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John Paul Jones Cottage: An American Legend’s Humble Scottish Beginnings

“I have not yet begun to fight!” ~John Paul Jones

Who doesn’t like a good old fashioned ‘explore and discover’ mission?! We here at Wee Walking Tours are always willing and ready when the opportunity presents itself. And, let me tell you, we had such an opportunity on our recent explorations around Dumfries and Galloway.

That wee cottage you see above, isn’t just any old Scottish cottage. It just happens to be the home of one of the most famous men who helped contribute to the birth of the United States as an independent nation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back and start out our exploration with a proper accounting of the day in question.

Road Trip to Dumfries & Galloway

It was just a little over a week ago, and Finn and Sawyer anxiously watched as the Wee Walking Tours family packed various bags. They couldn’t tell yet whether they were going on this trip- that is until Finn saw us get out his and Sawyer’s ‘travel’ backpack. I say Finn because, as the older canine sibling, he has garnered keen observation skills. Small gestures or key words are all it takes for him to assess what is going to happen during various outings.

While Sawyer is top-dog when it comes to knowing the ins and outs of his tour guide duties in the Edinburgh city centre, he is not as adept as Finn at assessing whether or not they are going on one of our outings. Therefore, in true little brother fashion, he looks to Finn for clues, and when he saw Finn jumping for joy at the site of the backpack, he quickly joined in with the happy hopping.

It was our first overnight trip in several months, and we were all excited to be getting away for a couple of days. Our destination was the Dumfries and Galloway region- just a couple of hours southwest of Edinburgh. While we had a few places that we booked in advance, we also were ready to explore and discover and see where the road took us.

There are so many picturesque sites throughout Scotland and the Dumfries and Galloway area is no exception. We had plenty of time to explore before the check-in at our accommodation and decided to truly ‘explore and discover’ the Solway coast. It was a wonderful day with the sun shining and the open road ahead of us.

As we drove around, we were quite surprised to see signs for the John Paul Jones Birthplace Cottage Museum. Was John Paul Jones really born in this unsuspecting rural area? I must admit that I did not know this historical fun fact. After coming to the turn off for the Museum, we looked at each other and thought- why not?! ‘Explore and discover’ is our motto and this would sure be a fun way to do it.

After driving on some interesting roads- we eventually found it. Let’s just say it was certainly off the beaten path. However, before I get to our time at the Museum, it might be useful to review a brief history of John Paul Jones. Watch your step as we jump into our Wee Walking Tours time machine and set it to 1747.

John Paul Jones: A Scottish-Born American Hero

John Paul Jones was born as John Paul (the Jones came later) on the 6th of July 1747 in a wee cottage on the Arbigland Estate in Kirkbean, Scotland. This bit of information might surprise those of you who are familiar with John Paul Jones- especially our readers in the United States where the history books mainly mention that he was ‘British’, but without specifics.

However, I think that very detail is quite important. Being Scottish and born into humble beginnings might have given him the ability to better sympathise with the American colonists later in his life. But, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is said that John Paul spent his childhood exploring the Solway Coast. According to the Museum, “he taught his playmates to maneuver their little boats to mimic a naval battle, while he, taking his stand on the tiny cliff overlooking the roadstead, shouted commands at his imaginary fleet”. It was clear that John Paul was destined to become a seaman.

In fact, he started a 7-year seaman’s apprenticeship sailing to Barbados and Fredericksburg, Virginia, but wasn't able to finish it. Unfortunately, he went into the slave trade- sailing on the King George and then the Two Friends. The Museum points out that he quit “the slave traffic in disgust calling it an ‘abominable trade’. He was then given free passage home on the ‘John’ of Kirkcudbright, a new ship”.

It was on this voyage that fate would intervene and thrust John Paul into a leadership role. On the voyage home, the captain and mate died of fever. Therefore, he took command because he was the only qualified officer. Upon arrival back in Scotland, he was appointed master for his next voyage to America.

A great deal happened in the life of John Paul after this, but I’ll leave it to the history books to outline those fascinating details. For our purposes, we’ll set our time machine to 1775. By this point, John Paul had changed his name to John Paul Jones. The American Revolution was at hand, and John Paul Jones (according to his letters), was on the side of the colonists. The Museum mentions that, “when Congress formed a ‘Continental Navy’, John Paul Jones offered his services and he was commissioned as first lieutenant on 7th December 1775”.

His reputation became well-known and he assisted Congress with drawing up of Navy regulations. He even got to know Benjamin Franklin when they sailed on the Ranger for France as Franklin was the American Commissioner to France at that time.

John Paul Jones’ battles in Britain helped him to become a household name. His most famous battle was at Flamborough Head where he was able to overcome the Countess of Scarborough after a bloody battle. It was during this battle that, when he was asked if he wished to surrender, John Paul Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight”. He eventually sailed away with 500 prisoners.

What is fascinating to think about is the way John Paul Jones was and is viewed. In ‘Britain’ (one could argue mostly in England), history looks at him as a pirate. Of course, in the United States, he is seen as a hero and is known as the ‘Father of the American Navy’.

The ending of John Paul Jones’ story is a bit of a sad one. He spent his last days in Paris and died at the age of 45 due to complications of pneumonia. According to the Museum, “his body lay in an alcohol-filled coffin in an unmarked grave in a cemetery for foreign Protestants for over a century. Theodore Roosevelt eventually set up a search for John Paul Jones’ body which was rediscovered in 1905. Amid great ceremony, it was brought back to the United States in the USS Brooklyn accompanied by three other cruisers…In 1913 his body was finally laid to rest in a magnificent marble sarcophagus, modeled on the tomb of Napoleon, in the Chapel Crypt of Annapolis Naval Academy”.

Crypt of John Paul Jones / Photo by: Zeusmin / CC BY-SA

With thanks to the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum for assisting us with this brief history lesson, let’s head back into our time machine and return to 2020 to further explore the birthplace of John Paul Jones.

John Paul Jones Cottage Museum

With the above history in mind, it is quite incredible to then visit the cottage where John Paul Jones was born. As we pulled into the carpark, we were quite pleased to find the Museum open. The staff person at the Museum was wonderful and we purchased our tickets (only £4.50 per adult). We watched a brief video on the life of John Paul Jones and then set out to explore the Museum and grounds.

The Museum may be small, but it has fantastic artefacts, and information on the early and later life of John Paul Jones as well as letters from contemporary U.S. Naval personnel.

The jewel of the Museum is the actual cottage where John Paul Jones was born. It’s just outside the Visitor Centre and is an unassuming white cottage (see the photo at the beginning of this article). Stepping inside, you’d think that we had entered our time machine again, because you are instantly transported back to 1747. Scroll through the photos for a virtual exploration:

How amazing is it that someone born into such humble beginnings in Scotland, would become such a famous person in American history?! It brings to mind another famous Scottish gentleman who we recently wrote about- Andrew Carnegie.

The grounds just outside the cottage provide beautiful views of the Solway Coast. There is also a lovely area with a plaque dedicated by the Sons of the American Revolution to John Paul Jones with the American and Scottish flags flying.

Exploring the Solway Coast

As we prepared to leave the Museum, the staff person let us know about a lovely beach just down the road. We decided it would be the perfect place for Finn and Sawyer to run around on their own adventure.

After parking our car, we set out on our beach exploration. It was fun to imagine a young John Paul Jones exploring the same beach as a child. I could just see him standing on the rocks- pretending to captain his boat.

The landscape lends itself well to the imagination and thoughts of days long ago. I will never grow tired of the smell of salt water, sand between my toes, and watching the water gently lapping up along the beach. I suspect Sawyer and Finn share the same sentiments. In fact, if you want to have a similar experience, you can stay right on the Arbigland Estate as they have a variety of holiday accommodation options. Please check out their website for more information.

Visiting & Supporting the Museum

Scotland is a never-ending font of surprises, rich in incredible history- sometimes with ‘hidden’ treasures like the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum. John Paul Jones’ story shows how even an ordinary man born into poverty could improve his lot in life. I hope his story has helped ground his life with more context and gives a quick peek into John Paul Jones the man and not just the historical figure.

This ‘explore and discover mission’ was one of my favourites and we are happy to share it with you. If you are in the Dumfries area, we highly recommend a visit to the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum. If you can’t visit but find this wee Museum an important part of Scottish and American history as much as we do- please consider donating. Times are difficult for all of us right now, but I know any amount would be greatly appreciated. Small, private museums need our support to help them continue their important historical work.

I am thrilled to say that we had more adventures on this trip to the Dumfries region, and we will be sharing more in the coming weeks. Therefore, please be sure to visit our blog homepage where you can subscribe. That way, you will get instant notifications as soon as we publish our weekly travel articles from around Edinburgh and throughout Scotland.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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