gow and his activities. Published in 1822, ‘The Pirate’ was in its turn the inspiration for another book, again almost 100 years later!

In 1912 Allan Fea, a historian with Orkney connections, was to look at the fictional character of ‘Captain Cleveland’ and go on to tell the true story of Gow, along with some of the history of the Fea family, in his book ‘The Real Captain Cleveland’. Paying little attention to Defoe’s ‘The Pirate Gow’ and basing the title of his book on Sir Walter’s fictional and fanciful account of Captain Cleveland, Allan Fea relied on historical research and records of the time to put together the story of the real John Gow’s exploits, capture and death.

This at last moves me on to my own tentative connection to John Gow! When my parents bought the farm of Midgarth from the Tait family in 1948, one of the items left in the farmhouse was an intricately carved oak tiller just over a metre long (a tiller being the lever fitted to the top of the rudder on a small boat and used for steering) which, so local folklore maintained, was off the longboat belonging to John Gow the pirate’s sailing ship the Revenge and possibly brought to Stronsay as a souvenir by James Fea or one of his servants or relations. It has survived the years well, despite being involved in a dispute some years ago between a school friend and me which resulted in it being snapped in halves! Fortunately, it was easily repaired.

Many years ago it was sent in to the Stromness Museum to be displayed as part of an exhibition about John Gow and, while there, generated some interest with Bryce Wilson, the curator at the time. Due to the carving of a dog’s head (possibly a greyhound’s) on the end of the tiller, he thought it may well have belonged to HMS Greyhound and been left behind by the ship’s crew or acquired by one of the islanders when the pirates were taken to London – probably a more likely but much less exciting story. We shall likely never know for sure!

See also:

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

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