About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  John Gow - The Orkney Pirate

"On a fine day he sailed away and came back years later as a full blown pirate."
Ernest Marwick

John Gow, it is believed, was born, around 1698, in the Caithness town of Wick, on the north coast of the Scottish mainland.

Image by Sigurd TowrieIn September 1699, the boy who was to become notorious as 'the Orkney Pirate', moved to Stromness with his family.

Growing up in Stromness, an important international port of the time, the lure of the sea was strong for many young lads and Gow was no exception.

Tradition has it that he ran away to sea at an early age, but little is actually known about his life before the fateful trip on which he turned to piracy.

In August 1724, the 26-year-old Gow found himself in Amsterdam. There, he joined the trading vessel, Caroline, as second mate and gunner. The following month, the Caroline arrived in Santa Cruz, where she loaded a cargo of leather, woollen cloth and beeswax bound for Genoa.

By this time, there was already considerable unrest among the Caroline's crew. A fact the captain, a Frenchman, named Oliver Ferneau, knew well.

Since the ship departed Amsterdam, the crew's complaints about bad food and conditions had become increasingly vocal. Conscious of the discontent, Captain Ferneau had his officers prepare small arms to act as a deterrent and enforce discipline on board.

However, Ferneau's preparations didn't work.

Mutiny on the Caroline

On November 3, 1724, after two months lying in Santa Cruz, the Caroline's crew mutinied and John Gow's career as a pirate began.

The mutineers made their way, silently, to the cabins of the first mate, the surgeon and the supernumerary and cut their throats.

The noise caused by the surgeon, who managed to stagger on to the deck before dying, alerted the captain.

Ferneau was, in turn, attacked by three crewmen but, despite being severely wounded, managed to hold them off.

Captain Ferneau finally met his end at the hands of John Gow, who arrived on the quarterdeck, during the ruckus, shot the captain and threw his body overboard.

The ship was now under the control of the pirates.

The following day, Gow was elected captain and set about readying the Caroline for her new role. Renaming their vessel Revenge, Gow and his men were soon famed for their acts of piracy in the seas surrounding Spain, France and Portugal.

Running low on supplies, and pursued by the authorities, Gow decided to head home to Orkney.

His intention was not only to lie low for a while but, it is said, he felt the isolated mansions of the islands' gentry would provide easy pickings.

Gow returns home

'Revenge': 3D Graphic by Sigurd TowrieIn January 1725, the Revenge sailed into Hamnavoe - the voe on which the town of Stromness sits. There, to avoid any unwanted attention, Gow, and his crew, assumed an air of respectability.

Referring to himself as "Mr Smith", Gow acted the part of an honest, prosperous trader, returning to his childhood home after his vessel had been blown off course on a journey from Stockholm to Cadiz.

In an age of buccaneering and smuggling, the people of Stromness were careful not to enquire too closely into Gow's seeming good fortune.

The Revenge, now hastily renamed the George, remained in Stromness for some weeks, while Gow and his men enjoyed the hospitality of the townspeople.

Before long, however, rumours about Gow's true purpose began to circulate. This came to a head when the captain of a visiting merchant vessel recognised the Revenge and knew of Gow's exploits. Members of this captain's crew also recognised some of Gow's men, persuading one to desert the pirate.

Then Gow's problems really began.

Ten of the Revenge’s crew fled to the Scottish mainland in the Revenge’s boat, while one, Robert Reid, managed to flee to Kirkwall. There he gave himself up to the law, and, claiming he had been forced to piracy, warned the Justices of the Peace of Gow's intentions.

The alarm had been raised and Gow's hand was forced.

Trapped off Eday

On February 10, 1725, Gow launched a brief attack on the Hall of Clestrain, in Orphir. This property, on the shore of Hamnavoe, directly opposite Stromness, belonged to Robert Honeyman, of Graemsay.

According to the The Complete Newgate Calendar’s account: John Gow - Captain of a notorious Gang of Pirates. Executed at Execution Dock, 11th of August, 1729, for Piracy:

“Nine of the gang went into the house to search for treasure, while the tenth was left to guard the door. The sight of men thus armed occasioned much terror to Mrs Honeyman and her daughter, who shrieked with dreadful apprehensions for their personal safety; but the pirates, employed in the search for plunder, had no idea of molesting the ladies. They seized the linen, plate and other valuable articles, and then walked in triumph to their boat, compelling one of the servants to play before them on the bagpipes.”

A separate account would have it that the “quickwitted daughter” “hid most of the valuable charters and money” so the thieves had to be content with about £7 in cash and some silver spoons. The Clestrain raid was then followed by the abduction of two women. Again, the outcome of this episode depends upon the account.

One account has it that the pirates abducted two servant girls from Clestrain House, These girls, it claims, were: "put ashore on Cava, the following day, so loaded with presents that they soon afterwards got husbands."

The second account, attributed to the author, Daniel Defoe, states that the girls were taken from Cava and that they suffered badly at the hands of the pirates – so much so that one of the girls later died.

Gow’s next target was Carrick House, the residence of his old school friend James Fea, in the island of Eday. So, setting sail he arrived three days later.

However, dangerous currents off the island's north coast carried the Revenge too near the Calf o' Eday, where it grounded opposite Carrick House.

On February 17, 1725, after prolonged correspondence between Gow and Fea, the pirate was forced to surrender.


The pirates were taken to Marshalsea Prison in England. There, Gow refused to plead at his trial so, in an effort to convince him otherwise, his thumbs were “bound together and squeezed with whipcord.” 

When these measures failed, Gow was transferred to Newgate Prison. Again he refused to plead, so was “sentenced to be pressed to death in the usual manner”.

This sentence, for those who refused to enter a plea, would see the defendant:

"be put into a mean house stopped from any light and he be laid upon his back, with his body bare; that his arms be stretched forth with cord, the one to one side, the other to the other side of the prison, and in like manner his legs be used, and upon his body be laid as much iron and stone as he can bear and more. The first day he shall have three morsels of barley bread, and the next he shall drink thrice of the water in the next channel to the prison door but of no spring and fountain water; and this shall be his punishment till he die".

Rather than endure such torture, Gow opted to plead not guilty. Tried at the Old Bailey, he was quickly charged with murder and piracy and found guilty.

Gow and seven accomplices were executed together at Execution Dock, London, on June 11, 1725.  But even the hanging wasn’t straightforward.

Gow had asked for a speedy dispatch so the executioner "pulled him by the legs, but so hard that the rope broke".

So Gow, “still alive and sensible enough to climb the ladder a second time” returned to the gallows, to be hung for a second time.

This time it was successful.

Their bodies were left in the Thames for "three tides", after which the corpses of the two ringleaders were bound in chains, and tarred, before being hung on the river bank Thames - a grim warning for those who might follow in the footsteps of the Orkney Pirate.

“It would be wrong to judge Gow's actions with modern yardsticks, after 250 years we can afford to be charitable and thankful that he brought a splash of colour to our past, even if it was blood red.” 
G. Watson. The Short Career of Pirate Gow