Andrew Wood Court

Route Stop #19

Overview Andrew Wood of Largo The Great Michael The Michael’s Armament

Scotland's First Admiral

Sir Andrew Wood, is incontestably the greatest naval hero of his age.  A privateer, i.e. a licensed pirate, he was a valiant and fearless warrior and seaman, and loyal and dependable servant to the Kings of Scotland even becoming guardian to the young King James V for a while.

His life story is worthy of a swashbuckling Hollywood movie.  In particular, his association with the Barton brothers, Andrew, Robert and John, three other privateers in the King’s employ, made them a force to be reckoned with.  Sir Andrew Wood and Sir Andrew Barton, in particular, became good friends.  It could be said that if Wood was the Scottish “Nelson” of his day, Andrew Barton was undoubtedly the Scottish “Drake”.

A Naval Champion

Before the sixteenth century, Scotland had no navy in the accepted sense..  When the king required an armed vessel he contracted a merchant who owned a ship that was already armed, a vital commodity in the days of piracy.  Andrew Wood of Largo was a successful trader based in Leith and served King James III with his two ships, “The Yellow Carvel” and “The Flower”.  King James III saw that Scotland needed to be strong on the seas and saw Andrew as the one to help.  His two merchant ships were put into service and were at the forefront of the war with England of 1480-82. James III knighted him the Baron of Largo and made him Admiral of the Scottish navy as a result.

Sir Andrew Wood continued to serve the new king, James IV, after his father was killed or murdered in mysterious circumstances at the Battle of Sauchieburn 1488.  In fact, he went on to also serve his successor after the death of James IV on the Field of Flodden in 1513.

There were many encounters on the high seas with warring ships of other nations as well as pirates in general.  Two in particular demonstrate Wood’s skill and courage.  In 1489, during a season of truce, a fleet of five English ships entered the Clyde, where they wrought havoc and chased one of the king’s ships to the serious damage of its rigging and tackle. James IV commissioned Sir Andrew to pursue the culprits. He then set off with his favourite vessels, The Flower and Caravel, in quest of the marauders.  

He encountered the five English ships off Dunbar Castle, and a desperate battle played out.  Although the English were superior in force, and fought with their accustomed fierceness, the greater skill, courage, and seamanship of Wood prevailed, so that all their ships, with the captains and crews, were brought into Leith, and presented to the king.

The Yellow Carvel and The Flower take on four English ships.

A David and Goliath Sea Battle   

To say that King Henry VII of England was not best pleased would be something of an understatement but could do little openly about it since a truce was supposed to be in place.  In the summer of 1490, he eventually engaged a gallant seaman called Stephen Bull to bring this Scottish sea-dog to heel.  He was provided with three ships, and manned with crews of picked mariners and together with pikemen and cross-bows, and a volunteer body of knights, threw himself into this daring adventure.  Bull arrived at the mouth of the Forth and waited for his prey behind the Isle of May.  He had learned that The Yellow Carvel and The Flower were on their way home having escorted a fleet of merchantmen to Flanders.  Bull had captured some local fishermen with the purpose of their identifying Wood’s ships when they hoved into view.

Sir Andrew Wood's victory over Stephen Bull's attempt to capture him.

Superior Seamanship Wins The Day

Although initially surprised at this breach in the truce. Sir Andrew was not to be caught napping.  His ships were kept in such admirable order, that a few minutes of preparation was sufficient.  The battle commenced by the English with a distant cannonade, but with the Scottish vessels being smaller in size, the shot passed above their decks without doing harm. In the meantime, Wood, who had got to windward of his adversary, bore down upon him under a full press of sail, closed upon him, threw out his grappling-irons, and even lashed the ships together with strong cables, so that the encounter would be hand-to-hand.. The battle, that began at sunrise, continued throughout the whole day with desperate determination until the darkness of night forced the opposing forces to separate on equal terms, and lay-to.  In the following morning, the ships again grappled so intently that the vessels, left to their own management, drifted into the mouth of the Tay, while the crews were engaged in close struggle upon the deck.  At length, the superior skill of Wood and the practised seamanship of his crews prevailed over equal courage and far superior numbers; the three English vessels were compelled to strike, and were carried into the port of Dundee.  

An Honourable Man

Sir Andrew conducted his vanquished adversary to the king as prisoner.  James IV, who was one of the last of the flowers of chivalry, received Stephen Bull and his followers with courtesy, enriched them with princely gifts, and after praising their valour, set them at liberty, and sent them home in their own ships without ransom but with a warning to King Henry that if there was another hostile attempt, the crews would not get off so lightly.

Not all the English sailors were permitted to return for James allowed Andrew Wood to press some into his service as labourers to build his castle in Largo on lands granted to him for his services. Today, only one tower of the fortalice, or fortified house, remains although a small section of the short canal that he had had built so that he could sail to church can still be seen.

Only the tower at Largo House, Sir Andrew Wood's fortalice, remains.