The Pirate, The Sea and a Cargo of Books

by Linda Cracknell

The moral compass was already set when I launched North in May to run a creative writing workshop at the Orkney Library & Archive, Kirkwall, Orkney. The Books and Borrowing project had established that there was an enthusiastic readership in nineteenth-century Orkney for both local Mary Brunton’s best-selling novel of moral excellence, Self Control, and Scott’s The Pirate. The latter is set largely in Kirkwall and deals with the morally dubious antics of a fictionalised (and slightly less dastardly) version of home-grown ‘Pirate Gow’, now memorialised in a rum made next to the Italian Chapel.

I was intrigued to find, via Hester Blum, that late 18th and early 19th century seamen on both sides of the North Atlantic attained an above average degree of literacy and ‘participated in a robust culture of reading and writing’. The historic importance of ships’ libraries to crew welfare and harmony was perhaps not dissimilar to the working men’s subscription libraries which began to flourish in the early 19th century. A highlight on long whaling voyages was the pulling alongside of another ship, giving, amongst other benefits, the opportunity to exchange books. During Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations a printing press was taken aboard to produce newspapers, plays and decorated menus. Evidently on his first expedition he put training in the use of the press above skiing or the use of dogs. Such initiatives prioritise reading as a way to cultivate crew and maintain basic humanity in the face of an extreme situation far from wider society. She also highlights how the sea and long periods of ‘sublime uneventfulness’ stimulated the literary imaginations of crew, thus producing many sea-narratives.

page of borrowings from Orkney Library showing loans of Scott's The Pirate

The Pirate was popular with Orkney borrowers, including Mrs Blackie, Mrs Dunn, and Mr Waterman (March-September 1821)

During the workshop at Kirkwall I asked: ‘Might the right (or wrong) book prompt or stem a mutiny at sea, or stimulate compassion for a fellow sailor?’ Participants invented book titles which could be ‘prescribed’ for maladies such as loneliness, homesickness, cruelty. They had some great ideas. A creative rewrite of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar might warn against insurrection; The Soul Rising, a luminous evocation of the deep sea and the human exploration of high peaks and outer space was suggested as a cure for melancholy; The Principle Virtue, narrating the demoralising effect of an ‘efficiency’ programme in a prestigious hospital addressed unkindness. In Tigger and Eeyore Go Hunting for Treasure, Eeyore shows how solving each clue step-by-step is a better way to reach the goal and to enjoy the journey rather than rushing at it: a cure for impatience.

Participants also invented vessels and members of crew and considered the role of reading and writing on their voyages. Might a literary intervention alter both a narrative and the course of a journey? They went away with the bones of some fascinating stories to write.

I was also urged North by a personal connection to Pirate Gow. My great-great-grandfather, Francis Drake (no, not that one, this was 19th-century!) acquired a trading ketch from Orkney in 1900 to add to a small family fleet in North Devon. I had already discovered his signature amongst maritime papers in the Kirkwall Archives while researching a work-in-progress about reconnecting with my seafaring legacy. The acquired vessel, named Pirate, was built at Coplands Shipyard on the land at Stromness known as ‘Gow’s Garden’. This was where the pirate’s father had built his house, hence, presumably, the ship’s unusual name.

Image of The ship, Pirate

The Pirate

After running the workshop I made a visit to the island of Eday and to Calf Sound at its northern point through which Pirate Gow was escaping when his disguise was rumbled. He punctuated his departure with raids on grand houses including Carrick House in the Sound. Soon afterwards his ship, The Revenge, ran aground and he was captured and later taken to be hung in London.



Some sources:

Hester Blum, The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Robin Camille Davis. ‘Whalers, sailors, and libraries at sea [part 1]’ (9 Jan. 2012),

‘Antarctic Incunabula From Shackleton’s Printing Press’

Kirsteen Paterson, ‘It’s a whaler’s life: Leith locals recount tales from the sea’ (20 Jan. 2018),

Oral History: South Georgia Heritage Trust,

A version of a chapter (Crossing the Bar) of my forthcoming seafaring book Three Ships: Tides in The Affairs of a Family will be published in the Hinterland Journal in June 2022.