Behind the tales of the Press Gang

By Kim Burns, MLitt. Around the Orkney Peat Fires, by William MacKintosh was first published in 1890 and contains over 80 short pressgang stories from all over Orkney. The tales reveal day-to-day life, location, chores, familiar surnames. Orkney is unusual in the quantity of preserved press gang tales, demonstrating their lasting value to the local population.

Folklorist William Bascom stated that retelling folktales not only provides a sociable environment and amusement, but also validate local culture and educate the audience. The press gang tales are still exciting and relevant today.  When I tell people about my studies about them I have often been told another press gang tale from their own family.

Impressment was the enforced seizure by government of men to work in the army or navy which was carried out by press gangs who were paid to bring in men.  It was detested by everyone and was popularly considered to be an unjust system. Serving in the navy meant a tough existence and probable early death most likely from disease. Impressment numbers were greatest at the time of the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century. Impressment particularly affected the working class, especially those accustomed to a seafaring life.  It was commonly believed at the time that the men of Orkney and Shetland were unfairly and disproportionately targeted because of this.

Pressgang evasion tales celebrate working people scoring a point against the establishment, fighting against the expectations of the wealthy landowners, against whom they had no power – the triumph of the weak over the strong.  For example until the 1886 Crofters Act landowners could force tenants off their land if they wished.  Farm workers often depended on their laird for paid work on the land.  Therefore, hearing how men avoided both the will of the landlord and an Act from government would be an expression of protest as well as entertainment.  Folklorist Alan Dundes said ‘Wherever there is injustice and oppression one can be sure that the victims will find some solace in folklore’.

The tales would have been told in family groups or with trusted neighbours and friends. Since some of these stories ridiculed the establishment or criticised the laird or the law, it would have been dangerous to retell them openly in front of strangers.  The working people of Orkney had few enough rights, and running the risk of crossing the laird could be dangerous.  A tale of a man upsetting the local laird which resulted in having his name added to the impressments list is the story of William Heddle in ‘A Narrow Escape’. The fact that William Heddle was never impressed, even though the laird had called for it could be seen to be provocative.   In the story Heddle armed himself, therefore enhancing his heroic image in the eyes of the audience, while the laird ‘suffered for the part he played in the transaction ...he was in terror for his life’.

In the tale of ‘The Laird of Beaquoy’s Victim’ a young laird betrayed a friend to the gang and the pressed man was not even allowed to bid his family goodbye.  The story describes how the parish was ‘incensed at this cruel treatment’ and prayed for retribution on the laird.   Their prayers were realised, so the tale demonstrated that right was on the side of the community and not the laird.    These tales capture the tension and distrust between many lairds and the people.  It airs their grievances in public, as a form of class protest and an acknowledgement of the shared difficulties of the audience listening to the tale.

Besides protest, characters in folktales can do things that are prohibited in real life, like fighting back, or women injuring men. ‘Rescued by a Female’ recounts how one Graemsay woman struck a member of the pressgang so powerfully that he needed his hand amputated. These tales provide an outlet for the repression of fears of captivity, loss of life, imposition of society, desire for revenge.  Folk tales can be an attempt to escape into fantasy from the difficult conditions in which people live, or their own biological or economic limitations.  They also pay homage to the ‘collective memory’ associated with a great hardship suffered by a close knit community.  These collective memories are often partisan, glossing over actual evidence, for example not addressing that often the pressgang were other local people.

Collective memory and its simplistic image of the past tell us more about the audience than the story - revealing the way a people characteristically look outward upon the universe: their implicit view of self and their society.  Our pressgang tales reveal respect for the strength of family ties.  In ‘A Strange Meeting’ an unknown ship arrives and the crew seize some fishermen.  One of the fishermen, Robert Cumloquoy, meets in private with the Captain who turns out to be his long lost brother.  The Captain leaves without pressing any men from there, respecting the family ties even after long absence, therefore acknowledging to the audience that the Orcadian-born Captain has still retained his sense of justice, thus validating local values for the viewpoint of the audience.

The popularity of storytelling reflects a fondness for nostalgia, romanticism, nationalism and identity.  Pressgangs, so universally resisted and denounced, therefore provided excellent material.  Successful escapes which used local knowledge fostered a pride in both Orcadian locations as well as identity as resourceful and independent-spirited people.   ‘A Big Risk’ in which two men at Roseness Point hid from the pressgang in the cliffs, surviving on sea-bird eggs, is an example of this.  Many of the tales are also in dialect adding to the audience’s ownership.  The story of how a widowed mother struggled to maintain the freedom of her only son, in ‘A Mother’s Watchfulness’ reveals strong family bonds and the importance of the younger generation in the success or failure of the farm or croft, support of ageing parents, as well as the belief that the elderly should be respected.  Losing a son could well have meant poverty and even death for the widow, and the tale ‘A Harsh Proceeding’ dealt with this.  The pressgang resisted all attempts Widow Hourston made to save her son, including her plea: ‘Tak’ my only coo, but leave my son’.  The audience would have been very aware that losing her only cow was also a great loss.  In this tale the widow ‘died of a broken heart’ so it reinforced the inhumanity of the faceless pressgang, carrying out the orders of the establishment who had no idea, or didn’t care, about the effects of impressments on the family and the wider community.  Tales which feature a single son living alone with his mother are like the well known traditional fairy story beginnings, for example ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Although those tales usually end happily, the pressgang tales often subvert the expected happy ending.  For in real life the ogre is the pressgang itself and sometimes they succeed in capturing the hero.

Local identity is celebrated in stories where the men pursued by the pressgang employed cunning, skill, excellent local knowledge and resourcefulness to resist the pressgang.  The use of peat stacks cleverly constructed with a gap for a man to hide inside demonstrated that families could use whatever they had to foil the pressgang, as in ‘The Pressgang in North Ronaldsay’. The women of the family would need to take food to the hidden men by subterfuge as they knew that the pressgang would be watching.  The use of pre-arranged signs within the family, such as the location of a tethered cow, allowed the wife to ostentatiously walk up to that area to milk but secretly and safely drop off food. There were prearranged plans for hiding from the pressgang, sometimes needed for days on end. In North Fara fishermen were informed of the presence of a Cutter by the hoisting of flags or clothes on poles at two prominently situated croft-houses. These tales therefore educated the audience by providing wisdom of past generations.

Pride came from the portrayal of pursued men as heroes. The tale ‘Ingenuity Rewarded’ has one John Stanger feigning injury at capture, so that he had to be carried.  When the pressgang stopped for refreshment he was able to get away because he was believed to be incapable: ‘they observed the supposed cripple spanking like a deer up the hills above Finstown!’ ‘Tricking the Pressgang’ also features the hero of the tale as a trickster, who uses his wits to escape, in this case by stripping off and rolling in nettles near Grainbank House so that he failed the medical examination for what appeared to be a skin condition.  Other tricks were employed: ‘Successful Malingering’ featured men who feigned deafness, pretended to be foolish, or faked epilepsy, all meaning that they were unfit to serve.  The tale ‘Caught!’ must have given great pleasure, as it reflected both inventiveness and community spirit.  Two Burray men ostentatiously ran and hid under their boat when the pressgang arrived, but as they were both unfit to serve, one had a wooden leg and one a club foot, they had acted as decoys, giving the real eligible men more chance of escape. These celebrated the spirit of the community, and also conveyed the lesson that apparently weaker individuals can cause unexpected difficulties for a more powerful rival.

The tales were regarded as true, and there was pleasure and amusement in hearing of the success of simple country folk pitted against ‘their betters’ or even the fact that one resourceful man can outrun and outwit a group of many.  Given that the history of impressments is a long one, tales about previous escapes would have been repeated at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.  The tales fuelled and supported resistance to impressments.  When there is a collective, rather than an individual expression of protest, it is difficult to attach blame so the folktales were a relatively safe opportunity to celebrate nostalgia, resistance and protest, pride and identity.

Originally published in The Orcadian, 10/7/2014.

Scan of Behind the tales of the Press Gang by Kim Burns from The Orcadian