Medieval Pirates - the tale of Tavish Dhu
Last Saturday, Portrush in Northern Ireland held a highly enjoyable pirate festival in honour of Tavish Dhu, a Scottish pirate who once haunted the coast. The theme of this year’s festival was “700 years dead” as 2015 marks the seventh century since the outbreak of the war that resulted in Tavish coming to a sticky end. Those who have read my book “The Waste Land” will recognise Tavish as the Pirate who captures Alys and who MacHuylin just manages to escape from.
|my children and the modern "Tavish Dhu"|
The festival was a great day out for the whole family, with a parade, ghosts a battle and twin pirate ships that sailed around the town. Understandably, the sabres, flintlocks, tri-cornered hats and frock coats on display along with bottles of rum and much “Yo Ho Ho”-ing owed more to the 17th Century golden age of piracy than Tavish’s medieval timeframe - and the amount of eyeliner being used owed a lot to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow- but its safe to say that is what people think of when they hear the word ‘pirate’ rather than what an American literary agent once described to me as “an obscure Irish war 700 years ago that involved no one that anyone has heard of.”
Pirates have been around since the dawn of shipping. Piracy is probably the second oldest profession in the world. Julius Caesar was held hostage by pirates in 75 BC (in true Caesar style he later had them all crucified). There’s some academic opinion that one of the words the Romans used for the Irish -Scotti - actually means pirate, because they mainly knew them through their raiding activities on the British coast. Before they started settling down in the 5th Century AD and making their residence more permanent, the Anglo-Saxons were regarded as pirates by the Britons. The word “viking” can been seen as synonymous with pirate in many ways.
With the middle ages, we start to see some of the first truly memorable pirates, and Tavish Dhu takes a modest place among them. Probably the most famous was Eustace the Monk. This colourful character deserves a whole post all to himself. At one time a Benedictine monk, reputedly a black magician, Eustace terrorised the English channel between 1202 and 1217 AD. Eustace also embodied another tradition among pirates that is seldom discussed. One of the appeals of pirates that makes us see them as romantic heroes rather than the brutal thieves they really were, is the perception of them being individuals who stand outside of society, a thorn in the side of oppressive governments in less free times. In reality, many famous pirates were in the employ of governments and given the task of harassing enemy shipping in a deniable way employing tactics that might bring shame or legal repercussions. One man’s naval hero is another man’s pirate: Ask the Spanish what they think of Sir Francis Drake if you want a good example. The role of the privateer -a ship captain who takes a commission from the crown or a government to attack enemy ships (and split the resulting loot with said powers that be) in a private capacity- is one that was played by many famous names in pirate history: Captain Kid, Captain Henry Morgan, Francis Drake, John Hawkins, (Sir) Walter Raleigh all took “letters of marque” as privateers. Eustace was employed by the English crown to attack French ships in the English channel, which he did with great success from his base in Castle Cornet in Guernsey for many years. In 1212, as England descended into the chaos of civil war, he decided to switch sides and took commission from the French, at one point ferrying the French Prince and his men across the channel for a briefly successful invasion of Southern England. The English responded and clashed with Eustace’s fleet at the battle of Dover in August 1217. The English, led by Hubert de Burgh (another scion of the de Burgh family who Tavish would clash with a century later). Eustace and the French had the upper hand and looked like they were about to win when the English chose the nuclear (or rather the chemical) option and released lime powder into the wind, blinding the downwind French sailors. Eustace was captured and this man who had once negotiated with Kings offered huge rewards in ransom for his life. Unfortunately for him his past deeds caught up with him and the English sailors hated him so much all they offered him was the choice of his execution site.
|Eustace comes to a sticky end|
Another pirate from this time worthy of special mention is Jean de Clisson, also known as the Lioness of Brittany. In the 1340s, following the execution of her husband, Jean took it on herself to wage a personal war of revenge against the French crown. Following several massacres and a bloody onslaught on land, the fighting finally went against her and she fled to England. With the help of Edward III of England, Jean equipped three warships and set off the continue her personal vendetta, this time at sea. Displaying a chilling dramatic flair also shown by later pirates like William Teach or the man who thought it would be a good idea to put an air raid siren in the nose of a Stuka dive bomber, Jean had her ships painted black and the sails dyed red. The “Black Fleet” as it became known, then patrolled the English Channel hunting down French ships. Their tactic was to kill the entire crew except for one or two witnesses who were ordered to take the news to the French King.
Unlike most other pirates, after 13 years of piracy, Jean eventually retired, settled down and died in bed.
Which bring us to Tavish. Tavish appears in several guises in the chronicles about the war of Edward Bruce in Ireland (1315 -1318 AD). If you want to know more about this particularly brutal war see my previous post here:
In 1314, Robert Bruce famously defeated proud Edward’s army at the battle of Bannockburn, sending the English out of Scotland and creating the fledgling state that would become modern Scotland. He had an immediate problem however, in that the English had a fleet of ships, and so could continue to harass him by sea, if not by land. Scotland did not have a readily available navy. Worse than that, the Kings of the Western Isles and their cousins in Ireland who did command fleets of galleys were actively opposed to him. King Robert turned to the tactic of employing a privateer, and Tavish took the commission. How he got his ships is now unknown, but he soon put them in the employ of the Scots. Similarly his origins are obscure. One annal calls him “Thomas of Down (an Dunn)” and a history book from the last century thought this meant he was from Downpatrick. Another chronicle calls him Thomas Dunn, though these are undoubtedly mistranslations by English speaking writers of the Gaelic word “Dubh” - Black. The etymology and connection becomes clearer with his first name, Tavish being the Scottish version of the name “Thomas”. Tavish Dubh -”Black Tom”- is an excellent nom de guerre for a pirate, every bit as chilling as Blackbeard.
His main activity was piracy in the Irish sea, directed at English ships. His fleet also acted as a a de-facto navy for the Scots, ferrying Edward Bruce’s invasion force from Ayr to Larne in Ireland in May of 1315. He enters the Irish annals when he is mentioned as taking four ships of the Earl of Ulster just off Portrush in County. The ships were were laden with supplies to help the English war effort including food which was a precious commodity in what was a time of not just war but also famine. Portrush now claims Tavish as their own, running their pirate festival in his honour. There are several local legends around him. Dhuvarren, the site of the railway station and a caravan park, are supposedly named after him. A book from the 19th Century, entitled “Sketches of County Antrim” relates this about the Skerries, the set of islands just off the East Strand in Portrush:
“The islet furthest east is called Island Dubh. It is probable that it is named after Tavish Dubh, a pirate, who once frequented the Skerries.”
-(thanks to my good friend Jean Clayton for bringing this to my attention)
|Skerries off Portrush|
That he knew the area is undoubted. John Barbour wrote an account of Edward Bruce’s Irish invasion within living memory of it happening. Edward’s army got into difficulty at Coleraine and Tavish sailed up the mouth of the Bann river to rescue him, ferrying Edward’s soldiers across the river and out of the clutches of the army of the Earl of Ulster.
English chroniclers describe Tavish as "a perpetrator of depredations on the sea" and "a cruel pirate", which is understandable as they were on the wrong end of his activities, however he must not have been a very nice person as John Barbour, writing from the Scottish point of view also calls Tavish a “Scumer of the Se” - scum of the sea.
Tavish then extended his activities. He raided Holyhead in Anglesey with four galleys and captured a laden cargo ship, the "James" of Caernarvon, it is said after receiving intelligence from a local "rhingyl" (official) who may have sent out a boat to advise him of the opportunity. The Welsh then rose in revolt and Edward II was forced to return to Wales the troops he had recruited to send against Scotland. Now taking the threat of Tavish and the Scots in Ireland seriously, Edward recalled the Cinque Ports fleet as well. When the King of France protested this withdrawal of support against the Flemings, Edward II claimed all his ships were needed for the defence of Ireland.
Edward II had had enough. He ordered a Geoffrey de Modiworthe to construct a special ship and go after Tavish. This was a 140 man galley, very large for those days in the Irish Sea, and probably the fastest vessel in those waters. Even with that, though, they could not catch the pirate and it took an Irish noblemen, John D’Athy, to take to the seas and finally end Tavish’s reign of terror. In July of 1317, John and his ships intercepted Tavish and his fleet at sea. A sea battle ensued in which 40 of the privateers are said to have been killed and Tavish captured.
Sketches of County Antrim says about the Skerries at Portrush that Tavish “died in his ship here, and was buried on the island, but the place of his grave is unknown”. Whether or not that was true I don’t know. D’Athy cut his head off and sent it to Dublin and that was the end of the pirate’s adventures. The loss of the ships spelt doom for Edward Bruce’s invasion of Ireland. However for his brother Robert, Tavish was only ever a tactical stopgap. By that time he was already building his own navy,having instigated a ship building program on the Clyde, a tradition that would continue for most of the next 700 years.
Perhaps Tavish’s last stand was at the Skerries. Perhaps his treasure is still buried there too. It would make a great story if it was.