Margaret Calder had married her merchant husband and moved to Orkney from Caithness in September, 1699. Husband, William, had bought a tenement and land lying between the hill and the shore at Stromness. There William built a small stone jetty where the couple brought up their young family and made a good living trading with merchant ships. During the summer ships belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company would call into the harbour to buy provisions, take on water and also young men to work for the company, before embarking on the Atlantic crossing. Those same ships called weeks later on their trip back to London full of furs which had been traded for beads, blankets and provisions with the native people of Rupert’s Land. Ships of discovery anchored in the bay. Margaret and her children longed for their return. Would that elusive passage between the oceans ever be found? Ships bound for the Baltic were frequent visitors. Sailing ships could be anchored in the bay for days, even weeks, waiting for favourable weather and sea conditions.
Margaret’s children grew up among the busy clamour, listening to tales of far off lands and adventure.
But Margaret’s young lad, in his teenage years, had been a scoundrel. He had an eye for the lasses, and this led to trouble. His father sent him to relations in Caithness, but eventually Margaret and her man heard the youth had gone off on a ship bound for who knew where.
In mid January, 1725, from her kitchen window, Margaret spied a rather tired looking merchant ship arrive in the bay of Hamnavoe. It dropped anchor. Margaret was boiling clapshot. She wiped the tiny, steamy gable-end window with her peenie and peered through the rumpled glass. A small boat was dropped from the stern of the ship into the sea. Two men clambered down into it and rowed towards the shore. Margaret wiped the window again and sat in the driftwood chair. There was something familiar about the tall man - the back of the head and the shoulders. He looked over his shoulder as the boat came close to the jetty. Margaret shrieked with excitement and ran outside. It really was him! Her son, John, now a man, climbed the stone steps to where she waited. She hugged him and wiped her eyes. She was so proud. He had been gone for years. Only the shortest of notes and odd bits of news from passing seamen had been her contact with him. Here he was; finely dressed, and captain, he told her, of his own ship!
Margaret sat the men down. She listened to their story. They were on passage from Cadiz bound for Stockholm and Dantzick. Held up with bad weather they had now missed their chance to sail through the sound as it would now be frozen over. They took the opportunity for their master to come to his home port. Here, at Stromness, the crew would careen the ship while they waited.
Margaret’s mind was busy. She’d show the whole of Orkney her son, the captain. Lists of gentry names and ideas came to mind. She even bustled her son off out the door back to his ship with a cloth of fresh scones. Arrangements had to be made.
As Gow’s ship, the George, lay at anchor, the crew were seen cleaning the hull. Its captain traded with a Scots vessel; beeswax and copper for brandy. And with a Swedish ship they traded more of their beeswax and copper, this time, for rope.
The captain and two senior members of his crew were pleased to attend dinner parties among the wealthiest homes in the neighbourhood. Margaret’s arrangements had gone well. The small town was pleased to welcome this son of their prominent merchant back home; the runaway who had come home with his pockets filled. To return the courtesy, invitations to join the lavish revelry on board the George were delivered.
Margaret sent word to her married daughter in the nearby parish of Orphir. She duly arrived with her 14 year old son, William, and his father, Henry Clouston. Margaret and her daughter waited proudly on the jetty as they watched Henry row back alone from a visit to the George. He was smiling. The captain, the boy’s uncle, was happy to take the lad on board his ship. He had assured the father that he would see the boy was well cared for and instructed in seamanship. William would become a captain some day too, he was sure. The proud parents took their leave of Margaret and headed off home, pleased that their son would have such a great start in life.
Some days later, Margaret’s morning chores were interrupted when she heard excited voices at the end of her house at the head of the jetty. The old men of the town were in the habit of holding court there around eleven every morning but Sundays. Captain Watt, off the ship, Margaret, at anchor close by the George, climbed the steps from his small boat. Convinced that he had recognised one of two of his crew who had deserted his ship in Amsterdam, he had boarded their ship, the George, to enquire after them. But the master of the George had denied all knowledge of the two. His face had reddened, however, when a cabin boy overheard the men’s talk and had reminded his master that the two were ashore but would be back soon. Watt had quite forcibly been shown off the George. He now held his audience in wonder.
“There’s something just not adding up around that ship,” he told the gathering crowd, “and she’s too heavily armed for what she makes out she is. Those boys on her are more interested in cleaning their guns and cutlasses than keeping a tidy ship. That ship, George, is no innocent merchantman.”
Margaret’s heart fluttered, but she dismissed it all as a misunderstanding. In these parts, where smuggling was winked at, the inhabitants of the town were usually none too critical or inquisitive. Besides, it was no uncommon thing for a merchant ship to be heavily armed. Times were insecure.
Two days later, Watt was back on the jetty. His audience was gathering. Margaret stood at her door round the corner and listened as Watt added his final chapter before leaving. He’d met one of the crew he had known before. The young man called Jamieson had come to him at the inn. Watt had tried to persuade the boy to leave on the Margaret with him, but the boy was too frightened. That crew had murdered before, the frightened boy had insisted. He was sure his master would set light to the Margaret if he was to escape on board her.
Margaret had had enough. Flailing her sweeping broom she ordered everyone off her jetty. “If ye’re no here to buy anything, be gone!”
Next morning Watt’s ship was gone. Margaret heard the old men talk. Before sailing Watt had been to the authorities and had left a letter relating his suspicions to be sent to the Commissioners of Customs in Edinburgh,
Margaret tried to contact her son, but he didn’t call by the jetty.
Rumours were rife. The laird at one of the estate houses where her son and his two companions had dined complained that some silver was missing. A farmer was missing some sheep. Henry Clouston rode over from Orphir and rowed out to the George to pick up his son and take him home. There he had been told the master was ashore and he was escorted off the ship. His son, William, was detained. No one, now, was allowed on board and two swivel guns were set up, ready for action, on the forecastle.
Margaret was fearful. Where was her son? Again rumours were about, this time that the young captain had run off with young, local lass.
It all became worse. The jetty became a focus for the scandal mongers. The latest news was that one of the crew, Robert Reid, while ashore on an errand, had deserted and headed for the country. He had told a wild tale of murder and robbery. Again Margaret stepped from her kitchen and ordered everyone who was not at her door on business off the jetty.
But that same afternoon young Helen Gordon, the minister’s daughter, came crying to her door. Margaret could hardly believe the girl’s story. She was now betrothed to the young captain, against all he father’s wishes. She had run to the ancient stone circle of Stenness with the handsome captain and pledged her troth by linking hands through the sacred Odin Stone. But she was now homeless as her new husband had joined his ship which was preparing to sail.
Margaret took the lass in and the two watched, helpless and confused, as the ship raised its anchor and departed from the bay before dark.
The following morning Margaret’s rather sheltered life changed forever. At 5a.m. husband, William Gow, rose to answer the urgent banging at their door. Henry Clouston brought the news that Honeyman’s estate house at Clestrain had been robbed by their son John and his pirate crew. The whole story of the ship and the murders had been related to the authorities in Kirkwall by Reid. Kirkwall was arming itself against attack from the ship. There was word too from Caithness where ten of the crew who had escaped in the George’s longboat several days back had tried to turn themselves over to the authorities.
Margaret’s distraught daughter arrived during the morning. Her son had been taken by force she cried. “There are others too,” she sobbed. “Bella Craigie’s son and some boys from the north isles. They are all gone.”
Helen Gordon, John’s new wife took to her bed in Margaret’s house. She refused to go home with her father who raged on the jetty. “It’s no real marriage,” he roared, “just a silly pagan tradition held at that damned Viking stone. Come home with me now, away from these folk.” But she would not.
Margaret and Helen, together, tried to believe all of this was none of John’s doing. But as the weeks passed the news which reached them became worse worse.
John’s ship, a pirate ship, which he had named the Revenge, had sailed round to Orkney’s north isles, the crew intent on robbing more country estate homes. On the shore in full view of one of these mansion houses, the pirate, John Gow, and his crew had run aground. Every man and cabin boy were taken prisoner and held until a man of war ship, specially sent to Orkney for the prisoners, would transport them all to Marshalsea Prison, London to await trial. Margaret endured the news that her son was to be tried for murder and piracy. The murder was that of his former captain and some of his crew. The piracy charge was for the capture and plunder of four ships taken off the coast of Africa and Portugal last September.
By late May, Margaret and Helen knew that their dear John Gow would be tried in the Old Bailey, London. They duly arranged passage on a merchant ship bound for Leith. Margaret was sick every day, all day, but Helen was much stronger and cared for the miserable, suddenly very elderly, lady. They eventually reached London by carriage on June 12th, the day after the condemned pirates, including their beloved John, had been hung in the Thames at Execution Dock, Wapping. At Margaret’s insistence, Helen waited for the tide to rise covering the hanging bodies and then drop for the third time since the hanging and, as her husband’s body was lowered
from the gibbet, Helen stepped into the mud and touched his hand. For as tradition would have it, this act now freed her from their betrothal to remarry if she ever wished. The two women held each other in the rain other as the bodies were removed. They climbed the stone stairs from that miserable place to embark on their long journey home to Orkney.
The body of John Gow was then tarred to be hung in the river estuary as a warning to would-be pirates.
Tapestry: Echoes of Hamnavoe by Tapestry Artist, Leila Thomson, Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, Orkney.
By kind permission of owners Tim and Jenny Barthorpe.
Hanging engraving from ‘Most Notorious Pirates’ by Captain Charles Johnson