The purpose of the following Narrative is to give a detailed and accurate account of certain remarkable incidents which took place in the Orkney Islands, concerning which the more imperfect traditions and mutilated records of the country only tell us the following erroneous particulars:—
In the month of January, 1724-5, a vessel, called the Revenge, bearing twenty large guns, and six smaller, commanded by John Gow, or Goffe, or Smith, came to the Orkney Islands, and was discovered to be a pirate, by various acts of insolence and villainy committed by the crew. These were for some time submitted to, the inhabitants of these remote islands not possessing arms nor means of resistance; and so bold was the Captain of these banditti, that he not only came ashore, and gave dancing parties in the village of Stromness, but before his real character was discovered, engaged the affections, and received the troth-plight, of a young lady possessed of some property. A patriotic individual, James Fea, younger of Clestron, formed the plan of securing the buccanier, which he effected by a mixture of courage and address, in consequence chiefly of Gow’s vessel having gone on shore near the harbour of Calfsound, on the Island of Eda, not far distant from a house then inhabited by Mr. Fea. In the various stratagems by which Mr. Fea contrived finally, at the peril of his life, (they being well armed and desperate,) to make the whole pirates his prisoners, he was much aided by Mr. James Laing, the grandfather of the late Malcolm Laing, Esq., the acute and ingenious historian of Scotland during the 17th century.
Gow, and others of his crew, suffered, by sentence of the High Court of Admiralty, the punishment their crimes had long deserved. He conducted himself with great audacity when before the Court; and, from an account of the matter by an eye-witness, seems to have been subjected to some unusual severities, in order to compel him to plead. The words are these: “John Gow would not plead, for which he was brought to the bar, and the Judge ordered that his thumbs should be squeezed by two men, with a whip-cord, till it did break; and then it should be doubled, till it did again break, and then laid threefold, and that the executioners should pull with their whole strength; which sentence Gow endured with a great deal of boldness.” The next morning, (27th May, 1725,) when he had seen the terrible preparations for pressing him to death, his courage gave way, and he told the Marshal of Court, that he would not have given so much trouble, had he been assured of not being hanged in chains. He was then tried, condemned, and executed, with others of his crew.
It is said, that the lady whose affections Gow had engaged, went up to London to see him before his death, and that, arriving too late, she had the courage to request a sight of his dead body; and then, touching the hand of the corpse, she formally resumed the troth-plight which she had bestowed. Without going through this ceremony, she could not, according to the superstition of the country, have escaped a visit from the ghost of her departed lover, in the event of her bestowing upon any living suitor the faith which she had plighted to the dead. This part of the legend may serve as a curious commentary on the fine Scottish ballad, which begins,
“There came a ghost to Margaret’s door,” &c.a
The common account of this incident farther bears, that Mr. Fea, the spirited individual by whose exertions Gow’s career of iniquity was cut short, was so far from receiving any reward from Government, that he could not obtain even countenance enough to protect him against a variety of sham suits, raised against him by Newgate solicitors, who acted in the name of Gow, and others of the pirate crew; and the various expenses, vexatious prosecutions, and other legal consequences, in which his gallant exploit involved him, utterly ruined his fortune, and his family; making his memory a notable example to all who shall in future take pirates on their own authority.
It is to be supposed, for the honour of George the First’s Government, that the last circumstance, as well as the dates, and other particulars of the commonly received story, are inaccurate, since they will be found totally irreconcilable with the following veracious narrative, compiled from materials to which he himself alone has had access, by
The Author of Waverley.
a p. xxix. “There came a ghost to Margaret’s door.” In some versions of “Clerk Saunders” the lady’s troth is “streeked” on a rod of glass, and so she and the ghost are freed from their plighted love. — A.L.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00