Toronto Telegram, 15 Nov 1952
Schooner Days MLXXIX (1079)
By C.H.J. Snider

"Dearly Lo'ed the Lasses-O"

The Jolly Roger – VIII
STROMNESS, Orkney, 1952

NEITHER bloodstains nor money marks show on the sea chest of John Gow the pirate, which we had opportunity to examine in the Stromness museum. Nor are there smears of lipstick or scratches of bobby pins. The pirate was a lady's man, but he earned this meager credit—he told no tales, and he left no souvenirs embarrassing to femininity. The girls carried aboard the Revenge in Flotta Sound by Gow's marauding boat's crew, and honorably set on shore again with presents by the pirate chief, may have been concerned over what might be discovered in his sea chest, but their fears were groundless.

Some did seem very anxious about what was in this chest of his. The gentleman who captured Gow and his ship received an earnest letter from "Elizabeth Moodie" begging that if correspondence was found among Gow's effects which might injure the innocent it should be dealt with discreetly. The captor was happy to assure the suppliant that no compromising material was in evidence.

Pity or politics?

"Elizabeth Moodie" may never have seen Gow. She may have been writing for others. Perhaps for a distressed friend. A Captain Moodie of Melsetter was an anti-Jacobite. Elizabeth's connection with him is unknown. Gow may have hinted that he was a trusted agent of the Old Pretender either when he was nosing about for rich men to pluck or when he was clutching for straws to save him from the gallows. There were Stuart sympathizers and Jacobites then in the Orkneys.

With Gow's reputation the curious might sniff the sea chest for traces of musk and lavender and shriveled rose leaves, but they would sniff in vain. No girl laid her ruin or her bantling at John Gow's cell door. The women who were left dead on the beach, or so abused that they could neither walk nor stand, were victims of the brutality of James Belbin the boatswain and his accomplice Alexander Robb. Gow had made these scoundrels pirates and had sent them ashore to kidnap fresh recruits for his trade and plunder farm houses while he himself played the gentleman.

Old wife's tale

The old witch-wife Bessie Miller, who sold fair winds to silly sailors, told Scott, author of The Pirate, that a "Miss Gordon" was the lady who traveled to London to shake hands with the dead corsair to get heir troth back. Bessie so gossiped, perhaps honestly enough, in 1814, 89 years after Gow was hanged. Scott deduced that "Miss Gordon" made the journey to prevent Gow's ghost from haunting her if she should ever marry. Scott suggested a troth plighted through the ring of Odin, a perforated stone among the Standing Stones of Stennis, near Kirkwall. There are also Standing Stones in the Calf of Eday, within a mile of where Gow and his stranded ship were captured. Whether Gow left another pledge there or not, these standing stones, older than the druids boded him no good.

Gow may have gone to school in Stromness with girls of the Gordon family, as he did with James Fea, whom he tried to rob twenty years later. His father, William Gow, bought what was called Gow's Garden (now White Rocks) from James Gordon of Stromness, when the family came over from Wick in Caithness, Johnny's birthplace. It would be a grim schoolboy romance indeed if one of his school sweethearts came to unclasp his dead hand after another schoolmate had sent him to the gallows for his crimes.

Calf Love

Gow's first mentioned affaire-de-coeur was over pretty Katharine Gunn or Rorison—her mother may have married twice—daughter of the baillie or mayor of Thurso. Young Gow had run away from school and gone to sea—probably with smugglers, for Dutch and Norse traders did a great duty-free trade in the Orkneys. His avowed object was to bring back a fortune to lay at the feet of the baillie's daughter; or at least a wedding dress, which she must wear for him. What she said or had to say about it all is not on record.

Johnny was away a long time, as young men seeking fortunes for young women often are. The prudent baillie, who thought Johnnie too much of a talker to be much of a doer, pointed out the contrasting merits of George Gibson, the minister's son, who had qualified as a schoolmaster and gone into trade, and was doing well as a merchant. Katharine weakened (perhaps she was not very strong for Johnny at anytime) and married the merchant and went to live in the island of Stroma, two miles across the swirling Pentland Firth from either John O'Groat's House or the Merry Men of Mey.

Then of course Johnny came back, not in the nick of time but in the time of Nick, an incongruous Enoch Arden, with a wedding dress under his farm. He raged like the swelkies of the Pentland and talked big of carrying the bride off in spite of all the baillies and merchants in Scotland or the Orkneys. But if bonny Kate said "Why don't ye?" Johnny cooled off and flung himself upon what he called afterwards theatrically "the mercie of the sea." Mr. Gibson went on with his merchandising and Mrs. Gibson presented him with two fine sons. When he died she went to live with her aunt for whom she was named, Katharine Rorison, in Banniskirk. And, as far as can be learned, she never gave another thought to the reckless Johnny Gow. There is no reason to suspect that "Elizabeth Moodie" or "Miss Gordon" were our Katharine in disguise, or were acting for her.

Though one never can tell.


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