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The Story of Leith
XVI. Leith's Sea-Dogs: Sir Andrew Wood


IN his endeavours to make Scotland a power on the sea James IV. was ably seconded by the sailormen of Leith. The number of noted sea-captains belonging to the Port at this time was out of all proportion to its size. This was owing to Leith being the port, not only for the larger town of Edinburgh, but also, now that Berwick had become an English town, for the whole south-east of Scotland, and especially for the wool trade of the great Border abbeys. Then, again, commerce was the monopoly in those days of the freemen of the royal burghs only, so that in an unfree town like Leith sailoring was the occupation that offered the greatest opportunities of wealth and advancement to lads of push and enterprise.

In no other port of Europe at this time of equal size could there have been found more daring captains, and few could have rivalled Leith in her number of bold and skilful mariners, for seafaring was in their blood. It had been the occupation of the men folk of many Leith families through long generations, and even in our days of steamships, when the sailorman is degenerating into the mere deck hand, there are still a few families in the town with whom seafaring has been a tradition for centuries. The navy of James IV. could neither have been built nor manned had he not had the sailor-men of Leith behind him.

Among Leith’s noted mariners at this time none had won a greater name for himself than Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, who was a Leith man born and bred. He first comes upon the stage of history in the reign of James III. as the commander of two ships of about three hundred tons each—the Flower and the Yellow Carvel. The Yellow Carvel belonged to the king, and had formerly been commanded by the veteran John Barton. Wood hired this vessel at so much a voyage, or even at so much per annum, as was the custom of those days, but the Flower was his own vessel.

With these two ships Wood made frequent trading voyages to France, and still more to the Low Countries. In Andrew Halyburton’s ledger we get glimpses of both him and the Flower in the old Dutch town of Bergen-op-Zoom, then one of the most flourishing towns in Holland, though now unimportant. His reputation for seamanship had early recommended him to the favour of the king, who bestowed upon him the lands of Largo on the condition that he should accompany the king and queen to the holy well and shrine of St. Adrian on the Isle of May as often as he was required to do so.

Wood had developed a great genius for naval warfare by his frequent encounters with Dutch, English, and Portuguese pirates in defence of his ships and their cargoes. From his many victories over these enemies he has been called the Scottish "Nelson" of his time. He was the trusted servant of James III., by whom he had been employed on several warlike missions, which he carried out with fidelity to his king and honour to himself. Two of these expeditions were his successful defence of Dumbarton castle against the fleet of Edward IV. in 1481, and his attack on the fleet of Sir Edward Howard, which the English king had sent to do as much mischief as it could along the shores of the Firth of Forth. It was for these important services against the English that James III. gave Wood a part of the lands of Largo, which he had previously occupied as a tenant of the king.

In those days money was scarce and rents were usually paid in kind— that is, in the produce of the land. The feu-duties of much land in Leith are still reckoned in amounts of grain and vary with its market price. The Black Vaults of Logan of Coatfield were partly used for the storage of such rents. And so we find Sir Andrew Wood, in the days when he was only tenant of Largo, and not laird, constantly engaged in shipping grain from Largo to Leith. Grain, then as now, bulked considerably in Leith’s imports; but whereas most of it now comes from abroad, in the days of James III., and for several centuries after, it was all, except in times of dearth, home grown. Scotland in those days was self-sustaining—that is, she grew all her own food.

Sir Andrew Wood is no less noted for his faithful adherence to James III. when opposed by his rebellious and traitorous nobles, like old "Bell-the-Oat," than for his skill and courage as a naval commander. In his flight from the battlefield of Sauchieburn the ill-fate king is supposed to have been making his way to the shores of the Forth opposite Alloa, where Sir Andrew had gone with his two ships in aid of his royal master. All that long sunny June afternoon he kept several boats close by the shore to receive the king if defeat should overtake his arms, as it did, but the tragedy at Beaton Mill rendered the loyal sailorman’s vigil vain.

After the battle the insurgent lords proclaimed James IV. king at Stirling, and then marched east to the capture of Edinburgh Castle. It was for this purpose they encamped on Leith Links for two days, and at the same time appear to have occupied the King’s Wark on the Shore. The fate of James III. was as yet unknown, but, as report declared that Sir Andrew Wood’s ships had been seen taking on board men wounded in the battle, it was thought the king might have found refuge with their gallant commander aboard the Yellow Carvel. Wood had by this time come to anchor in Leith Roads some two miles off the shore. Sir Andrew was requested to come before the young King James IV. and his council to tell what he knew of the fate of James III., but this the wary seaman refused to do until two hostages of rank were sent aboard the Yellow Carvel to ensure his safe return.

On the arrival of the hostages—Lord Seton and Lord Fleming—aboard his ship the loyal and gallant Wood, seated in his great barge, at once steered for the Shore, the oars glittering in the sunlight as with measured stroke the boat swept past the Mussel Cape, now crowned by the Martello Tower, and, entering the old harbour, made straight for the landing-stage opposite the King’s Wark. Here Wood boldly confronted the haughty confederate lords. When asked by the young and now repentant king if his father was aboard his ships, Wood replied that he wished he were, when he would defend and keep him scathless from all the traitors who had cruelly murdered him.

The traitor "Bell-the-Cat" and the other rebel lords scowled angrily at these bold words, but, fearful of what might befall their two friends in pledge aboard the ships, could not further resent them. Finding they could make nothing of the undaunted Wood, they dismissed him to his ships, where his men, impatient and alarmed at his delay, were about to swing the two hostages from the yardarm in the belief that some treachery had befallen their much-loved commander. Authentic news of the cruel fate that had overtaken James III. soon came to hand, and then Sir Andrew Wood gave in his allegiance to his successor, and became one of his most trusted friends and counsellors. In the work of constructing royal dockyards at Leith and Newhaven, and in his ambition to make Scotland’s name a power on the sea, James IV. found no more wise and powerful supporter than the brave Sir Andrew Wood.

The year after James IV. ascended the throne five English ships entered the Firth of Forth, ravaged the shores of Fife and the Lothians, and did much damage among trading vessels making for Leith and other ports on the Forth. Now, while there was never really peace between the two countries on the high seas, such an outrage as this James determined should not go unpunished. He ordered Sir Andrew Wood to go in pursuit of the enemy. With never a thought of the odds against him, that gallant captain at once weighed anchor, and, under a heavy press of sail decorated with the royal arms and those of the brave Sir Andrew himself, as you may see in the pictures of the Yellow cartel and the Great Michael, his two stately ships stood down the Firth with a favouring breeze behind them.

All was bustle and activity on board, getting the decks cleared for action, which, in those stirring and romantic days, meant rather cumbering them with the guns of the arquebusiers. These had all to be set on their stands to sweep the enemy’s decks and cripple her sails and rigging in order to render her unmanageable. Sir Andrew and his officers were harnessed in full armour like knights ashore, while the men, accoutred in their jacks or steel-padded jackets and steel caps, armed themselves from racks of axes, guns, and boarding pikes, that were framed round the masts and the bulwarks of poop and quarter-deck. The cross-bowmen were sent to their stations in the fighting-tops or cages round the masts, from which they could shoot arrows or hurl down heavy missiles on the enemy’s deck.

The "Yellow Carvel" The Yellow Cartel and her consort, the Flower, came up with the English ships off Dunbar. All undaunted by the unequal contest, Wood at once blew his whistle, the signal for action, and the battle forthwith began. The boarders stood by with the grappling irons, and, when the ships closed in upon one another, they were caught by the irons below and by the hooks for the same purpose projecting from the ends of the yardarms aloft. Their locked hulls then formed one great platform, over which the fierce and stubborn fight raged for hours with uncertain issue, while the men in the fighting-tops threw down missiles on the mass of swaying combatants below as they saw opportunity. At length the skill and courage of the Leith sailormen prevailed, and overcame the superior force of the English. With the fighting-tops of his now crippled ships gay with streamers and banners that even swept the surface of the sea, Wood convoyed the five English prizes in triumph to the Port, and the name of the great Leith captain, so the story goes, "became a by-word and a terror to all the shippers and mariners of England."

Sir Andrew was richly rewarded by James for his great services, and in some measure to make up for the losses he had sustained, and, as no castle could be built without the king’s permission, licence was given him to erect such at Largo as a defence against English pirates who, in raiding the shores of Fife, would never fail to make his dwelling a special object of attack. This castle, according to the same old chronicler, he is said to have compelled some English pirates captured at sea to build by way of ransom.

Henry VII., indignant at the disgrace brought upon the English flag by so humiliating a defeat, is said to have offered an annual pension of 1,000 to any English captain who should capture the ships of Wood and take him prisoner. Now, unless history utterly belies the character of Henry VII., such a story is entirely out of keeping with all we know of him, for he was a man of peace and loved money even to miserliness. Be that as it may, one Stephen Bull, when other English captains had declined to attempt so risky an enterprise, equipped three ships, and determined to bring Wood to London dead or alive. We know little of Bull beyond the fact that he was knighted by Sir Edward Howard in Brittany in 1512, and we know nothing at all of his three ships, except that they were neither king’s ships nor in the king’s service.

But we have not read aright the story of the death of the Leith sailormen in days of yore if we have not learned that for merchant ships to be guilty of piratical attacks upon those of other nations, and to be sometimes captured by those they attacked, was a very common incident on the high seas in those lawless times. Indeed so common was it that it had been a long-established custom on the North Sea for mariners thus captured, when they were not made to "walk the plank," as they at times were, to be ransomed by their friends at the very moderate charge of twenty shillings a mariner and forty shillings the master or skipper.

With his three ships Bull sailed for the Forth in July 1490, and, entering the Firth, lay to behind the Isle of May. In the belief that peace had been established with England Wood had sailed for Flanders, partly by way of trade and partly as convoy to the merchant fleet. On a fine sunny morning in August Sir Andrew Wood’s two ships hove in sight, and all unconscious of the presence of the lurking enemy, steered their way towards the Forth. But no sooner did Wood perceive the English ships with the white flag and red cross of St. George than he at once gave the signal for immediate action, and fought "fra the ryssing of the sun till the gaeing doun of the same in the lang simmer’s day, quhile afi the men and women that dwelt near the coast syd stood and beheld the fighting, quhilk was terrible to sie."

This running fight was kept up for three days, when victory once more declared itself on the side of the seemingly invincible Leith captain, and, after taking the ships to Dundee, Wood and his prizes eventually came to Leith, bringing sorrow as well as joy to the town, for many a member of his crew had fallen in the desperate three days’ encounter. These two naval victories of Sir Andrew Wood by which he is popularly known rest solely on the picturesque narrative of the gossipy Pitscottie, who is not generally relied on unless corroborated by other writers. But we must remember that Pitscottie was near neighbour to the Woods at Largo, and the familiar friend of Sir Andrew’s second and more distinguished son John, who played a notable part in the service of James V. Besides, he was intimate with Sir Robert Barton, the first skipper of the Great Michael, and from him he got all the details of that famous ship.

We have seen that Sir Andrew Wood had much to do with the construction of the king’s dockyards at Leith and at Newhaven, and with the building of that navy in which James IV. was so interested. It was he who superintended the construction and equipment of the Great Michael, the largest ship built either in England or Scotland up to that time. She was the special pride of the Leithers, who looked on her as one of the wonders of the age, as indeed she was. When the Great Michael was launched at Newhaven in 1511, Sir Andrew was made her quartermaster or principal captain, with Robert Barton under him as skipper or second captain.

Doorway, 37 Shore. A relic of the King's Wark. On the outbreak of the Flodden campaign the command of this great vessel, the flagship of the fleet, was by a fatal error given, not to a skilful seaman like Sir Andrew Wood, or to Robert Barton, but to the Earl of Arran, as in feudal countries like Scotland any great office of state like that of Lord High Admiral had, in accordance with the customs of the age, to belong to the great feudal aristocracy. The fleet was as handsornely equipped as any British squadron of the present day, the complement of men including chaplains and "barbers," who in Scotland at that time, as everywhere else in Europe, combined with that trade the profession of surgeon, their guild being known as the "Incorporation of Chirurgeons and Barboures." The barber’s pole with a brass bleeding-dish hanging from near its end was the sign of the Surgeon-Barbers’ Guild in olden days.

From the date of this expedition we hear little more of Sir Andrew Wood. The great sailor died two years later, in 1515. He was buried in the family aisle in the ancient parish church of Largo, where his tomb is marked by a plain inscribed stone let into the floor. He has often been confused with his eldest son, who bore the same name as himself, with the result that Sir Andrew has been represented as living to a very old age. To this confusion, together with the fact that the remains of some great ditch, moat, or other earthwork seem to lead from his now ruined tower at Largo in the direction of the village, we owe the picturesque legend that, when enfeebled by an old age he never reached, he caused a canal to be formed from his castle to the parish church which stands at the entrance to the ancient avenue, and that on this canal he used to sail in state to church in his barge, rowed by old pensioners with whom he had fought so many brave fights aboard that most storied ship in Scottish history, the Yellow Carvel.


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