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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1977 - April

G. Watson

John Gow's place in our local history is assured because he was a rogue and a rascal who eventually got his just deserts. At the same time Gow always showed boldness, fortitude and generosity. He also had a way with the lasses which endears him to all romantics. He tried his hand at piracy as we might try the football pools, knowing within himself that few succeed but that the prize could be enormous. He failed, because he was not ruthless enough, he was a bad judge of men and above all because the fates were against him. This indeed is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, because right at the start before the first illegal step had been taken, a thread had been spun, which, starting in Amsterdam led to the uncovering of the pirates' disguise, in Orkney, several months later. Throughout the tale other threads were woven to form the web which caught the pirates.

John Gow was born in Wick about 1698, the only son of William Gow, merchant, and Margaret Calder. Tradition says that the building in which he was born was "near the old Town House, now part of another structure in the oldest part of Wick, to the east of Market Place". Another source calls the building "Pesley's tenement, with houses, buildings, etc., in Wick (formerly belonging to Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath)".

In September 1698, Gow's father bought some property at Stromness and the whole family moved there. The site of this property was across the harbour from the present pier, on the mainland near the 'holms'.

Little is known of Gow's boyhood, except local traditional tales which need not be accurate. It is said that he ran away to sea and sometime during his early career he formed an attachment with Miss Katherine Rorieson, the daughter of a Thurso/Scrabster merchant. While Gow was abroad, Mr. Rorieson exercised his parental authority, and arranged Katherine's marriage to George Gibson, the fourth son of the Dean of Watten and Bower. George was at this time a schoolmaster at Stromness. Shortly after the signing of the marriage contract, Gow reappeared. Katherine would gladly have broken her promise to George, but Gow would have none of her. Afterwards Gow, reputedly, married Helen Gordon of Stromness by performing the ancient handfasting ceremony at the Odin Stone which formerly stood by the Loch of Harray near the Standing Stones of Stenness. The Odin Stone was perforated by a large hole, through which the couple held hands while exchanging pledges. The Odin Stone was broken up for building purposes in December 1814 but drawings of it still exist.

Gow's piratical career really started in August 1724 when he joined, as a sailor, the Caroline, a Guernsey vessel which was unloading in Amsterdam before sailing for Santa Cruz. The captain, a Frenchman named Oliver Ferneau, must have been favourably impressed with Gow's ability, for he promoted Gow to 2nd Mate and Gunner, before the ship sailed. While the ship was still in Amsterdam, Daniel MacAulay and Harry Jamieson deserted from a neighbouring ship, the Margaret, and joined the crew of the Caroline. At the time, this was an event of trivial significance.

The voyage to Santa Cruz was uneventful and by the 3rd 'November the ship was loaded and ready to sail for Genoa. Captain Ferneau must have had some suspicion of trouble for he conferred with the Mate and decided to have small arms ready. Gow being the Gunner must have known of these precautions.

That first night at sea the Captain was aroused by d scuffling on deck and when he demanded to know the cause was told by the bosun James Belbin, who was not at this time one of the conspirators, that he thought someone had fallen over-board. When the Captain came on deck he was seized by Winter, Melvin and Rollson.. The Captain fought manfully, his throat was gashed and he was stabbed in the back. Eventually Gow appeared and shot the Captain who was still alive when he was thrown overboard. The other officers were then dispatched. John Guy the surgeon was out down and the Mate Bonadventure Jelfs and the supernumerary Mr. Algier were shot.

The remainder of the crew, who had not taken part in the mutiny, wore locked in the Great Cabin and next day they were forced to acknowledge their new masters. They were promised that no harm would befall them if they worked the ship normally.

Of the eighteen mutineers, Gow was acclaimed captain and work began fitting the Caroline for her new duty. Six extra guns were brought up from the hold and mounted on deck, making eighteen guns in all. Her name was changed to the Revenge. A witness later described the ship as, "square stern'd with a row galley painted on her stern, about 160 to 200 tons burden, about 70 foot in the keel, 13 foot in the hold, flush fore and aft, with 2 pateraroes and 16 guns mounted and can mount eight more".

On the 12th November the first prize was captured. She was an English sloop the Delight of Poole carrying a cargo of fish from Newfoundland to Cadiz. Her captain Thomas Wise and her crew of five were imprisoned on the Revenge and the sloop was stripped of all useful equipment such as sails, anchors etc. Then she was scuttled.

Nine days later (21st Nov.) the Sarah, a Scottish snow under the command of John Somerville, was taken. She was also carrying a cargo of fish to Genoa. Once again the vessel was looted of equipment and a few casks of salmon and herring were also transferred before the ship was sunk. From the captured crew John Menzies and Alexander Robb volunteered to join the pirates.

The Revenge cruised about for several days. She sighted and chased a Frenchman for three days and nights before losing her in fog.

Water was now running low and the pirates headed for Madeira where they sent the ship's boats into the roadstead to waylay any small supply boats. This venture was completely unsuccessful so they weighed anchor and steered. for Porto Santo 35 miles away. Here, posing as a British merchantman, they sent the boat ashore with presents for the Governor asking his permission to buy food and water. Faced with such generosity, the Governor granted permission and came out to the Revenge in person to pay his respects. He was detained on board until the necessary provisions had been supplied, then he was released with a present of beeswax from the Revenge's cargo.

On the 18th December, while cruising towards Cape St. Vincent, the Revenge successfully encountered an American sloop the Bachelor carrying a cargo of timber. This was not of much use to the pirates but they did remove some bread and some barrels of beef and pork. The American captain, Benjamin Cross, and his crew were also transferred to the Revenge, which by now had a surfeit of prisoners. To relieve the situation, the Bachelor was handed over to Captain Wise and four of his crew from the Delight. Only the young cabin boy was forced to remain on the Revenge. Before parting each of the released prisoners was given a present of beeswax, which seems to have bought their silence, for the ultimate fate of the Bachelor is not known.

This was the start of Gow's policy of selecting likely candidates for piracy and releasing the rest. While it is to Gow's credit that he adopted such a merciful plan, it doomed the pirates completely by providing information and witnesses to the authorities.

Within sight of the Spanish coast, on the 27th December the most valuable cargo so far, was seized. It was from a French ship the Lewis Joseph bound from Cadiz with a load of wine and fruit. The captain, William Mens, and his eleven man crew were removed. from their ship which was then plundered of all articles of value.

Captains Somerville and Cross with Somerville's crew from the Sarah were released and put on board the Lewis Joseph. As was by now customary, they were given presents of part of the ship's cargo and the inevitable beeswax. Towards the end of January, the two captains sailed the Lewis Joseph into Loch Ryan where they presented the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury with a problem. Both captains readily admitted that they did not have legal possession of the vessel but because she was French no one had reported her missing. The lords Commissioners were forced to advertise in the Daily Post for the legal owners.

To return to the Revenge, while she was cruising about 12 leagues off Cape Finisterre on the 3rd January, she sighted a large French ship. Gow decided that she was too formidable to attack. This led to a quarrel with the Mate, Williams, who attempted to shoot Gow. The pistol misfired and Williams in turn was wounded in the arm and stomach as he was overpowered.

Three days later (6th Jan.) the last prize to be captured, the Triumvirate of Bristol, was taken 30 leagues from Vigo. The cargo, would you believe, was fish. The Triumvirate did supply two cannons, small arms, sails, cables, a cask each of rum and brandy, a watch and some spoons. Her longboat was also taken and we shall see later how the loss of this longboat forced the pirates to surrender.

Four new recruits joined the pirates at this time, Thomas Curland and James Stammers from the Triumvirate and Philbert Le Leyer and Ervy Toul from the French ship. The remainder of the prisoners (including Williams the wounded ex mate) were transferred to the Triumvirate.

Robert Read and Timothy Murphy, two of the original crew of the Revenge, asked to be allowed to leave with the others, but this was refused because Murphy was the carpenter and too valuable to lose. This decision was to prove another nail in the pirates' coffin.

Captain Joel Davis lost no time in sailing the Triumvirate to Lisbon, where he handed over all the released prisoners to a British man of war, the Argyle. The Argyle took them to Sheerness.

There were now too many talebearers about, the Revenge had to move from the Spanish coast. She was running low on water and provisions, especially ammunition. A voyage across the Atlantic was out of the question, so like most criminals on the run Gow headed for home.

They anchored off the holms at Stromness about mid January. During the journey the pirates had taken the precaution of, once again, changing the ship's name to the George. They also invented a cover story that, they had been bound from Cadiz to Stockholm but had been forced far north by bad weather and they were now taking the opportunity to clean the ship's hull and restock with provisions.

The local merchants were pleased with this chance to trade and when it was discovered that Captain Gow was a local lad the reception was even more hospitable. The pirates were careful not to reveal their true nature and traded fairly with two other ships in the roadstead.

Unfortunately in the harbour was the Margaret from which MacAuley and Jamieson had deserted in Amsterdam. Now her captain Mr. Watt recognised the George as the same vessel as the Caroline and he went onboard to enquire after his missing crewmen. All knowledge of them was at first denied, then their presence onboard was admitted but Gow refused to part with the men.

Later, on a visit ashore, Captain Watt net Jamieson who told the captain of the mutiny. Watt tried, without success, to persuade Jamieson to desert.

Before he sailed (on 1st Feb.) Watt told the local authorities of his suspicions. They passed on the information to the Commissioners of Customs in Edinburgh.

Also on the evening of February 1st, ten men escaped from the George, in the longboat. They rowed to one of the neighbouring islands where they stayed the night, then next day rowed to Caithness where a Justice Sinclair gave them some victuals and drink and advised them 'to go further'. They travelled several days until they came to the Chenerys (Chanonrie, Fortrose) where they begged and sold some of their clothes to buy food. At this point the party broke up, five headed for Glasgow, one went to Banff and the remaining four were apprehended in Aberdeen on the 17th February.

At Stromness the rumours about the George were growing. Sheep were being stolen and men and boys wore disappearing. William Hughes and John Emerson from the True Love and Magnus Randall and John Cromartie two Stromness men were pressed onboard the George. William Punton a survivor from a shipwreck signed on hoping to reach home. Robert Pottinger from Westray and his friend Magnus Hewison also signed on but when they found out the true colour of the crew they tried to leave and were forcibly detained. This again was to prove a costly mistake, but Gow had somehow to replace the longboat deserters. He even persuaded his brother-in-law to apprentice Gow's 14 year old nephew, William Clouston, to the pirates.

Three others deserted from the crew at this time, Robert Read travelled to Kirkwall and warned the magistrates, Oliver the cabin boy from the Delight, and Harry Jamieson who escaped disguised as a woman.

The George was ready to day on the 10th February and Gow decided to raid the house of the High Sheriff of Orkney Mr. Robert Honeyman. The master of the house was not at home but he had a very able wife and a quickwitted daughter who hid most of the valuable charters and money as the raiders were breaking into the house. The thieves had to be content with about 7 in cash and some silver spoons. They made the local piper play them back to the ship to drown the screams of two servant girls who were being abducted. The fate of the girls is confused, one tradition says that then they were put ashore on Cava the following day they had been so ill used that one died. Another equally strong tradition says that they were returned so loaded with presents that they both soon afterwards got husbands.

Gow by sailing into Scapa Flow severely worried the magistrates of Kirkwall, and from a hurried council meeting held on the 11th February, 1725 the following minute was issued. "The magistrate and councill considering that John Gow, now taking upon him the name of Smith, has been for this severall days in Karstone Road, commander of a ship carrying thirty-two guns, and that yesternight he had robbed and plundered the house of Mr. Honeyman, of Greemsay, judge it necessary to put themselves in the best pouster of defence they can, for the safety of the town and country, and for that end they doe appoint that this night the town's officers, appointed at last Lambas Mercat, order twenty-four men, furnished with good and sufficient arms, to keep guard this night at the Tolbooth, and in time coming as long as the magistrate and councill shall think fit, and appoint the town's guns and haill other armes belonging to the inhabitants to be made ready for service, and likeways appoint the great guns belonging to the brugh, now in the church, to be carried down to the fort at the shoare, and the one that used formerly to lye at the mount to be carried thither, and new carriages to be made to those that want. And also appoint the clerk to issue forth a proclamation advertising the haill inhabitants within the brugh to be instantly published through town by tuck of drum to rendevous before the Tolbooth this afternoon, about two of the clock, with their best arms, testifying the absents that they will be proceeded against with the utmost severity".

Kirkwall was safe however, for Gow's next target was the home of James Fea, of Clestrain at the house of Sound on Eday. The navigation in the narrows of the northern isles required local knowledge and Gow delegated the pilotage to one of his newest enforced recruits, Robert Porringer from Westray. At a point known as the 'Castles' the George missed stays and was carried onto the Calf of Eday. Her anchor had been dropped and although she was aground she was not stuck fast, and there was no danger of her breaking up. The normal technique in this situation was to take the anchor in one of the ship's boats and drop it farther out, then winch the vessel clear using the anchor cable. However the longboat was missing and the remaining boat was too small and unsuitable for the operation.

On the opposite shore, Fea had had reasonable warning of the pirates approach and he had written a letter to Gow saying that if he came in peace he could have assistance "so far as honour can allow me". When the small boat crossed the sound to seek help, Fea would not let them land until they had delivered his letter to Gow. Meanwhile Fea immobilised the only large boat on his side of the firth and hid the smaller boats, sails, oars, etc.

Gow's small boat returned with five heavily armed men, intent on forcing help from the islanders. They were met peaceably and invited to the inn for a drink. The leader was asked to Visit Mrs. Fea who was ill at home and during the journey he was overpowered. The remainder were plied with drink and wore soon overcome. All five were well bound and sent to the opposite end of the island.

The next evening (Sunday 14th Feb.) the pirates attempted to sail the George off. Murphy the carpenter, another enforced crew member, cut the anchor cable at the wrong instant and the ship was driven hard onto the Calf. It was of course high tide and the fate of the vessel was obvious. In the long run, there was now no escape for the pirates. Fea had sent for help and it was only a matter of time before it arrived in sufficient strength to overwhelm the stranded villains.

Gow had somehow to entice Fea and a boat onto the Calf of Eday. Fea knew that he must play a waiting game. The pirates hoisted a white flag for a parley and there then followed a long exchange of letters, where each tried for an advantage without conceding anything. Eventually Fea managed to meet Gow at a point some distance from the ship and after careful positioning, he captured Gow and three other pirates. Three more pirates were taken shortly after. Fea persuaded Gow to write a letter to the rest of the crew telling them to come ashore and make their escape for Mr. Fea would not give them any boats until he had possession of the vessel.

By the evening of the 17th February Fea had them all secured, he had taken a total of twenty-eight prisoners. Gow was taken back to the George on the following day and before witnesses he was forced to declare that he never had any right to the ship. This was duly recorded by Mr. Alexander Mowat, a notary from Kirkwall. Fea was given much praise for his success, but in later times he was reproached for violating a flag of truce, and for not being strictly honest in his communications with the pirates.

The dangers were now over, but quarrels arose over the ownership of the prize. The navy was sent for. H.M.S. Weasel arrived on the 26th February and her captain took over the George, after much arguing. With the help of Fea's men he had her refloated by the 5th March. The following day H.M.S. Greyhound appeared, she had already picked up two of the 'longboat men' from their prison in Aberdeen.

By the 26th March both warships and their prize were docked at Woolwich. The prisoners were taken to Marshalsea Prison Southwark, where they were reunited with Williiams their ex Mate.

Twenty-four of the thirty-two prisoners were committed for trial and five were chosen to give evidence against them. The trial began at "Session of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery holden for the Jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England at the Justice Hall in the Old Baily" on 26th or 27th May 1725.

At the trial Gow remained silent and refused to plead. His reasons for doing this are not clear, but the court required a plea before it could continue. When verbal persuasion failed, the Judge ordered that "his thumbs should be squeezed by two men with a whipcord, till it did break, and then it should be doubled, till it did break again, and then laid threefold, and that the executioners should pull with their whole strength". Despite this Gow still persisted in his silence and the Court ordered him to be pressed. That is, "that he be put into a mean house stopped from any light and he be laid upon his back, with his body bare; that his arms be stretched forth with cord, the one to one side, the other to the other side of the prison, and in like manner his legs be used, and upon his body be laid as much iron and stone as he can bear and more. The first day he shall have three morsels of barley bread, and the next he shall drink thrice of the water in the next channel to the prison door but of no spring and fountain water; and this shall be his punishment till he die". Gow was taken back to Newgate to have this sentence carried out. Meanwhile the trial of the others proceeded.

The following day when preparations wore being made to press Gow, he changed his mind and was allowed to return to court, where he was speedily convicted. Ten were sentenced to execution, Macaulay, Moore, Peterson, Melvin, Rollson, Winter, Williams, Robb, Belbin and Gow. Nineteen were acquitted. The sentences on Robb and Moore were later commuted to transportation. Robb subsequently misbehaved and was executed on the 2nd July.

The other condemned men were hung at execution dock near Wapping Steps on the 11th June 1725. Two of the men were so weak that they had to be carried from the carts. Gow had asked for a speedy dispatch, "in compliance therewith" the executioner "pulled him by the legs, but so hard that the rope broke". He was still alive and sensible enough to climb the ladder a second time. The bodies were left to be washed by three tides, then those of the two leaders were tarred and hung in chains, as a public warning.

So ended the futile career of Pirate John Gow, who during his reign of four short months captured five small vessels and raided one or two Orkney houses to little effect.

But the story is not quite over, there is a very persistent tradition that Helen Gordon travelled to London at this time to touch the hand of Gow's corpse and so release herself from the vows which they had exchanged at the Odin Stone. Unlike a Christian marriage pagan rites extended beyond the grave.

It would be wrong to judge Gow's actions with modern yardsticks, after 250 years we can afford to be charitable and thankful that he brought a splash of colour to our past, even if it was blood red.

The Ocean, in its ceaseless ebb and flow,

Still chants its ancient and unending psalm

About Orcadia, as long ago,

It crooned its song, in tempest or in calm,

By many a holm, and clett and reef and stack,

The sea doth fret itself, and chafes to night.

While over Hoy's high hills, night gathers black,

And all the sea washed isles are fringed with white,

And days are gone, and times are changing now,

But bad old, sad old memories linger long.

"The evil that men do lives after them"

Oh, sad and tragic was the end of Gow,

Whose memory lives in legend and in song,

Now let him rest, nor blame him, nor condemn.

Henry Henderson, "The Bard of Reay"

Buldoo, Reay. 25th September, 1913.


Fea A. The Real Captain Cleveland Secker 1912
  Official Guide to Caithness   1937
Mackay J. Illustrated Guide to Orkney and Shetland   c. 1907
Gunn J. The Orkney Book Nelson 1909
Shearer, Groundwater & Mackay The New Orkney Book Nelson 1966

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