Notorious Pirates of the Highlands

Lydia Kendall

Hello my lovely lads and lasses,

Who would have thought that Scotland, and most specifically the Highlands, would have any form of piracy? Well, they actually did! 

That’s where I drew the inspiration for my latest novel, “Captured by a Highland Pirate”. Scotland has some notorious tales of piracy to tell, and it all started from the very beginning…Vikings! 

Vikings-Scottish Pirates

Spùinneadair-mara (spoo-nuder mara) in Gaelic means plunderer, spoiler, or robber on the sea. Or simply, pirate. Not a lot is known about the earliest Scottish pirates. A few things here and there, such as a name (e.g. Alan of the Straws), or a little bit of information about them (he lived in Torloisk on the Isle of Mull). 

The earliest record of piracy was back in 617. Some pirates, presumably Vikings, who also could have been a band of female warriors from Loch nam Ban Móra, attacked a monastery on the island of Eigg. Legend has it, that the founder of the monastery, who was celebrating mass with another 55 monks, kindly asked the pirates to let them finish the mass before anything else. The pirates respected that, and after mass ended, they beheaded everyone. That man was Saint Donnan. 

Thormod Thasramr, whose aliases included Thormod Foal’s-leg and Uspak the Hebridean, plundered the Hebrides during the summer months with twelve longships.  He and his men took anything made of silver and coins.  He also pillaged a sacred Norse island.  When he returned to Norway, the bishops censured him for his piracy.

William Kidd – the most famous Scottish pirate

Born in Greenock in 1645, he won the favour of the British establishment when he began targeting French ships. However, many modern historians deem his piracy reputation unjust. 

In the beginning of his career, he usually attacked French settlements and ships, and since Britain and France were at war at the time, he was awarded for it. But because his men were not, and he was kind of a dictatorial figure, his crew staged a mutiny, and took Kidd’s ship and his reward money, and sailed for New York. Kidd tried to follow them on a borrowed ship, but lost their trail when arriving in New York. Instead, he chose to settle down and marry a rich widow in 1691 and became an important member of society, as well as a sea captain with a good reputation.

However, Kidd didn’t stay in New York for long. He set sail for London aboard the Antigua in 1695 with the hope of gaining an officer’s commission in the Royal Navy or command of a privateer.  All his attempts failed, but he managed to find a connection with an Earl and a powerful Whig, who urged Kidd to become a privateer in charge of suppressing piracy. But how did his reputation of a pirate come from, then?

First of all, Kidd failed to salute a ship of the Royal Navy, as was the custom, and his crew even made derivative salutes towards the ship, which resulted in his ship being stopped, and many of his manpower enrolled to the Navy. When he tried to enlist new members in his crew, nobody would agree to his terms, so he wrote a new contract. However, these articles of agreement were akin to those signed by pirates rather than sailors sailing under letters of marque.  To complicate matters further, the Royal Navy was suspicious of private warships like the Adventure Galley, in part because they competed for prizes, and the English East India Company despised Kidd’s venture because he was their rival.  

Kidd was declared a pirate very early in his voyage by a Royal Navy officer, to whom he had promised “thirty men or so”. Kidd sailed away during the night to preserve his crew, rather than subject them to Royal Navy impressment. After learning of his sentence, he tried to return to New York under a different ship, but was eventually (after over a year) sent to England for questioning by Parliament. 

The new Tory ministry hoped to use Kidd as a tool to discredit the Whigs who had backed him, but Kidd refused to give names, naively confident his patrons would reward his loyalty by interceding on his behalf. There is speculation that he probably would have been spared had he talked. Finding Kidd politically useless, the Tory leaders sent him to stand trial before the High Court of Admiralty in London, for the charges of piracy on high seas.

Captain William Kidd was either one of the most notorious pirates in the history of the world, or one of its most unjustly vilified and prosecuted privateers…

“Red Legs” Greaves

He was a Scotsman living in the Caribbean and the West Indies in 1670. His nickname came from the term Redlegs used to refer to the class of poor whites that lived in colonial Barbados some of which took to wearing the Kilt for everyday attire, hence the red legs.

While he was generally a notorious pirate, especially after his raid on Margarita Island in the mid-1670s, he became infamous after his escape from Port Royal prison during an earthquake June 7, 1692.

After both his parents and his first master died, Greaves was sold to another master, who was said to be very violent, and kept hitting him. To avoid his punishments, he managed to swim across Carlisle Bay, stowing away on a ship preparing to leave Barbados. Although he assumed the vessel was a merchant ship on its way to a far off port, the ship was actually a pirate ship commanded by a Captain Hawkins.

Greaves was forced to enter the crew, but ended up resenting Hawkins, both for forcing him to enroll in the crew, and for his violence against the prisoners. The both of them eventually fought a duel, where Greaves killed Hawkins and was elected by the crew to succeed Hawkins as captain.

Accepting their request, Greaves rewrote the Ship’s Articles, specifically prohibiting the mistreatment of prisoners and allowing the surrender of merchant captains during battle. Throughout the decade, Greaves found great success as well as gained a reputation as an honorable captain widely known for his humane treatment of prisoners and never participating in the raiding of poor coastal villages.

Around 1675, he captured the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela. After capturing the local Spanish fleet, he used their guns against the coastal defences and successfully stormed the town. After taking a large amount of pearls and gold, he soon left without looting the town, or harming the inhabitants.

Greaves was found guilty of piracy and, despite his reputation, no leniency was shown towards him and he was sentenced to be hanged in chains. While imprisoned in the prison dungeon of Port Royal to await his execution, the town was submerged by an earthquake in 1692. With Greaves one of the few survivors eventually picked up by a whaling ship.

In gratitude, he joined the crew of the whaling ship and later became a pirate hunter, eventually earning a royal pardon for his efforts in the capture of a pirate ship which had been raiding local whaling fleets.

After his pardon, he again retired to a plantation and became known as a philanthropist in his later years, donating much of his wealth to various island charities and public works before his death of natural causes.

Barbary Corsair – one of the last Scottish Pirates

Born Peter Lisle (or Lyle) in Perth, he became the Grand Admiral of Tripoli’s navy and Bashaw Yusuf’s son-in-law. He converted to Islam in 1796, but prior to that he sailed upon The Betsy, an American schooner, which he later became captain of. He displayed the national flags of ships he captured in the order in which he regarded them; the American flag held the lowest rank.

In 1803 he led the boarding party that captured the USS Philadelphia after it was grounded on a sand bar in Tripoli’s harbor.  When he questioned the captured Americans, now slaves, about William Bainbridge, he wanted to know whether their captain was a coward or a traitor.  The sailors defended Bainbridge, to which Murad Reis replied, “Who with a frigate of 44 guns, and 300 men, would strike his colours to one solitary gunboat, must surely be one or the other.”

Lyle, who may have had a wife and five children in London prior to his “turning Turk,” was “a ‘slight’ man, of ‘indifferent morals,’ with a blondish beard, a foul temper, and an above-average thirst for hard liquor.  Reports of his drunken, violent behavior-such as beating servants or cursing strangers–often bobbed up in consular reports.”  Around 1816, he engineered a vicious attack on the American consul to Tripoli, Richard B. Jones.  To satisfy the Americans, the bashaw banished Lyle for three years.  On his return, Lyle resumed his position as Grand Admiral.  

He died in 1832 when a cannon ball hit him during a failed coup. A tragic death for a proud Scotsman…

What did you think of those pirates, my lads and lasses? Would you like to sail with any of them?

Let me know in the comments!

Until next time…

Written by Lydia Kendall

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