John Paul Jones and the American ‘Invasion’ of Leith

John Paul Jones
Captain John Paul Jones

In 1779 a daring plan was hatched by American revolutionary commanders to invade the port town of Leith.

The proposed ‘invasion’ formed part of an audacious campaign to take the fight to British shores as the American Revolution raged across the Atlantic. And it would be led by John Paul Jones, the Scottish-born ‘Father of the American Navy’.

The son of a gardener, John Paul Jones was born in Kirkcudbrightshire in 1747 and in his early 20s made a name for himself as a capable mariner and sea captain.

After killing a ‘mutinous’ crew member over a pay dispute, Jones was forced to flee to Virginia, and in 1775 joined the fledgling Continental Navy. It was here that the Scottish expat would forge a reputation as one of the most fearsome naval commanders of the period.

Revolution on the high seas

Jones was quickly put to work harassing British merchant vessels in the Atlantic, and before long found himself preying on ships in the Irish Sea. In 1778, while commanding the vessel Ranger, Jones led an assault on Whitehaven in Cumbria, the town in which he began his maritime career.

Dozens of merchant vessels were docked in the port, and to all intents and purposes it was a prime target for attack, but the assault failed to inflict any serious damage.

After the failed raid, the Ranger crossed the Solway Firth and attempted to kidnap and ransom the 4th Earl of Selkirk. However, landing on St Mary’s Isle near his hometown of Kirkcudbright, the crew found the Earl was not home and Jones ended up negotiating with Lady Selkirk over reparations.

John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones seizing Lady Selkirk’s silverware

Making off with silver, Jones then sailed across the Irish Sea and captured the Royal Navy sloop, HMS Drake. The capture of the Drake marked one of the Continental Navy’s few victories against the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War and became an important symbol for the cause.

Returning for more

Returning to British shores in 1779 aboard the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard, Jones sailed at the head of a five-ship squadron which included USS Alliance, USS Pallas, USS Vengeance and two French privateer vessels.

Pursued by the Royal Navy, the squadron rounded the north of Scotland and made its way into the North Sea, picking off merchant vessels where it could and stalking the coast.

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Approaching the Firth of Forth, Jones found that this vital estuary was completely unguarded, and the various towns and villages littering the coast were at the mercy of the squadron.

Sailing uncontested into the Forth, panic spread around Edinburgh and the surrounding coastline as the flotilla approached the port of Leith.

Had he landed in Leith, Jones would have likely met little resistance.

Saved by a storm

In the end, the weather prevented any such landing for Jones and the Continental squadron.

Strong eastwardly winds caused havoc and forced Jones to sail out of the Forth and down the coast to Yorkshire, where several days later he achieved another symbolic victory in the Battle of Flamborough Head.

John Paul Jones
‘Action Between the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard’ during the Battle of Flamborough Head

The near-miss did leave a mark, however. Jones’ foray into the Forth raised fears that American vessels might return and inflict some serious damage. This prompted the government to bolster coastal defences in the area.

A formidable gun battery was constructed in Dunbar’s Old Harbour to defend the mouth of the Firth, while in Leith fortifications were erected to protect the harbour and deter any future attacks on the port.

James Craig, the man behind the development of Edinburgh’s New Town, was commissioned to design Leith Fort and it opened in 1780.

Leith Fort remained open until 1956 and its interior buildings were eventually demolished to make way for flats.

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