Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Round Three and Knockout: Schooner Days MCLXXXVII (1187)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 25 Sep 1954
Full Text
Round Three and Knockout
Schooner Days MCLXXXVII (1187)

by C. H. J. Snider

In the Orkneys, 1725

Schooner Days' visit last July to the scene of the debacle of the long-dead pirate who signed himself "JNO. GOW SMITH" found the locality exactly as it was two centuries ago — from Carrick House, which the pirate came to attack, to the white beach across Calf Sound where his intended victim trapped him. In the high northern latitude of the Orkneys everything seems changeless, though all the actors in this vivid drama have been dust for two centuries.

"WE are all dead men!" shrieked John Gow, the pirate captain, when he got his Revenge ashore at the top of the tide here on the Calf of Eday, 229 years ago last February.

Right for once was this bloody pirate. On June 11, Gow and his lieutenant, James Williams, and seven of his ruffian crew were dangling from halters in Execution Dock.

From the angle at which the Revenge lay, that 15th of February, 1725, hard and fast on the rocks of the Calf, her eighteen guns gaping through her deck ports were as innocuous as the fourteen others hoarded in her hold. Not one of them, could be brought to bear upon Carrick House across the water, Gow's intended target. This was now the fortress from which James Fea, the laird whom Gow had come to plunder. War destroying the pirate piecemeal. Fea had already captured Gow's only boat and his boatswain and four men. He was still outnumbered 23 to 6, and outgunned 32 to nothing. But he was sober and the pirates not. He had them at his mercy now, on an empty islet whence there was no way of escape, unless they made a raft. Calf Sound with its tidal currents was too strong and too cold for the wildest desperado to swim in February, though it was only a quarter, of a mile across at the narrows.

In spite of the gale of Sunday, St. Valentine's Day, Fea's friends had answered his alarm fires, and by Monday morning, Feb. 15th Fea's brother John was back with their cousin James Fea of Whitehall, William Scollay of Odness, both Stronsay gentlemen, and Fea's uncle, Jerome Dennison of Warsatter. They came well armed, and they did not come alone. Their retainers who rowed them across from their island fastnesses were good men of their hands.

So when Gow, playing his last card, hung out a flag of truce from his stranded ship on Monday morning Fea promptly sent a boat across: the Sound with six well armed men in it. Fea thought Gow was ready to surrender. Knowing the shiftiness of the pirate he penned a careful letter which left that course open to him. He did not know that Gow still had hope of turning the tables.

Fea sent William Scollay of Odin's Ness, or Odness, over with the armed boat to deliver to the solitary white flag bearer his second letter. It was dated to the hour much like the first, of the preceding Saturday—"Carrick, 15th February, 10 of the cloack, mattin, 1725." It recited the fate of the five pirates who had been captured, and mentioned "friggats sent to catch you." The letter went on:

"I therefore for the regaird I have to your father's son, being heartily sorry for you that you should be ingagd with such a crew, desire you to come to shoar, and believe you may expect better entertainment from me than any other; for if you doe surrender you can be evidence against the rest.... Take this as a friendly caution, and if you take not my advice you'll certainly repent it. This in friendship from


Fea meant what he said at this time. All that Scollay brought back was Gow's letter written the night before, offering the thousand pounds for assistance. Thinking that Gow might be prevented by his men from reading the communication of the morning, or from replying to it, Fea sent Scollay back four hours later with another letter, coaxing Gow to "come on shoar" with his carpenter, both unarmed, implying that thus he might get Fea's salt boat, which was capable of carrying "two lasts" or about 9,000 lbs.; certainly large enough to lighten the Revenge and carry her anchor out for heaving off.

To this Gow replied in two letters, rather pitiable. He addressed them "to the honoured Mr. James Fea of Clestrain Honrd. Sir;" and protested: "I have wronged noe man, nor taken anything but what I have paid for. My design in coming was to make the country the better, qch [which] I am still capable to doe, providing you are just to me ... now at your mercie I cannot surrender myself prisoner; I'd rather commit myself to the mercie of the seas; so yt if you'd incline to contribute to my escape, shall leave the ship and cargoe at your disposal. I continue earnestly begging your assistance, honoured Sir."

He asked for a conference, but when Fea crossed over Gow did not present himself, but sent a messenger with a present of a bottle of his precious brandy for Mrs. Fea and letters begging her intercession for him. To make matters worse, Fea saw five of the pirates sneaking around the rocks, armed with Spanish guns presumably for his destruction.

This hardened him against Gow. He scornfully rejected his present and his message, and appointed another meeting on the open beach, with Gow and his carpenter. He warned Gow of the peril of his soul, and made no promises of safety for his body. When Gow kept the "date" next day, armed only with his sword, he promptly arrested him, without violence. Murphy the carpenter, who had accompanied Gow, quickly surrendered to save his neck and encouraged another pirate to do the same.

Snider, C. H. J.
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Item Type
Date of Publication
25 Sep 1954
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Geographic Coverage
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 59.23341 Longitude: -2.75109
Richard Palmer
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Round Three and Knockout: Schooner Days MCLXXXVII (1187)