On April 24, 1778, John Paul Jones, a rising star in America’s young Continental Navy, was crossing the Solway Firth to the coast of Scotland, having successfully delivered a taste of the American Revolution to King George’s doorstep at Whitehaven only hours before. He intended to raid the home of Dunbar Douglas, the Fourth Earl of Selkirk, hoping to abduct Selkirk and ransom him for the release of American rebels. The Earl’s estate was located at Saint Mary’s Isle, 20 miles as the crow flies from the humble cottage where Jones had been born, 31 years before.
At noon, Jones landed with 12 men near the Selkirk estate, and he soon learned that the Earl of Selkirk was away in London, but the Countess of Selkirk and the Earl’s seven-year-old son were at home.
With the planned abduction of the Earl now impossible, the disappointed seamen began grumbling. They wanted something for their pains, and several suggested sacking the Selkirk mansion. To prevent this, Jones planned to satisfy his men while insuring Lady Selkirk’s safety. He ordered the two officers in the party to go to the house with some men, telling the officers that only they should enter and politely demand the family silver.
The Countess of Selkirk received the intruders with a brave and noble coolness and, after offering an invitation to Jones to join her for dinner (declined on his behalf by the officers) ordered her butler to hand over approximately 160 pounds of silver booty.
Jones and Ranger continued cruising Britain’s waters after the Selkirk raid, capturing H.M.S. Drake on the Irish coast near Belfast, before returning to the French port of Brest with this English prize and the Selkirk silver. But the American captain had evidently been so impressed with Lady Selkirk’s reported sang-froid in handling the rebel intrusion into her home, that he wrote her an eloquent and apologetic letter explaining his actions and promising to personally buy back a fine silver plate that was to be sold along with the rest of the Selkirk silver and return it forthwith.
Gentleman Jones did indeed keep his word and returned the plate, but from 1778 to 1780, his cruising exploits around the United Kingdom rattled the Royal Navy and struck terror into every coastal-dwelling Britisher’s heart — with the possible exception of that undaunted organ beating within the breast of the Countess of Selkirk.
J. Gregory Dill