Battle of Oliwa 1627
Most Scots who sought martial fame in Europe did so on land but a considerable number also made a name for themselves at sea. This should come as no surprise for, in common with all the nations around the North Sea, the Scots have always been seafarers. Neither should it come as a surprise to learn that many were active as pirates or privateers, and it is a short step from piracy in one’s own interest to applying the same skills in the pay of a foreign monarch. In 1534 a Scots captain whose name remains unknown to us offered his services to Gustav Vasa of Sweden in conflict with the city of Lübeck over trade in the Baltic. In the War of the Three Crowns – between Lübeck, Denmark and Sweden – the four great ships of the Hanse city, the Angel, the Joshua, the Marian and the Eagle of Lübeck, the largest warship of the day, it is said, were defeated in a sea battle off Gotland in 1566.
Gustav Vasa was determined to build up his navy as well as his army, and he sought foreign assistance not only to man his ships but also to design and build them; Scotland was one of the places he looked to for this help. By the time the king died in 1560 he had some nineteen warships in his fleet. Erik XIV continued this naval development, with the principal aim of confronting the power of Denmark, and indeed the Swedish navy, under the command of the sea-going general Klas Horn, defeated the Danes as well as the Lübeckers in 1565–66. Frederick II of Denmark wrote to Mary, Queen of Scots, in April 1566 to protest about a ship being made ready in Leith to join the Swedish fleet. Among the Swedish ships in 1566 was one called Skotska Pinckan, taken from the Danes but recaptured again; the name suggests a Scottish origin. Another, in the early 1600s, was bought from Scotland and bore the name Skotska Lejonen – Scottish Lion. Karl IX established the main naval base at Karlskrona in order to benefit for as much of the year as possible from ice-free water.
Despite these developments, by the time Gustavus Adolphus came to the throne the Swedish ships were still outgunned by the Danes. The ability to project military might overseas was essential to Gustavus Adolphus’s foreign policy in the Baltic; as navies have always done, his had to convey troops safely to foreign shores, maintain supply lines, defend trade and also impress outsiders as symbols of prestige and authority. A new threat to Sweden appeared in the late 1620s when, by the capture of north German ports, Wallenstein created the spectre of a Habsburg navy afloat in the Baltic. It was a threat real enough to persuade Gustavus Adolphus and Christian IV to overlook their rivalry and cooperate to keep Stralsund from the Imperial grasp. The Swedish king was in need of experienced sea captains and, as with his army, he found some of them from across the North Sea.
In June 1612, Sir Robert Anstruther wrote from Copenhagen to James VI to report how ‘much greeved’ were the Danes about some Scots ships that had ‘done great hurt’ on the Norwegian coast, adding the important information that one of the ships belonged to the Earl of Orkney and that ‘one Stewart is Captane of herre’. The Stewart in question was Simon Stewart, although no relation to Earl Patrick Stewart of Orkney. The latter, whose father was an illegitimate son of James V, is remembered to this day in Orkney for his avaricious, oppressive rule, and he certainly was not averse to pursuing ill-gotten gain at sea. His motive may have been simple piracy but suspicion remains that it may have been tied in with the mercenary expedition. Be that as it may, there were three Scots ships active off the Norwegian coast that summer; the second also had a skipper called Stewart and the third was captained by a Dutchman. Simon Stewart hailed from Ayrshire and at a young age had found his way to Orkney, possibly as an ‘enforcer’ in the service of the earl. His piracy brought his name to the attention of both the British and Danish kings, and it was probably to escape the law that he decamped to Sweden, where he turned up in June 1616 in Gustavus Adolphus’s navy and found employment in reconnaissance and transport missions in the eastern Baltic.
Already sailing under the Swedish flag were Alexander and Hans (John) Forrat. Their surname suggests they may have originated from Fife, and Hans was a Dundee burgess. Alexander appears as a captain in Swedish records in January 1611 and later that year he was in command of a ship called Lejoninnan. He was clearly held to be a responsible man, as he was charged with carrying some important passengers on various occasions in the following years – an envoy to Lübeck in 1616 and Gustavus Adolphus himself in 1618 and 1620. Hans became a captain possibly as early as 1604, and in 1610 and 1611 he led attacks on Danish ships. In 1620 he was captain of the vice-admiral’s flagship Svärdet, a vessel on which Simon Stewart served as an ensign.
Another prominent Scottish officer in the Swedish navy was Richard or James Clerck. He seems to have gone first to Norway, where a man of his name was accused of illegal shipbuilding in 1605–06; soon after this incident a master shipwright called Jakob Clerck appears in Sweden. By 1610 he had become a captain and, only some months later, an admiral in charge of a small fleet in the Riga area. He carried out several sea-going missions in the following decade and also served as holmadmiral or admiral of the Stockholm shipyard.
In April 1622 occurred an incident that gives some insight into the character and way of life of these hard-bitten men of the sea, as well as of the tensions that could brew in a close-knit expatriate community. Clerck, Alexander Forrat, Simon Stewart, another captain called James Muir and an ensign by the name of James Logan, who was related to Muir and who had recently been appointed in the navy, visited the house of Hans Clerck, Richard Clerck’s brother, to drink some beer. Logan came late, and Forrat asked him if he could now pay money he owed, seeing he had been appointed as an ensign. Clearly Logan was not abashed by the seniority of his companions, or the teasing may have struck a sore point of honour, for, after going to another house where more beer was drunk, ill-feeling boiled over into violence. Forrat either hit Logan with his drinking cup or punched him; Logan retaliated, threw Forrat down and held a knife to his throat and the others piled into the fray. Clerck may have tried to separate the combatants but was wounded for his pains, while Muir took a sword and ran Logan through the body, possibly accidentally, but he soon died in any case. Logan’s widow brought Forrat and Muir to court. The trial imposed a fine and the liability of further royal punishment on Forrat for starting the quarrel and a death sentence on Muir for the murder of his relative, although there is doubt over whether or not it was carried out.
Gustavus Adolphus clearly considered Alexander Forrat to be a valuable officer for in the following year he was commanding a vessel called the Engel in spying missions to Danzig and, after two years in charge of the Göteborg shipyard, was again patrolling off the Danzig coast. Here, in November 1627, Forrat achieved lasting fame for a selfless act of courage that is recorded in a letter James Spens wrote to England. Spens, who was as active in securing men for the Swedish navy as he was for the army, said that Gustavus Adolphus had reduced his blockade of Danzig ‘for winter storms of frost and snow often lead to loss of ships in the narrow rocky waters’. As six Swedish ships set sail with the offshore wind to return to their home ports, the Poles sallied out in ten vessels to engage them. The three Swedes in the van were unable to beat back against the wind to the assistance of their companions. In the subsequent action [Battle of Oliwa], which spread over two days, the Swedish ship, Solen, was boarded after a brief exchange of fire with the Polish Meerman. Rather than let the vessel fall into enemy hands, Alexander Forrat set fire to the magazine and blew up his ship in a desperate, suicidal act of defiance.
Apart from Forrat, and possibly Muir, the Scots officers survived their campaigns in the Swedish navy and most reached high rank. Simon Stewart was a lieutenant admiral in 1644, and before his death in 1646 he may have reflected that he had not done so badly since starting out as a pirate for the rascally Earl of Orkney. The Clerck and Forrat families provided Sweden with several officers, ashore and afloat. In early 1628 around nine Scottish-born captains graced Swedish decks, some two thirds of the total in regular service, and more followed. Some English captains also joined the Swedish navy but they did not number as highly as the Scots, except for a brief time in 1658–60 when Cromwell’s Parliamentary navy was in formal alliance with Sweden. Scots also held significant posts in shore establishments and administrative departments.
Two captains, Alexander Muir and Michael Kloch, who are also described as pirates, are known to have been in the Polish navy in 1622 when Colonel James Murray was working to improve it as a fighting force. Murray first appears in Poland in 1601 or 1603 at the court of Sigismund, and by 1609 he was employed as an envoy from the Stuart court. Murray oversaw the construction of ships for the Polish fleet, after Sigismund appointed him as senior naval architect in 1620. The first, a two-masted, fourteen-gun pink, was launched in 1622; some of his ships later took part in the battle off Oliwa in which Alexander Forrat was killed. Murray himself was absent from this clash, as he had taken umbrage at being passed over to be admiral. He was versatile enough, however, to command troops in the field, seeing action at Smolensk, and to be an administrator, as mayor of the town of Puck near Danzig.