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Window On The Forth

Window On The Forth

Book excerpt

Chapter One: Fleets in the Forth

The fifteenth century saw the culmination of dramatic improvements in North European shipbuilding technology. For centuries, men had built clinker-fashion, with one plank overlapping the next, but now ships could be constructed with the hull planks meeting flush. The number of masts that vessels carried had also multiplied from one to three, with square sails on the foremast and mainmast, and a lateen sail on the mizzen. The new type of vessel thus created was known as a caravel or carvel; she was lighter in weight, and broader of beam than the previous clinker built craft, and she pointed her bowsprit toward a new, worldwide horizon.

Perhaps her high poop and clumsy forecastle would make her ungainly to modern eyes, but caravels were the cutting edge of maritime technology in their day. As far back as the thirteenth century, Portuguese fishing caravelas had pushed out into the broad Atlantic, but not until the middle of the fifteenth did the caravels of Iberia, equipped with the newly created compass, plough uncharted sea roads to find unknown peoples, novel cultures and distant continents. It was the carvel that first opened up the oceans to European navigators and nothing would ever be the same again.

Brightest in Iberia, light from this new nautical dawn filtered to the remotest coasts of Europe and eventually to Scotland. Blessed with a long seacoast, Scotland was a maritime nation seemingly without ambition; her sea masters followed established trade routes to Europe and her fishermen rarely left the stormy security of her own shores. After generations of trade with the Low Countries, the Scottish colony in Bruges had its own church in which the congregation erected an altar to St Ninian, Scotland's first saint, and supported a chaplain to say masses for the welfare of seamen's souls. In 1467 the parliament of James III established tolls on freight money to support this cause, with every ship with a cargo of more than one hundred tons paying the Scots chaplain at Bruges one sack of goods, while ships with less than one hundred tons parted with half a sack. Such seemed the extent of Scotland's nautical aspiration.

However Scotland is a land of surprises, and once her seamen learned of the carvels, they quickly adopted them. Scotland moved forward in maritime skills. In 1448 Alexander Wallace of Leith skippered a carvel to East Anglia and proved the worth of his ship when he captured a vessel from Hastings. In the 1450s Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews built Salvador, described as a 'ship the biggest that had been seen to sail upon the ocean'. Around 1455 an inventory of the port of Sluys numbered seventy-two ships, of which six were Scottish and the largest, at 500 tons, belonged to the Bishop of St Andrews. It is likely that this ship was Salvador; a forerunner of the shipbuilding skills that were to astonish the world.

But even bishops must bow to the gods of the ocean, and in 1474 a storm drove Salvador onto the shore of Northumberland. The locals, delighted with the sea’s bounty, swarmed to the beach, full of the joys of pillage. If the Abbot of Inchcolm, passenger on board, expected his Holy Orders to protect him from the English habit of kidnap and ransom, he was disappointed, but other travellers and other vessels were equally at risk in that era of habitual piracy.

Two years later King Edward IV of England was apologising to King James III of Scots and offering restitution for Scottish losses to the frequent English raiders. Two of the known instances saw the English Lord Grey pirate the trading vessel of Sir John Colquhoun of Luss, while a ship belonging to the Duke of Gloucester had captured the king's own Yellow Carvel.

Aware of the problems faced by his seamen, James III ordered two galleys to counter English piracy. Despite the high price of £300 paid for these vessels, Scotland required more to prevent English peace-time raiding.   The English appeared to relish the challenge for in the summer of 1481 they sailed to the Forth and pirated eight vessels. The Scots did not sit idly by, however, and gathered a fleet from Leith to remove this infestation on the firth. There are few surviving details, but the English appear to have been chased away after burning Blackness. Perhaps this raid was the final catalyst for a Scottish nautical revival, for Renaissance Scotland was about to produce a generation of seamen whose name rustle down the centuries like the mainsail of a carvel hoisted for a long ocean voyage.

Admiral of the Scottish Sea

There was William Todrig; Captain Merrimonth and Captain Brownhill; Andrew, John and Robert Barton; William Paterson and Andrew Wood. Between them, this band of Forth seamen carried the Saltire to high prominence from the Baltic to the Azores and for a few golden years, neither pirate nor English raider could safely dare the seas off Scotland. The most prominent, or the best remembered, of these men were the Barton family of Leith and Sir Andrew Wood of Kirkton of Largo in Fife. It was Scotland's first nautical golden age.

By the late fifteenth century, Leith was the Queen of the Scottish ports with Andrew Wood's Flower riding proudly among the shipping that clustered along the Shore where the Water of Leith meets the Forth. The Kirkgate was the principal thoroughfare, a street thronged with merchants and skippers, wrights and labourers, sailmakers, artisans and craftsmen. Wood based himself in this centre of Scottish nautical activity, in a house nearly opposite that of the Barton clan. Not a seagull's cry away was St Mary's Church, recently built and significantly containing an altar to St Barbara, the patron saint of gunners.

After their disputed raid of 1481, the following year saw another English fleet venturing to the Forth, with Lord Howard and Sir Thomas Fulford in command; this time the Scots were waiting. Great sails billowing, the carvels would push out from Leith, and there would be gunfire and choking smoke in the Forth, harsh cries of fighting men and the flash of sun on Leith axes. With naval gunnery in its infancy, warships still preferred to grapple and board, so the multi-pronged hooks would fasten onto taffrail and bulwark as war trumpets rallied the battling sailors. It is unfortunate that there are no details of the encounter but the raiders were sent home with some loss, and Andrew Wood was, at least partially, responsible.

Acknowledging the part that Wood had played, in March 1483 King James III granted him a feu charter of the lands and village of Lower Largo in Eastern Fife. There was more reason than mere generosity in this grant, for the king had stationed his best seaman at the entrance to his main trading area, with a clear outlook on the shipping and a vested interest in preventing piracy. Yet for all his new prestige, Wood had not been born to command; he had gone to sea as an apprentice, clambering through the hawsehole to rise to become master and owner of Flower. Soon Andrew Wood would also charter the royal vessel, Yellow Carvel, so recently captured by the English. Knighted by the king and perhaps still in his mid-twenties, Andrew Wood skippered Flower on voyages to the Low Countries, Scotland's longstanding trading partner. His reputation as a seaman continued to grow, and when rebellion flared a few years later, Wood was to prove one of the king's most loyal servants.

Although history has affixed a turbulent reputation on Scotland, the country was not unduly prone to major civil war. However, on this occasion, the lands north of Forth mainly supported the king while the central Lowlands and Borders opposed him. The rebels used the teenage Prince James as a figurehead to justify their attack on the Crown with Andrew Wood's ships between the two forces, controlling the Firth of Forth. When the rebellion ended in the king's defeat and murder at Sauchieburn, Wood was powerless to intervene as his ships could not alter the course of a land battle. Tradition claims, however, that the seamen of Flower took some wounded royalists aboard. Tradition also claims that after the battle Wood was taken to see the victorious, and very youthful, Prince James.

'Sir; have you my father?' The young prince is reported to have asked.

'Sir, I have not your father' Sir Andrew replied 'but would to God he were on my ship, I would keep him skaithless.' (Unharmed)

Perhaps the prince was impressed. Certainly, he lost no time in befriending the loyal mariner.

Quick to take advantage of the perceived weakness of a nation with a minor on the throne, an English squadron of five ships struck out for the Forth. It seemed that the bad old days had returned when defenceless merchant shipping ran before the concentrated firepower of the pirates. The experienced English raiders took a heavy toll until Sir Andrew Wood with Flower and Yellow Carvel sailed to counter them. Tradition states that the rival squadrons met off Dunbar, where today the gaunt red shell of the castle boasts a colony of squawking kittiwakes and the nearby nuclear power station sits in surprising harmony with the coast.

With the odds so unequal Wood had to fight hard, and it is possible to picture the battle scenes. Although Wood's vessels carried cannon, the balls were too light to inflict serious damage, so while swivel guns fired onto enemy decks, the crews gathered to close and board. There would be bloody action with grappling hooks, pikes and swords, crewmen roaring murder beneath the swaying masts while the Saltire and the Cross of St George hung limply in the yellow smoke. Again the vicious axe of Leith with its long staff and wicked hook would engage in bloody slaughter. Perhaps time has sepia-tinted these old battles, but the fighting was in deadly earnest, the pain of wounds as acute, and the blood as raw and red, as in any similar terrorist attack of today.

On land, crowds lined the coast to cheer what they could see of the battle. Blood sports were the norm at that period, and what higher sport than man against man with death or captivity to the loser and a ship-full of goods for the victor? Eventually, the Scots gained the upper hand, and brought all five English pirate ships into Leith, to the delight of the persevering folk of that sunny port.

The English, however, are renowned for their refusal to admit defeat and Henry VII allegedly offered huge rewards to anybody who could restore what he probably thought was the proper order of things. According to the story, Stephen Bull came forward to put the Scots back in their place. Bull was a Londoner, reputedly one of the most notable captains of his time and he handpicked the crews for his three powerful ships. He had crossbowmen for the fighting tops, pike men to combat the formidable Leith axes and mariners experienced in vicious affrays in the Narrow Seas. He also knew he would face Andrew Wood. The English captain was no pirate out for easy prey but a hard fighting seaman hoping to defeat an enemy of his king.

Arriving off the Forth when Andrew Wood was trading in Flanders, Bull took up position in the lee of the Isle of May, captured a local fishing boat and forced the crew aloft to look out for his enemy. When two ships rounded St Abbs Head, the fishermen confirmed that they were Wood's Yellow Carvel and Flower, no doubt adding their own opinion of the outcome of the impending conflict. It was then that Bull did something that may already have been a nautical tradition. He called together his officers and drank a toast. The Scottish historian Pitscottie, who wrote colourfully and perhaps not always accurately, put this action more picturesquely, stating that Bull 'gart peirse the wyne and drank a toast with all his skippers and captains…' before clearing his ships for action.

Wood might have been surprised when an Englishman ambushed him in Scottish waters, but as a fighting seaman, he was probably used to such encounters. No doubt he had the cannon quickly manned, but crossbows, fireballs and pots of blinding quicklime were more suited to fifteenth- century sea warfare. With these weapons in the fighting tops and boarding pikes and two handed swords waiting on deck, Wood’s crew prepared for action. The men would be tense as the rival ships closed, weather battered sails pushing them over the sea, gulls screaming astern and the wind a constant howl through the rigging. Perhaps somebody prayed, fingering his rosary beads, maybe a man cursed; an officer would snap orders to bring his vessel closer to the wind while the savage cliffs of May Island and the hills of Fife loomed on the starboard bow.

At this period seamen had not yet experienced the joys of West Indian rum so that wine was the standard nautical tipple. In an action strikingly and perhaps suspiciously similar to his opponent, Sir Andrew Wood 'caussit to fill the wyne and everie man drank to wther' (caused to fill the wine and every man drank to another). Then the crews ran to their stations, ready to face this enemy who was so much like themselves. As the sun rose, the rival squadrons squared up, weather-battered ships rising and swaying on the blue chops of the firth. The Scots had the advantage of the easterly wind, but their cannons were outranged so when the more powerful English guns opened fire they could not retaliate. With shot screaming over his ship and raising tall columns of water nearby, Wood put on all sail to close with the enemy. His men would have to endure a length of time under fire before they could utilise the hand-held weapons they knew so well.

Two ships against three, all manned with veterans who were eager to fight while overhead flapped the serene blue and white Saltire and the bold red cross of St George. Grappling hooks flickered, thumped onto English oak, onto Scottish decks and yelling seamen clashed with sword and boarding pike. Crossbow bolts hummed, quicklime showered agonisingly, but the English were picked fighting men, and they far outnumbered the Scots. The battle continued all that day, ceased out of exhaustion at night and restarted in the pale of dawn as trumpets blared to rally the battered crews.

With the ships locked together by grappling hooks and the fighting so intense that the seamen failed to notice spectators crowding the coast, the ships drifted north into the Firth of Tay where the sandbanks proved a natural defence. The English vessels, with their deeper draught, ran aground and were unable to manoeuvre as Wood's crewmen attacked. Stuck in the sand as the tide ebbed, the English surrendered. The Scots towed all three of their vessels into Dundee, and Sir Andrew Wood handed Bull to James IV, who chivalrously sent him home to England. After all, there was official peace between the two realms.

Next year, 1491, the king allowed Wood to build a castle on his lands at Largo, and from here he kept watch over the Forth. Although Stephen Bull had been speedily repatriated, his crewmen were less fortunate. Wood employed them in hacking out a canal that stretched from the Kirkton of Largo to his castle and only when the work was complete were the men returned home. It is still possible to trace the indentation on the ground.

That sea battle was perhaps the high point of Wood's career, but he was to sail again on the king's business, as well as on his own. In 1495 he was in Hebridean waters with Flower as King James took a fleet to daunt the proud chiefs of the west. Nine years later he was back when the king bombarded the fortress of Cairn Na Burgh in the Treshnish islands during the rebellion of Donald Dubh and visited his surprisingly loyal subject MacIain of Ardnamurchan. But in 1506 it was William Brownhill who accompanied the Earl of Huntly to the western seas, and the Barton family did not recruit Wood in their private feud with the maritime might of Portugal. Nor did Wood take part in the campaign in the Baltic to aid King Hans of Denmark, while it was Andrew Barton who cleared the North Sea of Dutch pirates.

Despite this apparent neglect, when the king built the great Michael at Newhaven, Andrew Wood was in overall charge of the construction. Michael was a huge ship with a hull strong enough to withstand shot from heavy cannon. With Wood in command, great things might have been achieved, but when she sailed from the Forth, Wood was not even aboard. Social status, it seemed, had superseded both sense and experience. However Sir Andrew Wood lived to a well-earned retirement. On his devout journeys from his castle at Largo to the local church, eight members of his old crew rowed his barge along the canal his prisoners had dug. Rather than the perverse waves of the North Sea, it was the fertile countryside of Fife that witnessed Wood's last voyages, but even in old age, Andrew Wood had both character and style.

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