The Capture of John Gow

Gow was probably the only one on board the Revenge with an understanding of navigation, but thought it prudent to take on a man named Pottinger, in Stromness, to see them through the currents and reefs of the North Isles of Orkney. The ship was in need of ballast and it was intended to take this on board where they anchored to sack James Fea VI of Clestrain's estate at Carrick.

There is a strong tide race through the narrows of Calfsound between Eday and the Calf of Eday. It may be that Pottinger was intoxicated. Anyway, the ship was in danger of going ashore and the anchor dropped. It did not hold sufficiently and the ship grounded some half mile from Carrick but on the opposite shore, on the Calf of Eday

Advance warning had been received some ten hours earlier of the arrival of the pirate by William Traill, a Kirkwall merchant, and it was around ten o'clock in the morning that the ship was seen coming.

James Fea drafted a letter to send with James Laing, merchant in Calfsound to John Gow on board the ship giving friendly greetings and offering to help to the extent that he was able.

While this was taking place, James Fea ordered all the big boats in the area to have their sails removed and the smaller ones to have their oars hidden. James Laing came back around noon with the word that John Gow would write to nobody but offered a reward for the provision of assistance.

Gow waited in vain, as James Fea had no intention of providing any. Around five o'clock Gow must have become impatient as a boat was seen coming from the ship with five heavily armed men. James Fea kept only one or two men with him and approached unarmed. Discussions took place in which Fea gave some evasive replies. He suggested that they might discuss the situation further at the inn some distance to the east of Carrick House. This was agreed to and, before entering Fea indicated to one of his men that after the lapse of a quarter of an hour he should be called with the message that he "should be called to his lady." This was done and Fea requested the five pirates to be patient until his return.

It is to be envisaged that a fair amount of ale was consumed. Fea arranged for an ambush as the party returned to their ships. Having second thoughts, he managed to separate out the boatswain from the rest of the group by flattery. Through a variety of subterfuge and some shots being fired, the group were taken. James Fea got a small wound in the hand.

A request was sent to Kirkwall for two cannon to be made ready for action against Gow's ship. Assistance was also requested from Sanday, Stronsay and Westray, the nearest islands to Eday. Beacons were also lit the hills to spread the alarm.

There were no hostilities next day, Sunday 14th February 1725. In the evening, the wind shifted to WNW and Gow ordered the sails to be set as this should carry the ship out into the open sea. Unfortunately, the timing of cutting the cable was misjudged and it happened at the instant that the ship's prow was pointing directly at shore. She drove ashore on the Calf of Eday at the highest point of the tide with little hope of being refloated. At half tide, the crew could easily get ashore.

A white flag was hoisted on Monday 15th February 1725 by those on board the Revenge. Assuming that this was a surrender, a boat was prepared to take six armed men to the ship. James Fea wrote another letter to John Gow, which was taken by William Scollay.

He returned with a letter from Gow and a correspondence then ensued between James Fea and Gow. John Gow stressed that a promise had been made of assistance and offered twenty pence a day for the assistance of each of Fea's men. Fea indicated that his men would not go without arms. He mentions that he has a salt boat which might be of use if Gow were to come ashore himself, with a carpenter to help repair it.

Between three and four o'clock in the afternoon, William Scollay returned with another two letters from John Gow in reply to the last two written by James Fea. Gow apologies for the "irregular proceedings" of his men who had acted contrary to his orders. He says that he cannot surrender himself as a prisoner and would "rather commit myself to the mercie of the seas." In the second, he expressed gratitude for the offer of assistance and offers to contribute more to Fea's advantage than if they were shipwrecked.

The letters were carefully thought out by both men. Both men mistrusted the other. A wrong move and the other would have seized the advantage.

It was agreed that if Gow would go to a particular spot, some distance from the ship, James Fea would make contact with him across the narrow sound by means of a speaking trumpet. James Fea had a man stationed on the roof of Carrick house and to signal with him by flag the number of any men landing on the Calf of Eday from the ship and going with Gow, in case they were to be surprised. Four men were seen running back towards the ship and a signal was made for Fea to beat a retreat back to Clestrain.

Further overtures were made by Gow. A messenger with a flag of truce was sent over in the direction of Carrick with a bundle, a bottle and a glass. However, this also proved to be a ruse. Further letters followed between the two men. These manoeuvres were suspended as darkness fell on 16th February. Gow was left uncertain how his letters would be responded to.

The tone of Fea's letter on the morning of 17th February 1725 has changed from the initial letters to Gow. This reflects the changed positions of the parties. Gow is called upon to repent and turn to the Lord. James Fea states that this is the last letter which Gow will receive.

The letter was to be carried by William Scollay, accompanied by James's cousin, James Fea of Whitehall and five others, all armed. Gow himself went to meet them at the decided place and a man with a white flag waited some distance away.

The party had been instructed not to enter into discussion with Gow. In the event, the letter of rebuke seemed rather vague and James Fea of Whitehall, who had been looking after it decided not to hand it over. They had been instructed to take Gow, dead of alive. The cousins may not have been entirely in agreement for instead of taking advantage of Gow's singular position, Whitehall fell in with Gow's suggestion that William Scollay should go as a hostage on board the Revenge. He would be released on Gow's safe return from discussions.

James Fea, seeing what was going on, now approached Gow, who had returned having seen Scollay to the Revenge as a hostage. Fea immediately informed Gow that he was a prisoner, which Gow protested was impossible as he had just taken Scollay as a hostage. This he justified on the grounds that he had given no instructions that Scollay should be allowed to be taken as a hostage. Gow had, of course, not received the last letter written by James but not delivered by his cousin in which he stated that he dare not allow Gow a hostage.

Once Gow had read the letter, now produced by James Fea of Whitehall, he accepted James Fea was not responsible and that it was in his best interests to send for Scollay from the Revenge.

Once Scollay had returned, James Fea disarmed Gow of his sword. The other crew members of the Revenge were eventually taken. By seven o'clock in the evening of 17th February, they had all left the ship.

Letters from Kirkwall to Edinburgh on 20th February announced the capture of the pirates and that the were "laid in irons at Clestrane, till orders come from the Government about them."

Gow was taken to London and the examination of the prisoners began on 2nd April 1725.