True Highlands Blog
Trace your finger over a map of the Hebrides and the old Gaelic names will tell you a story. They are but one reminder of our rich and bloody maritime past. For example, the original name for Longay Island off Skye is Long Spùinnidh – Pirate Ship, while the hidden natural harbour on the west coast of Rona is known as Port nan Robaireann or Harbour of the Thieves. The swashbuckling tales from these islands could rival any Hollywood movie for colourful villains, robbery, betrayal and buried treasure.
Ruaraidh MacNeil from Barra was a notorious pirate of the west coast, famous for raiding as far away as Ireland and had a penchant for attacking English vessels in particular. He was also known as Ruaraidh an Tartair (Rory the Turbulent) but it is not known if this refers to his temper or proclivity for putting to sea in any weather. His home at Kisimul Castle was said to be adorned with the finest silks thieved from merchant ships and the cellar stocked with Europe’s best wines. There is even a story that he had his favourite steeds shod in gold horseshoes made from melted down booty. As clan chief, MacNeil was also a popular leader who even operated a basic form of social security. He would replace cows his tenants had lost by misfortune and would take into his own household those who became too old to support themselves. Eventually MacNeil’s love of robbing the English escalated to a point where Queen Elizabeth I offered a handsome reward for his capture. When this failed to work she demanded action from King James VI of Scotland. As is often the case, alcohol and treachery would eventually lead to his capture. Lured aboard a galley for a dram, he was locked up then swiftly transported to Edinburgh under cover of darkness by an agent of the king. Facing the death penalty in Edinburgh he was asked why in particular he targeted English vessels. He answered that he thought himself bound by his loyalty to avenge, by every means in his power, the fate of his majesty’s mother (Mary Queen of Scots), so cruelly put to death by the queen of England. A sympathetic court fell for this story and pardoned him, but not before stripping him of all his lands and assets.
Peter Love from the Isle of Man was one of the most famous pirates of the era and one who found sanctuary in the Outer Hebrides. Lewis at the time was under threat of colonisation, first from the gentlemen adventurers of Fife sent by James VI to “civilize” the Outer Hebrides and eradicate Gaelic culture, then afterwards by Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail who was granted a commission of fire and sword by the government. A key opponent of this would be Neil Macleod or Niall Odhar, a local freedom fighter or a bandit, depending on whose side you were on. In Macleod, Love found a kindred spirit, a rebel like him with an absolute hatred of authority. Their friendship and business arrangement would turn out to be lucrative for both. From Macleod’s stronghold on the island of Bearasaigh, just opposite Bosta beach, Love would plunder passing vessels with impunity. So close did the pair become that Love was engaged to marry Macleod’s niece. Was there honour among thieves? Certainly not in this case. In order to effect a pardon for himself, Macleod eventually turned on his allay, stole his gold and handed him over to the authorities. Love and his crew were subsequently hanged from the docks in Leith, described in the press of the time as “wicked impes of the devil”.
Macleod never actually got his pardon and perhaps unsurprisingly (and fittingly) he was himself betrayed by a kinsman and turned over to the crown. He was hanged only a few years later for high treason. But maybe that’s not quite the end of the story. Legend goes that the gold retrieved from Love’s ship was so plentiful that it was shared out among the clan with each member able to fill a helmet. Two clansmen, fearful of arrest by the authorities buried their shares on the hill overlooking Bosta. One was found by an unsuspecting crofter in the 18th century and traded to an Irish traveller for a pair of shoes. The other is still unclaimed.
White slavery remains a little researched part of Scottish history. During the 17th century more than 7000 Scottish Covenanters were “barbadoed” by the crown. These political prisoners were exiled to overseas colonies hungry for cheap labour and frequently worked to death. They were nicknamed redlegs because their pasty skin burned in the tropical sun as they toiled on the plantations in their kilts. Redlegs Greaves was, you might argue an inevitable by-product of this brutal regime. Orphaned by the death of his parents while still indentured, he escaped a cruel owner by swimming across Carlisle Bay. Stowing away on a merchant vessel it soon became apparent that he was actually aboard a pirate ship and so he did swear his oath of allegiance, take up with the crew and serve his piratical apprenticeship. At some point it is recorded that Greaves killed his captain in a duel and thus did take command of the vessel. An incredibly lucrative period of plunder, looting and robbery followed making him one of the most notorious pirates in the Caribbean, his time as a slave influencing his unorthodox regime where prisoners were actually treated humanely and poor coastal villages were spared.
An attempt to retire and live a quiet life was scuppered when a former victim identified him and he was arrested, tried and was awaiting execution in Port Royal jail in Jamaica when he was miraculously saved by an act of divine vengeance. That is how the clergy of the time referred to the earthquake and tidal wave of the 7th June 1692 which completely flattened what was known as the wickedest place on earth. This hive of villainy, cutthroats, and prostitution was devastated, with only a handful of people escaping alive. Red legs was one of the lucky few (possibly his incarceration meant he was the only sober person in the town). Picked up by a passing whaling ship a few days later he joined the crew and would, in a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper gain a pardon for protecting them from piratical attack. He lived to be a ripe old age, as a plantation owner and philanthropist. The impoverished descendants of the original covenanter slaves still live on Barbados today.
John Gow was born in Caithness and started his career as a merchant seaman based out of Orkney before piracy beckoned. After a mutiny on board the George Galley in 1724 Gow killed the captain and took command of the ship. Renaming the vessel the Revenge, he would go on to terrorise the west coast, attacking vessels from as far away as the Iberian Peninsula all the way to Shetland. For years his notorious escapades would solidify his legend until in a rare lapse of judgement, whether driven by hubris or homesickness he would return home. Disguising himself as a merchant he married a local girl in the traditional way by linking hands through the Odin stone. He used his appearance of respectability to case out the stately homes of the island’s richest inhabitants which he though would be easy targets. The authorities became suspicious after one of his crewmen was identified and after attempting to flee his ship was grounded on Eday necessitating his surrender.
Gow was transported to London but refused to plead at his subsequent trial. To change his mind, his thumbs were “bound together and squeezed with whipcord.” When that failed to work, he was 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 and convicted at the Old Bailey, he was sentenced to hang at Execution Dock at Wapping on 11 June 1725. The Newgate Calendar, the monthly bulletin of executions reported at the time that Gow was slow to die when he hanged. To relieve his pain, some of his friends pulled at his legs, but this just broke the rope, causing him to tumble to the ground, from where he was gathered up and hanged again. After his death, his body was displayed by the Thames as a reminder to others of what would happen to those following in his footsteps.
It is hard to judge these characters outside of their time, especially as none can be described as completely good or bad. For those who embraced the pirate life, through necessity, greed or vengeance it was often good fortune rather than wickedness that would determine who got the noose and who didn’t. But ultimately, would a true pirate want it any other way?Tags: 17th century history, gaelic history, maritime history, Outer Hebrides, pirate stories, pirates of the caribbean, scottish history, scottish pirates, seadog stories, white slavery