Two hundred and eight years ago Scotland's foremost naval hero, Admiral Duncan won a decisive naval victory against the Dutch. Blazing glory in some of Britain's darkest days, Dundonian Admiral Duncan's brilliant tactics and gutsy heroism resulted in the tide of war being turned against the Dutch, France's allies during the early days of the French Revolutionary wars.


This picture is by Harold Wyllie (1880 - 1973) The Battle of Camperdown showing the disposition of the fleets at 2pm. (Dundee City Council Arts)

On return to harbour, after the Battle, a young seaman wrote home:

"Dear Father, I am come off safe and sound after having had a breeze with the Dutch…They say they are going to make a Lord of our Admiral! They can't make too much of him. He is a heart of oak: he is a seaman every inch of him and as to a bit of a broadside, it only makes the old cock young again".

At the time, the Battle of Camperdown was regarded as the most important naval action in history. Along with St Vincent, 8 months earlier, the two battles saved the nation from a Napoleonic invasion. Without these victories there would have been no Nile, Trafalgar nor Waterloo to follow them and perhaps to overshadow them. Admiral Duncan also had to cope with the first major industrial dispute, the mutiny of the summer of 1797, which started at Spithead in April and spread to the North and thence to Duncan's ships at Yarmouth.

The years between 1746 when Adam Duncan first joined the Navy as a Captain's servant, and his eventual appointment as Commander in Chief of our North Sea Fleet in 1795 saw enormous changes in the social life of the country. There had been revolution in France in 1789; unrest amongst the lower classes fostered by activities such as the publication of Tom Paine's "The Rights of Man", by the Scottish Conventions Movement and by the "Friends of the People" organisation. Duncan himself was personally involved - a mob, demanding electoral reform, attacked the house of his parents in law in George Square, Edinburgh on 4th June 1792 and during a scuffle he was injured and had to wear a double ring on one hand for the rest of his life.

As the years advanced Duncan kept in touch with social changes. Unusually for a man of his rank he understood and sympathised with the desires of the lower classes to receive a better deal and to be able to enjoy better living and working conditions. On his appointment as C in C he wrote to the Admiralty on several occasions suggesting improvements in the conditions of service for men in the lower deck. The Admiralty failed to respond and the result was the Naval Mutiny of 1797 at the Nore on the Thames Estuary. Incidentally, one of the leaders of the mutiny was Richard Parker from Perth. Officers were ejected from some ships and there was talk of the men sailing their vessels into enemy ports or to America.

Duncan's handling of the problem within his own fleet at Great Yarmouth was masterly. As mutiny broke out in vessel after vessel he fearlessly repaired on board and listened to the men's grievances. Eventually the tension eased and the Fleet got down to the business of preventing a massing continental army from invading Britain. The example he set for those who followed was the importance of face-to-face contact between "manager" and "worker" during times of industrial dispute.

As his fleet approached the Dutch coast on 11 October 1797 "Duncan's strategy was magnificent. When he sighted the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Winter opposite Kamperduin, each ship in his squadron manoeuvred to take on its opposite number in the line - as was customary in naval exchanges. But Duncan suddenly ordered his fleet to break the line and take on an opposing ship of its own choosing.

Instead of running the risk of being drawn into shallow water, Duncan's decision meant he got behind the Dutch and prevented them returning to safe anchorage…. quite controversial tactics at the time, but effective ! Duncan forced his way between the Dutch ships and blew them out of the water. One of the squadron ships was the 'Director' commanded by William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame). A memorable incident in the battle occurred when the ship's flag on the Venerable was shot away: a heroic young seaman, Jack Crawford, climbed up the rigging and nailed it back in place with his pistol butt. Duncan's victory gave Britain a strong claim to sea supremacy and prevented an invasion of Britain by thousands of French troops stationed in Holland. All the Dutch ships were either sunk or captured but the British Squadron of 16 ships of the line survived. Losses were great on both sides. It was a memorable and famous victory.

A message came from the Venerable at Sea on the 13th October 1797 off the coast of Holland, to the Secretary of the Admiralty in London. It came from his old friend Adam Duncan. "Be pleased to acquaint the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that, in the night of the 10th instant, I placed my squadron in such situation as to prevent the Enemy from returning to the Texel [the Dutch fleet's home port] without my falling in with them. As we approached near I made the signal for the squadron to shorten sail, in order to connect them: soon after I saw the land between Camperdown and Egmont about nine miles to leeward of the Enemy, and I made the signal to bear up, break the Enemy's line and engage them to leeward… by which I got between them and the land. The action commenced about 40 minutes past 12 o'clock".

What followed over the next two and a half hours was one of the great strategies in naval history - and changed the course of British history.

This picture is by John Singleton Copley "The Victory of Lord Duncan", 1799 (National Galleries of Scotland) The action is situated on the deck of Duncan's flagship, the Venerable. The Dutch Admiral de Winter is formally surrendering while his own flagship, Vrijheid, is burning in the background.

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