Piracy off the coast of Islay

18th Century gentleman in tricorn hat

The Scottish isle of Islay (pronounced eye-luh) is a peaceful place, hardly one associated with piracy, but in the late eighteenth Century, things were very different.

From the Caledonian Mercury – Saturday 28 October 1780

Extract of a letter from Inveraray, Oct. 22.

“The packet plying from Ilay to Tarbert was, about five days ago, captured in the Sound of Ilay by the Dreadnought privateer — Major Donald Campbell was the only passenger of any note on board — the privateer had struck on a rock in the Sound, and, seeing the packet, hoisted English colours; upon which the packet immediately came to her assistance, and helped her off the rock; and, after getting clear, the ungrateful scoundrels captured her.”

This appears to be the same story as the quoted from the Islay Guide 1863 on the Welcome to Islay Info website, albeit with a different date.

Again, in the autumn of 1778, the notorious Paul Jones made a descent here. In the Sound he captured the West Tarbert and Islay packet. Among the passengers was a Major Campbell, a native of the island, just returned from India where he had realized an independence, the bulk of which he had with him in gold and valuables, and the luckless officer was reduced in a moment from affluence to comparative penury.

Paul Jones, aka John Paul Jones, was born in and was a privateer, a pirate. Considered a hero by some, and a hero by others, he is also credited by some as the founder of the US Navy. His first wife was reportedly from Gigha, an island off the west coast of Kintyre and not far from Islay. The image, by Moreau le Jeune, is of John Paul Jones in 1780.

The Islay Guide 1863 continues with another tale of piracy in Islay.

Of much more recent occurrence was the appearance in Loch-in-Daal, on 4th October 1813, of an American privateer of twenty-six guns, with a crew of 260 men, ‘The True Blooded Yankee’, by which a crowd of merchant vessels which happened to be lying in Port Charlotte was rifled, and then set on fire, occasioning a loss estimated at some hundred thousand pounds. It is some satisfaction to know that this piratically named craft was subsequently made prize of and condemned.

This contemporary poem about a ship called Dreadnought may be fictional but is entertaining and scans well, although you may never again be able to pronounce “commented” correctly after reading it.

From Caledonian Mercury – Monday 06 November 1780

F A B L E.


Captain John Bull in a Storm.

ON board the Dreadnought stout and trim,
(A gallant ship as e’er could swim!)
Sail’d Captain Bull to tempt the seas,
And hail’d, at first, a prosp’rous breeze:
— But, who can fickle Fortune fix,
Or guard against her wayward tricks?
No sooner disappear’d the shore,
Than sullen storms began to roar.
Now horrid tempests sweep the skies!
Now round the ship black billows rise!

Firm on the deck the Captain stands,
The helm observes, the crew commands;
“Down topmasts, see the haulser’s clear,
“‘Twill soon be over — cheer, lads cheer!”

Jack roar’d, intreated, swore in vain;
They heard his orders with disdain,
For, with the tempest, bolder grew
The Mutiny amongst his crew.

A large round-robin*, some presented,
Others on all his faults commented:
“Well, Captain,” says a surly Chief,
“Next voyage you’ll get us better beef!”
“Zounds! — could you think, for pay so low,
“Your men such toils would undergo?”

“Dismiss. your Boatswain,” cries another;
“I would not serve him — if my brother;
“Here’s Edmund, Charles, and twenty hands,
“Bold seamen, fit to bear commands!”

Bull rav’d, curs’d, flatter’d, and implor’d,
But more and more th’ insurgents roar’d?
“Madman!—mind how the ship is tost!
“What! will you see the vessel lost?
“Your frantic mutiny give o’er,
“I’ll right you when we’re safe on shore!”

Now, bolder in their lawless course.
Cases and chests they open force,
And lavishly the liquors drain;
Then drunkenness and discord reign:
Till, startled by a thund’ring shock,
They see their vessel on a rock;
And vainly strive their lives to save,
—All sinking in one watery grave.

*A petition or protest on which the signatures are arranged in a circle in order to conceal the order of signing.