SKULL & SALTIRE
Stories of Scottish Piracy –
Ancient & Modern
By Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:
known Jim Hewitson for several years and have many of his books, all of
which, to me, are worthy of space on any Scot’s personal library shelf,
public library, or school library. He is an excellent writer, period! His
recent book, Skull & Saltire, is a fine example of a talented
writer. He is the type person with whom you can imagine yourself having a
delightful and informative conversation over a wee dram or two at the
bed-and-breakfast that Jim and his wife Morag run on Orkney, Papa Westray,
(population 70), Scotland.
conversation I would like to have with Jim would be one of comparing Hugh
MacDiarmid with Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. MacDiarmid once lived in
Orkney and is acclaimed by some, and himself, as the greatest Scottish poet
since Burns. I asked author Hewitson how the three would compare, and he
replied, “As to comparisons with Burns and Scott…a few peat-fire evenings
needed to iron that out!” Since all of us cannot join Jim for several
evenings around his peat fire on Papa Westray, we’ll do the best we can with
this series of questions and answers on his book. By the way, his email
comment about “cheap rates for old pals” did not go unnoticed by this Scot!
You obviously work on several books at the same time since you seem to have
a couple coming off the press on an annual basis. Tell us, how do you do
that so successfully?
Yes, maybe a case of quantity winning out over quality, but for the past 10
or 12 years, I’ve produced at least one book annually. The answer, as it is
in all forms of writing, is a mixture of hard graft and research. Much of
the research was carried out in the years when I was still a working
journalist and I trawl my notes regularly for sources, quotes and
inspiration. The speed at which I am able to produce the books is also a
direct result of many years spent trying to catch newspaper deadlines.
Whether my work could be termed successful is really for others to judge. My
own target has been to get people thinking and talking about Scotland and
our remarkable story.
What inspired you to write a book on Scottish pirates?
Money might be the pragmatic answer but, in fact, it was during an exchange
of ideas with my current publishers, Black and White in Edinburgh, that I
offered to research the possibility of a book on Scottish pirates. First
reaction from others in the trade was that there simply wasn’t enough
material but very soon I was able to knock that idea. The most difficult
aspect of this book was that the research was done while I was completing my
senior honours year at the University of Aberdeen where I gained an MA in
Scottish Studies. Study and book research had to go hand in hand. There were
occasions during that spell when I didn’t know if it was Tuesday or Octember.
From the time you started gathering material until you sent it to your
publisher, how long did you spend writing this book? Briefly tell us the
From the agreement to proceed until publication of this particular book was
a matter of some nine months. It does seem a very short time to produce
anything worthwhile but remember, as I indicated before, a lot of the ground
work had already been done. The process of producing a book like this is
interesting because the focus is constantly shifting as you research.
Getting the information into manageable, coherent chapters is always
difficult but getting a sound framework upon which to build your information
is essential – like a house construction, I suppose. Within this period
there are moments of joy as you see the material shaping up and there are
others when a concept collapses and you have to start from scratch. Add to
all this, the need to research, source and purchase illustrations and
photographs and you’ll see there’s not a lot of time to stand and stare.
Is “walking the plank” a myth or did it actually happen as often as
Hollywood would have us believe? How was discipline maintained on a pirate
Ask anyone about the image which is conjured up with the mention of pirates
then I’m sure along with eye patches and wooden legs, most folk would put
walking the plank up there among the piratical icons. However, it does seem
that the idea that this form of execution, with jeering buccaneers and
sharks snapping down below the plank was largely mythical. One maritime
history expert suggested, rather unromantically, that the pirates were much
more likely simply to throw some expendable hostage overboard than waste
time with some elaborate, if deadly, game. Hollywood, in this as in many
other historical scenarios, has a lot to answer for. The idea of buried
treasure, for example, comes very much into the same category. In fact our
RL Stevenson is largely responsible for this myth. Pirates generally spent
their booty almost as soon as they got their hands on it. Life was
precarious and few pirates would have been thinking of retirement. The
reality is harsh enough without the need for embellishment. Keelhauling,
dragging a poor victim under the barnacle-encrusted hull of the ship, was a
common torture which makes walking the plank look like an easy option.
We have all heard of the slave trade - “the frightful trade in human flesh”
- with African slaves being taken to American ports by Brits, Scots, and
others to be sold. I wonder if you would tell us about the white slave
market practiced among pirates.
There was a huge market in the 1600s and 1700s for white slaves who were
captured by Corsairs, Arabic pirate ships operating out into the Atlantic
and Mediterranean from North African ports such as Tangier and Algiers. Many
hundreds of Scots are known to have been taken prisoner during sea battles
and sold in the slave markets. There are records of Scottish congregations
taking collections for enslaved in Africa. Those who were most determined to
survive often found it expedient to convert to Islam simply to survive
captivity. There are many remarkable tales of this period, but if I related
them all then it would be scarcely worth buying the book, would it?
In general, how did the captain of a pirate ship become the ship’s captain?
Once captain, did he remain captain?
It was a dangerous, often fatal, occupation to be captain of a pirate ship.
If someone challenged your authority then you might fight it out to the
death with cutlasses for the job of skippe, but often factions developed and
a full-scale rammy might ensue with the victors ruthlessly executing or
setting adrift those who had picked the wrong side. Any sign of weakness in
a pirate captain and his days would be numbered. If the pirate chief was
killed in battle, his successor was usually elected by general acclaim.
However, if you set yourself up too openly in advance as a potential
successor, then you would be liable to wake up one morning with your throat
Was there a bit more about “that scoundrel” John Paul Jones which did not
make your book that you would like to mention?
Fascinating character altogether, John Paul Jones. He was an absolute
super-hero for the youthful United States but a villain of the first order
in the eyes of the British people.
He has such
a place of honour in the book simply because his exploits make the ‘Pirates
of the Caribbean’ adventures look quite tame. Imagine going back to your old
home in a daring attempt to capture a Scottish nobleman as a hostage.
“Harm’s way” is a phrase we hear a lot about today with the wars and
fighting in Iraq and
Afghanistan. When Jones said, “…I intend to go into harm’s way,” was it the
first time, as far as you know, that phrase was used?
Interesting point. I have certainly not come across this usage in earlier
material and, even today, JPJ is such a hero in the United States that he is
regularly quoted by military sources. Could well be that he first brought
the phrase to public notice. I would be interested to hear if anyone has any
further information on this.
Is it true that John Paul Jones, who died in Paris at the young age of
forty-five, was buried in an unmarked grave for over 100 years before his
body was finally brought back to America for burial at Annapolis? Why did it
take the American government so long to recognize him as the “Father of our
Amazingly, this is true. He was given a funeral in France with full public
honours but because of rules relating to Calvinists ‘and heretics’ he was
buried in an unmarked grave. The site of this grave was forgotten, but after
a bit of detective work by U.S. government officials, he was returned to the
United States in 1905.
As a small boy, I wanted to be a pirate because of the way they were
portrayed in the Saturday afternoon movies that we attended in my hometown.
My grandson Ian honored Captain Jack Sparrow last Halloween by dressing like
him. Who was the pirate you wanted to be as a wee lad and why?
always think Jack Sparrow is far too good looking and cool for a Scottish
pirate. Grotty old Long John Silver was always my pirate of choice –
complete with lop-sided parrot and eye patch. Once upon a time I used to be
able to lift one eyebrow extra high and stare menacingly out of my one
‘good’ eye, while speaking and drooling out of the side of my mouth. How’s
that for scary authentic?
Of all the pirates you wrote about in your book, who is your favorite or the
one who most interests you? Was it still the one you wanted to be as a lad?
Of course, Long John Silver is a literary creation. Of the real Scottish
pirates, my favourite, who features in the Skull & Saltire, would
have to be the Orkney-based Norse sea raider Swyen Asleifsson who had his
home on the wee island of Gairsay, lying 20 miles south from where I’m
responding to your questions today. He drank and womanized throughout the
winter, planted his crops in the spring, went off raiding as far as Dublin
in the summer and was back in Gairsay in time for harvest. Yes, indeed, a
pirate’s life for me.
What are we currently to expect from your pen and have you published other
books since this one?
My Christmas book this year is called Does Anyone Like Midges? and is
a light-hearted look at issues which are currently occupying the Scots. As
they say, it should be in all the best bookshops by mid-October.
How does one get to Orkney from Edinburgh and, once there, how does one get
to Papa Westray?
Fly, take the bus or a train – head north from Edinburgh or Glasgow. When
you fall off the north end of Scotland, Orkney is but a brief breast stroke
away. And once in Orkney look north again, and sniff the air. When you
identify a heady mixture of tranquillity and Arctic ice, follow yer neb.
Papa Westray awaits you.
You have always been a good interviewee, and I’d like to know if there are
any parting words you would like to leave with our readers?
As the Scots pirates used to say to each other before setting sail – ‘May
the wind always fill yer sails, Jim me laddie – and it’s your turn to buy
the grog!’ (FRS: 9-29-2006)