Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Round One in Battle of Brains: Schooner Days MCLXXXIII (1183)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 28 Aug 1954
Full Text
Round One in Battle of Brains
Schooner Days MCLXXXIII (1183)

by C. H. J. Snider

In Orkney, 1725

We broke off last week at the beginning of the battle of brains between John Gow the Orkney pirate and James Fea of Carrick House in the island of Eday, the school days friend whom Gow came to rob of all he possessed. Gow got his ship, into a mess opposite Fea's manor house, and had to ask his intended victim to lend him a large boat, to help get her clear, before he could go on with his nefarious project. He brazenly sent the only boat he had left, to Carrick House with a deceitful message.

THROUGH his telescope Gow watched the tiny yawlboat reach the shore above Carrick House, half a mile away. The five cutthroats in it he saw welcomed by someone who gesticulated, and after some parley was taken aboard. The overloaded boat began to pull back to the Revenge.

James Laing, merchant, of Calf Sound, a brother-in-law of Fea's had met the pirates before they had a chance to land. He had told them he had an urgent message in his hand for their captain, concerning the health of the lady of the manor, and that before any assistance could be given this must be answered.

"Tell him yourself," snarled Belbin the pirate boatswain, "and see how he likes it."

To the surprise of the pirates Laing insisted on being rowed cross to the Revenge immediately, and bravely jumped into the boat. He gave Gow a letter from Fea dated "Carrick, Saturday 13th, 10 Mattin of the cloak, Feb. 1725." In it Fea "intreated upon old acquaintance" his forbearing the customary courtesies of a salute of cannon, because his lady was in a highly nervous condition, but "you shall not want my assistance so far as honor can allow me."

"Fool!" snorted the pirate captain—but to himself. "He means he has no guns, so please don't shoot! I won't—before I have your longboat and your men, and your money, my old school chum — And your lady wife, if she's as good looking as when she made faces at me in the old days!"

To Laing he was all politeness. He said he would write to no one, but he had a thousand guineas for his old friend if he would persuade his frightened people to bring over boats immediately. So back across the Sound Mr. Laing was ferried.

Back to the Revenge hurried the yawl after landing him. It was noon now, and grog was of course served every time the sun crossed the yardarm.

FEA had seen through Gow while the latter was roistering in Stromness and making love to Sheinah Gordon and her fortune. It was his hint to the magistrates, as well as the desertion of the longboat and crew, which had driven the Revenge to sea, half-cleaned and unballasted, two days before.

Fea had not expected that he himself would be Gow's next victim. He had sent all the men he felt he could spare to defend Kirkwall, the Orcadian capital, where the drums were beating and the batteries were manned and the militia mustered, in anticipation of Gow's holding the town up for ransom. Only six men were left in Eday when this ship load of pirates suddenly appeared.

Fea kept his head. He dispatched his brother John to get what help he could 4 from Shapinsay, Westray, Sanday and Stronsay, islands within sight, but hours away by water, and to implore two cannon to be sent from Kirkwall, twenty miles away. With his force thus reduced to five he had to hold out till that help came. He had to play for time. He had gained this much — the pirate was from some accident not yet ready to ply his thirty-two guns on Carrick House, and required assistance to move his marauding ship.

Fea had not known of the desertion of a third of the crew, but he could see that Gow had lost his longboat, and Laing's report of the pumps going and scuppers gushing seawater assured a respite, however brief. Fea hid all his own oars and sails and stove in his big fishboat, and ran her into the water to conceal her before the pirate's next move.

GOW waited impatiently for signs of succor from his schoolmate, and when the short February day was falling into sub-polar twilight he sent his only boat back with the same five scoundrels in it — Belbin the boatswain, Robb, Macaulay, Moore and Punton — this time all doubly armed and primed with liquor.

Fea received the blustering pirates blandly. When they demanded shovels to scoop the water out of the damaged fishboat which they had discovered, he pointed out that the falling tide would leave less water for them to bail if they would only wait. He genially led them up to the change-house for refreshment in preparation for their arduous toil.

While one of his farm hands hid the pirates' oars, Fea "refreshed" the drunken swine till it was quite dark. Then he said his lady wife might now be well enough to receive a visit, at least from one of so "jovial a countenance" as the boatswain, and proposed an adjournment to his own house, where the liquor was much better.

The flattered boatswain gathered up his four pistols from the table and stuffed them into his sash without, unfortunately, disemboweling himself. He never traveled without these barkers, he hiccupped. Fea applauded. He steered him into a prepared ambush, near Carrick House, threw him to the ground, gagged him with one of his own pistols, and left him, trussed like a fowl, in the cow stable.

Substituting his handkerchief for the pistol gag he distributed the captured artillery among his four helpers, and went back to the change-house.

Here the remaining pirates were making merry so noisily that they had not heard Belbin's strangled howls for help. They were quickly overpowered. One snapped a pistol at Fea, bringing down the doghead so hard that Fea was wounded in the hand. Perhaps it is his blood, not Gow's which this narrator saw in the stain in the floor below the parlor window in Carrick House this summer; a stain which two and a half centuries' scrubbing has not been able to remove.

Snider, C. H. J.
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Date of Publication
28 Aug 1954
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 59.23341 Longitude: -2.75109
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 58.98479 Longitude: -2.95873
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 59.25 Longitude: -2.58333
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 59.05 Longitude: -2.88333
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 59.11667 Longitude: -2.61667
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 59.2985 Longitude: -2.95704
Richard Palmer
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Round One in Battle of Brains: Schooner Days MCLXXXIII (1183)