With a yo ho ho and 16 crates of beer

While courts around the world are trying to get to grips with the prosecution of Somali pirates and their land-based financial apparatus (as reported last week on these pages) memories have been stirred of the cruder approach taken in Scotland’s last piracy trial.

In 1970 a group of Peterhead trawlermen reported for duty on their vessel, the Mary Craig. Some had to be assisted aboard having taken drink before the voyage.

Within a very short time they had become mutinous in protest at the offering from the ship’s galley and, inspired by reports of recent hijackings in the Middle East, decided to take control of the Mary Craig.

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They put ashore the skipper and first mate, who promptly went to the nearest telephone box and reported the theft of their vessel before the Mary Craig had got under way.

Meanwhile the mutineers had discovered two things: the voyage’s supply of 16 crates of beer; and that none of them knew how to navigate even when sober. The Mary Craig sailed in circles around Peterhead harbour for a few hours before being recovered.

The Crown Office drew up a very lengthy indictment detailing every stage of the event.

However, the trial judge, Lord Cameron, unilaterally declared the indictment amounted to 
piracy even though the word was not contained therein. Some unknown hand had written the word on the 
back of the indictment.

The prosecution was led by the Lord Advocate, Norman Wyllie QC. Both he and Lord Cameron had seen war service in the Royal Navy and clearly took the matter very seriously.

The defence was led by Nicholas Fairbairn, who was still at school during 
the war. His references to The Pirates of Penzance did not find a ready audience on the bench. Neither did his attempt to argue that the indictment should be simply interpreted as a breach of the peace.

Five men were convicted of piracy and gaoled for periods of up to 30 months. They appealed against conviction on the grounds they had been convicted of a crime with which they had not been charged.

As an indication of how times have changed, the appeal was heard within two months. The appeals were all rejected. The European Convention of Human Rights was not invoked.