John Gow was a pirate who grew up in Orkney and was to inspire famous Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. Gow’s trial for murder and piracy was reported by Robinson Crusoe writer Daniel Defoe.
Gow was probably born in Wick, Caithness in 1699 and moved to Stromness the following year. Legend says he ran away to sea. In 1724 he joined the ship Caroline as second mate and gunner. There was unrest on board over conditions and after two months in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, mutineers cut the throats of three officers and Gow shot the captain and threw his body overboard. Gow was elected captain of the ship, renamed Revenge, and was famed for acts of piracy in the Bay of Biscay.
In January 1725 he returned to Orkney to lie low, passing himself off as Mr Smith, a wealthy trader, and courting a local woman, Miss Helen Gordon. But, when the captain of a visiting merchant vessel recognised him, rumours of his life of crime began to circulate. Some of his crew took advantage of this to escape to the Scottish mainland, while one went to Kirkwall to warn the justices that Gow planned to attack local gentry in Orkney.
Gow and his remaining men raided the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir – home of the High Sheriff of Orkney. They sailed on to attack Carrick House in Eday but were captured when they ran aground on the Calf of Eday.
Gow was taken to London in chains to be tried at the Old Bailey. He was sentenced to death for murder and piracy. Gow had to climb the gallows twice as the rope broke during the first attempt to hang him.
Daniel Defoe’s sensational account of the trial of the Orkney pirate has been reprinted a number of times, but a facsimile version taken from the original 1725 edition has been produced by Stromness Museum in a limited edition of 250. Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate, is loosely based on the exploits of John Gow.