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Pirates And Pickled Heads

Pirates And Pickled Heads

Book excerpt


Scotland has an intimate connection with the sea. Such a fact is not surprising as she has a mainland coastline of over 6,000 miles, and another 4,000 miles of island coast, compared to a land border with England of only 108 miles. Indeed, given that the southern, land border was often closed through bloody war, historical Scotland was nearly an island nation.

From before recorded history, people have arrived in what is now Scotland by water, either as colonists or invaders. Romans galleys pulled past her coasts, the Gaels crossed from Ireland with the sword and the Cross, while Norsemen brought fire, slaughter and their superbly flexible longships from which evolved the Hebridean birlinn. English warships blockaded the coast and sometimes fell victim to their Scottish counterparts, pirates eased out from Scottish harbours on the west and east coast, whaling ships dared the frozen north, and traders crossed and recrossed the North Sea and headed south and west across the Atlantic and all points beyond.

Scottish trade with the Baltic, the Netherlands and France extends back at least to the Middle Ages, and from the seventeenth century, Scottish ships began to probe beyond European waters. The French sought out Scottish shipbuilding skills in the thirteenth century, and by the nineteenth Scotland was building much of the world’s shipping. From the great Michael, the flagship of King James IV, to Cutty Sark and the stupendous Queen Elizabeth, Scotland created some of the finest ships ever to kiss the sea.

Dundee was the world’s greatest jute city and Europe’s most important whaling port, Aberdeen dominated the trawling industry, Leith was Scotland’s royal port while Glasgow was Scotland’s busiest. By the nineteenth century, men from the Northern Isles and the Hebrides were found in every ocean in the world. Scottish fishermen have scoured the seas from Greenland to the Bay of Biscay and from the White Sea to the Scillies, with herring ports such as Wick, Anstruther and Stornoway amongst the most active in Europe.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that Scotland should produce a plethora of maritime personalities and nautical stories. From her ports came adventurers and explorers, warriors and traders, smugglers and fishermen. All have had stories to tell, but most have been lost over time. Some, however, have been retained, either by accident or through deliberate recording. This small book recounts only a very few of Scotland’s tales of the sea.

The book is set out in four sections. Section one gives some Scottish maritime personalities, warriors, explorers, and an admiral and a couple of lesser-known but equally interesting people. Section two highlights some Scottish ships, and ships with a Scottish connection. Section three gives the often- neglected story of a few maritime places and section four highlights the piratical side of Scottish seafaring. The stories and articles within each section are stand-alone pieces. They are not in chronological order, but only placed as chance and my own instincts decided. The concentration on the east coast is purely because I was working there.

All in all, this book has no intention of appearing academic. Instead, it is an introduction to some aspects of the Scottish experience with the sea.


Section One: The Personalities

The sea is a hard mistress, and serving her creates hard men. The sea off Scotland is particularly brutal, with frequent storms, an iron-bound coast and waters that can vary from freezing to merely bitterly cold. As the east coast faces Europe, each port there has a long history of trade, while the Northern Isles, with their long association with Norway, have supplied some of the best seamen in the world to British ships. The west coast, with its ragged indentations and scattered islands, lived by the breath of the Atlantic Ocean and produced a race of maritime warriors unknown anywhere else in Scotland. One such was Somerled.


The Warrior: Somerled

They struck the Celtic coasts first, their dragon ships spewing the terrors of rape and pillage, slavery and murder on undefended villages and holy sites so that monks prayed for help. ‘From the wrath of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us.’ But there was little deliverance in the dark ages when Thor’s hammer descended on the Cross. Time and the gloss of Hollywood have removed most of the horror that the Hebrides endured when the Norse arrived, but to the people living under the scourge, there was no romance. A chain of relatively small, sparsely populated islands set on the sea-road between Scandinavia and the rich monasteries of Ireland, the Hebrides were a natural staging point and target, with the holy island of Iona a prize for any grasping Viking with a long sword and a short conscience. Some of the reality of the Norse experience can be ascertained by the words of Bjorn Cripplehand, court poet of Magnus Barelegs, who described that Norse king’s expedition to the Western Isles:


The hungry battle-birds were filled

In Skye with blood of foemen killed,

And wolves of Tiree’s lonely shore

Dyed red their hairy jaws in gore

The men of Mull were tired of flight;

The Scottish foemen would not fight

And many an island-girl’s wail

Was heard as through the isles we sail.


These words contain a jubilant acceptance of terror, violence and death, but while half of Western Europe cringed beneath the iron seamen of the North, and Arabs and Byzantines learned to fear the swordsmen of Odin, the people of Scotland did not submit tamely to the invader. Scottish history books often concentrate on resistance to English aggression, yet the Norse were equally merciless and occupied more of Scotland, and for a more extended period, than any Plantagenet or Tudor king. Indeed, so powerful was the Norse presence that at the beginning of the twelfth century the Hebridean population was at least part Norse and the islands looked set to be a permanent Norwegian dependency. And then Somerled MacGillebrigte appeared from the mists and hills of Argyll.

Somerled – the name is said to mean ‘summer sailor’ - is one of the significant figures in Scottish history and with him began a colourful chapter in Hebridean life. He was the father of dynasties, the Godhead of powerful clans, yet although he is looked on as a founding figure, he seems to have been from a line that had come to the Hebrides around the seventh century, so his roots were already five centuries deep in western Scotland.

Perhaps scholars can unravel the intricacies of Somerled’s past, and maybe they will dispute current theories as casually as waves toss driftwood onto a beach, but they can never remove his influence on the seaboard of the west. At some time in the past, Somerled’s forebears held a Hebridean lordship, until fortune turned its back and the lands slipped into the grasp of another. Somerled’s grandfather reclaimed the lands, by cunning, marriage or the sword, yet by Somerled’s time they were lost again and the summer sailor was left with a legacy of a glorious past, but nothing tangible save the salt sting of the sea. In all probability Somerled was part Norse himself, so when he began a campaign to regain his lost patrimony it was probably not through a feeling of Scottish or Hebridean nationalism, or as an anti-Norwegian campaign. He was a man of his time attempting to carve out a place for himself in the only way he knew how; by the sword and the clinker-built ship of the Western Ocean.

Legends attach themselves to Somerled like barnacles to the keel of a galley, including his method of finding a wife. He was attracted to Ragnhild, daughter of King Olaf of Man, who controlled many of the Hebridean islands that lay beyond the seaboard of Argyll. Somerled had long admired Ragnhild, but her father had rebuffed all his attempts to court her. However the two men remained on reasonably friendly terms, so when Olaf suggested that they gather their vessels and go on a cruise together, Somerled agreed. He had an ulterior motive, for, before setting out on the expedition, Somerled bored holes in the hull of Olaf’s galley, disguised his handiwork with tallow and hoped his scheme would succeed.

The two fleets sailed side by side through the western sea, their galleys surging over the long swell, oarsmen straining mightily to impress their rivals and the air filled with the call of seabirds and the aroma of sweating men. It was high summer, with the heat beating down on the ships, and gradually the tallow that filled the holes in Olaf’s galley began to melt. As they approached Ardnamurchan Point the last of the tallow disappeared, and the galley began to sink. When Olaf was in danger of drowning, Somerled steered close.

‘Do you need any help, Olaf?’ he bellowed across the narrowing gap, as the water level in the galley rose and already some of the men were tossing their weapons overboard and preparing to swim to the distant coast.

‘We’re sinking.’ Olaf stated the obvious. ‘Can we board your ship?’

‘Of course’ Somerled readily agreed, ‘if I can marry Ragnhild.’

Faced with a choice of marrying off his daughter to this vigorous young man or drowning, Olaf could only agree. The issue of their marriage was to have a profound influence on the history of Scotland, for the clans MacDonald, MacDougall and MacRuaridh all look on Somerled as their ultimate progenitor.

Although relatively secure in mainland Argyll, Somerled could only glare yearningly at the scattered islands of the Inner Hebrides where Olaf’s Norse still dominated. But while Somerled’s kinsmen the MacHeths were waging futile war against the Crown, one of Olaf’s nephews assassinated him. Olaf’s son Godred the Black, recently returned from Norway, disposed of his murdering cousins and took control of the Isles for himself. Probably used to the constant inter-family bickering of their self-stated betters, the Islesmen made no protest at these rapid changes, but when Godred began to act the despot, a man named Thorfinn harnessed their indignation truculence in a rebellion. It seemed natural to ask assistance from Somerled, and equally natural to offer the Kingship of the Isles to Dougall, son of Somerled and Ragnhild, and grandson of King Olaf.

Thorfinn acted as his guide and mentor on a tour of the Hebrides as Dougall accepted the allegiance of the island chiefs. Those who were not immediately agreeable to yet another change of leadership were introduced to the ranked warships of Somerled and Thorfinn. Most decided that they agreed with the new lord after all.

Godred, naturally, was not amused. Gathering his own fleet, he sailed north from Man to retake the Hebrides. He was Olaf’s son and heir; he had the better claim to the crown, he had right on his side, and with his galleys surging behind him, he also had the might. It was January 1156 when his longboats thrust northward through the Irish Sea, spindrift flying from their great curved prows, square sails taut with the pressure of the wind. Legend claims that Godred’s vessels followed the lines and style of the Norse dragonships, long and narrow, with a shallow draught and great flexibility. They were superb seagoing vessels, proved by centuries of voyaging and raiding from the Levant to Greenland and beyond.

It seems that Somerled’s ships were different, and had probably evolved to suit the waters of the Hebrides and western coast of Scotland. Termed the naibheag or nyvaig, little ship, they were smaller, probably handier, and their sternpost had a hinged rudder, a vast improvement on the old-style steering oar of the traditional longship. In the Seal of Islay, first used in 1175, there is what appears to be a fighting top on the single mast, which would be extremely useful in the hand-to-hand brawls that passed for sea battles at the time. Later representations have eight or nine ports on each side so, given two oarsmen to each oar and a further two to work the sail, one in the fighting top and the captain at the helm, each nyvaig could hold over forty men. Later Hebridean galleys carried three men at each oar so the number of men could have been higher. With each nyvaig possibly fifty feet long, so a fleet would be an impressive sight.

Somerled had fifty-eight of these vessels under his command when he mustered to meet Godred. Perhaps he left Dunyvaig, the fort of the little ships, in Islay, or Dunstaffnage near Oban, and headed south.

The two fleets met off the West Coast of Islay on the 6th January 1156. It is difficult to imagine the scene. A winter sea, perhaps green, with the wind flicking spindrift off curling crests and the ships rolling sickeningly as they sized each other up before locking in combat. There would be much yelling as champions on both sides shouted their defiance, and perhaps a pale sun reflected off the chain mail, spear-points and swords of heroes. Sails could be furled, men would swarm to the fighting tops, arrows could be loosed across the diminishing gap as the fleets closed, then the real madness began as Argyllmen and Hebridean clashed with the Manx and Norse. It would be a bloody, savage battle and Somerled won, forcing the Norsemen southward. Perhaps it is as well that there are no details, for all battles are terrible things, and there would be little mercy in the wild winter seas off Islay. But there was a treaty afterwards, and Somerled was left with all the islands south of Ardnamurchan, excluding Man itself, which, together with Skye and Lewis, was still held by Godred.

Now Somerled was supreme in Argyll and Lorne, and he controlled the islands from Islay to South Uist, Mull to Barra. Two years later he had to fight another sea battle off Islay to confirm his possessions, and this time the defeated Godred retreated all the way to Norway. When Godred’s pleas for help to the Kings of Scots, England and Norway were rejected, he knew that he had lost the Isles.

With Gaelic sea power controlling the islands, Gaelic culture could reassert itself after centuries of subjugation by the Norse. Bards and sennachies reassumed their positions or assumed openly the occupations they had been forced to hide. The Church was next. Somerled asked the Celtic Church to help him revive Iona, sadly declined since its great days as the light of Western Christianity.

It may have been this appeal to a church now based mainly in Ireland that upset Malcolm, King of Scots. Unhappy at Irish influence so close to home, he countered by removing Iona’s daughter foundations in Galloway and granting them to Holyrood Abbey, which deprived Iona of much-needed revenue. All Somerled could do was found Sadell Abbey in Kintyre, before concentrating on more worldly matters. To history, and perhaps to his peers, Somerled was known as Somerled, Re Innse Gall – Somerled, King of the Isles of the Foreigners, which is a resounding enough title for anybody, but unfortunately, it was not unconditionally held. The Celtic realms seem to have had a variety of degrees of kingship, and the mainland portion of Somerled’s dominion was held in vassalage to Malcolm, King of Scots. The King of Norway also technically owned the islands that Somerled had won by the sword and the nyvaig. Somerled may have termed himself as King, but in a time of feudalism, he had feudal superiors. Yet, whatever the legal technicalities, he was the de facto ruler of much of the west and as long as he lived, no foreign fleet disturbed his peace.

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