Royal Scots Navy: Wikis


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The Scottish Red Ensign, flown by ships of the Royal Scots Navy

The Royal Scots Navy (or Old Scots Navy) was the navy of the Kingdom of Scotland from its foundation in the 11th century until its merger with the Kingdom of England's Royal Navy per the Acts of Union 1707.



The Scots Navy was created in about 1000 to combat the Viking invasions. Initially it consisted of longships, some captured from the Vikings. After Magnus VI of Norway ceded Scandinavian control over northern Scotland and the Western Isles to Alexander III, the navy was neglected.

The long course of intermittent war, from the days of Robert the Bruce to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, against England with her rapidly rising and comparatively powerful fleet, further made naval defence important for Scotland. During the period of the disputed succession to the Scottish throne, and the Wars of Scottish Independence, there appears little or no trace of a Scots navy. With Scottish independence established, Robert the Bruce turned his attention to the upbuilding of Scots shipping and of a Scots navy. In his later days he visited the Western Isles, which was part of the domain of the powerful Lords of the Isles who owed only a loose allegiance to him, and established a royal castle at East Loch Tarbert in Argyll to overawe the semi-independent Islemen.

The Exchequer Rolls of 1326 record the feudal services of certain of his vassals on the western coast in aiding him with their vessels and crews. Near his palace at Cardross on the River Clyde he spent his last days in shipbuilding; and one royal man-of-war of the Viking type at least was equipped by him before he died in 1329.

On his return to Scotland in 1424 James I gave close attention to the shipping interests of his country. At Leith he established a shipbuilding yard, a house for marine stores, and a workshop; and king's ships were built and equipped there, which were used for trade as well as war. In 1429 James went to the Western Isles with one of his ships to curb his vassals there. In the same year Parliament enacted a law that each four merk land on the north and west coasts of Scotland within six miles of the sea was, in feudal service to the king, to furnish one oar. This was the nearest approach ever made in Scotland to the ship money of England.

His successor, James II, developed the use of gunpowder and artillery in Scotland. The use of bombards or cannon as naval armament had a great effect in modifying the construction of the old trireme and Viking type of war vessel. Vessels were thereafter built with hulls thick enough to resist artillery, and with high forecastles to carry guns.

The pioneer in Scotland's newer type of warship was a churchman. In 1461 Bishop Kennedy of St. Andrews built the St Salvator, a great ship for trade and for war purposes which cost £10,000. This vessel, the "navis immanis et fortissima", was ultimately lost on the coast of Northumberland. The chief coadjutors, however, of James III and James IV in building up the Scots navy were not dignitaries of the Church, but the merchant skippers of Leith; Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, John Barton and his sons Andrew, Robert and John, and William Brounhill. In 1473 the King's Carvel, better known as the Yellow Carvel, was under the command of John Barton. In his struggle with his rebellious nobles, in 1488 James III received assistance from his two warships the Flower and Yellow Carvel, then under the command of Sir Andrew Wood.

Expansion under James IV

James IV continued his father's policy of building up the navy. He loved ships and saw the importance to Scotland of having a strong navy. He built 38 ships for his fleet and founded two new dockyards. In 1489 Sir Andrew Wood with his 2 ships cleared the Scottish seas of English privateers, capturing 5 and bringing them as prizes into Leith. That same year Lutkyn Mere, a Danish pirate who had long infested the North Sea, was captured and hanged with his crew. In 1490 Henry VII of England, by way of reprisal against Wood, fitted out three privateers under Stephen Bull; but after a running fight from the Forth to the Tay, Bull and his three ships were captured by Wood.

In 1491 Wood, who had obtained a royal licence to erect a fortalice (a fortified tower house) at Largo in Fife, employed English captives on the work. Besides making naval reprisals Henry VII of England played the diplomatic game of fomenting the semi-independent Lord of the Isles and the Islesmen to throw off the sovereignty of Scotland, with such success that from 1493–1495 (following the official forfeiture of the Lordship in 1493) and in 1498 James made at least four expeditions to the western seas to secure the doubtful allegiance of the Island chiefs and was largely successful - as a fluent Gaelic speaker, the last Scottish king to be so, James was able to deal with the Islanders in their own language.

In 1494 he was convoyed by the man-of-war Christopher and other ships, and accounts are given of a large row barge and two smaller vessels built at Dumbarton to curb the Islesmen. In the expedition of 1495 the king was accompanied by Sir Andrew Wood in Flower.

The most notable of the Bartons in the annals of the Scots navy was Andrew. In reprisal for the seizure of his father's ship in 1476 by the Flemish, he is said to have received letters of marque in 1506 from King James, and to have preyed on their commerce in the English Channel. In 1508 he was sent by James IV to assist his uncle, King John of Denmark, against Lübeck.

In 1511 he was sent to Copenhagen with his two ships Lion and Jenny Pirwin and in August that year, in a fight in the English Downs, Barton was slain, and his two ships captured by Sir Edward Howard and transferred to the English navy.

In the legislation of the Scots Parliaments of 1493 and 1503 requiring all sea-board burghs to keep "busches" of 20 tons to be manned by idle able-bodied men, James and the Estates had not only the improvement of the fisheries in view, but the manning of the mercantile marine and the navy.

A model of the Great Michael in the Royal Museum

His greatest achievement was the construction of Great Michael, the largest ship up to that time launched in Scotland, the building of which cost £30,000. Launched in 1511 she weighed 1,000 tons, was 240 feet (73 m) in length,was manned by 1,000 seamen and 120 gunners and was then the largest ship in Europe (according to the chronicler Lindsay of Pitscottie). She had Sir Andrew Wood as quartermaster and Robert Barton as skipper.

In the campaign against England, the Scots fleet consisted of sixteen ships with tops and ten smaller craft, partly King's ships, partly hired ships and partly privateers. Commanded by the Earl of Arran and Gordon of Letterfourie, feudal magnates with no naval experience, it did nothing effective. Arran was later superseded by Sir Andrew Wood, but refusing to give up command he sailed for France to form a junction with the allied French fleet, but failed to do anything effective against the fleet of England.

In 1514 Great Michael was sold to France, but some of the other men of war, and in particular James and Margaret, returned to Scotland. Entries in the Exchequer Rolls of 1515 and 1516 show the victualling of King's ships at Dumbarton and Dunbar, which with Leith were the principal naval harbours and arsenals of Scotland, but the fleet of James IV seems soon after Arran's expedition to France to have disappeared before the reprisals of the English and other privateers and the storms of the northern seas.

Union with the English navy

Admiral Gordon, Governor of Kronstadt, last commodore of the Old Scots Navy.

There were at least two naval engagements of some importance in the reign of James V. In 1536 he sailed for France to bring home his wife, convoyed by a fleet of six ships, the largest of 600 tons and manned by 500 seamen and gunners. In 1540, two years before his death, he made an expedition to the Western Isles to curb the Islesmen with a fleet of sixteen ships.

During the reign of James V there began to rise into prominence at the Scots Court an English party, whose policy was the exclusion of the French faction from the government of Scotland, and the turning of the realm "unto the amity of England". This policy only became effective when Scotland came into line with England after the Reformation in 1560 and reached fuller fruition with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. This trend of policy rendered the possession of a fleet to protect Scots interests against English aggression less and less necessary.

On the other hand involvement of Scotland on English foreign policy and foreign relations soon involved her in the Continental wars of England, and rendered protection to Scots shipping necessary. This was seen when England went to war with Spain in 1625. In the meantime, whenever sea power was necessary in Scottish domestic policy, the ships of private owners were commandeered or hired.

During the First Anglo-Dutch War measures were taken to impress Scots seamen for the English fleet. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, Charles II levied from the sea-coast burghs 500 Scots seamen for the English navy. In the Third Anglo-Dutch War, fought from 1672 to 1674, the policy of levying Scots seamen for the English navy was continued. In return for this service Scottish seamen received protection against impressment by English men of war. During this war letters of marque were again freely issued to Scots skippers.

When as a consequence of the Act of Union in 1707 the Royal Scottish Navy was merged with the English Royal Navy, the latter possessed 277 ships compared with the three of the former:


  • Duffy, S. (ed.) (2002) Robert the Bruce's Irish wars : the invasions of Ireland 1306-1329, Stroud, Gloucestershire : Tempus, ISBN 0-7524-1974-9
  • Grant, J. (ed.) (1914) The old Scots navy from 1689 to 1710, Publications of the Navy Records Society 44, London : Navy Records Society , 448 p.
  • McDonald, R.A. (1997) The Kingdom of the Isles : Scotland's western seabord, c.1000-1336, Scottish historical review monographs series 4, Phantassie : Tuckwell Press, ISBN 1-898410-85-2
  • Macdougall, N. (1989) James IV, Stewart dynasty in Scotland 1, Edinburgh : John Donald, ISBN 0-85976-200-9
  • McNamee, C. (1997) The wars of the Bruces : Scotland, England and Ireland 1306-1328, East Linton : Tuckwell Press, ISBN 1-898410-92-5
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (1997) The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain, Vol.1, 660-1649, London : HarperCollins in association with the National Maritime Museum, ISBN 0-00-255128-4
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (2004) The command of the ocean : a naval history of Britain, Vol. 2., 1649-1815, London : Allen Lane in association with the National Maritime Museum, ISBN 0-7139-9411-8

Further reading

The most accessible work on the Old Scots Navy and Scots naval matters, prior to 1649, is N. A. M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea (1997), which provides extensive coverage in context, particularly for the Wars of Independence and the reign of James IV. The bibliography provided by Rodger is considerable, and includes works on the Early and High Medieval periods. The second volume of Rodger's history, The Command of the Ocean (2004), offers comparatively little coverage of Scotland.

Norman Macdougall, James IV (1989) is the standard life of the king most important to the history of the Royal Scots Navy, and does not stint on naval coverage. Works such as R. Andrew McDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles (1997), Colm McNamee, The Wars of the Bruces (1998), and Sean Duffy, Robert the Bruce's Irish Wars (2002), may be helpful to expand the context provided by Rodger.

See also

External links



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