The History of Leith

July 10, 2007

Leith Letters of Marque

It is singular that neither at the Trinity House, in the Kirkgate, nor anywhere else, a record has been kept of the Leith Letters of Marque or other armed vessels belonging to the port during the protracted wars with France, Spain, and Holland, while the notices that occur of them in the brief public prints of those days are meagre in the extreme; yet the fighting merchant marine of Leith should not be forgotten.
Taking a few of these notices chronologically, we find that the ship Edinburgh, of Leith, Thomas Murray commander, a Letter of Marque, carrying eighteen 4-pounders, with swivels and a fully-armed crew, on the 3oth of August,in latitude north, and longitude 58 west, from London, fell in with a very large French privateer, carrying fourteen guns, many swivels, and full of men,
This was at eleven in the forenoon. The Edinburgh we are told, attacked, and fought her closely for five glasses,and mauled her aloft so much, that she was obliged to fill her sails, bear away, and then bring to, and re-fit aloft. The Edinburgh continued her course, but with ports triced up, guns loaded, and the crew at quarters ready to engage again.
The privateer followed, and attempted to board, but was received with such a terrible fire of round shot and small-arms, that she was again obliged to sheer off. Many times the conflict was renewed, and at last ammunition fell short on board the Edinburgh
The gallant Captain Murray now lay by, reserving his fire, while a couple of broadsides swept his deck; and then, when both ships were almost muzzle to muzzle, and having brought all his guns over to one side, poured in his whole fire upon her, which did such execution that drove all hands from their quarters; she immediately hoisted all her sails, and made off.
The crew of the Edinburgh now sheeted home, and gave chase, but she was so heavily laden with the spoils of her cruise that the enemy out-sailed her, upon which Captain Murray, with a great number of wounded men on his hands, bore away to Barbados to re-fit.
In the spring of the following year, a Leith sloop, coming from Strichen, laden with wheat and cheese, was taken off St.Abbs Head by two French privateers of twelve and sixteen guns the latter was Le Marchal Duc de Noailles, painted quite black. When the sloop struck a tremendous sea was running; Laverock, the master, ransomed her for 100 guineas, and reported at Leith that if these two great privateers were not taken soon, they would ruin the east coast trade of Scotland.
Soon after another ship of Leith was taken by them into Bergen, and ransomed for 500 guineas, though a few days before the privateer had been severely handled by the Elizabeth, merchant ship, Captain Grant, who had also to strike to her, after a most severe combat.
In 1794, the Faith, of Leith, was captured by a squadron of French ships on the 2 August, together with the Dundee, whaler, of Dundee. The latter was re-taken, and brought into Leith by H.M. brig Fisher,-, which reported that, previous to re-capture, the Dundee had picked up a boat, having on board eight Frenchmen, part of a prize crew of sixteen put on board the Faith to take her to Bergen; but the mate and another Scottish sea man had daringly re-taken her, and had sailed none knew whither. Soon after a letter reached the owners in Leith from Lyons, the mate, dated from Lerwick, briefly stating that when fifteen miles west of Bergen, I retook her from the French, sending nine of the Frenchmen away in one of the boats, and put the rest in confinement.Eventually these two brave fellows brought the ship to Leith, from whence the prisoners were sent to the Castle.
In those days the Glass House Company had their own armed ships, and one of these, the Phoenix, Cornelius Neilson, master, had the reputation of being one of the swiftest sailors in Leith, and was always advertised to sail with or without convoy, as she fought her own way.
In 1797, the Breadalbane Letter of Marque, of Leith, captured a large Spanish brig off the coast of South America, and sent her into Leith Roads for sale, under the convoy of the Royal Charlotte, Captain Elder.
During the latter end of the eighteenth century Leith possessed two frigate-built ships of remarkable beauty, the Rose a Letter of Marque, and the Moreland, her sister ship, which usually fought their own way; and the former was so like a man-of- war in her size and appearance, that she frequently gave chase for a time to large foreign privateers.

In the Herald for 1798 we read that on her appearance off Peterhead, in March, she created such consternation that the captain of the Robert, a Green landman, on a gun being fired from her, ran his ship ashore, according to one account, and, according to another, made his escape, with the assistance of his crew, from the supposed enemy. The Moreland and the Lady Forbes, of Leith, another aimed ship, seem always to have sailed in company, for protection, to and from the West Indies.After many escapes and adventures, the beautiful Rosell, which carried fourteen guns of large calibre, was captured at last by a Spanish line-of-battle ship, which, report said, barbarously sank her, with all on board, by a broadside.
On the 6th December, 3798, the Betsy, of Leith, Captain Mackie, having the Angus regiment of volunteers on board, from Shetland, in company with an armed cutter, was attacked off Rattray Head by two heavily-armed French privateers, A severe engagement ensued, in which the volunteers made good use of their small arms; the privateers were crippled and beaten off by the Betsy, which ran next day into Banff, and the troops were put on shore.
In the same month The Generous Friends, sailing from Leith to Hull, when a few miles off the mouth of the Humber, in a heavy gale of wind, was overtaken by a large black privateer, having a poop and fiddle-head painted red and white. The heavy sea prevented her from being boarded and the appearance of the Baltic fleet compelling the enemy to sheer off, she bore up with the latter, and returned to Leith Roads; but such little excitements were of constant occurrence in those stirring times.
The Nancy, of Leith, Captain Grindley, was taken, in July, 3799, off Dungeness, by the Adolph, lugger, of eighteen guns and fifty men, who used him and his crew with great severity prior to their being cast into the horrible prison at Valenciennes.
The behaviour of the Frenchmen to us, when taken, was most shameful,he wrote to his owners in Leith. When they got upon our deck, they kept firing their pistols, cutting with swords for some time, and dragging those who were below out of their beds; they cut and mangled in a cruel manner one of our men, William Macleod, who was then at the helm, and afterwards threw him overboard. This obliged the rest of the crew to leave the deck and go below. In a short time we were put on board the privateer and landed at Calais, from whence we were ten days marching to Valenciennes; were lodged in the most horrid jails by the way, and were allowed nothing but bread and water.
In the May of the following year, the brig Caledonia, of Leith, and the Mary, of Kirkwall, were both captured, not fax from Aberdeen, by a French privateer; but when within three miles of the coast of France, they escaped to Yarmouth, on the appearance of the Lady Anne an armed lugger, commanded by Lieutenant Wright, RN.
On the 6th March, 1800, the Fox, Letter of Marque, of Leith, fought a sharp battle, which her captain, James Ogilvy, thus details in the report to his owners there
Last night, at 11 p.m., Dungeness, NNW, three leagues, I observed a lugger lying on my lee-bow; the moment he saw me he made sail and ran ahead to windward, and hove-to until I came up. I observed his motions, hoisted a light on my maintop, and hailed the Juno, of Kirkcaldy, Mr. James Condy, who came from Leith Roads along with me, and kept company all the way, to keep close by me, as he was under my convoy; which he immediately did also two colliers. All my hands lay on deck, and were prepared to receive him (the enemy), being well loaded with round and grape shot from my small battery. He, with his great, or lug mainsail, bore down on my quarter within pistol-shot. I immediately gave him our broadside, which, from the confusion and mourning cries, gave me every reason to suppose he must have had a number killed and wounded, arid he lay-to, with all his sails shaking in the wind, as long I could see him. I am truly happy that the Foxs small force has been the means of saving herself as well as the Juno and the two colliers, from a desperate set of thieves that so much infest this channel. We have fortunately arrived here (Portsmouth) safe to-day, with the Juno, in time to join the convoy for Gibraltar. Have got instructions from the Champion frigate, and sail to-morrow morning(Herald and Chron., 1800).

from James Grants, Old and New Edinburgh 1883

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