The Terror of the Seas? Scottish Maritime Warfare, 1513–1713 by Steve Murdoch 444 pp. (inc. 57 pp. of Appendices), 8 b&w illustrationsBrill, PO Box 9000, Leiden 2300 PA, The Netherlands, 2010, £119/€140/$199 (hbk), ISBN 978-9004185685
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 225–227, March 2013
How to Cite
Martin, C. (2013), The Terror of the Seas? Scottish Maritime Warfare, 1513–1713 by Steve Murdoch 444 pp. (inc. 57 pp. of Appendices), 8 b&w illustrationsBrill, PO Box 9000, Leiden 2300 PA, The Netherlands, 2010, £119/€140/$199 (hbk), ISBN 978-9004185685. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 225–227. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_13
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
We thought we knew it all. Sources for the study of naval history in Britain during the early modern period are (most of us believed) relatively complete and easy of access, because they were the products of organized state bureaucracies which ultimately became lodged in well-ordered national archives. Scotland's resources in this respect, as might be supposed for a country now part of Britain but formerly an independent state, were thought to be slender in comparison with those of her larger southern neighbour, and most of what existed were to be found, conveniently calendared and transcribed, in The Old Scots Navy from 1689 to 1710, compiled by James Grant for the Navy Records Society in 1914. Consequently Scotland's naval history was widely considered to be small-scale, fully studied, and relatively insignificant.
We were wrong on all counts. Although ‘official’ Scottish naval affairs were sometimes linked with those of England following the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and of the Parliaments in 1707, a great deal of the country's naval activity was of a complex and semi-privatised nature, which went largely unrecorded in the formal state dossiers. As a result the sources that do survive are scattered and often oblique, and many lie in the archives of other nations, including the Scandinavian countries, Holland, Germany and France. Another repository of prime importance is Scotland's High Court of Admiralty, the records of which chronicle litigation concerning the disposal of prizes. Professor Murdoch, who for many years has been at the forefront of studies into Scotland's extensive connections with continental Europe, has pulled these varied sources together to produce a strikingly original study of the country's maritime and naval history, from which he has drawn many important and often unexpected conclusions.
As far as conventional naval activity is concerned—the creation, maintenance, and deployment of state-owned vessels for defensive or aggressive purposes—Scotland's track-record is indeed minimal. Apart from the ambitious and short-lived warship Michael of James IV (closely contemporary with and probably not dissimilar to the Mary Rose in her original configuration), the royal Scottish navy throughout the period under consideration rarely consisted of more than a few lightly armed vessels which generally operated defensively in home waters.
Much of the country's naval effort, however, was privately sponsored and thus escaped inclusion in the easily accessed state papers. Scotland's hereditary Lord Admiral, unlike most of his European counterparts, lacked a dedicated fleet of warships with which to apply violence on the state's behalf and was therefore obliged to persuade private shipowners to provide this service voluntarily and without charge. Fishery protection required specialized gunboats known as ‘waughters’ (watch vessels). These were contracted privately and paid for by imposing a levy on the fishing boats. Merchant shipping was organized into convoys for which hired escorts were provided, again paid for by the protected vessels. The convoy system worked best if a proportion of the merchantmen were themselves armed, and this was encouraged by offering a 50% reduction on the dues payable by ships that sailed ‘nakit’.
Offensive action against enemy shipping and installations required a different approach, for which the enemy himself was expected to pay. To stimulate a process of high-risk private investment with potentially massive returns the Lord Admiral issued letters of marque in time of war, authorizing captains to raid, plunder, capture or sink an enemy's assets and derive benefit from the prizes. Such authority might be issued to individual privateers (including, on occasion, foreign ships), or to groups of marauding wolf-packs or ‘Marque Fleets’. Letters of reprisal were rather different. These were issued to specific individuals, authorizing them to make good by predatory means wrongs done to them by another nation, whether in war or peace.
These carefully regulated inducements to violence on the state's behalf were usually seen as piracy by those against whom they were directed (as they have been by uncritical historians), but as Murdoch emphasizes the legal distinctions are clear and from a historian's perspective the extensive litigation generated has provided a rich and often extremely detailed source of evidence. Of course true piracy did take place, by and against Scottish shipping, but of its nature such clandestine activity is much more poorly documented.
These sources, and the often chaotic reality of the events they chronicle, do not always make for coherently progressive narratives or tidy conclusions. This is not an easy read, though it helps if the tightly written conclusion at the end of each chapter is assimilated before the chapter itself is tackled! But the difficulties of digestion should not be allowed to mask the richness of the meal. Much of the information is in microcosmic form, derived as it is from a multitude of case studies culled from the sources. These do not usually tell us much about the grand affairs of state, but they take us on individual and often quite intimate journeys which allow us to view the contemporary maritime world, and how it worked in practice, from the perspectives of those that inhabited it.
Chapter 1 opens with the Scottish royal navy at its apogee in 1513 on the eve of the battle of Flodden, with a significant capital fleet headed by the iconic Michael. Though that battle and consequent death of James IV severely curtailed naval development, formal Scottish sea power continued to be applied in home waters, particularly in the west. This maritime landscape of indented coastlines and scattered archipelagos had long been under the control of largely independent sea-peoples from the Dalriadan Gaels in the late 6th century to the kings of Norway until their expulsion in 1266 and the MacDonald Lords of the Isles from the mid 14th century to 1493. The introduction of gun-carrying sailing ships increasingly brought the region under central control, throughout the 16th century and into the 17th, although the indigenous sailing galleys and birlinn (of 18–24 and 12–18 oars respectively) remained forces to be reckoned with for much of the period covered by the book.
The following chapters take us through the Union of the Crowns, the naval parsimony of the early Stuart kings, the impact of the Thirty Years' War, and the trauma of the Civil War with its complicated ramifications in Scotland. The Dutch wars add further sub-plots, as do the Restoration and Glorious Revolution in the second half of the 17th century, and the Union of the Parliaments in 1707.
Taken together, the evidence reveals a plethora of naval activity by Scottish ships, mainly private ones operating under the Lord Admiral's authority, which fully supports Murdoch's contention that this aspect of the country's history has been seriously undervalued by most historians (Nicholas Rodger being an honourable exception). Many of the sources, and the conclusions that emerge from them, are varied, fragmentary, and often unconventional from the standpoint of traditional naval historiography, but this makes them more rather than less significant. To these sources we might profitably add nautical archaeology. Two protected wreck sites in Scottish waters, both of which have been excavated, are relevant. The investigation of the Duart Point wreck of 1653 has suggested that she was a kind of Scottish ‘super-galley’, probably owned originally by the Marquis of Argyll on behalf of the Crown before being acquired by the Commonwealth navy. Professor Murdoch's arguments help to explain apparent anomalies that had arisen during a study of the wreck by this reviewer. The same is true of the nearby Dartmouth wreck which, though built by the Commonwealth at Portsmouth in 1655 and subsequently employed for many years by the British Royal Navy, had strong Scottish connections at the time of her loss in 1690.
The book is marred by a few editorial infelicities. There are unfortunate spelling mistakes, notably a frequent confusion between ‘complement/compliment’ and ‘principal/principle’. This reflects not so much on the author as on slack copy-editing, which should have routinely spotted and corrected such basic howlers (one suspects an over-reliance on spell-checkers). For a distinguished academic house such sloppiness is jarring and inexcusable, especially when the eye-watering cover price is taken into account. The book's other weakness is in its short illustrations section (which has eight figures, not the advertised nine, the last ‘figure’ being the cover image). The context and date of the West Highland birlinn in Figure 1 is not given (it is from the tomb of Alexander MacLeod, dated 1528). Figure 2 is a modern and entirely fanciful painting of James IV's Michael returning to her home port of Newhaven, seen on the horizon complete with an anachronistic lighthouse. This is the iconographic equivalent of imbuing a passage of fiction with the status of historical fact. The Letter of Marque reproduced in Figure 5 is virtually indecipherable because of its reduced scale and fuzzy reproduction, while the unattributed ‘Contemporary etching’ of the Bass Rock (Figure 7) is from John Slezer's Theatrum Scotiae (1693). Finally, a few suitably annotated maps would have helped the reader to navigate through the frequently confusing waters of this complex historical narrative.
These minor pictorial glitches demonstrate only the author's evident unfamiliarity with non-documentary sources. His grasp of the written material is magisterial and wide-ranging, and his interpretations clearly articulated, convincing, and original. This seminal book will change perceptions of maritime warfare during the early modern period, not only in Scottish seas but across much of north-western Europe. For nautical archaeologists who (like this reviewer) have worked on armed shipwrecks of this era and in these waters it is illuminating and essential reading.