The Old Scots Navy
James Grant
Navy Records Society (1911)




The role of naval force in Scotland's history has yet to be written, however for a brief overview the introduction given in James Grant's The Old Scots Navy is probably, currently, the most useful.

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The value of sea power to Scotland with her long and deeply indented coastline, in consolidating her rule and maintaining her independence, and at the same time in protecting a fitfully growing coastwise and overseas commerce was always important.
The absence of such power laid her open to the invasions of the Norsemen from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, when the Vikings with their fleets of long boats, propelled by oars and sails, dominated the North Sea, and established a Scandinavian sovereignty over Scotland north of the Moray Firth and over the Western Isles.
That sovereignty by the middle of the thirteenth century was getting attenuated. Alexander II of Scotland is represented in the Chronicle of man as declaring that he would set his standard on the cliffs of Thurso, and reduce under himself all the provinces, which the Norwegian monarch possessed to the westward of the German Ocean. He died a Kerrera near Oban in 1249 while attempting to subdue the Hebrides.
His policy, which had developed a measure of sea power, was continued by his son Alexander III; and the semi-independent chiefs of the Western Scottish Isles were being gradually pressed into his allegiance, when their titular sovereign Haco fitted out a naval expedition in 1263, a last effort from Norway to maintain the Scandinavian hold on Scotland.
This contest for empire, however, was not finally fought out at sea. Alexander's fleet was too small thus to be risked. Haco landed his men at Largs in Ayrshire from a fleet much reduced by shipwreck, and the Scots victory was a land one.
On the Norwegian King's retreat to Kirkwall, where he died, Alexander drew out his fleet, and conquered the Western Isles and the Isle of Man, thus so far consolidating Scotland; though for long the Scots hold on the Western Isles was precarious and insecure, the island chiefs developing and for long maintaining a semi-independence, which took centuries of naval and military endeavour on the part of the Scottish kings to subdue.
The long course on intermittent war, from the days of the Bruce to the Union of 1603, against England with her rapidly rising and comparatively powerful fleet, further made naval defence important for Scotland.
During the period of the disputed succession to the Scottish throne, and during the war of independence with England there appears little or no trace of a Scots navy. With Scottish independence established, King Robert the Bruce turned his attention to the upbuilding of Scots shipping and of a Scots navy. In his later days he more than once visited the Western Isles, which owned only a loose allegiance to him, and established a royal castle at Tarbet in Argyll to overawe the semi-independent Islemen.
The Exchequer Rolls of 1326 record the feudal services of certain of his vassals on the western coast in aiding him with their vessels and crews. Near his palace at Cardross on the Clyde he spent his last days in shipbuilding; and one royal man-of-war of the viking type at least was equipped by him before he died in 1329.
During the reign of his son David II, when Edward Balliol with the assistance of England attempted to regain the Scottish crown, there was more than one exhibition of the value of sea power. Balliol's invasion in 1332, resulting in the capture of Perth, was opened by the descent of an English fleet on the Forth and Tay. The Scots government having no effective navy of its own improvised a fleet by hiring the Flemish skippers of Berwick-on-Tweed. An attempt by these privateers to drive off the English fleet failed; and their fleet of ten ships under captain john crab was after a general engagement burned. To maintain the balance of power France was called in, and the "ancient" alliance between France and Scotland was inaugurated in 1338, when Perth was recaptured by the Scots with the help of a French naval squadron and a strong body of men-at-arms from Calais.
With England and Scotland in a chronic state of war, maritime capture was of ordinary occurrence. In the reign of Robert II, John mercer, merchant burgess of Perth, who rose to be an eminent statesmen, and who was one of the wealthiest Scots foreign traders of his time, when returning from abroad in 1376 was wrecked on the coast of Northumbria. His merchandise was seized, and he was himself imprisoned. In retaliation his son Andrew next year fitted out a squadron of Scottish, Flemish and French privateers, and attacked and plundered the town of Scarborough. later in 1377 young Mercer and his fleet were captured by Philpot a London merchant. Retaliatory sea capture in time of truce as well as in time of war, and strong asseverations that every enemy was a pirate were the order of the day. An entry in the Scots Exchequer Rolls of 1380 bears that the Scots Government that year expended Ј500 in the purchase and equipment of two ships which put to sea "contar piratas Anglie et predones." James I, when prince of Scotland, was captured by the English in 1405 during a time of truce, when on his way to France.
On his return to Scotland in 1424 James gave close attention to the shipping interests of his country. At Leith he established a shipbuilding yard, a house for marine stores, and a workshop; and king's ships were built and equipped there, which were used for trade as well as war. In 1429 James was amongst the Western Isles with one of his ships curbing his vassals there. In the same year parliament at Perth enacted a law that each four merk land on the north and west coasts of Scotland within six miles of the sea was, in feudal service to the king, to furnish one oar.
This was the nearest approach ever made in Scotland to the ship money of England.
James II, his successor, introduced into Scotland gunpowder and artillery. The use of bombards or cannon as naval armament had in course a great effect in modifying the construction of the old trireme and Viking type of war vessel. Vessels were thereafter built with hulls thick enough to resist artillery, and with high forecastles to carry guns. James died in 1460, killed at the siege of Roxburgh castle by the bursting of a cannon.
During the reigns of James III and James IV the Scots navy probably reached its highest development. The old alliance with France against England continued, and Scots naval power rose concurrently with the expansion of Scotland's foreign trade and England's exhaustion through the civil wars of the Roses.
The pioneer in Scotland's newer type of warship was a churchman. The Exchequer Rolls of 1461 make mention of the St. Salvator, a great ship built by Bishop Kennedy of St. Andrews for trade and for war purposes at a cost of Ј10,000. This vessel, the "navis immanis et fortissima", of Major the historian, was ultimately lost on the coast of Northumberland. The chief coadjutors, however, of James III and James IV in building up the Scots navy were not dignitaries of the Church, but the merchant skippers of Leith. The Treasurer's Accounts, the Exchequer Rolls, Pitscottie and the Ballads of Scotland tell the story of the prowess at sea of Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, the Bartons, John the father, and Andrew, Robert and John his sons, and William Brounhill all of Leith. In 1473 the King's Carvel, better known as the Yellow carvel, afterwards associated with the sea victories of Sir Andrew Wood, was under the command of John Barton. In his struggle with his rebellious nobles in 1488 James III received assistance from his two warships the Flower and Yellow Carvel, then under the command of Sir Andrew Wood; and in his flight from Sauchieburn, he was making for these two vessels, then lying in the Firth of Forth, where he was killed.
James IV continued his father's policy of building up a navy.
In the second year of his reign Sir Andrew Wood with his two ships cleared the Scottish seas of English privateers, capturing five and bringing them as prizes into Leith.
That same year, 1489, Lutkyn Mere, a Danish pirate who had long infested the North Sea, was captured and hanged with his crew.
In 1490 the King of England by way of reprisal against wood fitted out three privateers under Stephen Bull; but after a running fight from the Forth to the Tay, graphically described by Pitscottie, Bull and his three ships were captured by Sir Andrew Wood.
This naval engagement, the authenticity of which is doubted by some modern authorities, is sometimes put as late as 1504.
It is certain that in 1491 Sir Andrew Wood, who had obtained a royal licence to erect a fortalice at Largo in Fife, employed English captives on the work.
Besides making naval reprisals Henry VII of England played the diplomatic game of fomenting the semi-independent Lord of the Isles and the Islesmen to throw off the sovereignty of Scotland, with such success that in 1493,1494, 1495 and 1498 James made at least four expeditions to the western seas to secure the doubtful allegiance of the Island chiefs.
In 1494 he was convoyed by the Christopher man-of-war and other ships, and minute accounts are given in the Treasure's Accounts of a large row barge and two smaller vessels built at Dumbarton to curb the Islesmen. In the expedition of 1495 the king was accompanied by Sir Andrew Wood in the Flower.
The romantic episode in Scots history of Perkin Warbeck, which commenced with the arrival in Scotland of that impostor in November 1495, and his recognition by King James as Duke of York, after an ineffectual invasion of England flickered out in July, 1497, when the adventurer left Ayr for Cork in Ireland, on board the Cuckoo hired by King James from Andrew Barton and commanded by Robert Barton.
Most notable of the Bartons in the annals of the Scots navy was Andrew. In reprisal for the seizure of his father's ship in 1476 by the Flemish, he is said to have received letters of marque in 1506 from King James, and to have preyed on their commerce in the English Channel.
In 1508 he was sent by the Government of Scotland to assist the King's relation, Hans of Denmark, against Lubeck. In 1509 and 1510 Hans had the assistance of Robert Barton, who returned to Scotland on 4th September, 1510, with an urgent request to James to send more ships and men to the assistance of his Danish ally.
Early in 1511 Andrew Barton was sent to Copenhagen, probably with his two ships the Lion and the Jenny Pirwin; and on the 2nd August that year, in a memorable and stubborn fight in the English Downs, Barton was slain, and his two ships captured by Sir Edward Howard and transferred to the English navy.
(See:Ballad of Sir Andrew Barton) In the legislation of the Scots Parliaments of 1493 and 1503 requiring all sea-board burghs to keep "busches" of 20 tons to be manned by idle able-bodied men, James and the Estates had not only the improvement of the fisheries in view, but the manning of the mercantile marine and the navy.
The Treasurer's Accounts and the Exchequer Rolls afford ample evidence of King James's activity in building ships for his navy. There has already been noted his building of a large row barge and two smaller boats at Dumbarton in 1494.
The timber used in that work was from the shores of Loch Lomond, and the iron work was mostly from Leith. His greatest achievement was the construction, in 1511, of the St. Michael, the largest ship up to that time launched in Scotland, the building of which cost Ј30,000 and cumbered all Scotland.
This war-ship, 240 feet long and 36 feet in beam, with sides ten feet thick, was manned by 1,000 seamen and 120 gunners, and had Sir Andrew Wood as quartermaster and Robert Barton as skipper.
In the campaign against England, which culminated in the defeat of the Scots at Flodden in 1513, the Scots fleet consisted of sixteen ships with tops and ten smaller craft, partly King's ships, partly hired ships and partly privateers, commanded by the Earl of Arran and Gordon of Letterfourie, feudal magnates with no naval experience, did nothing effective.
The Admiral Arran sailing round the north of Scotland, after attacking and sacking Carrickfergus in Ireland put back to Ayr.
While there he was superseded by Sir Andrew Wood, but refusing to give up command Arran sailed for France to form a junction with the allied French fleet, but failed to do any thing effective against the fleet of England.
In 1514 the St.Michael was sold to France, but some of the other men of war and in particular the James and Margaret returned to Scotland. Entries in the Exchequer Rolls of 1515 and 1516 show the victualling of King's ships at Dumbarton and Dunbar, which with Leith were the principal naval harbours and arsenals of Scotland: but the fleet of James the IV seems soon after Arran's expedition to France to have disappeared before the reprisals of the English and other privateers and the storms of the northern seas.
During the reign of James V there began to rise into prominence at the Scots Court an English party, whose policy was the exclusion of the French faction from the government of Scotland, and the turning of the realm "unto the amity of England".
The old Scots alliance with France thus began to be sapped; but the new policy only became effective when Scotland came into line with England in the reformation of her religion in the reign of Queen Mary.
It reached fuller fruition with the union of the thrones in 1603.
This trend of policy rendered the possession of a fleet to protect Scots interests against English aggression less and less necessary.
There were at least two naval engagements of some importance in the reign of James V.
In 1536 he sailed for France to bring home his wife convoyed by a fleet of six ships, the largest of 600 tons and manned by 500 seamen and gunners.
In 1540, two years before his death, he made an expedition to the Western Isles to curb the Islesmen with a fleet of sixteen ships.
This expedition was rendered memorable by the account of the voyage given by the pilot Alexander Lindsay.
His notes of the topographical features of the sea-board of Scotland from Leith to the Western Hebrides and to the Mull of Galloway taken during the voyage were systematised by Nicholas d'Arville, Cosmographer to the King of France, and were published in this country in 1718.
In the reign of Queen Mary there appears to have been no Scots fleet. In 1543 Lord Hertford's maritime expedition against Scotland, when Leith was sacked and Edinburgh burnt to the ground by the English, met with no effective opposition at sea.
Encounters between privateers of the two nations no doubt took place, and the Complaynt of Scotland, written about that period, describes with great wealth of detail such an encounter.
It is certain that when Bothwell escaped to Orkney in 1567 the Privy Council were so dependent on extra governmental aid that they ordered the "skippers of Dundee" to fit out three or more of their ships to assist to capture him.
When the fear was strong of a descent on Scotland by the Spanish Armada in August, 1588, as it was retreating round Scotland after its defeat by England, though provision was made for land defence, no naval preparations seem to have made or seem to have been available to meet the apprehended landing.
When the king went to Norway in 1589 to bring home his Danish wife, he was convoyed by ships specially hired for the voyage.
With the union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 there ceased all occasion for hostile aggression between the two countries. On the other hand the utter dependence of Scotland on English foreign policy and foreign relations soon involved her in the Continental wars of England, and rendered protection to Scots shipping necessary.
This was seen when England went to war with Spain in 1626.
Meantime in carrying out the domestic policy of the King in Scotland, wherever sea power was necessary the ships of private owners were commandeered or hired or both, and aid was got from the navy of England.
In 1608, when Lord Ochiltree set out to reduce the ever turbulent Islesmen, his force was carried from Ayr in hired Scots ships, convoyed by three English men of war, the Advantage, the Moon, and the Mercury galley, sent down to Scotland by King James, and placed at the disposal of the Scots Privy Council while in Scots waters.
In the absence of what is called his Majesty's own ship, the Privy Council, in 1610, armed and fitted out three of the best trading vessels in Leith harbour against a band of English pirates, who with two ships had long infested the Orkney seas.
They were captured, and thirty of then after trial were hanged on the 26th July 1610, on the shore of Leith.
Again in May, 1614, King James sent down from London two of his English ships to protect his Scots subjects against pirates.
In August 1614, the Post of Leith and another trading ship were commandeered to transport forces and cannon to suppress a local rebellion in Orkney.
Next year the Earl of Argyll had the assistance of two English men of war in suppressing a rising in the Western Isles.
On 28th August 1616, an agreement was made by the Scots Privy Council with captain David Murray, commander of a ship sent down by the King of England, to clear the Scots seas of pirates; and an allowance was made for the maintenance of the ship and its small crew of twenty.
This ship was probably the Charles. On 24 November 1618, when she was in Leith harbour, orders were given to have her artillery taken out, her crew discharged, and her captain pensioned, all to save expense.
These orders were not immediately carried out, for soon after the Charles was ordered to proceed to Orkney to exact from foreigners fishing there the royal rent of assize and teind of the fishes in those seas. In July 1621, the Charles was again in Scottish waters.
James died in March 1625.
In 1619 the Continental war between the Imperialists and King James's son in law, the King of Bohemia, broke out; and in 1626 England and Spain came into it on opposing sides.
With the Spanish Netherlands and Dunkirk for a base of operations the Spaniards preyed on English and Scots shipping; and Scotland with no naval force of he own to protect her interests at sea was in great distress.
To abate the evil letters of marque were issued to the adventurous skippers of Fife and the Lothians, who in the course of the war did good work in the capture of enemy's shipping. Steps were also taken to provide a small Scots squadron to protect the Scottish coasts.
In the summer of 1626 three ships were bought and equipped for this purpose at a cost of at least Ј5,200 sterling.
One, the Unicorn, commanded by Captain David Murray, was purchased in Scotland.
The other two commanded by Captains Douglas and Achmoutie were bought in London. They, however did little effective service.
The minutes of the Scots Privy Council of 10 April 1627 convey to King Charles in London the grievous and heavy complaints the Council are daily receiving from the merchants of the kingdom as to the ruin of their commerce by the war, and poor and pitiful lamentations of numbers of poor women, whose husbands are slain or captured by the Dunkirkers, because of the insufficiency of the naval defence of Scotland.
The Dunkirkers they continue, "sink our ships in the very sight of the coast; and all the while his Majesty's three warships, under command of the Earl Marischal, have lain idle and unprofitable in dry harbours, without any purpose as we conceive to go to sea."
Balfour, a contemporary annalist, narrates that the Earl Marischal remained obstinately on shore, leaving all in the hands of his subordinates the three captains, who drank and made good cheer, but would not offend the enemy.
The King's arrangement with the Earl Marischal was that the earl should rig out and maintain the ships at his own charge, with right to retain two-thirds value of the prizes, the King getting the remaining third.
The ships were ordered peremptorily to leave harbour on the 5 may, but the chief difficulty was with the sailors, who would not embark as their pay was in arrears.
In this was commenced the practice, which was continued down to the date of the union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland in 1707, of levying, through the Scots Privy Council, Scots seamen to help in the manning of the English navy.
On 11th July 1626, an order was issued for a levy of 500 mariners, and twenty coast burghs in Scotland were requisitioned.
During the period of the Protectorate, when there was a corporate union between the two countries, Scotland seems to have made little or no contribution to the rising strength of the English navy.
It is true that during the first Dutch war measures were taken to impress Scots seamen for the English fleet, and that when Denmark in 1653, under arrangement with Dutch, closed the Baltic against England, orders were given to secure the future supply of masts for the English navy from Scotland. The small naval operations on the coasts of Scotland, undertaken in co-operation with Colonel Lilburne and General Monk in suppressing the Royalist rising under Glencairn in 1653 and 1654, were rendered by the English navy.
During the second Dutch war, Charles II, in 1664, levied from the sea-coast burghs 500 Scots seamen for the English navy, paying a bounty of forty shillings per man and giving English naval pay; but from 1664 to 28 August 1667 the Peace of Breda the skippers and seamen of Scotland were more keen on privateering than in joining the English navy.
Charles freely offered privateering commissions to Scots skippers, and during the course of the war at least twenty-eight received letters of marque.
Amongst the ships thus commissioned were the Ann of Anstruther, the Bonaventure, the Bruce, the Christian of Bowness, the Good Fortune, the Greentree, the Lamb of Leith, the Lesley, the Margaret of Peterhead, the Morton, the Prince Rupert, the Providence of Dundee, the Rainbow of Dundee, the Thistle, the Rothes, the Venture and the Wemyss. These privateers must have made a considerable number of captures, which, when adjudged lawful prize by the Scots Court of Admiralty, and after the tenths and fifteenths were paid to the accredited persons, fell to the captors.
In March, 1672, the war was renewed against the Dutch and lasted until 1674. The policy of levying Scots seamen for the English navy was continued.
In return for this service Scottish seamen received protection against impressment by English men of war. During this war letters of marque were again freely issued to Scots skippers.
No account is given in the Privy Council Records of their number, but there must have been many of them, for on the 22 April 1673, after the Duke of Lennox, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, died, there were "diverse persons" whose commissions or letters of marque lapsed, and were renewed by the Lord Chancellor until peace was made the following year.
There were no further foreign wars giving rise to maritime complications in the reigns of Charles and his successor James VII. One domestic event only, Argyll's invasion of Scotland in 1685, called for minor naval measures in the west of Scotland, but these seem to have been carried out by England.

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Further reading.
The as can be seen from the foregoing the apogee of Scots seapower occurred during the reign of James IV -for a detailed examination of his naval activities see:
Norman Macdougall James IV published Edinburgh 1989 - pages 223 to 243 with full references.