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Wick-born pirate took his revenge on his former master

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Thurso’s Heritage by a Thirsa Loon

An artist’s impression of the hanging of Pirate Gow.
An artist’s impression of the hanging of Pirate Gow.

Whenever you think of a castle in Thurso, the most likely will be Thurso East, even though there were several other castles in the parish.

As with many longstanding buildings, they underwent changes with extensions or rebuilds. Some were not the castle that one sometimes imagines.

More like a small fortified house, Haimer Castle was a square building. It contained eight or nine rooms, including a dining-room, drawing-room, tea-room, two “pavilions”, bedrooms, sundry closets, cellars, etc.

Its owner, Alexander Sinclair, 9th Earl of Caithness (1705-1765), was the son of John Sinclair of Murkle, who died in 1705. An inventory of plate (silver contents) also suggests that the castle was modest.

Sinclair owned a dozen and a half silver spoons of all kinds, an old tea kettle and lamp, sugar-tongs and spoon, a couple of small salvers, a tankard, and some plated candlesticks, and the likes.

Before building the castle in 1726, the Earl lived at Murkle. He had caused some offence to one of his employees who would take his revenge sometime after. That young employee would later become notorious in history as none other than the Wick-born pirate John Gow.

Born around 1698, Gow was the son of a successful Stromness merchant, William Gow and his wife, Margaret Calder. He had another link with the Thurso parish as he formed some attachment to Katherine Rorieson, the daughter of a Thurso/Scrabster merchant. But this ended when her father arranged her marriage to George Gibson, son of the Dean of Watten and Bower.

When Gow was sailing his pirate ship past the Caithness coast years later, he recalled the exchange with the Earl. Bringing his ship close to the shore, he bombarded the Earl’s residence with cannon fire.

This attack led the Earl to build a new residency at Haimer, which “proved only out of range of Gow’s guns, for it is said that a cannonball landed at Broynach nearby.”

Gow was executed by hanging on June 11, 1725. The first attempt failed. What should have been a reasonably quick kill as he hung from the rope failed. Some of his friends pulled at his legs to ease the suffering, but the extra weight caused the rope to give way, and Gow fell to the ground. He was lifted up, and a second successful attempt was carried out.

After the Earl died, Haimer was abandoned and fell into ruin. In the 1870s, the then farmer was turning up part of the ruins, including a date stone removed from the ruins and built into the farmhouse.

A ladle, belonging to the Earl and made in Murkle before the castle was built, was presented to the Thurso Museum in 1878. Also included in the gift were the glass and asticles from the old parish church.

As this is the last article for the year, I would like to thank all the readers for their interest. I have always made a point of covering a variety of subjects, and hopefully, you may have gained a little more insight into the rich and often untapped history that Thurso has to offer.

Little did I know my efforts would lead to the publications, Thurso: Reminiscing with a Thirsa Loon, of which volume two is available to buy at Jamieson’s Bakery, Eye Candy and thursobooks.com

  • To get in touch contact thursoheritage1@gmail.com

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