TODAY and next week we look at the life of a man who was a sailor, inventor, MP, mercenary privateer, fleet commander for four different countries, a convicted fraudster set free largely by public opinion, and the only member of the Order of the Bath ever to be expelled. Oh, and Queen Victoria re-instated him.

The trouble with history books is that they often have to leave out the best stories, and that’s when novelists are able to capture our imagination with their retelling of episodes and characters from history.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon from Scottish history is the extraordinary life of Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald, who arguably had a bigger influence on world affairs than any Scot in the 19th century but who hardly gets a mention by most historians of the period, Scottish or otherwise.

Instead Admiral Cochrane’s remarkable tale has been told in the homage done to him by great historical novelists such as Captain Marryat, Patrick O’Brian, CS Forester and Bernard Cornwell.

O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” character Jack Aubrey and Forester’s Horatio Hornblower are directly inspired by Cochrane while Cornwell features his depiction of the real man in Sharpe’s Devil, the last in the long-running series of novels featuring Richard Sharpe.

The “devil” in the title is Cochrane himself, and that is how his Spanish opponents thought of him. The French called him Le Loup des Mers, the Sea Wolf, while generations of Chilean, Peruvian and Brazilian children have been taught to think of him as a national hero, which he most certainly was for those nations, for without Cochrane’s leadership they would have taken very much longer to free themselves of their imperial masters, especially Spanish-dominated Chile.

Born at Annsfield near Hamilton on December 14, 1775, he was the son of an impoverished aristocrat and unsuccessful inventor, Archibald, 9th Earl of Dundonald, and Anna Gilchrist whose mother was a laird’s daughter. He was one of six brothers, of whom three would have successful military careers not least because all the boys were trained to handle weapons from a young age. The family owned land at Culross – the Dundonald estate was eventually sold to pay Archibald’s debts – and Cochrane was largely raised and educated there until he joined the Army as a teenager, leaving shortly afterwards to join the Royal Navy at the age of 17. In fact he had been “in the Navy” since he was five, the family using a ruse to get him the years required for promotion, which duly arrived after two years as a midshipman aboard the frigate of his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane.

He became an acting lieutenant in 1795 and a full commissioned lieutenant the following year. Standing 6ft 2ins and with flaming red hair, he cut an imposing figure even as a young man, but he also had the temper and passion so often associated with such colouring. He was a consummate sailor and a “bonny fechter” who led from the front and never backed down, a superb swordsman and deadly with a pistol.

Cochrane served aboard the flagship of Lord Keith in the Mediterrean during the war with France and while there he was court-martialled for giving cheek to a superior officer. This was a lifelong trait of Cochrane who was always convinced of his own correctness and didn’t hesitate to lecture his elders and supposed betters.

The National:

It did him no real harm at first, and in 1800 he was given his first command, HMS Speedy, a brig armed with 14 small cannons.

The following year saw the escapade which made his name when he unfurled a neutral American flag and took his small ship right up to the Spanish frigate El Gamo.

Cochrane “parked” Speedy underneath the enemy’s guns so they could only hit the topsails.

He then led his men, with their faces blackened with charcoal, aboard El Gamo and captured her for the loss of only three British lives. It was just one of many such sorties and reportedly within a year or so Cochrane captured 50 ships and 534 prisoners, usually with him leading the charges and hand-to-hand fighting that brought victory. His feats made him a national hero back home.

He was not always successful – in 1802 HMS Speedy was captured by three French ships after a long battle. The French commander refused to accept Cochrane’s sword of surrender as he had been so impressed by the Speedy’s fighting. He was exchanged a few days later for a French captain – Napoleon was later furious to find out that he was let go.

With a truce declared, the Admiralty then stood Cochrane down and he went off to study at Edinburgh University but was soon recalled when the war with France began again, only to be given the job of guarding fishing boats off the north of Scotland.

Yet such a fighter could not be held back and this time, backed by fellow Scot Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, he really began to annoy the French, commanding HMS Pallas and then HMS Imperieuse from 1804, raiding the French and Spanish coasts and generally wreaking havoc on land and at sea.

The National:

His greatest exploit was at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809 where he managed to get an exploding fireship among the enemy craft.

He left this account of the action in his autobiography: “The night was dark, and, as the wind was fair, though blowing hard, we soon neared the estimated position of the advanced French ships, for it was too dark to discern them.

“Judging our distance, therefore, as well as we could, with regard to the time the fuse was calculated to burn, the crew of four men entered the gig, under the direction of Lieut. Bissell, whilst I kindled the portfires, and then, descending into the boat, urged the men to pull for their lives, which they did with a will, though, as wind and sea were strong against us, without making the expected progress.

“To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped.

“The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel.

“The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge.

“In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness.”

The explosion stunned the French fleet but did no great damage, and the British fleet did not take advantage of the surprise, which made Cochrane angry.

As you can see, he was no mean self-publicist either, but again his big mouth got him into trouble and he was implicated in accusations of cowardice against his commanding officer Lord Gambier. His Lordship’s friends in London ensured that Cochrane was given no commands at sea for four years.

By then Cochrane was already an MP, having won his seat in the Commons in 1806. He had also made several serious enemies in Westminster and Whitehall, due mainly to his campaign for parliamentary reform – for all his bluster, Cochrane deeply believed in fighting injustice and he was outspoken against corruption wherever he saw it.

Perhaps also because of his family’s impecuniousness he also battled to get every penny he was owed in prize money – Royal Navy commanders were allocated sometimes huge sums whenever they captured an enemy ship, and Cochrane went to court for his shares.

Serving as an MP, he annoyed his political enemies once too often and in 1814, in what became known as the Great Stock Exchange Fraud, Cochrane turned his back and it was duly stabbed.

There was a genuine fraud – a “Colonel du Bourg” turned up at Dover to say that Napoleon had died, and that sent the Stock Exchange soaring. Du Bourg was actually Captain Random de Berenger and was an associate of Cochrane’s uncle, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone. De Berenger persuaded Cochrane-Johnstone and in turn Cochrane to sell their shares and of course the following day the truth emerged and the price of shares collapsed, leaving Cochrane much wealthier.

It was disastrous for Cochrane. His defence was that he had left instructions with his broker to automatically sell his shares when the stock market rose, but nevertheless he was hauled into court and convicted of serious charges.

He was sentenced to 12 months of prison, fined £1000 and ordered to be given the humiliation of an hour in the pillory – the stocks, by another name.

His friends rallied to Cochrane’s aid and the authorities did not proceed with the pillory part of the sentence as it was clear that the public affection for Cochrane would have seen riots in London’s streets. He was then voted out of Parliament by his fellow MPs, led by a political opponent.

“Neglect,” Cochrane said, “I was accustomed to. But when an alleged offence was laid to my charge, in which, on the honour of a man now on the brink of the grave, I had not the slightest participation, and from which I never benefited, nor thought to benefit one farthing, and when this allegation was, by political rancour and legal chicanery, consummated in an unmerited conviction and an outrageous sentence, my heart for the first time sank within me, as conscious of a blow, the effect of which it has required all my energies to sustain.”

But worse, much worse in Cochrane’s eyes, was still to come. For his naval exploits, Cochrane had been appointed to the order of the Bath, the highest honour a military man could get. Yet now the royal family turned against

His son, the 11th Earl, wrote an account of what happened next: “His name having, on the 25th of June, been struck off the list of naval officers in the Admiralty, the Knights Companions of the Bath promptly held a chapter to consider the propriety of expelling him from their ranks.

“That was soon done, and no time was lost in making the insult as thorough as possible.

“At one o’clock in the morning of the 11th of August, the Bath King at Arms repaired to King Henry the Seventh’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, and there, under a warrant signed by Lord

Sidmouth, the Secretary of State, removed the banner of Lord Cochrane.”

It was the lowest moment of his life, but Thomas Cochrane was about to amaze the world.