BRAVEHEART OF THE SEAS; Sir Andrew Wood Was One of the Greatest Scots Heroes, a Genius in the Art of Naval Warfare - Yet We Have All but Forgotten The

Article excerpt

Byline: by Jim McBeth

FROM far out in the Firth of Forth, the boom of the first cannonade reverberated to the shore, causing the folk of Leith and Edinburgh Wood to rush from their homes to witness what would be a life-or-death struggle between a deluded Englishman and the greatest Scottish sailor of his era.

The English mariner, Sir Stephen Bull, an emissary of the incensed King Henry VII, commanded three galleons, the biggest and best his nation could muster in 1498. Packed with seasoned warriors, fortified by several hogshead of wine, Bull's flotilla appeared invincible.

His adversary, Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, had fewer ships - two 300-ton merchant vessels converted to men o' war, and manned by crews that had fought with their Fife captain in sea battles against the English privateers and Continental pirates who infested the 15th-century commercial shipping lanes to the Low Countries.

Wood's men had been given just one glass of wine, and a pep talk from their commander.

The cheering spectators on the shore could have been forgiven for thinking that, for Wood, this would be a battle too far.

But this was the man who would serve three Stuart kings, virtually invent the art of modern naval warfare, and be referred to by historians as 'Scotland's Nelson'.

The brief cannonade was replaced by the sound of grinding timbers as grappling hooks dragged the ships close enough for a bloody hand-to-hand fight. By the end of the first day, there was still no winner. But on the second day Wood captured the English vessels and the survivors, including Bull, who had been promised a pension of [pounds sterling]1,000 by his king if he brought Wood to London in chains.

The Scottish victory effectively ended privateering by English ships during the so-called 'season of truce'. Wood was lauded as a national hero and appointed Lord High Admiral. Yet since his death around 1539, he has been lost to history - an oversight Fife Council archaeologists want to redress by going in search of the man behind the myth.

They hope to begin excavating sites in Largo, where the mariner was born in 1455. Archaeologist Douglas Speirs says: 'Wood is a figure of immense magnitude who deserves to be as well-known as William Wallace or Robert Bruce. But he has been overlooked.

'The problem is the lack of records from the period, compounded by the later educational misconception that nothing much happened in Scotland between the Wars of Independence and the Reformation. As a result, we probably know more about the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest than we do about this turbulent period of late medieval Scottish history.' The archaeological team are in the preparatory stages and the experts are anxious to identify the site of a large canal pond which the sailor created in his later years, using prisoners-of-war as labour.

'We hope that by examining the area we can provide a springboard that will reinstate Sir Andrew Wood to his rightful place,' says Speirs.

Wood is undoubtedly one of the great figures from Scotland's past. Naval historian Dennis Bell says: 'He is the Scottish Nelson. Sir Andrew Wood retired to Largo and built his estate. But he hated travelling by land, so he had a canal constructed and each Sunday he was rowed back and forth to church on a barge, usually crewed by prisoners-ofwar from one conflict or another.

'Following his death, it would be used to transport him to his burial, although he probably would have preferred burial at sea.' Little is known of the early life of Wood, who began as a merchant ship owner and developed the theory of naval warfare through his experience of defending his cargoes against Dutch, English, and Portuguese pirates.

During the late medieval period, the concept of the 'modern' naval battle was largely unknown in Scotland and England. Both nations languished behind their Continental neighbours, putting to sea in vessels that were fitted for trade, not war. …