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A Highlander and his Books
A Chat with Jim Hewitson

Author of
Stories of Scottish Piracy –
Ancient & Modern

By Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:

I have known Jim Hewitson for several years and have many of his books, all of which, to me, are worthy of space on any Scot’s personal library shelf, public library, or school library. He is an excellent writer, period! His recent book, Skull & Saltire, is a fine example of a talented writer. He is the type person with whom you can imagine yourself having a delightful and informative conversation over a wee dram or two at the bed-and-breakfast that Jim and his wife Morag run on Orkney, Papa Westray, (population 70), Scotland.

The conversation I would like to have with Jim would be one of comparing Hugh MacDiarmid with Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. MacDiarmid once lived in Orkney and is acclaimed by some, and himself, as the greatest Scottish poet since Burns. I asked author Hewitson how the three would compare, and he replied, “As to comparisons with Burns and Scott…a few peat-fire evenings needed to iron that out!” Since all of us cannot join Jim for several evenings around his peat fire on Papa Westray, we’ll do the best we can with this series of questions and answers on his book. By the way, his email comment about “cheap rates for old pals” did not go unnoticed by this Scot!

Q: You obviously work on several books at the same time since you seem to have a couple coming off the press on an annual basis. Tell us, how do you do that so successfully?

A: Yes, maybe a case of quantity winning out over quality, but for the past 10 or 12 years, I’ve produced at least one book annually. The answer, as it is in all forms of writing, is a mixture of hard graft and research. Much of the research was carried out in the years when I was still a working journalist and I trawl my notes regularly for sources, quotes and inspiration. The speed at which I am able to produce the books is also a direct result of many years spent trying to catch newspaper deadlines. Whether my work could be termed successful is really for others to judge. My own target has been to get people thinking and talking about Scotland and our remarkable story.

Q:  What inspired you to write a book on Scottish pirates?

A:  Money might be the pragmatic answer but, in fact, it was during an exchange of ideas with my current publishers, Black and White in Edinburgh, that I offered to research the possibility of a book on Scottish pirates. First reaction from others in the trade was that there simply wasn’t enough material but very soon I was able to knock that idea. The most difficult aspect of this book was that the research was done while I was completing my senior honours year at the University of Aberdeen where I gained an MA in Scottish Studies. Study and book research had to go hand in hand. There were occasions during that spell when I didn’t know if it was Tuesday or Octember.

Q: From the time you started gathering material until you sent it to your publisher, how long did you spend writing this book? Briefly tell us the process.

A: From the agreement to proceed until publication of this particular book was a matter of some nine months. It does seem a very short time to produce anything worthwhile but remember, as I indicated before, a lot of the ground work had already been done. The process of producing a book like this is interesting because the focus is constantly shifting as you research. Getting the information into manageable, coherent chapters is always difficult but getting a sound framework upon which to build your information is essential – like a house construction, I suppose. Within this period there are moments of joy as you see the material shaping up and there are others when a concept collapses and you have to start from scratch. Add to all this, the need to research, source and purchase illustrations and photographs and you’ll see there’s not a lot of time to stand and stare.

Q: Is “walking the plank” a myth or did it actually happen as often as Hollywood would have us believe? How was discipline maintained on a pirate ship?

A: Ask anyone about the image which is conjured up with the mention of pirates then I’m sure along with eye patches and wooden legs, most folk would put walking the plank up there among the piratical icons. However, it does seem that the idea that this form of execution, with jeering buccaneers and sharks snapping down below the plank was largely mythical. One maritime history expert suggested, rather unromantically, that the pirates were much more likely simply to throw some expendable hostage overboard than waste time with some elaborate, if deadly, game. Hollywood, in this as in many other historical scenarios, has a lot to answer for. The idea of buried treasure, for example, comes very much into the same category. In fact our RL Stevenson is largely responsible for this myth. Pirates generally spent their booty almost as soon as they got their hands on it. Life was precarious and few pirates would have been thinking of retirement. The reality is harsh enough without the need for embellishment. Keelhauling, dragging a poor victim under the barnacle-encrusted hull of the ship, was a common torture which makes walking the plank look like an easy option.

Q: We have all heard of the slave trade - “the frightful trade in human flesh” - with African slaves being taken to American ports by Brits, Scots, and others to be sold. I wonder if you would tell us about the white slave market practiced among pirates.

A: There was a huge market in the 1600s and 1700s for white slaves who were captured by Corsairs, Arabic pirate ships operating out into the Atlantic and Mediterranean from North African ports such as Tangier and Algiers. Many hundreds of Scots are known to have been taken prisoner during sea battles and sold in the slave markets. There are records of Scottish congregations taking collections for enslaved in Africa. Those who were most determined to survive often found it expedient to convert to Islam simply to survive captivity. There are many remarkable tales of this period, but if I related them all then it would be scarcely worth buying the book, would it?

Q: In general, how did the captain of a pirate ship become the ship’s captain? Once captain, did he remain captain?

A: It was a dangerous, often fatal, occupation to be captain of a pirate ship. If someone challenged your authority then you might fight it out to the death with cutlasses for the job of skippe, but often factions developed and a full-scale rammy might ensue with the victors ruthlessly executing or setting adrift those who had picked the wrong side. Any sign of weakness in a pirate captain and his days would be numbered. If the pirate chief was killed in battle, his successor was usually elected by general acclaim. However, if you set yourself up too openly in advance as a potential successor, then you would be liable to wake up one morning with your throat cut.

Q: Was there a bit more about “that scoundrel” John Paul Jones which did not make your book that you would like to mention?

A: Fascinating character altogether, John Paul Jones. He was an absolute super-hero for the youthful United States but a villain of the first order in the eyes of the British people.

He has such a place of honour in the book simply because his exploits make the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ adventures look quite tame. Imagine going back to your old home in a daring attempt to capture a Scottish nobleman as a hostage. Stirring stuff.

Q: “Harm’s way” is a phrase we hear a lot about today with the wars and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Jones said, “…I intend to go into harm’s way,” was it the first time, as far as you know, that phrase was used?

A: Interesting point. I have certainly not come across this usage in earlier material and, even today, JPJ is such a hero in the United States that he is regularly quoted by military sources. Could well be that he first brought the phrase to public notice. I would be interested to hear if anyone has any further information on this.

Q: Is it true that John Paul Jones, who died in Paris at the young age of forty-five, was buried in an unmarked grave for over 100 years before his body was finally brought back to America for burial at Annapolis? Why did it take the American government so long to recognize him as the “Father of our Navy”?

A: Amazingly, this is true. He was given a funeral in France with full public honours but because of rules relating to Calvinists ‘and heretics’ he was buried in an unmarked grave. The site of this grave was forgotten, but after a bit of detective work by U.S. government officials, he was returned to the United States in 1905.

Q: As a small boy, I wanted to be a pirate because of the way they were portrayed in the Saturday afternoon movies that we attended in my hometown. My grandson Ian honored Captain Jack Sparrow last Halloween by dressing like him. Who was the pirate you wanted to be as a wee lad and why?

A: I always think Jack Sparrow is far too good looking and cool for a Scottish pirate. Grotty old Long John Silver was always my pirate of choice – complete with lop-sided parrot and eye patch. Once upon a time I used to be able to lift one eyebrow extra high and stare menacingly out of my one ‘good’ eye, while speaking and drooling out of the side of my mouth. How’s that for scary authentic?

Q: Of all the pirates you wrote about in your book, who is your favorite or the one who most interests you? Was it still the one you wanted to be as a lad?

A: Of course, Long John Silver is a literary creation. Of the real Scottish pirates, my favourite, who features in the Skull & Saltire, would have to be the Orkney-based Norse sea raider Swyen Asleifsson who had his home on the wee island of Gairsay, lying 20 miles south from where I’m responding to your questions today. He drank and womanized throughout the winter, planted his crops in the spring, went off raiding as far as Dublin in the summer and was back in Gairsay in time for harvest. Yes, indeed, a pirate’s life for me.

Q: What are we currently to expect from your pen and have you published other books since this one?

A: My Christmas book this year is called Does Anyone Like Midges? and is a light-hearted look at issues which are currently occupying the Scots. As they say, it should be in all the best bookshops by mid-October. 

Q: How does one get to Orkney from Edinburgh and, once there, how does one get to Papa Westray?

A: Fly, take the bus or a train – head north from Edinburgh or Glasgow. When you fall off the north end of Scotland, Orkney is but a brief breast stroke away. And once in Orkney look north again, and sniff the air. When you identify a heady mixture of tranquillity and Arctic ice, follow yer neb. Papa Westray awaits you.

Q: You have always been a good interviewee, and I’d like to know if there are any parting words you would like to leave with our readers?

A: As the Scots pirates used to say to each other before setting sail – ‘May the wind always fill yer sails, Jim me laddie – and it’s your turn to buy the grog!’  (FRS: 9-29-2006)

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