The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The Press Gang

Impressing seamen to man the Royal Navy began in England in 1355. The first documentation to be found mentioning the press-gang is in a minute of the Town Council dated 17 March 1692, which states that the King had resolved that no seaman of his kingdom be pressed for the future. He did command, however, that the town councils should make up a list of the fishermen and seamen that refused to join the navy. This was so that the men wanted would be drawn by lot.

 It was at the end of the 18th Century that the press-gangs became oppressive and records show that during the 19th Century the gangs often called upon Orkney to provide men for his Majesty’s service. Choosing the men was an easy task. A few of the landlords and principal tenants of a parish met in private and chose any of their neighbours whom they deemed fit. This list of names was handed to press-gang or constables. Often it was local men that tried to capture the young men, as strangers would not have known the homes they had to visit or the men they had to impress, therefore men lived in dread of being captured. The men of Orkney often went to the Davis Strait to fish and they were often impressed on their return home.

The press gangs were hated as much as the excise men and there are many tales from all over Orkney on how they were duped and how many men managed to get away from them by using hiding places. Again these stories are from Around the Orkney Peat Fires by Mackintosh. This is a really great little book and will be obtainable from libraries, should you wish to read it for yourself.

 Here are just a few, which overlook the Scapa Flow area.

 Fingergow, Scapa

 One morning the people living at the little croft of Fingergow near Scapa thought it would be safe to begin cutting their crops as the press-gang had not been spotted for some time. They began work, keeping a watchful eye out for the press-gang in case they did approach.

Thomas Sinclair, who was in charge of the farm, went down with his hook to a field of bere and began the laborious task of cutting the crop. He had not been working long when he got the signal that the press-gang were approaching. Not having time to escape, he crept into the middle of the field to hide.

Peter Wick and Joseph Tait looked into every corner and cranny of the house searching for him. They were followed by Kirsty Sinclair,Thomas Sinclair’s sister, a lady of formidable character. When the men looked as if they were about to leave, she cheered and waved her shearing hook above her head. Instead of driving the officers off, it made them suspicious and made them more determined in their search.

 When they reached the field they saw that a small area had been cut and guessed that their quarry was probably hiding in the field. To be thorough, Wick went down one rig whilst Tait went up the other. This way the officers drew closer to Sinclair and eventually seeing him, made a rush for him. Sinclair was a strong, burly man and fought for his liberty and struck out at Tait with a wooden batten. With one blow he laid the officer senseless. The other constable then challenged Sinclair and being an old Nor’Waster, struck out so effectually with his fists that he quickly felled Sinclair.

Kirsty saw what had happened and thought that it was her brother who had been knocked out and believing the officers had killed him, she rushed up behind the officer and struck him a terrible blow at the back of his head. She did not deliver a good blow and was quickly thrown to the ground beside her brother.

 The officer who had been knocked out quickly regained consciousness and he and the other officer walked to Kirkwall, leaving Sinclair and his sister bleeding and bruised in the field of bere.

 A few warships were in the harbour and on learning of the mistreatment of the officers a few sailors were sent ashore to help in bringing Sinclair into town.

 That evening Wick and some of the sailors dragged Sinclair out of his bed and he had to walk into town. So severe were the injuries he had received earlier, he had to lie down often before continuing. Whenever he laid down he was mistreated by the sailors and when he reached the town his skin was broken. The following day he appeared before the doctor but he was such a mass of sores that he was considered unfit for service and he was sent home!

 As he had abused the officers, however, he had his only cow confiscated and this was given to Tait.

 Kirsty Sinclair met with a sad end. Years after she had clobbered the officer she visited her sister-in-law’s house on a message. When her sister-in-law was out of the way, Kirsty hammered a large pin into the head of a little child, lying in its cradle. She was taken to Edinburgh and hanged for the offence.

 Fish save a Holm man from the Press Gang

John Tait from Holm was terrified of being caught by the press-gang and was always watchful. One night he saw men heading in his direction and not recognising them he fled for refuge to the barn. The officers saw him and were baffled when an extensive search failed to find him. The following morning they admitted defeat and left. When they had gone, John dropped down from the couple backs where he had hidden the whole night – he had had a lucky escape.

A few days later they returned, and not having time to get up to the couples, he hid in the corn chest using a piece of pipe to keep the lid open. He managed to escape once again, but knew he was being closely watched.

Knowing they would come for him again, he began eating large amounts of raw grey cuithes (colley) and soon afterward he came out in horrible eruptions over his body. As expected, the press gang came again and caught him. After being examined by a doctor, he was declared unfit for service.

In later years he retold the story and said it was the grey cuithes which had saved him.

Two other men who belonged to Holm had a lucky escape when the press-gang tried to capture them. Seeing the constables arrive, the men threw themselves down the face of the cliff known as the Doo Cot. The rocks here are almost perpendicular and none of the excise officers wanted to take the risk of climbing down them. The men survived on sea bird eggs, while the women of the parish armed themselves with sticks and drove the constables away. Once they had gone, a rope was lowered to the men and they were hoisted to the top of the rocks.

A woman’s pity

One of the press-gang constables was William Ritch of Holm. He was woefully inadequate at the job – no matter how carefully he made his plans, his quarry always seemed to have vanished. It turned out that his wife, a kind lady, would send one of their sons to the house to give them fair warning whenever she knew her husband was making preparations for a raid.  Being forewarned the men would hide in the hills or go to the cliffs until the danger was past.

 Two Burray men are caught!

 Two Burray men who were out fishing one day saw a boat leaving the village of St Mary’s in Holm with the press-gang. Hoping they had not been seen, they ran their boat ashore on the island of Glimpse Holm and got underneath it after turning it upside down.

 Eventually the Press Gang passed the island and spotting the boat, thought it worth investigating. They were delighted when they caught Harry Wylie and Solomon Guthrie so easily and declared that they were prisoners. Harry slowly got to his feet and the press-gang saw that he had a club foot and therefore could not be accepted as a soldier or a sailor. Solomon was then examined and the men were sorely disappointed when they saw that he had a wooden leg –neither of the two men were suitable at all.

 They made their way to Burray but when they found it empty of men felt that Wylie and Guthrie had been a ‘decoy’ delaying the press-gang long enough to allow the men of the island to escape. Another way to foil the gang was often put into operation. When spotted some of the old men of the island would walk along the road or go into the fields to work, and pretended not to notice the officers approaching. When they reached their `target' the officers discovered these were not the young men they had been hoping to capture but men that were too old to serve. Meanwhile of course the younger men had long since gone into hiding.

A mother saves her sons - a South Ronaldsay story

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 feathers up round her, which the witches were supposed to do at one time to keep the 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 house and they shelled the farmhouse form the safety of their ship. Red hot cannon balls rained 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 3 inches in diameter, the other around 4.5 inches.

 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!

 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.

When the press gang arrived in South Ronaldsay at the leader’s house –  a 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”. Without their leader they left to pursue the boy without him.

Meanwhile the boy had heard he was being looked for 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 which 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 him and his uncle held on to him until the Crown Officer put the King’s stick on his head and he was pressed. He never came back.

What a horrible man to do this to his own nephew! 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 main 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 – and 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 the reply and James got a handpike (a log of wood with a bit of iron on 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. It’s 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 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 guagers would land. The boat had to be hauled up the shore immediately so it was pulled right on top of where the malt was hidden!

Another way to fool the guagers 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.

 Caught while leaving the church

 Men were not even safe from the press-gang when attending church. One Sunday Peter Tait of Clestrain, Orphir, was seized by a constable when he came out of the church. This irked the ladies of the congregation who rushed to assist him. One lady, Mrs Clouston, took hold of the constable and held fast. Tait managed to pull himself out of his coat, which was left in the hands of the constable. He made his way to his sweetheart’s house, which was 12 miles away. He was never captured but it is said “he got a wife and had a large family”.

 Waiting for the whalers

 When the whalers came back from the Davis Straits they would often find officers of the press-gang waiting for them. The whaling vessels were filled with able seamen and were a ‘sitting target’ for the gang.

 One season the constables were keeping a keen eye out for the returning ships and were determined to seize some men. However, the ships were wary and were keeping an eager eye out for the press-gang and so when the cutter was spotted, eight of the men (three of whom came from Orphir) took to a small boat as darkness fell. They intended to return to the ship once the coast was clear, but a thick haze set in and when they wanted to return to their ship they couldn’t find it.

 For eight days they survived a terrible hardship. They survived on only two tablespoonfuls of water a day and had just a few biscuits to sustain them. Eventually, they were picked up by a passing vessel, exhausted and in a poor condition and were eventually landed in Shetland.

Impressing seamen to man the Royal Navy began in England in 1355. The first documentation to be found mentioning the press-gang is in a minute of the Town Council dated 17 March 1692, which states that the King had resolved that no seaman of his kingdom be pressed for the future. He did command, however, that the town councils should make up a list of the fishermen and seamen that refused to join the navy. This was so that the men wanted would be drawn by lot.

 It was at the end of the 18th Century that the press-gangs became oppressive and records show that during the 19th Century the gangs often called upon Orkney to provide men for his Majesty’s service. Choosing the men was an easy task. A few of the landlords and principal tenants of a parish met in private and chose any of their neighbours whom they deemed fit. This list of names was handed to press-gang or constables. Often it was local men that tried to capture the young men, as strangers would not have known the homes they had to visit or the men they had to impress, therefore men lived in dread of being captured. The men of Orkney often went to the Davis Strait to fish and they were often impressed on their return home.

 The press gangs were hated as much as the excise men and there are many tales from all over Orkney on how they were duped and how many men managed to get away from them by using hiding places. Again these stories are from Around the Orkney Peat Fires by Mackintosh. This is a really great little book and will be obtainable from libraries, should you wish to read it for yourself.