Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Captain Kidd and The Greenock Road

He never slept.

Or at least that was the impression he gave and it had served him well throughout his life. He might only have been on this earth seventeen summers but he was brave, respected by his men and ready to face any foe. Everything he did was in the pursuit of treasure and in the search for those great adventures. 

He was Billy to his friends, at least the small number whom he trusted, but to his enemies and his crew he was Captain William Kidd; seadog, pirate, thief and killer.   

Now he was resting with his eyes closed and his legs raised on the deck of the Greenock Road. This was his vessel and it carried the name of the town that was etched on his heart - and soon the ship would have a new worthy cargo, a passenger, a man by the name of Archibald Campbell known to world as the Earl of Argyll. The Earl’s family would pay very handsomely, very handsomely indeed to have their own rascal returned in one piece.


There was a shot across the bow of the Greenock Road and then another which hit the stern, knocking Kidd flying back and sending wood splinters into the eyes of those close. He crawled to the edge and tried to look through his eye-piece but there was too much smoke. His first thoughts were of the excise men but then he saw the flag, it was the dogs who normally lay off of Tobermory and their ship, the Black Death.

“We’re trapped Cap’n, there’s them at our stern and that monster over there.” One-eyed Harry always saw the worst of things.

One-eyed was right ‘though, there were only two ways out of this. He couldn’t outrun the larger vessel but maybe, with the luck of the devil, he could find a passage through the monster called Corryvreckan. That would allow them to take shelter in a small cove at the back of the isle of Scarba and let their troubles pass.

Corryvreckan was said to be the largest whirlpool in the known world and everyone could tell you bad stories about the place. With the seas being at a flood tide, he could hear the roar even now and they were at least a half hour’s sail from the eye. The waves spread out like a web and could easily reach up to thirty feet or more. This was going to be a ride that would see them safely home or take every last one of them to hell. 

When times were hard, which they always seemed to be these days, Kidd had raided the Black Death on more than one occasion. He’d wait until many of its crew were ashore and then his gang would steal whatever they could. He’d thought about taking the Black Death itself but he didn’t have the men to get it safely away. 

It meant that if they caught him it wouldn’t just be death, it would be a long slow agonising one for him and his crew - this made the dangerous transit through Corryvreckan the more attractive option.

Kidd lived by one philosophy and that was, he knew he had the ability to do anything. He did it and he succeeded. If you thought of failure you were half way there as his father, the old minister, used to tell him every day of his early life. So he was going to take his ship through the Corryvreckan at flood tide and he was going to survive.  

Those on the Black Death knew these waters just as well as Kidd and perhaps even better, but Kidd was certain that they had not sailed the Corry’ at flood otherwise he would have heard of it – and what would be the point? All you had to do was wait for slack water and pass safely through but there was not enough time for that, so he had to gamble on the fact they wouldn’t follow him. 

He sailed the Greenock Road around to the east towards the isle of Jura as this avoided the Pinnacle, a rock-stack that lay just below the surface and one of the reasons for the Corry's existence.

Looking over the stern, Kidd could see that the Black Death was gaining on him and despite the turbulence in the water the larger ship fired another cannonball which luckily only hit a corner. There wasn’t much damage but old Master Curry, the lookout, was now heading for the bottom of the sea. 

“They can’t follow us through here. They will not follow us.” Kidd shouted to the men. 

Tweeky Adams shouted back “I don’t think they can hear you Cap’n. Look” 

Sure enough they were coming up fast and the waves were growing in size, it looked like neither ship was going to make it. Then one of the sea gods whispered in Kidd’s ear and a smile lit up his face. 

“About. Hard about”

“But we might go turtle, Cap’n” cried One-eyed Harry.

“If we go through the Corry’ on this heading we’ll capsize anyway” cried Kidd through the increasing maelstrom and yet he was still smiling – he was loving this. So about turn they did, causing the Greenock Road to sweep out towards Jura. The Black Death however, being a large vessel, shot past with a very surprised crew all staring at that last manoeuvre of Kidd’s. 

“How, in all that's God given, did he do that?” shouted Hair-lip Hansa who was hanging upside down from the poop deck of the Death. 

That was the final sighting of the Black Death as it disappeared into the whirlpool and into folklore. Songs would be sung and stories would be told of the ghostly figures who haunted the Corryvreckan.

Kidd was just happy but not surprised to have escaped once again.
They waited until slack water to see if there were any survivors but not even a stick of wood  floated to the top, the vessel must have sunk without trace and in doing so taking all hands.
Kidd had a smile to himself then ordered the men to set sail for Saint Agnes’ Bay, a small inlet to the south of Inveraray on Loch Fyne. 

They could wait there for the Earl’s ship, the one taking him to Edinburgh by a route around the top of Scotland. This sea trip was safer for the Earl than taking the coach and horses through Glen Douglas and down the Rest-and-be-thankful where bandits lay in wait for any, and all, well-healed traveller. Very few ever made it to Arrochar alive. 

Both Kidd and Samson, the blackest of the dogs and the Cap’n and leader of the Tobermory gang had played a waiting game with the Earl. They had both steered well clear of attacking the ship, as each time they did so the military on board would have doubled. So to let the Earl think that he had safe passage was to have the opposite effect. The Earl had fewer men on board each trip, leaving him wide open for that one attack, the one that Kidd planned to carry out today. 

Kidd had another Greenock lad working in the kitchens of Inveraray castle who knew by the food he was being asked to prepare, that a voyage by the Earl was imminent. The Greenock Road had to be moving at speed to attack the Earl’s ship so it needed advance warning of the movements. 

Kidd and the kitchen boy had rehearsed their moves several times, each time Kidd would let the Earl’s ship pass safely. Kidd has several pigeons on board, some for eating and some had been trained to fly to the castle by the Earl’s staff. They were used to send messages back to Inveraray as the ship sailed around the coast. The kitchen boy had stolen some of them and they had been passed on to Kidd. 

When Kidd was sitting in St. Agnes’ Bay he would place a small blue ring around one of the pigeon’s leg then release it. The boy would always watch for pigeons returning, if one had a blue ring, he knew that Kidd was waiting. 

When the Earl’s ship, the Queen Margaret, was ready to set sail, the boy would get his father to fire a shot high above the woods of Loch Fyne. It could be heard way over towards St Agnes’ Bay. No one had ever put the shot and the ship’s departure together as nothing ever happened.  

This time they were ready, the Greenock Road had a full set of sails and was heading off down Loch Fyne, all the time gathering useful knots. The Queen Margaret rounded the rocky head just as Greenock Road’s one cannon fired on her, then came along side. 

It was a quick and clever manoeuvre from Kidd that found the crew of the Margaret completely overwhelmed. The pirates boarded the ship and the Earl was tied and stowed within thirty minutes. The few military men who were on the vessel were either put to the sword or thrown overboard. Normally Kidd did this on the high seas when there was nowhere for them to swim to but the speed and success of this kidnap had pleased him, he was willing to let some of them go. 

The plan was to take the Earl to a small island near Rum and hold up there a few days, word would be sent back to the mainland regarding the ransom.
When the crew had taken what they needed from the Queen Margaret it was set ablaze, mainly to let the good folks of Argyll know what had just taken place. 

The Earl and Kidd dined together that evening and found each other’s company agreeable. Kidd even mentioned that in another life the two of them might have become friends. They drank to that point several times and to a few more besides. 

When the Earl, who insisted that Kidd call him Archibald, finally collapsed at the table, the Captain went above to take in some sea air and think about things.For instance, he knew that someday soon he would spread his young wings and head for a far flung place like New York City - stolen from the Dutch by the English and most definitely a place he could own, but until then the waters of the West were his hunting ground.

Was that a flicker of light he could see on the Port side? It looked almost like a ship. The sky went dark once more and although he was usually sharp eyed he felt the brandy had perhaps taken its toll. 

But there it was again but this time he could see it wasn’t a ship, it was where they were headed in fact. It was the little village of Cancarn a pirate haven especially as far Captain William Kidd was concerned, they loved him there but now the place was ablaze.

The Captain called for all hands on deck, the sooner they made Cancarn, the sooner they could save what was left of it, that included his woman, Isabel, a bonnie lass of sixteen.  
By the time they berthed and headed for shore the sun was already up and they could see that the town was now only a shell, there was smoke rising everywhere. 

Cancarn was a ruin.
When they landed One-eyed Harry ran ahead for he too had a woman in port, Rose. She was the sister of Isabel and both sisters lived at the village pub. 

There wasn’t much left of the place and in what was once the corner of the bar was Old Jake, now a shrivelled frightened old man. 

Kidd had left the Earl back on the ship with most of his crew on the slim chance that this was a trap. Although he was sure that the King’s men could not have heard the news about what had happened at Inveraray and then crossed here so fast. No, this was the work of someone else.
And his question was answered when One-eyed Harry carried Old Jake back.

“He says this were all Samson’s doing with the help of those on the Black Death.
“He’s sure it was the Black Death?”
“Swears his life on it, and they’ve taken the women – all of them – you’ll get them back when he gets the Earl.”

Kidd wasn't smiling.

Bobby Stevenson 2012

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