THE PIRATE GOW
In writing “The Pirate” Sir Walter Scott drew on memories of two weeks spent in Orkney and Shetland in 1814 as one of a party of Commissioners for the Northern Lighthouse Service. As well as taking the opportunity to learn much of the physical features, economy, superstitions and manners of the islands, Scott had heard the tale of the ‘Orkney Pirate’ John Gow.
Pursued by the authorities and running low on supplies, Gow had returned home to Orkney to lie low for a period. There he had assumed the part of ‘Mr Smith’, a respectable, prosperous trader, and, in that capacity, courted a Miss Gordon. Eventually, however, Gow was recognised by the captain of a visiting merchant vessel, and the alarm was raised. His cover blown, Gow attacked the house of a local landowner, carrying off valuables, and abducting two maidservants. An unsuccessful attack on a second Orkney mansion led to Gow’s arrest and subsequent execution.
Many elements of Gow’s story appear, transformed, in Scott’s “The Pirate”. What follows is the “advertisement prefixed to the work”.
FREEMAN’S JOURNAL 27TH DECEMBER 1821
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 bandits, 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 Clesiron, formed the plan of securing the buccaneer, 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 Calf sound, on the Island of Eday, 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 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 has 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.
The common account of this incident further bears, that Mr. Fea, the spirited individual, by whose exertions Gow’s career of inquiry 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 gallantry 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.