February 10, 2020

Infamous Scots. Gilbert Balfour.

Gilbert Balfour lived from about 1520 to 1576. He served as Sheriff of Orkney and is chiefly remembered for his building of Noltland Castle on Westray and his involvement in two notable murders, of Cardinal Beaton and of Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Gilbert Balfour appears to have been born in Fife in around 1520. On 29 May 1546 he and two of his brothers were members of a group of “Protestant lairds” from Fife who entered St Andrews Castle pretending to be stonemasons. They dragged the unpopular Cardinal David Beaton out of his bedchamber, stabbed him to death, then mutilated him and hung his body from a castle window, in full view of the town of St Andrews. St Andrews Castle then became a gathering place for Protestants from all over the country, including John Knox, who held it in defiance of Marie de Guise’s troops. They had hoped for support from Henry VIII of England, but none came. Instead, French naval vessels arrived to bombard the castle, which surrendered on 31 July 1547. Many of those captured, including Gilbert Balfour and John Knox, became galley-slaves for the French navy: chained to benches and forced to row.

It is not clear when Balfour was released, though probably, like Knox, in 1549. In 1560 he was granted estates in Orkney by his brother in law, Adam Bothwell, the Bishop of Orkney. During the chaos of the Reformation, large amounts of church land up and down the country found its way into private hands. Gilbert Balfour’s slice included the islands of Shapinsay and Westray. Balfour was also appointed to the post of Sheriff of Orkney by Mary Queen of Scots and decided to secure his position by building Noltland Castle on Westray. Balfour was a man whose approach to politics earned him many mortal enemies and Noltland Castle was intended to cover all eventualities, setting what must be a record for the number of gunloops in a castle.

In February 1567 Balfour was implicated in the successful plot to kill Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley in Edinburgh. Amongst his co-conspirators was James, Earl of Bothwell whose marriage to Mary three months later led directly to her abdication. Balfour’s loyalty to Bothwell did not extend to giving him sanctuary when Bothwell turned up on Westray while fleeing to Denmark.

Balfour’s support for Mary’s claim to the Scottish throne over that of her son, James VI left him increasingly exposed. As a result, Balfour had to flee Orkney for Sweden in 1572 and Noltland Castle was taken by Robert Stewart, later to become Earl of Orkney, for James VI. The Balfour family regained possession of the castle in 1574, but Gilbert Balfour remained in Sweden until his habitual plotting led to his execution by the King of Sweden in 1576.

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Infamous Scots. John Gow.

John Gow (c. 1698–11 June 1725)was a notorious pirate whose short career was immortalised by Charles Johnson in A General History of the Pyrates. Little is known of his life, except an account by Daniel Defoe, which is often considered unreliable, the report on his execution, and an account by Mr Alan Fea, a descendant of his captor, published in 1912, almost two centuries after his death.

Early life

Gow was probably born in Wick, Caithness, to William Gow, a merchant, and Margaret Calder.  He was raised in Stromness, Orkney, where he went to school and learned to sail a ship.


Prior to August 1724 he crewed a voyage from London to Lisbon and back, during which he plotted to seize control of the vessel. He failed to attract sufficient numbers, however, and the effort went nowhere. In London, word spread about the attempt, so Gow fled to Amsterdam, where he joined the Santa Cruz-bound Caroline as the second mate.

After several months’ layover in Santa Cruz, on 3 November 1724, the Caroline departed for Genoa, Italy, with a cargo of beeswax, leather, and woollens. The shipboard climate, however, was troubled. There were complaints about the food onboard the ship, and Freneau, the captain of the Caroline, was accused of treating the other crewmen of the vessel improperly. Grousing of short allowance, the crewmen of the Caroline started to disobey some of the captain’s orders. The captain, realising that his orders were being disobeyed, consulted his mate. The two men agreed to stash some small arms in the cabin so they could defend themselves in case of mutiny. Unfortunately for the captain, two of the conspirators on the upper deck overheard the conversation.

Not realising that Gow was the ring leader of the attempted mutiny, Freneau ordered Gow to prepare arms to defend the crew. Upon hearing this, the mutineers decided to act that night. At ten p.m., after half the ship’s company had retired following evening prayer, shots echoed across the deck. Told that someone had fallen overboard, Freneau ran to the rail, where he was stabbed in the neck and shot twice in the stomach by Gow, then thrown overboard by the other conspirators. Still alive, he managed to clutch a rope dangling from the side of the ship, but when the conspirators realised this, they cut the rope and he tumbled into the sea. The next morning, the remainder of the crew was given the option of following their captain or joining the mutineers. Accounts indicate that they all accepted their former position. The ship was renamed Revenge.

Over the next few weeks, the Revenge began attacking British ships in the area, starting with the Delight (12 November) and the Sarah (21 November). The crews were usually set adrift, though some deemed useful were given the option of joining Gow’s crew. Over the next few months, Gow attacked several other ships plying the region.


After a successful career as a pirate off the Iberian Peninsula, Gow decided to return to the Orkney Islands. He was running low on supplies, and the authorities were on his trail. Arriving in early 1725, he adopted the name Mr Smith for himself, and renamed his vessel the George, and passed as a wealthy trader, even courting a Miss Gordon. He was eventually recognised by a merchant passing through the islands, and his true identity was revealed. According to other accounts, some of his prisoners escaped there and notified the authorities. Rather than surrender, Gow and his men successfully raided the Hall of Clestrain on 10 February 1725, but when they attempted to attack another remote mansion, they ran aground on the Calf of Eday, where they were captured.


According to the Newgate Calendar, Gow was slow to die when he hanged. To relieve his pain, some of his friends pulled at his legs, but this just broke the rope, causing him to tumble to the ground, from where he was gathered up and hanged again.

After his death, his body (along with those of his crew) was left in the River Thames. The bodies were then tarred and suspended on the riverbank, as a warning to other would-be pirates.

He was tried alongside pirate Brigstock Weaver, whose crimes were unrelated to Gow’s. While Gow was hanged for his piracies, Weaver was reprieved and soon 

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