Bruce Von Stetina – “The Second Day of the Four Day Battle of 1666” Battle from the second Anglo-Dutch War.
The consequence for Scotland of her involvement in the Civil Wars was a decade of Cromwellian occupation, a yoke that was not lifted until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Scottish privateers were by no means out of business, merely resting; the outbreak of the Second Dutch War in March 1665 was to herald the dawn of a veritable golden age of plunder. Preparations had been underway in the preceding autumn, as tensions mounted and some 500 Scots had been conscripted for naval service, many of whom lost their lives when London blew up off Gravesend. From the outset, Dutch raiders were active in the North Sea and severely restricted free movement of merchantmen. A garrison was established on Shetland to maintain watch upon the Sound of Bressay, now assuming a greater strategic value with the Royal Navy in command of the Channel routes. As hostilities deepened, the Scottish privateers, abetted by a ‘flexible’ approach from the Admiralty courts, enjoyed a bonanza. Leith was crowded with prizes. Fat-bellied Dutch ‘flyboats’, ‘hukers’ and merchantmen, the former hunted in the sea lanes off Norway where they loaded with timber.
One of the rising ‘stars’ of the privateering industry was William Hamilton of Dundee, master of the 22-gun Rothes. He scooped no fewer than 22 prizes, the most valuable of which, Charity, laden with furs, netted some £4,000 Scots, a very appreciable sum. Ironically, the outbreak of plague which affected London in the closing months of 1665 and closed the port, linked to a similar pestilence spreading through Flanders, sharpened the hunger of Scottish owners and masters. Hamilton began his first cruise in March 1666 and enjoyed an immediate run of successes. His second cruise began in June when he netted ten further prizes, including the recapture of a Scottish frigate Morton of Wemyss, which the enemy had taken previously. By late June or early July, Rothes was cruising as part of a squadron of four Scottish sail and became involved in a sharp action against a superior Dutch flotilla, four of which were captured and the rest seen off with loss. Hamilton was reported killed but, in fact, survived. Much aggrieved by the Scots’ depredations, the Dutch sent three men-of-war to blockade the Forth. Hamilton was joined by John Brown of Leith and John Aitchison of Pittenweem, when he sailed out to mount a challenge. A further brisk action now ensued and, though the Scottish privateers gave a good account of themselves, the Dutch proved too strong to defeat.
This was but a beginning. The Dutch were badly stung by the boldness of the privateers and their trade was much affected. Accordingly, on 29/30 April 1667 they mounted a raid in force against the Forth. Some 30-odd sail entered Leith Road on the evening of the 30th; three English men-of-war were within two miles but remained inactive, ‘. . . the captains being pitifully drunk . . .’ Burntisland was bombarded, but the forts returned a brisk fire and the attackers could gain no advantage. Locals flew to arms and Dalziell’s regiment came up. The magistrates at Leith sank one of Hamilton’s prizes as a block-ship and mounted guns around, sufficient to foil the enemy’s attempt to send in a fireship. The attackers achieved nothing and, by the start of May, Hamilton was active again, cutting out a 30-gun man-of-war. Rothes was by no means the only active privateer. Gideon Murray, who captained the
16-gun Thistle of Leith, garnered 17 prizes; John Brown, also of Leith with Lamb (16 guns), scored up to ten. Others who notched up notable captures were James Bennet (Barbara), William Gedd (Good Fortune), James Alexander (Lesley), George Cheyne and Andrew Smeaton.
No sooner had the Dutch departed than a fresh alarum occurred, on 29 May, when the sound of naval gunfire spread alarm and the citizens of Leith again rushed to arms, a fresh block-ship was sunk and the guns manned. Happily, this was an entirely false panic. The newcomers were an English squadron under Sir Jeremy Smith, discharging their ordnance to keep station in fog. Smith’s ships had already encountered an enemy convoy and taken 14 prizes and continued to ratchet their score most impressively. The boom in warship construction brought an additional benefit, creating a market for timber. The ubiquitous Pett purchased pine from Northern Scotland, and an enterprising Edinburgh businessman, Patrick Lyell, set up as a broker for timber and cordage taken as prize cargo. When the Treaty of Breda, sealed on 21 July 1667, brought hostilities to a close, the bonanza was ended, but Scottish privateers were bringing in prizes until virtually the moment of signing. Captain Archer of the 6-gun Joseph from Newcastle upon Tyne, cruising under a Scottish commission, brought in a brace of hefty prizes, and Captain Wood from Berwick netted eight!
Peace proved but an interlude. Rivalry between England and the United Provinces was too compelling. By April 1672, drums were again sounding, and the king had need of Scottish mariners once more. The Duke of Lennox, in his capacity as Admiral of Scotland, was empowered to issue letters of marque. There was no shortage of takers and, within a week, a score of capers were being fitted out. So popular was the notion of privateering that many seamen from Newcastle were hurrying north to seek commissions out of Scotland. A fascinating record survives, detailing the acquisition and fitting out of Lyon, from Dundee, captained by Thomas Lyell and with the Earl of Kinghorn as principal shareholder. She was bought at Leith for some £2,700. Five of her great guns were then purchased for an additional consideration of £496, and the owners incurred the extra expense of fitting out, new canvas and studding sails, tackle and cordage, a new ship’s boat and repairs to the pump. A crew had to be hired and victuals sourced: beef, pork, biscuit, dried fish, ale and salt. The captain enjoyed some additional supplies of liquor and tobacco. The master gunner, his needs more practical, needed powder and shot, paper for cartridges, sponges, a new copper ladle. Swivel guns were also purchased and a quantity of small arms. Total costs exceeded £6,000 Scots – a substantial outlay – and Lyon did not set off on her first cruise until 10 June.
As an investment, she soon proved her worth, returning with two handsome prizes, the cause for some celebration, even though the tortuous and costly business of the court proceedings lay ahead. War was the harbinger of a ripe harvest for the Admiralty court, and Susan Mowat calculates the returns during 1672 to have been handsome indeed, with the Judge Admiral picking up some £12,000 Scots, a very acceptable dividend for one who had ventured neither neck nor purse! For the Lyon’s owners her second cruise, which began on 11 September proved substantially less rewarding. She’d suffered some minor damage on her initial voyage, but was now riven by storm and driven aground off the coast of Scandinavia. Her salvage and repair were protracted, and she finally limped ingloriously home with nothing to show for her cruise other than significant costs. She was sold in the course of the following summer at a considerable loss. Privateering was, in every sense, a high risk venture.
Another investor in this high stakes game was Lennox himself. The Lord Admiral owned his own frigate, Speedwell, and his captain was the experienced Richard Borthwick, one who’d learnt his trade in the earlier conflict. We are fortunate in that a quantity of her lieutenant, Charles Whittington’s, correspondence survives. Speedwell sailed from Harwich on 27 April, cruising with another frigate, Portland. The Duke of Lennox was aboard the other vessel, but the ships soon parted and Speedwell gave chase to a flotilla of flyboats. As Whittington records:
We parted from them at the east end of the Dogger [Bank], chasing a dogger in the night, and next morning saw tow large flyboats, which we lost in a fog. Next day we saw ten flyboats from St Tuball which we gave chase to Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and took six . . .
This was a most encouraging beginning; while sailing from Leith in June the frigate scooped two more prizes. In late summer, she was active off the Dutch coast, taking a shoal of small craft and driving others ashore. This was after she’d caused some annoyance in Newcastle, where her press-gang had been active! Though she beat up the Dutch coast, causing much alarm and triggering the militia’s impotent rage, worsening weather and the presence of several Dutch men-of-war denied her any worthwhile captures. Speedwell set out on a fresh cruise in the autumn, suffering badly in foul weather, as Whittington’s letters reflect. While she was beating the harsh waters of the North Sea, she had lost her owner. Lennox had fallen overboard and drowned. Speedwell’s time as a Scottish privateer was at an end. The Duke’s death caused something of a hiatus as the commissions he’d issued now lapsed and had to be temporarily validated by the Lord Chancellor. In March 1673, the king’s brother, James, Duke of York, the future James II, was appointed High Admiral, though this did not immediately clear the backlog. Halcyon days were coming to an end. Many prizes were taken, but the accommodating ease of Scots law had been tightened to reflect the closer scrutiny of English practice. More and more cases were ‘assoiled’ – the captains failed to establish their case and captured vessels were not ajudged lawful prizes.
If the privateers, in the late seventeenth century, were enjoying something of a trade boom, the rest of the country was not. Times were hard; Scotland remained a small nation on the fringes of Europe. Restoration and the threat to religious independence had prompted a reaction from the more extremist members of the Kirk. Firstly, the abortive Pentland Rising of 1666, then the series of disturbances and repression centred on the south-west and known as ‘the Killing Time’. After the further political upheavals of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, with a smaller economy and limited exports, disadvantages exacerbated by a string of poor harvests in the 1690s, a climate of recession and uncertainty prevailed in Scotland. Even the privateers found war with France after 1689 not much to their liking. Some prizes were to be had off the west coast, but the glory days were gone. One of the proposed solutions was that advocated by William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England: the creation of a trading colony on the Isthmus of Panama.