In 1645, an ex­iled Scot who had be­come a Bar­bary pi­rate landed in Leith set on tak­ing re­venge on ter­ri­fied, plague-rid­den Ed­in­burgh


The story of An­drew Gray, the Scot who be­came a Bar­bary pi­rate

The Moor looks down from his perch across what is surely the unloveli­est sec­tion of the Royal Mile. The statue in ques­tion – a tur­baned fig­ure of black­ened stone with a rough­ened nose – is af­fixed to a wall at the top of Canon­gate, above a fine-din­ing restau­rant. Un­like some of the city’s more os­ten­ta­tious mon­u­ments, it’s easy to miss.

Crudely carved and of an in­de­ter­mi­nate age, the Moor is not one of the city’s best mon­u­ments. Nor is there any ob­vi­ous sign of the in­scrip­tion that was once recorded be­low him: ‘Mis­erere Mei, Domine; A Pec­cato, Probo, et Morte Su­bita. Lib­era M.E. 1.6.18’.

But as well as be­ing the rea­son why this quar­ter on the Royal Mile is known as Mo­rocco Land, the Moor is also a re­minder of a re­mark­able event that took place al­most 400 years ago when plague-rav­aged Ed­in­burgh was at the mercy of a land­ing party of feared Bar­bary pi­rates, the Seven­teenth Cen­tury equiv­a­lent of Vik­ing raiders, who had landed at Leith be­fore walk­ing un­chal­lenged to­wards the city walls.

At their head was the Scot­tish Bar­bary pi­rate An­drew Gray, ‘the scape­grace cadet of a noble fam­ily’ who later be­came a re­spectable cit­i­zen of Ed­in­burgh. The stone fig­ure that now watches over the Royal Mile is thought to por­tray ei­ther Gray or the Em­peror of Mo­rocco, who he served, and is a re­minder that the English are not the only raiders to have once threat­ened Ed­in­burgh.

But first some con­text, be­cause with­out un­der­stand­ing how mighty the Bar­bary pi­rates once were, it is im­pos­si­ble to com­pre­hend the

Im­age: A de­pic­tion of a fight be­tween Tus­can gal­leys and Bar­bary cor­sairs in the Mediter­ranean, a reg­u­lar oc­cu­rance on the high seas from the late 15th cen­tury on­wards.

feel­ings of ut­ter dread the peo­ple of Ed­in­burgh must have felt at their ar­rival.

The Ot­toman Em­pire once stretched from Athens to the Caspian Sea, en­com­pass­ing much of North Africa and siz­able chunks of Europe. The cor­sairs, or Bar­bary pi­rates, were an un­of­fi­cial arm of the Ot­toman state, rov­ing the Mediter­ranean, raid­ing the At­lantic and the Bri­tish coast. The word ‘pri­va­teer’ – pri­vate war­ships li­censed to at­tack for­eign ship­ping – was pop­u­larised by the likes of Sir Fran­cis Drake, but from the late 15th Cen­tury Ot­toman pri­va­teers were the ter­ror of the seas. In par­tic­u­lar the broth­ers Oruç and Hızır Reis, known as the Bar­barossas, sons of a Turk­ish cav­al­ry­man, preyed on Span­ish ves­sels and es­tab­lished their base at Tu­nis and then Al­giers, along the Bar­bary Coast.

The Ot­tomans in Ed­in­burgh

Ot­toman Hori­zons, a fes­ti­val of Ot­toman cul­ture, opens in Ed­in­burgh in May, cel­e­brat­ing the mu­sic, po­etry, his­tory, car­pets and even horticulture of one of the great­est em­pires in his­tory, which was cen­tred on Con­stantino­ple, mod­ern Is­tan­bul. The sto­ries that will be re­vis­ited in­clude the his­tory of the Bar­bary pi­rates, and a strange, near-myth­i­cal episode when plague-stricken Ed­in­burgh was chilled by a fear of for­eign raiders from the east af­ter ‘a pe­cu­liar ves­sel of Ori­en­tal rig’ en­tered the Firth of Forth in 1645 and caused panic in the city.

The great age of the Bar­bary cor­sairs was be­tween 1560-1630, when their Mediter­ranean fleets num­bered sev­eral hundred ves­sels. Many vic­tims from the ves­sels they cap­tured and plun­dered were held for slav­ery or ran­som, with many of those who es­caped go­ing on to pub­lish colour­ful mem­oirs which fed the leg­end of the sav­age pi­rates from the east. One thing such mem­oirs re­vealed is that the Bar­bary pi­rate ships some­times had poly­glot cap­tains and crews: Euro­pean rene­gades or former slaves who had been con­verted and cir­cum­cised. Al­giers, in par­tic­u­lar, boasted a cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion that in­cluded Por­tuguese, Scots, English, Danes, Irish, Slavs, French, Span­ish and Ital­ians, as well as Turks, Ber­bers, Arabs, Egyp­tians and Ethiopi­ans.

In the 1620s an Ot­toman pri­va­teer fleet of 15 ships cap­tured Lundy Is­land in the Bris­tol chan­nel and oc­cu­pied it as a raid­ing base. At the time Devon and Corn­wall lost a fifth of their ship­ping to the cor­sairs. Their reach in those law­less days was ex­tra­or­di­nary. In 1627, three Al­ge­rian ships cap­tained by a Ger­man raided Den­mark and Ice­land, while in 1631 a fleet led by a Flem­ish ad­ven­turer rav­aged the English coasts and sacked Bal­ti­more in Ire­land, tak­ing away 237 pris­on­ers for sale. In 1609 of seven­teen Bar­bary pi­rates hanged in Lon­don, sev­eral were Bri­tish sea­men, such as Cap­tain James Har­ris, born in Bris­tol but turned pi­rate af­ter he was cap­tured and im­pris­oned in Tu­nis.

Among the pi­rates of the Bar­bary Coast were Scots such as Perth-born Peter Lisle, who was the ad­mi­ral of the Bar­bary fleet in Tripoli in the early 19th cen­tury af­ter be­ing en­slaved and con­vert­ing to Is­lam. In the 17th cen­tury the in­domitable Scots trav­eller Wil­liam Lith­gow of La­nark vis­ited Cairo, Con­stantino­ple, Fez and Al­giers, the lat­ter ‘a dev­il­ish town’ where he met the English pi­rate Sir Fran­cis Ver­ney, who fa­mously ‘turned Turk’. Lith­gow was kid­napped in 1632 and hor­ri­bly tor­tured for six months in Spain, an or­deal he wrote about in his book, The To­tall Dis­course of the Rare Ad­ven­tures and Painful Pere­gri­na­tions of long Nine­teen Yeares Travayles from Scot­land to the most fa­mous King­doms in Europe, Asia, and Af­frica.

Around that time, Ed­in­burgh was af­flicted with far worse hor­rors than Bar­bary pi­rates. Leith, as an in­ter­na­tional trad­ing port, made the city par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to dis­ease and in 1645, as the Scot­tish civil wars raged, Ed­in­burgh was rav­aged by the worst epi­demic of plague in its his­tory, which killed al­most half its pop­u­la­tion. Corpses lit­tered the closes, pris­on­ers in the tol­booth were set free and the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment moved to Stir­ling.

It was against this apoc­a­lyp­tic back­drop that An­drew Gray and his cor­sairs ap­peared. A later ac­count tells how ‘a large armed ves­sel of pe­cu­liar rig and as­pect en­tered the Firth of Forth, and came to an­chor – by ex­pe­ri­enced sea­men she was at once pro­nounced to be an Al­ger­ine rover, and dis­may spread all over the city.’

The pi­rates threat­ened to level Leith, then ad­vanced to the Canon­gate, march­ing to the Nether­bow Court and de­mand­ing a ran­som. The provost, Sir John Smith of Groat Hall,

re­luc­tantly agreed to pay. How­ever, upon hear­ing that Smith’s daugh­ter had the plague, the cor­sairs’ cap­tain re­vealed him­self to be a Scot called An­drew Gray who was a former res­i­dent of Ed­in­burgh.

Gray had been ar­rested as a ring­leader when, af­ter the corona­tion of Charles I in 1633, the house of a hugely un­pop­u­lar former Provost, Sir Alexan­der Clerk of Pit­ten­crieff, was set on fire. Sen­tenced to death for ri­ot­ing and ar­son, Gray es­caped from the tol­booth with the help of a friend, who drugged the sen­tinel and pro­vided a boat to es­cape across the Nor Loch. He went to Mo­rocco as a slave, but found him­self in the royal court and man­aged to find favour and riches with the Em­peror.

Now back in his na­tive city as a swash­buck­ling corsair, Gray had in­tended to take re­venge on the city but was over­come by the tale of Sir John’s daugh­ter – who, ac­cord­ing to some ac­counts, was his cousin – and in­stead promised to cure her, pro­duc­ing ‘an elixir of won­drous po­tency’.

Af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions, ‘the fair suf­ferer was borne to a house at the head of the Canon­gate, wherein the corsair had taken up his res­i­dence, and from thence she went forth quickly re­stored and in health’. Gray mar­ried Sir John’s daugh­ter and set­tled down as a wealthy cit­i­zen, even­tu­ally dy­ing in 1663.

Gray’s name does not ap­pear in any of the aca­demic his­to­ries of the Bar­bary pi­rates, but the story has cir­cu­lated for cen­turies and is given cre­dence by the Mo­rocco Land moniker given to a cor­ner of the Old Town. The story is im­pos­si­ble to con­firm, and while no one in that pe­riod had set­tled on a cure for plague (though fer­mented trea­cle was con­sid­ered a tonic) prop­erty deeds con­firm that John Gray, the pi­rate’s de­scen­dant, lived in the house in 1731.

‘A large armed ves­sel of pe­cu­liar rig and as­pect en­tered the Firth of Forth, and came to an­chor’

Right: ‘Bri­tish Sailors Board­ing an Al­ger­ine Pi­rate’ by J. Fair­burn, 1825.Above: The statue on the Canon­gate, thought to be of the Em­peror of Mo­rocco or Scot­tish corsair An­drew Gray, marks Mo­rocco Land.

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