The Old Scots Navy II


And it is no marvel that the Spaniard should seek by false and slanderous pamphlets, advisos and letters to cover their own loss, and to derogate from others their due honours . . . seeing they were not ashamed in the year 1588, when their purpose was the invasion of this land, to publish in sundry languages in print, great victories in words, which they pleaded to have obtained against this Realm and spread the same in a most false sort over all parts of France, Italy and elsewhere. When shortly after it was happily manifested in very deed to all nations how their Navy which they termed invincible, consisting of 240 sail of ships, not only of their own kingdom, but strengthened with the greatest Argosies, Portugal carracks, Florentines and huge Hulks of other countries; were by thirty of her Majesty’s own ships of war, and a few of our own Merchants, by the wise, valiant and most advantageous conduction of the Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of England, beaten . . .

Sir Walter Raleigh

In the late summer of 1588, survivors of Philip II’s great Armada, which was to have encompassed the destruction of heretic England, were beating northwards into the cold and unforgiving waters of the North Sea. Great carracks and galleasses wallowed in harsh seas, intense cold and pervading bleakness further lowering the morale of crews disheartened by defeat. The Duke of Medina Sidonia, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, hoped to lead his battered squadrons around the north of Scotland and then down the west coast of Ireland. Here a number of the ships foundered, driven onto rocky promontories. Scotland, under James VI was, in theory at least neutral, the situation obfuscated by the fact Mary had, under the terms of her will of 1577, bequeathed her claim to the throne of England, not to her Protestant son but to Philip II of Spain. James, however, was putative heir to Elizabeth and had a particular and vested interest in ensuring this ‘Enterprise of England’ should fail.

And it did indeed fail. Those wrecked on the barren shores of Ireland could hope for little mercy from the locals even if they were co-religionists: ‘It is the custom of these savages [the Irish] to live like wild beasts in the mountains . . . their great desire is to be thieves and plunder one another’ as one Spanish survivor recalled. Despite the nature of their reception, the idea of large numbers of Spanish soldiers, well-armed and led, being deposited in Ireland filled the administration with deep consternation. The available defenders were no more than 2,000 at best, ill-armed and worse trained, whose function was to control near a million Catholic Irish. At least one capital ship San Juan de Sicilia reached Tobermory where it was subsequently destroyed by explosion; an act of sabotage generally credited to the Anglophile Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean, and intended to rob Clan Donald of any advantage. Maclean may have been precipitate as the legend persists the doomed vessel carried a fortune in gold, a tale that has drawn treasure hunters ever since.

Alonso de Leyva managed to keep his large ship’s company together when the great Santa Ana was grounded on the rocks of Loughros More Bay. His command comprised some 700 souls, well-armed and with a leavening from the very cream of Spanish magnatial families. His men managed to join with the crew of the damaged galleass Gerona and, under his direction, repair the stricken vessel and make for the relative safety of Scotland. The clumsy ship, unsuited to northern tidal waters and northern tempests made heavy weather of the difficult passage. A bare 40 sea miles from Scotland, their luck ran out as her rudder broke and the ungainly craft, loaded with some 1100–1200 men, drifted helplessly on to rocks beneath the ramparts of Dunluce Castle. The garrison was not much troubled, however, for only a mere handful escaped the wreck.

A more fortunate, if sorely tried, survivor was the spirited Francisco de Cuellar. He had been stripped of his command for disobedience and was in disgrace, a prisoner aboard La Lavia when she was driven inshore by strong winds off Streetdagh Strand. Those who struggled ashore were manhandled and mistreated by the rapacious locals bent purely on spoil; any English officers, fearing an insurrection, would have been heartened. Despite his injuries and being a non-swimmer de Cuellar made it to the sands and survived the attentions of the indigenous predators. After many adventures, hampered by his wounds, the gallant Spaniard wandered the wastes of Ireland, sometimes befriended, often robbed and abused. With a handful of companions he stoutly defended a M’Glannagh pele against the English before making good his escape.


For several centuries, though most evidence arises during the later period, Hebrideans had been exporting military manpower to Ireland where the fighting skills of the ‘Gall-Gaidhil’ (‘Foreign’ Gaels) were continuously in demand. Principal reasons for this continual migration were essentially economic. The Hebrides are poor and, in large part barren, thus a young man with a strong arm and fire in his belly might find ready employment with the Irish chiefs frequently at odds with the English, each other or both. These warriors evolved into an elite caste, the Gallolaigh or, in its anglicized form, galloglass. A significant contribution to the supposed superiority of the Islesmen was their naval capacity. Clinker-built galleys would always be superior to the currachs of the Irish lords. In his excellent and definitive study of the Hebridean galley, Denis Rixson points out that this was a clear paradox; a region that was economically backward and relatively sparsely populated could prey at will on a larger, more populous and wealthier neighbour by dint of a clear technological advantage.

The new age of internecine bloodletting after 1493 proved a further spur to military/economic migration to Ireland. Ties of blood and marriage also played their part. Bruce had married the Red Earl of Ulster’s daughter and a whole web of allegiances had subsequently bound the MacSorleys and other chiefs since. In 1595, one correspondent wrote that a recently arrived company of Scots had been offered local wives, each a spouse appropriate to his degree. The letter concludes with an observation that the Scots had, on receipt of the offer, immediately departed whence they’d come! In financial terms, the more unsettled affairs in Ireland stood, the stronger the Hebrideans’ bargaining position. In 1594, O’ Donnell was offering high wages – double the norm – to tempt extra recruits. One year later, Macleod of Harris received an advance of £500, a very sizeable sum, from the O’Neill Earl of Tyrone and was able to raise a brigade of Islesmen 2,500 strong. Further cash bonuses accrued with the promise of harness and mounts. To poor men from the impoverished Hebrides, this was largesse indeed. Equally, other Islesmen, motivated by dislike of their neighbours, might sign on with the English. The 1590s would be bumper years for galloglasses. The native earls of Ulster were fighting a sustained and, for a long time, very successful guerrilla campaign against the encroaching English. Their final defeat at the battle of Kinsale would clearly have a proportionately adverse effect on the market.

To promote and facilitate this commerce in armed men, Hebridean galleys remained the perfect maritime vehicle. In design largely unchanged from previous centuries, the galley persisted through the sixteenth century. In terms of developments in naval and artillery technologies, galleys were redundant as warships in any action with an Elizabethan man-of-war, though her oars and handiness could still give her the edge in inland and island waters. English commander George Thornton, with decades of service in Irish and Scottish waters, clearly appreciated the usefulness of the galley’s oars, that they could outstrip pursuit even by a fast pinnace, unless the wind was sufficient to close the gap. The galley could be beached and was thus not dependent upon a sound anchorage. Its use in war was not restricted to ferrying troops. It could be used to victual the armies, to transport lifted livestock or harvest local fish stocks. Numerous accounts from the late sixteenth century record Scottish sea-rovers relieving Irish owners of their beasts.

In 1589, a raid of industrial proportions descended on Mayo, perpetrated by those experienced pirates, the MacNeills of Barra. Some 400 raiders slaughtered 600 head and stole near as many. These were in due course also killed, converting the haul into hides and tallow. This was pure brigandage, reminiscent of the Norse practice of ‘strand-hogg’. MacNeill was not a numerous or powerful name like Clan Donald but the remoteness of their island fastness and their skill as seafarers provided ample compensation.

From time to time the English would snap at the involvement of the clans in Irish affairs. Thomas Radcliffe, third Earl of Sussex, campaigned vigorously in Ireland during the reign of Mary Tudor. In 1557 he fought, with no small success, against Donough O’Connor and the murderously formidable Shane O’Neill. He subsequently intervened in a dispute between factions of the O’Briens, restoring the ousted Earl of Thomund. Exasperated by the continual presence of Scottish spears in the glens of Antrim, he resolved to discourage their industry and, by way of warning, took up Kintyre and several of the more southerly isles. In naval terms he was unopposed, though the lesson was largely wasted. Throughout the sixteenth century, the Irish administration was more concerned with securing the exclusion of the Scots than exerting any particular influence over them. In 1540, James V undertook his cruise through the western seaboard and the Isles with a powerful squadron of a dozen well-found vessels, bristling with ordnance. By this time there was no question that a fleet of galleys, however swift and numerous, could take on capital ships in an open engagement. Equally, for the crown, the cost of mounting such a show of force, however impressive, was very considerable, to the extent the game was scarcely worth the candle.

Though the Scots might possess the technological advantage over their Irish cousins, at least two native Irish clans – the O’Malleys and the O’Flahertys – were possessed of effective galley squadrons. To counter these, the Anglo-Irish deployed both conventional warships and galleys of their own. In June 1602, Sir Oliver Lambert petitioned the Lord-Deputy to authorise the acquisition by purchase of an English crewed galley to take on these two clans who were clearly active in raiding and piracy, taking many prizes. Sir Oliver had in mind a vessel of 15 oars a side and carrying a complement of 50 marines. Clearly, he tended to the view that it was necessary to set a thief to catch a thief in terms of the most suitable craft for the work. Like Scotland, the west coast of Ireland was a confusion of narrow inlets and tiny natural harbours, inaccessible to a galleon. Both the O’Malleys and the O’Flahertys had a similar opportunist approach to the MacNeills and appear to have operated in similar freebooting style. The formidable Grany (Grace) O’Malley (Grainne Ni Mhaille), a lady of conspicuous skill as a pirate,9 had, through a judicious choice of consort, united the two clans into a single thriving consortium. More than happy to contract to the English if the terms were attractive, she could bring a score of galleys and 200 broadswords. In 1598, her son Donald was bargaining for a commission to deny Scottish galleys any approach to Ulster:

He will take upon him to keep from the north both the Highland and Lowland succour of Scotland, if Her majesty will build him two galleys in Wexford or Carrickfergus, the one of twenty-four oars, and the other of thirty.

These were indeed substantial vessels, and both Wexford and Carrickfergus were possessed of established yards and the size of O’Malley’s proposed flagship, presumably the larger of the two, invites comparison with the nearest Hebridean equivalent, the ‘Rodel’ galley. This is shown, carved on one of the panels of the tomb of Alexander Macleod (d.1528), interred in St Clement’s church, Rodel on Harris. It has 17 oars a side, a total of 34, and thus a likely crew of more than 100. Competent as the O’Malleys undoubtedly were, there is no record of any sea fight between their galleys and those of the Scots. As previously noted, the main English intention was to stop up the sea passage and deny the Irish their hired help, to control access via the North Channel.

With Elizabeth’s naval resources concentrated against the very real threat from Spain, her officers could not afford a significant deployment off Ireland. However, for the best part of half a century, a small squadron, which became known as the Ulster Patrol, remained active. Details of a number of the vessels, which from time to time performed this thankless and inglorious chore, have been preserved, and it is immediately clear that there was a wide disparity in the type of craft employed, ranging from diminutive vessels such as the Spy of 50 tons, a crew two score strong and mounting only nine guns, up to the altogether more potent Swiftsure – 40 guns and more and with a couple of hundred mariners and marines on board. The disparity should be considered in the light of observations that the English would require a ship of no more than 30 tons to take on the O’Malleys. This implies that boats such as Spy, Moon (60 tons, 9 guns) and Charles (70 tons, 16 guns) were sufficient in terms of weight of shot, but the bigger ships Swiftsure and Foresight were there to provide ‘shock and awe’.

The task facing English skippers, doughty George Thornton and others, such as captains Rigges and Moyle, was an unenviable one. Climate and coastline were hostile, the enemy numerous, well-prepared and with a deep local knowledge; their galleys were no match in a fight but damnably elusive otherwise. Ships were precious, representing a very considerable outlay in men and treasure. Storm damage was frequent and costly; pay and supply were frequently scarce or non-existent. Corruption and a whole raft of inefficiencies combined to render the task yet more difficult. Yet there were some successes. A report from 1584 records the destruction of six Scottish galleys taken or drowned – the latter perhaps as a consequence of ramming rather than gunfire.

In the summer of 1595 a large fleet of Hebridean craft at least 100 strong – larger galleys, birlinns and nyvaigs – was known to be sea bound, probably, from Arran for Ulster. On board, in addition to supplies, were perhaps as many as 3,000 mercenaries, raised for service by Donald Gorn Macdonald of Sleat, MacLeods of Lewis and Harris. They probably sailed on or about 22 July. George Thornton, at this point, had Poppinjay, while Gregory Rigges was master of Charles. It was not the entire Hebridean fleet which encountered the Ulster Patrol off Copeland Island, but a substantial contingent nevertheless. Accounts differ as to the exact details of the fight, but there is a consensus that the Hebrideans were badly mauled in the first clash, perhaps up to three being sunk, two more captured and others run ashore. A standoff then ensued; the Scots had numbers but the English had weight of shot and the first, bruising test had left the Islesmen in no doubt as to who would prevail if battle was resumed. Donald Macdonald promptly offered to change sides, expediency as ever being the driver. His offer was, however, declined, and he with most of his brigade was obliged to return home, leaving pledges and assurances for their good behaviour. Both sides would be fully aware of their worth. A couple of battalion-sized contingents, presumably not involved in the fight, did get through to Ireland unmolested. The Ulster patrol had, however, thoroughly proved its worth.

Such a battle would be fast and confusing; the capital ships would run out their guns at first sight of the galleys. That they were able to do so suggests they had the weather gauge but that the winds were not so strong as to spoil the gunners’ aim. Charles we know was smaller, a mere 70 tons and 16 pieces. Poppinjay likely fired the heavier broadside. The guns, probably at this date brass or bronze muzzle-loaders, mounted on two-wheeled carriages and secured by tackle, might at best be 18-pounders. Gun captains would be ready with bags of powder ladled into the muzzle, shot and wadding thrust down and secured with the rammer, a fine trickle of priming powder poured down the quill placed in the touch-hole. The great gun sighted and aimed, then a vast, crashing roar as the linstock lighted the charge, the gun belching fire and death. A fast-moving galley would be no easy target, but the very press of the Hebridean craft would have aided their demise. Screaming round shot would punch through the planking, shearing limbs, unleashing a lethal blizzard of splinters, which could impale and mangle as sure as iron. Grape, fired from the deck-mounted swivels, would flense the waists, killing men so tightly packed by the dozen. Holed and mastless, galleys would swiftly founder leaving a spew of spars, cordage and a seaborne carpet of bobbing corpses.

If the Scots had experienced relatively little loss of life in the fight, perhaps 100 men or so killed, some, at least had learned a salutary lesson. In August, Thornton met Maclean of Duart on Mull. The chief offered 2,000 broadswords for the Queen’s service, subject only to Argyll’s acquiescence. In the last decade of the sixteenth century, Maclean was at odds with Clan Donald over the Rhinns of Islay, and English assistance would more than make up for the naval shortcomings of his Campbell allies. Maclean also enjoyed a significant windfall as the doomed Armada hastened to its destruction, salvaging a rich haul of invaluable ordnance. His offer to supply men to the Queen for service in Ireland was as much calculated to make friends of the English as to net the usual financial reward. Perhaps one of the best and most experienced masters to serve with the Ulster patrol, George Thornton died, still active, in 1601.

Such successes were relatively rare. In the majority of instances the Scots got through; the galleys were outdated and outclassed as men-of-war but they still possessed agility, speed and the handiness of the oars. When confronted, a fleet would simply scatter, depriving their opponents of a worthwhile catch. If the weather turned foul as it was frequently like to do, there was no sense in continuing to hazard a capital ship in the continuing pursuit of minnows. Efforts were made to prevent the Islesmen importing Irish timber supplies and the need to have some form of oared vessel added to the strength was recognised. In 1596 it was proposed to add a pair of light pinnaces of suitably shallow draft. Three years later the revised intention was to construct substantial oared vessels, 44 feet in the keel and with a beam of 14 feet, carrying 40 oars and armed with bow-chasers. Though they might cruise with relative impunity, galleys were vulnerable once beached and out of the water. Captain Norreys deployed three galleons against rebel-held Rathlin Island in 1575 and, in the ensuing action, not only destroyed the garrison but added a total of 11 beached galleys to the final tally.

Captain Plessington of Tramontana engaged an Irish galley in the summer of 1601. The English man-of-war succeeded in driving the galley inshore but was obliged to launch her boat close to contact. The Irish galley carried 30 oars and a well-armed complement of 100 or so, many of whom were equipped with firearms. For an hour, the two boats skirmished and sniped, using only small arms and the English were suffering the more heavily. Plessington ran out his great guns and, shooting over the heads of his longboat crew, made a swift conclusion. The vessel he destroyed was one of Grany O’Malleys, apparently skippered by one of her illegitimate offspring!