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A Highlander and his Books
Skull & Saltire

By Jim Hewitson

Reviewed by Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:

Skull & SaltireJim Hewitson has written another interesting book, and it’s full of great stories of adventuresome Scottish men at sea. Hewitson points out something that all Scots should be proud of …“the rip roaring Pirates of the Caribbean” is “built on a tradition nurtured by writers, including the Scots Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Sir James Barrie, and has helped to sustain what is basically a grand myth.”    

The author looks upon America’s “Father of the American Navy,” John Paul Jones, as a pirate! How many of us on this side of the pond would agree with that assessment, particularly those guys in white hanging out at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where the great man is entombed in the chapel similar to that of Napolean at Les Invalides in Paris? Jim, to his credit, goes on to say that “Scottish pirates were a particularly odd breed. They were either extraordinarily successful, heroic almost - in the mould of John Paul Jones – or they were simply not very good at their job, pretty poor pirates who would never have made the Piratical Top 100.”

You cannot blame the author’s depiction of Jones as pirate since history tells us that in April, 1788 Jones conducted some mischief on the Solway Firth, capturing a fort, spiking 36 cannons, locking its defenders in the guardroom while burning and setting fire to as many as possible of the 200 ships anchored in Whitehaven’s sanctuary. The Brits, with the biggest and best navy in the world, had not counted on a lone ship coming into their port and wrecking havoc with their navy.  Amazingly, author Hewitson points out, no one was hurt.

To add insult to injury, Jones immediately set out to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk from his home at nearby St. Mary’s Isle. John Paul Jones envisioned trading the good earl for some captured American prisoners. Speculation abounds that his mother had been insulted by the earl. To the chagrin of Jones, Selkirk was not at home. John Paul Jones must have flunked his course in Kidnapping 101 which teaches that the first rule of kidnapping is to make sure the victim is at home. With plunder on their minds, the crew decided to steal the royal silver from the women who were left at home to hold down the fort. With a snap of a finger Jones, who grew up in the area, became “the local boy made bad”. Not to be outdone by his crew, John Paul bought the silver from his men and later returned it to the earl’s family! The author goes on to say that Jones “corresponded with Lady Selkirk, who, we are told, believed him to be a generous man of integrity.”  Take that, Captain Jack Sparrow!

My son Scott, a former high school history teacher, has talked with me regarding the meaning of the phrase, “Pieces of Eight”. It is that time in my life for the son to teach the father, and Scott does a good job with the things I do not know or understand – computers, young movie stars, today’s music, rap and sap, etc. Basically, “Pieces of Eight” is a Spanish phrase about silver, and it took eight pieces to make a reale (royal) or a whole reale (coin). You will recognize the phrase referencing our silver coins, “two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar”. It took eight bits to make a whole dollar! These little vignettes, just a few lines long, tell some wonderful stories in and of themselves and help make the book whole or complete.

Among the “Pieces of Eight” are these little gems. For instance, Jim writes that “piracy is often said to be the oldest profession, following prostitution and medicine. I’m sure there must be a joke there somewhere…” The most successful pirate was Captain Bartholomew Roberts, having captured at least 400 ships. A pirate is not usually associated with the word coward, but the author tells us of a “cowardly captain” of the Carolinas who sailed away rather than fight, hiding as a backwoodsman for a year. Also, hundreds of crewmen on pirate ships, to ease hernia symptoms, wore trusses. Somehow I cannot picture Earl Flynn wearing a truss, much less Captain Jack Sparrow! Another tidbit of interest we learn is that “pirates wore golden earrings because they believed it gave them sharper eyesight.” My wife Susan heartily believes in this concept! There are many more “Pieces of Eight” in the book, and I love the one about Louis le Golif. He was nicknamed Borgne-Fesse, and one historian suggests that he earned his nickname because someone had slashed off one of his buttocks. Ouch!

I highly recommend this book by Jim Hewitson. It takes you back to your childhood. What little boy has not played make believe games about pirates? Johnny Depp has made a fortune playing Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl and the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, one of the highest grossing movies of all time.  Production for the third sequel is currently underway with the film scheduled for release in the summer of 2007. Depp has rewritten the characterizations of piracy to the extent that the June 26, 2006 issue of Newsweek magazine featured Johnny Depp on the front cover.

How do I know about Johnny Depp? Well, Ian at six years of age and Stirling at four, my two precious grand bairns if I may use that phrase, keep their Papa informed. Ian was actually dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow for Halloween last year (see accompanying picture). Move over Johnny Depp, you wish you were so handsome!

In conclusion, Jim Hewitson’s Skull & Saltire reminds me of a wonderful old drinking song by one of my favorite singers, Jimmy Buffet. Entitled “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” some of the lines might not be appropriate for this column but they certainly are for old salts who long for the earlier days on the sea. With apologies to Buffet for using only a portion of the lyrics, listen up mates:

“Yes, I am a pirate, two hundred years too late,
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder,
I’m an over-forty victim of fate,
Arriving too late, arriving too late. 

But I’ve done a bit of smugglin, I’ve run my share of grass,
I’ve made enough money to buy Miami, but I ……it away so fast,
Never meant to last, never meant to last. 

Some books are more difficult to review than others. But Skull & Saltire has been fun because the subject brings back wonderful memories of childhood. It is not often a book review can be written to include a personal view, as well as references to members of the family. Jim’s book allows this personal touch due to the warmth of his writing style on the subject. Thanks, Jimmy Buffet, for a great song. Thanks, Jim Hewitson, for another great book. Thanks, too, Jim, for your inscription in my copy of the book which I feel compelled to share with our readers: “To Frank, Keep it Electric! Jim Hewitson, Spring 2006.”

Buy Skull & Satire at any good bookstore using ISBN 1 84502 026 X for 9.99 pounds, plus shipping and handling, of course. Jim will appreciate it, and you will too when you read the book! It is one you will want to share but more importantly, it is a keeper! (FRS: 9-29-2006)

Frank's grandson Ian dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow noted pirate of Hollywood fame. His little sister, Stirling, is dressed as Snow White and can hold her own with any pirate alive!

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