Scots Privateers

The 10 Lion’s Whelps built by the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1628 are exemplars of the ‘war’ pinnace, a war ship that was built for several European navies for more than two centuries (c.1550-c.1750). The Whelps had sweeps (propelling oars) as well as sails (G R Balleine, All for the King, The Life Story of Sir George Carteret, Societe Jersiase, 1976, p10). England, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland deployed the war pinnace on a regular basis. The largest war pinnaces, also known as frigates, approximated England’s fifth rate and sixth rate small warships. A few war pinnaces were built to fourth-rate hull dimensions. However, these war pinnaces carried fewer cannon and had smaller crews than English fourth, fifth, and sixth rates. Fast and maneuverable when compared to a typical ship of the line, when they were under the command of an experienced captain with a crew that retained discipline during battle, many war pinnaces compiled impressive fighting and espionage records.

The bounty of the sea could be harvested in a number of ways. Taking vessels and their cargoes as prizes was, while ostensibly reprehensible, a highly lucrative trade. Piracy in Scottish waters, as we have seen, was nothing novel; Provost Davidson, Sir Andrew Wood and the Bartons all grew rich on the trade. There was clear distinction between a pirate, an outlaw who made war on the world, and a privateer who sailed under the authority of a commission or ‘letter of marque’. This was not a mere formality, akin to a modern fishing licence, but a detailed indenture, which spelt out in considerable detail the type of vessel the holder was entitled to take up. This had to fall within the stated definition of a ‘just prize’. A target craft should, with her cargo, be owned wholly or at least in significant part by the specified enemy and normally a commission would only run for the duration of hostilities. In theory, each skipper received his commission from the king acting in the monarch’s role as high admiral. In practice, the issuing body was usually the Privy Council.


‘Privateer’ was not an expression much used until the late sixteenth century. Captains cruised usually under the authority of an earlier commission or licence called the ‘Letter of Reprisal’. This was issued by the court when a complainant could show he had been robbed by agents of a foreign power and had tried but failed to achieve redress through the courts. He was thus empowered by the court to seize property to make good his loss, rather akin to the ‘Hot Trod’ on land. A Letter of Reprisal was thus a specific legal remedy, and its award did not depend upon a state of hostilities being in existence. In Scotland, this form of authority was a heritable asset; it could pass by will in the usual way; in 1561, Captain Patrick Blackadder was taking Portuguese prizes in reliance on a grant made in 1476! It has to be said that the process was open to fairly liberal interpretation, and the lure of prize money might certainly affect a court’s findings. That the situation could lead to widespread abuse is recognised by the terms of a proclamation from 1525:

Our Sovereign Lord [James V] and Lords of Council are sickerly informed that an certain [number] of his lieges, masters, owners and mariners of ships [dwell]ing in Leith is to depart in warfare, and by their robberies and spoils made upon friends, they have caused our Sovereign Lord and his lieges to have many enemies whilks were friends before, and presupposes that they shall do siclike in time to come . . .

Not only were the enemy’s ships always fair game in time of war, neutrals carrying cargoes that contributed to his war effort were also legitimate targets. Once taken, the prize could be sailed back to a Scottish port or allowed to continue but subject to the payment of a ransom, secured by the taking of hostages. Before the privateer could realise gains by selling vessel and cargo, his right had to be validated and the prize ‘condemned’ by the court. In Scotland, this meant the Admiralty Court (Scottish High Court of Admiralty), which sat in the Tolbooth either in Leith or Edinburgh. So brisk was the trade in prizes during the later Dutch wars that daily sessions were merited. Proceedings required the privateer to present his commission and to declare the prize. He then had to satisfy the evidential burden that his prize was a legitimate one, and, finally, the master of the enemy ship was allowed a hearing. This process initially involved a series of separate sittings though, latterly, the whole matter was dealt with in a single session.

A separate hearing might be required in order to deal with the often more contentious question of the prize’s cargo. If this comprised war supplies, the matter might be quickly disposed of. If, however, as was often the case, it had to be proven that the cargo comprised materials that could facilitate the enemy’s war effort, this was more difficult and thus likely to be protracted. In 1626, Watson of the Blessing took three merchantmen out of Hamburg (at that time under Spanish control) and argued in the court that the ships’ cargoes of canvas, tar, wax, cloth, some muskets and a quantity of provisions were all war materials. As the haul included innocuous items such as 24 bags of cumin seed, there could legitimately have been some doubt. Nonetheless, Watson won his case!

He was one of the more successful captains in the war of 1626–1629; after netting the Hamburg ships, he took a further couple of prizes the following year and three in 1628. David Robertson of Dysart in Grace of God and, latterly, Joans was active, as were James Binning and David Alexander. These were the early days during which the privateering ‘industry’ was in its relative infancy. Specially constructed men-of-war were scarce, as were captains with the resources to put them to sea. Men like Watson were, most probably, established merchant skippers who ‘diversified’ into privateering as opportunities arose. Some captains hired out their vessels for troop transports. Robert Langlands of North Leith, master of Blessing, was hired to transport soldiers to Elsinore, though she was lost on the voyage, with only the guns being salvaged.

Charles I, in pursuance of his war aims, sought to resurrect a Scots Navy and, responding to royal command the Privy Council, in the summer of 1626, took on Lion, Unicorn and Thistle. Ready ships and crews were in short supply. Unicorn was found at Leith, but the other two had to be purchased in England. Cash, as ever, was hard to find. Even with ships available, suitable sailors were still wanting. Most who might be tempted found the greater lure of privateering more attractive. Recourse had to be had to a levy, and the squadron was not ready for sea until November. Archibald Douglas of Lion (300 tonnes) was appointed as Admiral. Murray of Unicorn (300 tonnes also) as Vice Admiral, while Auchmoutie of the diminutive Thistle (perhaps 50 tonnes) still qualified as Rear Admiral.

This squadron finally sailed from the Thames, but did not raise the Forth till early January 1627. Once in Scottish waters, the flotilla came under the orders of the Earl Marischal, except that he gave no orders and the winter months were spent in a blur of inactivity. This notwithstanding, merely keeping the ships ready, with the crews waged and victualled was an expensive business. Pay alone gobbled up some £1,100 per month. In the spring a use was found for the ships, which were to be converted as troop transports. Now, arrears of pay were substantial and crews much thinned by desertion, getting the exercise underway consumed time and more treasure. By the time they returned from their mission, it seemed likely all three would simply be sold off, but alarums and the threat of enemy action prompted a cruise along the North Sea coast and the ships were not, in fact, disposed of until the following year.

As the Scots Navy perennially comprised very few vessels, one who held a letter of reprisal or, subsequently of marque, was entitled to style himself as captain. Merchant skippers were not called captain until the following century. The heyday of privateering in Scotland was really the second half of the seventeenth century, the period of the Dutch wars (1652–1654, 1665–1667 and 1672–1674), though Scottish captains had not been idle during the earlier wars with Spain, France and England (both Crown and Parliament). During the period of the Dutch wars, when the available English strength was fully committed, as many as 90 Scottish privateers were active, mainly out of Leith and the ports of Fife, with the North Sea as their principal stalking ground. As the Channel was likely too hot or too well guarded, Dutch merchantmen and fishing vessels preferred the wider sweep of the North Sea, and Scottish predators grew fat on the pickings.

Privateers were free of the obligations of naval officers in that they were concerned entirely with economic warfare, they did not cruise simply to pick a fight with an opposing vessel or squadron, sailing for profit, patriotic dividend purely incidental. These were wolves and merchantmen the sheep they preyed upon. James VI of Scotland, when he became also James I of England had, as part of his inheritance, acquired a world class navy. The race-built English galleon had emerged as the leading design of the sixteenth century, the Spanish had lost out by clinging to the grand carrack and the Dutch were just entering the race. Of the 42 vessels James now possessed, nearly two-thirds comprised capital ships but, once peace was concluded with Spain in the year following his accession, the fleet had scant opportunities for deployment.


There were, however, innovations in design with a swing back, in part, toward the earlier carrack of the towering superstructures. Hulls became larger and, while the length of the new vessels resembled that of the race-built galleon, the greater bulk would carry more above. True sons of the Elizabethan age, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, deprecated the trend, opining it arose from a desire for greater comfort aboard. To the old sea dog, this reeked of decadence! James VI took a keen interest in the construction of his great capital ship Prince Royal designed by the rather dubious naval architect, Phineas Pett. She was first of the great three-deckers and carried 55 guns when she first entered the water in 1610, a formidable instrument of war at sea. For nearly three decades, she had no peer until, in 1637, Pett designed an even mightier ship for Charles I, Sovereign of the Seas. Ships did play their part in the great Civil Wars and inflicted a serious reverse upon the Dutch during the first clash, and Sovereign, with some modifications, was still doing good service as late as the 1670s.

Charles I, having embarked upon an attempt to rule without the sanction of Parliament, remained wedded to the notion of restoring England’s naval power to the equivalent of the great days of the Elizabethan sea dogs, though he continued to be hamstrung by a desperate cash shortage. One remedy, finally adopted in 1634, was the levying of Ship-Money, a form of naval taxation that further exacerbated the king’s difficulties with his increasingly restless subjects. While the major engagements of the Bishops Wars and the Great Civil Wars took place on land, sea power remained vital. Parliament in England retained control of the navy, and there was the constant fear of an invasion from Ireland, disgorging thousands of savage and Popish Irish into England. In Scotland, the Estates entered into terms with Parliament in England whereby, in January 1644, a Scottish army crossed the border and joined the fight, an intervention which led, in that year, to the decisive battle upon Marston Moor which saw the Royalist hegemony in the North of England destroyed.

Montrose’s battles during ‘The Year of Miracles’ were fought out on land, and sea power did not play a significant role, though the wily Argyll cannily stayed aboard his galley in Loch Linnhe while his clansmen were decimated by the vengeful blades of Clan Donald in the fight at Inverlochy. English naval power aided Cromwell when he subsequently campaigned against the Scots, alienated by the regicide, but his great victories, Dunbar, and then Worcester, were won on land.

Large capital ships, such as the Sovereign, were clearly beyond the purse of a privateer captain, however successful, but, even as Pett was designing his great flagships, there was a Large capital ships, such as the Sovereign, were clearly beyond the purse of a privateer captain, however successful, but, even as Pett was designing his great flagships, there was a perceived need for lighter, handier craft, intended to take on the Dunkirk privateers who were, themselves, most active during the French War of 1627–1629.5 Ten 14-gun vessels, built to a standard pattern and called Whelps – the first to the tenth – were floated. ‘Whelp’ did not endure as the brand of a particular class; a European term ‘frigate’ came into use. It was this type of vessel that the Scottish privateers adopted, also referred to as capers; some were purpose built and others converted to purpose. The ship had to be a good sailor, of a size to accommodate a respectable weight of ordnance, anywhere from 6 to 30 guns of varying calibres – standardisation was still not fully established – but mainly demi-culverins or sakers. The frigate would be somewhere between 100 and 250 tons in the water, fast in the chase and equally handy if she had to outrun an enemy man-of-war. Crews needed to be large: sufficient sailors to man the guns in an action and to provide prize crews for captured vessels. All of which, for the owners, represented a significant capital outlay. The captain would not usually lack for volunteers: the work carried risk and discipline had to be enforced to naval standards, but the lure of prize-money was always a powerful incentive.

It is fair to assert that naval service in Scotland never quite acquired the same social cachet as it did in England, yet during the sixteenth century Scottish mariners, and privateers, were highly regarded, and rightly so, on account of their able seamanship. The connection with the French ports of Dieppe and Le Havre implied Scots mariners were well placed to benefit from the innovations directed by a Huguenot school of navigators based there. By 1547, often in partnership with the French, Scottish captains were already scenting the rich harvest to be gathered from the gold-rich Spanish colonies of the New World. Two decades later, the port of Burburata was taken up by a Franco-Scottish expedition. As mentioned, James Lindsay had, in 1540 acted as pilot to James V and guided the king’s squadron through the waters of the Pentland Firth to the Western Isles where James was engaged in ‘putting some stick about’. Lindsay compiled a navigational aid or pilot book, his famous ‘Rutter’.


Susan Mowat, from whose detailed work on the subject much of what is written here has been drawn, has recorded the worth of numerous prizes. Green Lyon, a 300-ton Danziger, which a trio of Scots captured in 1628, was sold for nearly £13,000 Scots, exclusive of her cargo of masts and cordage. Prize money was apportioned 1/15th to the crown, a tenth of the residue to the Lord High Admiral, the remainder split into thirds, one each for the owner, the victuallers and the crew. The latter was then distributed on a sliding scale from the nine shares awarded to the captain to the single share given to the ship’s boys! A successful cruise brought considerable reward: Captain Scott of Blessing out of Burntisland scooped four vessels in cruises during 1626, netting a cash gain of £372 Scots, plus a salary bonus of £80. One of his crew would earn something just under £42, the equal of over two years’ pay. The ship’s surgeon also netted some £400 in total. Small wonder privateering was proving such a popular occupation!