The Thurot Scares


French corsair and naval officer François Thurot.


‘The Gallant Action off the Isle of Man where the brave Captain Elliott defeated Thurot 28th of February 1760’. The action took place off Bishop’s Court between Captain Elliott and the French Captain Thurot the former smuggler with connections to the Isle of Man. The picture was published in 1780 by James Mocgowan and William Davies.

In 1756 a new conflict, eventually known to history as the Seven Years War, broke out between Britain and France. For Britain’s main ally, Frederick the Great of Prussia, it was largely a war of conquest against his enemy, Austria. For the British it was a colonial war in which the French would be driven from India after Clive’s great victory at Plassey, and from North America after Wolfe captured Quebec. Scotland was a long way from the centres of action and saw no fighting, but Edinburgh, Glasgow and even the tiny port of Irvine figured in the calculations of French strategists.

The French seaman who menaced Scottish waters in this war was Captain François Thurot, whose career oscillated between the Marine Royale and privateering, with spells as a smuggler and an ill-qualified surgeon. He left the privateer port of St Malo in July 1757 in his flagship, the 36-gun Maréchal de Belle-Isle, accompanied by three other ships. He knew that the waters round Scotland, Ireland and the north of England were thinly guarded by the Royal Navy and on 5 October, after many adventures and several near encounters with the Royal Navy, he anchored with his two remaining ships near Banff in the Moray Firth, causing consternation. The burgh court was convened under the Provost, who suggested evacuation of the town. One of the bailies wanted to buy the attackers off with a ransom, to which the Provost objected that this would require hostages while the money was raised. The assembly suggested the Provost himself, while he nominated the bailie who had made the suggestion. Fortunately the weather intervened before a decision was reached. During the night the anchor cables of one ship, the Chauvelin, broke and she drifted off to sea. The Belle-Isle went off to look for her and Banff, Cullen and Findhorn were safe.

The Belle-Isle never found the Chauvelin but continued northwards, and two days later she arrived off Shetland and anchored in Symbister Voe on Whalsay. Captain Thurot, who spoke fluent if inaccurate English, made contact with the laird, John Bruce Stewart: ‘I have occasion for some beeves, sheep, bread, meal and other trifles which I shall be obliged to you and your people to supply me with. If you do it friendly, I shall pay the price you expect, but if you refuse, you can’t take it that I furnish myself according to the Rules of Warr.’ The laird was indeed friendly and supplied him with wine, bread and flour, as well as four sheep and some poultry. Thurot carried out some repairs to his ship and sailed on to Bergen in Norway.8 In August he sailed round the north of Scotland, narrowly missing four British warships off Shetland. By the beginning of September he was in the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland, where he captured several ships including the Henry of 18 guns, carrying sugar from the West Indies to Glasgow. Having attracted attention to his activities, he retreated to the Faroes and then back to Dunkirk via Bergen and Ostend.

During the campaign of 1759, Thurot was cast as a minor player on a much larger stage. Many plans for the invasion of Britain were produced in France, some by Jacobite exiles who remained optimistic about a rising in Scotland. The most serious plan, however, was produced by the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, Thurot’s patron and the Minister for War. The French Navy was smaller than the British (125 ships of the line against 57) but the British were dispersed around the world and it was hoped that a sudden concentration would give the French naval superiority in northern Europe. The main thrust of the invasion would take place at Maldon in Essex, where the French army would be less than 40 miles from London.

A secondary invasion would be launched from Brest and other ports of Brittany. A powerful force of 35 to 40 ships of the line would be collected by merging the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets. It would sail with transport ships carrying 20,000 troops under the Duc d’Aigullon and pass round the west coast of Ireland and through the North Channel into the Firth of Clyde. The troops would land near Irvine and march to Glasgow and then Edinburgh. Meanwhile the ships would sail on round the north of Scotland to Dunkirk, where they would support the invasion of England.

Thurot’s task was to act as a decoy for this operation. His instructions, soon leaked to the British, were to attack the important but weakly defended English ports of Bristol or Newcastle, or failing that, another port in England or Ireland. The French King, influenced by exiles, still believed that the Scots might prove friendly and he was not to attack there. He left Dunkirk in September 1759 with six ships led by the Maréchal de Belle-Isle. He carried around 1,300 troops in addition to the crews of the ships. He sailed north and called at Gothenburg in Sweden and at the Faroe Islands for repairs and replenishment.

As part of the response to this threat, Commodore William Boys was sent north in his flagship, the new 50-gun ship Preston, with seven other ships, and he arrived in Leith Roads on 26 October. On a sweep north he received intelligence from local provosts and collectors of customs at Peterhead, Aberdeen and other towns, but since there was no regular naval presence in Scotland, he found the supply situation rather difficult. As a result one Walter Scott was appointed naval officer, that is, a civilian supply officer, at Leith. By this time Boys had heard a report that Thurot had gone back to Dunkirk, which he regarded with justifiable scepticism. On 21 December, having news of Thurot being in Bergen and no orders from London, he held a council of war among his captains and it was decided to stay on the Scottish coast, which was otherwise completely unguarded against enemy attack. One of his ships, the Surprise, sailed south with a convoy on the 27th, but Boys remained at Leith until March 1760.

In the meantime Thurot sailed south from the Faroes, passing St Kilda, and arrived at Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland. In mid February he sailed into Claggain Bay on the south coast of Islay, again looking for supplies, as his men were reduced to four ounces of bread per day. If he hoped for Jacobite support it was unlikely in such solid Campbell country.

By this time the French Mediterranean Fleet had attempted to sail to Brest, and was defeated off Lagos in Portugal by Admiral Boscawen. At Islay, Thurot heard the news of a much more decisive defeat, when the Atlantic Fleet under Admiral Conflans sailed from Brest and was chased into Quiberon Bay by the British admiral, Edward Hawke. In a dramatic action fought in a full gale, the French lost five ships, while seven more were forced to retreat up the River Vilaine, where they were effectively stranded for months. There was no prospect of launching Belle-Isle’s invasion and the shores of Ayrshire would never see the French fleet.

Disappointed at the news, Thurot decided to carry on with his mission. He landed several hundred troops on Islay to take supplies, though he insisted on paying for them in accordance with his orders not to treat the Scots as enemies, and even punished an officer who stole money from a local gentleman. He captured a ship called the Ingram, carrying salt and oranges from Lisbon to Glasgow. He went on to Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland and then towards the Isle of Man. Off County Down his remaining three ships met a British squadron and were defeated. Thurot was killed.

Though it had no tactical effects of any significance, Thurot’s campaign showed up the weakness of the Scottish defences and this would remain an issue in politics for the next sixty years. Moreover, it came at a time when Edinburgh intellectuals, led by such figures as Adam Smith, David Hume and Joseph Black, were turning their attention to constitutional and military affairs. In such circles a part-time militia which would be mobilised only in wartime for home defence seemed an ideal military force, cheaper than a standing army, less likely to threaten civil liberties and under the influence of the county gentry rather than the central government. The militia had been re-established in England by Act of Parliament in 1757. Why not in Scotland? Despite the massive intellectual weight behind it and the support of many town councils, the campaign was not a success in this war or the next, if only because it was opposed by those who might be liable to service by selective conscription, or would have to find expensive ways of evading it.


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