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.