The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Smuggling and press gangs

After the Treaty of Union with England, smuggling became almost a way of life. Laws were passed that forbade tea, brandy or wine being imported without payment to the British Government. This was deeply resented, not only by the poorer folk in society, but also the lairds and businessmen, who saw it as an unjust law that blighted their lives. Even the magistrates, ministers and country magnates often sympathised with the smugglers.

What made the situation worse in Scotland was that the laws originated in England and many of the new commissioners of Excise and Customs were Englishmen. For many, it almost became their patriotic duty to outwit these officers.

In the Aberdeen Press of 14 May 1879 an article says the following about smuggling:

 Smuggling in Orkney

 Of late, smuggling has not been uncommon at The Orkney Islands. Her Majesty’s Cutter Eagle has been stationed at Kirkwall for the purpose of cruising about the islands, and the Gunboat Firm has arrived from Queensferry and landed a number of the Coastguard men, who are to be distributed over the islands. Depots are to be fixed at Westray, Sanday, and Kirkwall and a small steamboat is to be employed for the purpose of boarding the vessels – principally French – which visit these islands in great number at the herring fishing season, and also the fishing smacks coming home form the Faroe and Iceland Fisheries.


Orkney was perfect for smugglers with its vast expanse of shoreline, access to the sea, caves and secret hiding places.  Smuggling was very profitable for many people in Orkney. The lairds made their money through both legitimate trade and smuggling.

Most of the smuggling in Orkney was the illegal malting of barley and the stilling of whisky, and the excisemen had a constant battle trying to locate these. There were often fierce clashes with those in authority. There are many tales of smuggling, and we have just a few of them here.


There was once a man on Hoy who was well known for his strength. He was a wily character, too, and believed he would be caught red-handed when he arrived at Stromness Harbour with four ankers (barrels) of spirits. Seeing several gaugers (excisemen) looking at him, he decided to brazen it out and put one barrel under each arm and grabbed the other two by the rims. He carried the barrels effortlessly and the gaugers assumed they must be empty and let him pass.


There is a wonderful document (SC11/5/782) in the Orkney Archives which gives details of a case brought against James Allan, a boatman in Stromness, who was charged with "running or landing goods which were prohibited to be imported and for forcibly and masterfully seizing, detaining and withholding an officer of his Majesty’s Customs while on duty".

Here is just a small part of the document:

"In so far as upon Monday night the eighth, or upon Tuesday morning the ninth day of October last, or upon one or other of the nights and morning of one or other of the days of the said month of October as William Baikie, Tidewaiter of the Customs at Stromness and John Sinclair one of the kings boatmen there were going their usual rounds along the shore of Stromness they observed a boat rowing towards said shore upon which the said William Baikie and John Sinclair stopped a little under a house in the town until said boat rowed ashore and then went to said boat in which they observed some kegs to the number of five or six, and also saw three kegs upon the beach which they secured and upon examination found them to contain Gin and Brandy but there being no still one man in the boat viz. William Davidson, a servant at Ness in the parish of Stromness and he observing the said William Baikie and John Sinclair he rowed off shore, and at the same time the said James Allan another of the men belonging to said boat and who had landed or had assisted in landing the aforesaid Gin and Brandy came up to the said William Baikie and took hold of him and kept him fast until the man in their boat rowed off; and the said William Baikie and John Sinclair having persuaded the said William Davidson to come towards the shore with said boat, and his being inclined to deliver her up and the keys into her to the said William Baikie and John Sinclair the said James Allan run down to the shore and rushed into the water near breast high before the boat struck, shoved her off, and then jumped into her and went off with William Davidson and what was in said boat whereby and in so doing the said James Allan has been guilty of running and landing prohibited goods, of forcibly seizing and detaining an officer of his Majesty’s Customs while on duty in order to prevent him from seizing or stopping the same, and of forcibly and masterfully carrying off said goods in order to prevent the secure thereof ALL which or any part there of being found proven and the said James Allan being found guilty of or accessory and part in or any one of the aforesaid crimes he ought to be punished with the pains of law and decerned on the sum of Three pounds sterling as the experience of this process to the example and terror or others to be guilty of the like crimes intercoming."

Stroma and the men of Scapa

Because of its isolation, the island of Stroma, just north of Caithness, was a favourite rendezvous point for landing illicit cargo. On one occasion, excise officers heard that there was a large quantity of illicit cargo stored on the island. They went to Scapa, where they hired a boat to take them to St Margaret's Hope. They offered a high price and the fare was accepted. It was only when they were well out in Scapa Flow that the men told the boatman that they had no intention of going to St Margaret's Hope, and instead should be landed at Stroma.

No fool, the boatman replied: "Na, na, I was freighted to go to the Hope, and if ye dinna want to go there, we just can go back again." That was not an option for the officers, so they continued to the Hope. The excisemen immediately hired a South Ronaldsay crew to row them to Stroma but the boatman, guessing what was going on and also knowing that the men in Stroma were unaware that they were about to be visited, asked the crew to take as much time as they could in getting their boat ready for the journey.

Meanwhile, a man on horseback was dispatched to the south parish with news of the officers' visit. A boat was immediately launched and rowed to Swona where the warning was given. Long before the excisemen arrived, all trace of illicit goods had been hidden away.

The officers finally arrived and began their search. Eventually, they had to admit defeat, and with the islanders jeering them at every step, left the island thoroughly discomfited and chagrined. They realised, of course, that the warning had been given and that they had been outwitted, and the very long journey had been made for nothing.

A visit to Graemsay

Two excisemen visited Graemsay to search for illegal malt. One of the local men, who was regarded as a bit of a fool, noticed the men arriving and, knowing they were strangers, suspected what they were coming to the island for. When they arrived he acted the fool and set off running towards the other side of the island. The excisemen saw him and quickly gave chase, suspecting that he had something to hide. After a long chase the 'fool' turned to face his pursuers and threw dust and chaff (the remains of grain) into their faces. By this time the malt was hidden and the excisemen left the island very disgruntled, having not visited a single house.

There are more tales of smuggling and press gangs in Around the Orkney Peat Fires by WR Mackintosh, a 1905 book which was re-published in recent years.

Gratitude of an exciseman

Not surprisingly, Excise and Customs men were not popular, and Orcadians held many a grudge against them. One winter's day, an officer who was based in Stromness went to search in the districts of Ireland, Orphir and Stenness. It was a long journey and his poor horse got quite exhausted through want of food. The exciseman tried farmer after farmer to get some oats for the animal, but was completely unsuccessful. He was becoming very concerned and, when he saw a light in a window, decided to try one last time.

This time he was in luck, the farmer was busy making illicit malt indoors when the officer arrived. The officer asked for food for his horse and the farmer, knowing full well he was caught, readily complied. The farmer invited the man to go into the house and get some food for himself but the officer decided to stay where he was. He produced a flask containing whisky, and he and the farmer stood for a time chatting while his horse ate. The farmer must have been in turmoil, wondering when the exciseman would enter the house and find the malt brewing but, after what must have seemed an eternity, the officer left.

Of course the officer must have been able to smell the fumes given off by the malt but by not entering the house he could not have 'seen' this breach of the law. It is believed he was so grateful for the kindness shown to him and his horse that he declined to be too inquisitive on this occasion.

Peedie Bannets

James Smith, who lived in the parish of Stenness, was known locally as Peedie Bannets. He carried on his smuggling in nearby Stromness and was quite a character. He owned a grey mare and, whenever he met an exciseman, he would walk in front of the horse and would then present his snuff-box to the man. He would then begin to tell funny stories of which he seemed to have an endless supply. This kept the officer both entertained and amused and, of course, occupied. While being entertained in this way, the officer failed to hear the sound of the horse's hooves fade into the distance. When he eventually looked up the mare had disappeared as well as the malt contained in the caisies (straw baskets) that were on the back of the animal.

A clibber, made of four pieces of wood and put over a pony's shoulders to carry caisies (on display Orkney Museum, Kirkwall)

Press gangs in Longhope

The press gangs – groups of men employed to force others into naval service – kept a close eye on Longhope, which attracted a great deal of shipping. It was inevitable that some very good seamen would be among the crew, and the press gang would simply wait for ships returning from the whaling and other trips. They tried to deceive the returning ships by setting French colours and hoped they would secure their quota of Orkney seamen this way.

One of the frigates caught a whaling ship. It was carrying a Letter o' Mark (that is, to fight as long as it could) so the whaler fired and broke the wheel and killed two men on the frigate. This was more than the press gang had bargained for, but there was still more to come.

The whaler kept on firing until the frigate took down the French colours and hoisted the British flag. The press gang then surrendered to the whaler.

An embarrassment for the press gang

A press gang cutter tried to capture a Longhope boat crew off the Pentland Skerries but the tables were turned on them when the crew managed to come home to Longhope with not only their own boat but that of the press gang too.

A mother saves her sons: a story from South Ronaldsay

Ann Louttit had a number of sons and lived at the farm of Midtown in Herston, South Ronaldsay. On hearing that the press gang were intending to come and 'press' some of the islanders she put her sons under the bedsack and sat in mourning clothes wailing and crying that the "plague be here, plague be here". While lamenting she tossed feather up around her, which witches were supposed to do at one time to keep evil spirits away. She frightened the press officers so much that they left and went back to their ship, situated in Widewall Bay. It's thought the officers believed that smallpox was in the house.

For some unknown reason they thought the best thing they could do was to set fire to the farmhouse and they shelled it from the safety of their ship. Red hot cannon balls reined down on the house but it had little effect. Many years later, two of the balls were found in the thatch of the house. One was around three inches in diameter, the other around four-and-a-half inches.

Blood is not always thicker than water

A sad story of the press gang involved a man who pressed his own nephew into the service...

The press gang arrived in South Ronaldsay at the house of their leader, Mr Halcro. He came into the house to get his jacket. When his wife asked where he was going he replied that it was his duty to "take that boy". The boy was known to his wife and she replied: "Donald Tomison, if you take that boy, his father's dead, he has only got his mother, if you take him then one blanket will never cover us again. I tell you straight one blanket will never cover us again." Her husband looked out the door and said: "Men, you a hear that, I'm not coming with you, you can go." They left to pursue the boy without their leader.

Meanwhile the boy had heard he was being sought and went to a cave called the Quarral Goe which lies in the south of the South Parish. It is a gloup which goes down inland about 30 yards and, from there, there is an entrance to the sea. The boy swam through this channel and, on entering the seaward side, he saw his uncle and realised he was waiting for him. The boy said: "Uncle, where can I go?". His uncle replied: "Come to me boy and I'll save you." The boy swam to his uncle who held on to him until the Crown Officer put the King's stick on his head and he was pressed. He never came back.

This seems an extraordinary thing to do. However, if the full quota of men could not be found, it was customary for the men of the press gang to serve in the war themselves.

Swona men won’t go down without a fight

Two brothers John and James Halcro rowed from their home in Swona to Stensigarth in Sandwick Bay to get their supplies. They went to the shop and, on the way out, the King's stick was laid on the head of John Halcro. He picked up the man and threw him and shouted to his brother: "Get your stuff and come, we're besieged." They fought their way through, untied their boat and pushed off. The press gang shouted: "We'll get you, we'll come to Swona and get you." James replied: "Right, you come, but not if I'm alive."

Some time later James got up in the morning and came out of the house. He looked to see if there were any ships flying the pilot flag but when he looked back saw the press gang was already on the island. The man with the King's Stick was sitting above his door. The man said: "Right Halcro, I've got you."

"Have you," was James's reply. He got a handpike (a log of wood with a piece of iron in the end for killing seals) and said: "Right, you shall shift." He ran to his brother's house where they got two guns which were already loaded. When the rest of the gang came back they fought them with pitchforks and scythe blades and it is said they cut them to ribbons.

They eventually took one man from Swona, Allan was his name, but a Halcro man was never taken.

A long journey to Swona

Long ago, ale and whisky was made on the island of Swona and sold. When the excise men visited Swona they would normally employ a boatman from Burwick to transport them the two miles to the island. When the boat made a number of unnecessary tacks the islanders knew that the gaugers (excise men) were on board and this gave them time to hide their illicit stills and malt. The malt was often buried in a hole in the beach right where the gaugers would land. The boat had to be hauled up the shore immediately so the boat was pulled right on top of where the malt was hidden.

Another way to fool the gaugers was to invite them into a home and offer a mug of ale. This ale was almost 99% raw alcohol which had been produced in the local still. The result was that the men were soon very drunk and the poor women of the island had to carry the men back to the boat.