Robert Blake and Maclean of Duart, 1580

Among the English diplomatic correspondence regarding Scotland for the year of 1581 (Calendar of State Papers Relating to Scotland, 1547-1603, Volume 5, 1907), during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth we find an incident relating to a ship called the White Hart, and Robert Blake, grandfather of the general-at-sea. Blake had sent the ship laden with goods to the Western Isles of Scotland, captained by a William Nicholls of Northam, on what seems to have been a regular trading route. However, having reached Mull, the ship and its crew were captured by Lachlan Mór Maclean of Duart (1558-1598), chief of Clan MacLean.

MacLean was held in very high regard by his followers and peers (hence the epithet Mor, meaning big or great), but he was often brutal, for example murdering eighteen MacDonalds at a wedding feast in 1588. Although he got on well personally with the young King James VI (later King James I of England from 1603), MacLean was the sort of powerful Gaelic leader of the Western Isles that the king despaired of, especially when their disregard for royal authority caused diplomatic incidents with England, such as this one with Blake of Bridgwater. Hence James’ famous comment that the islanders were ‘utterly barbarous’ and incapable of reform. This would inform James’ efforts to ‘civilise’ the Highlands and Isles and Gaelic culture.

Robert Blake was a self-made businessman, who had come to Bridgwater from the family lands on the Quantocks and had begun trading. He would become Mayor of Bridgwater in 1574, 1579 and 1597, and would also serve as MP for Bridgwater in 1584, 1586 and 1588. Robert was married to Margaret Symonds. Their son Humphry was the father of Robert Blake, general at sea. Although the below documents show King James eventually intervened to release the surviving captives, ship and goods, it is unclear if MacLean actually did so. That the matter was not referred to again would suggest so, but Blake is likely to have lost quite a lot of money in this episode.

MacLean of Duart

Page 668, abstract of a letter dated 19 March 1581, Francis Walsingham in London to Thomas Randolph.

Whereas the inclosed [sic] supplication has been exhibited to the [English] Council in the behalf of certain poor [i.e. unfortunate] merchants if Bridgewater, who, freighting a ship of Barnstable, called the White Hart, with wines, salt, and other merchandizes, with intent to traffic [trade] with the people of the Isle of Mull, have been very evil intreated, imprisoned, and spoiled of their goods and ship by the Laird Maclane, governor of the said isle, upon a pretence of war and hostility between the two crowns. Randolph is to use all the earnest solicitation he may with the King of Scots and his Council that order may be presently given as well for restitution and satisfaction to be made to the owners, as also for the speedy releasing and setting at liberty of such persons as are detained prisoners in the said isle. He is chiefly wished to procure this to be done for that there is one Nicholls, a very expert master of a ship amongst them, whose miscarrying were a great loss to England. Doubts not but he will travail accordingly, and do his best for the relief of the poor men in respect of the Council’s recommendation of their cause, and chiefly for avoiding further inconveniences hereafter which may grow by winking at such insolences. The Court, at Whitehall, Francis Walsyngham.


Most humbly show to your honour, your humble orators, Robert Blake, of Bridgewater, Somerset, merchant, and William Nicholls, of Northam, Devon, later owner of a ship called the Whyte Harte, of Northam, of 50 tons burden and upwards, which ship your orators about September, 1580, caused to be freighted at Bridgewater with their own merchandizes to the value of £1200 or thereabouts, the ship and her tackle being worth £300 at the least; in which ship the said Nocholls went as master, and having in her 14 men and mariners, conducted the ship to the Isle of Mull, intending to have trafficked therein the trade of merchandize, as they had done before, and having arrived there, and the said Nicholls having gone on shore, one Laughlane Macklean, and John Dowe Mackleane, his uncle, inhabitants within the said idle, and subjects of the King of Scots, accompanied with twenty other persons, under pretence to have made merry in the ship, came aboard her, and, being friendly entertained there, caused privily a hundred armed men suddenly in warlike manner to come aboard the ship, who presently with great violence took and kept all the said mariners under hatches, saving one named Geoffrey Walker; whom they then cruelly murdered, cutting his body in many pieces and casting it to their dogs, saying that ‘Englishemens fleshe woulde make Scottishe dogges runne well’, and that done, they took away and spoiled all the said goods, ship, and furniture, and took and imprisoned the said Nicholls and all his company, forbidding all persons to give them any sustenance. By reason whereof they remained in prison forty weeks in most cruel lamentable sort – until two of them died of famine, and s had they all done had not some charitable people taken compassion on them and secretly relieved them with such small portions as maintained life only, and by great chance at length escaped. Ever since which time your orators have made continual suit there to the magistrates for restitution of their ship and goods, and punishment of the offenders, and at your honour’s last being in Scotland made their complaint to you in this behalf, whereupon your honour took order with Mr Randolph, then lodger there, for moving the King of Scots and his Council in the premises; which being done accordingly, the hearing of the cause was committed to the Earl of Argyll, who being of kin to the offenders dismissed them, leaving your orators without remedy, they having spent £350 in and about the suit, besides the loss of their goods, ship, furniture, amounting to £1900. Your orators humbly desire that some redress may be had in the premises.

Page 686 extract of a letter  dated 30 March 1581, from Thomas Randolph to Franscis Walsingham, keeping him up to date with matters at the Scottish court.

…Crawford [identity unclear, this is a Scotsman at James’ court, noted as brother to ‘Captain Crawford’] was in Court every day suing for other causes. He has had word touching William Nichooles of Bridgewater. He has earnestly dealt therein sundry times, but does not find the matter regarded as it ought to be, though Maclane has a day appointed to bring Nicholles to Edinburgh, and to have the ship and goods forthcoming. Answer is not yet returned from Maclane what he means to do.

Page 699, 1 April 1581, abstract of a Mandate by King James VI of Scotland regarding Lauchlan MacLean

To our lovittis messingeris our shereffis in that part conjunctlie and severalie speciallie, constante greting. Forasmuch as It is humelie menit and schawin to us by William Nicholas, Englishman, master of a ship called the White Hart, of Bridgewater, that whereas the said ship being freighted with wine, salt, and other merchandise pertaining to the said William and other merchants, and he transporting the same to the Isle of Mull, not only were the said ship and goods taken and spoiled to the value of £700, but also the said Nicholas and sundry of his company were taken by Lauchlan Maclean of Dowart, John Dow Maclean and others; our will is that in our name you command and charge Lauchlan Maclean of Dowart to entir and present the said Nicholas and the other persons taken by him on the said ship before us and lords of our Secret Council, at Holyrood House, or where it shall happen us to be for the time, on the 24th instant [April], to heir and see thame with the said schip and guidis decernit to be restorit and set at libertie, to the effect that they may pass home at their pleasure, under the pain of rebellion and putting of them to our horn, or else to allege a reasonable cause why the same should not be done. At Holyrood House.

MKP 3 June 2022