- Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 14 Aug 1954
- Full Text
- REVENGE on RampageSchooner Days MCXXIII (1173)
by C. H. J. Snider
In the Orkneys, 1725
BRISTLING with cannon on the morning of an ill-omened 13th of February, the pirate ship REVENGE came boring into the Sound which separates the Island of Eday from her Calf. Leaches shaking and reefpoints drumming, her topsails swelled and puffed out with the strong south wind like the gin-bloated eyelids of her bloodstained commander.
Johnny Gow, alias "Captain John Smith," strode her murder-scarred -quarterdeck, full of treasons, stratagems and spoils, and in exceeding bad temper.
He had stolen this ship, murdered the captain, mate, supercargo, and surgeon, kidnapped the crew and gone a-pirating. But it was not conscience that irked him this morning. Baffled greed, instead. This was the day fixed for his wedding — and here was the pirate bridegroom plowing fruitless furrows in the cold salt sea, farther and farther away from the expected bliss of a willing and wealthy bride and her father's fortune.
After raging like a sea lion among traffic on the coasts of Spain and sinking five ships Gow had achieved his gullet's desire, a whole shipload of wine. After that the pirates never drew a sober breath. Masquerading his own barque and himself as a prosperous merchantman Gow had steered his plunder towards of all places, his boyhood home, a thousand miles away in the Orkneys. It was at Stromness, where he had gone to school, where his father's steading was still known as Gow's Garden. Everybody there remembered Johnny Gow running away to sea, with all the girls running after him. But with alcoholic cunning, when he came back after ten years, he had announced himself as Captain John Smith, managing master of a richly laden ship from the south for Stockholm merchants. She needed, he explained, cleaning of tropic barnacles and an overhaul, before going on to Sweden.
Kirkwall, royal burgh and capital of the Orkneys, with an earl's castle and a bishop's palace, exacted customs tolls. Stromness, near by, welcomed all sorts of queer fish and was a popular port for smugglers. There few questions were asked or answered and names seldom meant what they sounded like. "Needful repairs" and "stress of weather" were hints that honest merchants might do a bit of business with cargo which would never see the customs' shed.
So Gow had a galley painted in red on the Revenge's square stern and beneath it a new name, George, Galley", to divert suspicion from the 32 guns, most of them plundered from prizes, and the number of crew he carried. He had twice as many men as a merchantman of 160 to 200 tons would/feed, unless she had to man oars in perilous waters, and yet he was trying to recruit more men for this mythical voyage to Sweden. He had forbidden his crew on pain of death to mention the rightful name of the stolen ship, which was the Caroline, of Jersey in the Channel Islands, or the name Revenge which he himself had bombastically bestowed upon her. She was to be the George, Galley.
Stromness merchants did not ask any embarrassing questions of an old town boy who chose to translate his Gaelic name of Gow into its English equivalent, Smith. He appeared to be rich, with bargains to bestow on those who knew a good thing. He was lavish with plunder, wine and nuts and foreign fruit to those who called entertained board, and he entertained handsomely on shore, with dances and banquets and and traded judiciously with the cargo he had found in the Caroline or taken into her from captured vessels.
Thus Gow learned how much everyone was with in Orkney - and how easy to rob. He also plighted troth with an heiress of the Gordon family with whom he had gone to school.
As a "made man," Gow readily won the consent of her father, who had bluntly rejected him seven years before "until ye have a gude ship o' yer ain." The engagement, made secretly, was announced publicly, with the wedding to follow shortly on St. Valentine' s Eve.
Today was the 13th, the unlucky 13 of February.
Night before last, while the disguised pirate was matching bumpers with the magnates of Stromness (and estimating the value of the rings on their fingers and the watches in their pockets) one third of the Revenge's kidnapped crew had made off with the ships' big longboats.
Sober though he seldom was, Gow knew what that meant, "Old Squaretoes," - the King's Navy would be in Stromness as soon as the runaways 'told their tale. Although his ship, but half cleaned, was not ready for sea, and he had only a little jollyboat left, he weighed as soon as there was water, and put out. Before Stromness knew he had gone he was plundering his recent guests homes in the nearby isles.
One great house was robbed of its plate and burned to the ground. His gang carried off three women from another, forcing a frightened piper to play them to the boat and drown the women's screams for help. They left a mother dead on the beach after pleading for the release of her daughters.
Unable to pause longer, Gow had sailed north for Eday, where his old school mate James Fea of Clestrain was now a "warm man."
Fea had married' another of Gow's school day inamoratti, the richest girl in the Orkneys. Richer than Sheenah Gordon. He was now snug in Carrick House on Calf Sound, with a manor farm and a fishery in Eday, and 200 sheep fattening annually on the Calf of Eday across the narrow strait. His cellar would be full of wine and his pillow stuffed with golden guinea.
The pot-valiant pirate licked gin-blistered lips as he thought of plundering a school room rival-of gold, wine, wife and home. If he shot Fea and burnt the place down and carried off the girl who made faces at him in class why it would only be compensation for his cursed ill luck losing in one day a bride and a fortune and a long boat at Stromness, all through those scoundrelly deserters! Again Gow cursed them with all the curses in a pirates' locker.
Gow tried always to lay the blame on others. With characteristic craft he put a young Orcadian at the helm as they now approached Calf Sound. Not yet 27 himself and having been to sea for half his life Gow knew the Orkneys better than any other isles in the ocean. Yet he put this lad, who had been tricked into joining the pirates at Stromness, at the critical post on the excuse of his having been born in the isles, so as to be able to blame him if anything went wrong.
How this worked out will be told in the next chapter. Schooner Days was at the "scene of the crime" only last month and is in a position to tell last month and is in a position to tell exactly what happened to the pirate there.
- Snider, C. H. J.
- Media Type
- Item Type
- Date of Publication
- 14 Aug 1954
- Language of Item
- Geographic Coverage
Scotland, United Kingdom
Latitude: 59.23333 Longitude: -2.73333
Scotland, United Kingdom
Latitude: 58.98479 Longitude: -2.95873
Scotland, United Kingdom
Latitude: 58.96528 Longitude: -3.29251
- Richard Palmer
- Creative Commons licence
- [more details]
- Copyright Statement
- Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
- Maritime History of the Great LakesEmail:firstname.lastname@example.org