Press Gang

During the 19th Century in Orkney press gangs were used to search for and provide men to join the ship’s crews of his Majesty’s Royal Navy. The gangs were hated and feared as much as the excise men and there are numerous tales from all over the county of how they were duped and how many men managed to get away from them by using particular hiding places.

Grithin on Rousay, where the above photos were taken, is the name of a boulder-strewn bay at the angle of the coast between the cliffs on the north-west of Saviskaill Head and those behind the old houses of Skatequoy, Stennisgorn and Grudwick. At this inlet there is a very steep beach, composed of huge boulders rounded by the action of the pounding waves. Another feature in the dramatic rock formation here is ‘15 Man Cave’ where, in 1825, that number of Rousay men hid from a press gang for two weeks.

Another such place is the ‘Clivvie of Heshiber up by the Hills o’ Glifter’ – or the Clivvie Stane, above Peerie Water and on the north-western slopes of Blotchnie Fiold, beneath which the young men of Rousay would hide from the press gang. The photos above show the Clivvie Stane – and are courtesy of Jo Inkster.

In 2013 Robbie Firth of Langskaill, Rousay, then a pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School, won the Marjorie Linklater Writing Award, funded by the Orkney Heritage Society, for a piece of original writing. His story – entitled ‘Hide’ – tells of a Rousay father and his two sons’ encounter with a press gang.


Tam flung a dried peat to his father Jim who stacked it onto the pile on the cart. An owl sat cat-faced, presiding over their progress from a nearby post. The sun had shone brightly all day and the peats were perfect for lifting. Jim’s humour had been good and barely a cross word had passed between father and son all day.

Tam’s younger brother Jock came spraggling over the heather like a panicked colt, before collapsing to his knees in front of them, furiously gasping air. The pair were unnerved by his startled appearance and when he had filled his lungs he began to tell them his important news.  

“Fither they hiv done hid again, Robbo and Billo o’ Langskaill hiv bin te’en fae Gairsay! Oot o’ the derk they came, the only warning wis the light o’ storm tillies walking up the green o’ each hoose. Then in they went makin a muckle mess, grabbing fur the men o’ the hoose, dragging them oot doon tae the boats and away.”

Poor Jock was so overcome he collapsed in a heap.

“Aye they hiv been worried that the dammed Press Gangs wid come fur the men,” replied the boy’s father.

Tam stood shaking with his fists clenched at his sides. “Bit fither we canna jist lay doon and tak it! We mist pit up a fight, tak back the men or the ferms will’na manage.” He was angry and frightened too. What if the gangs came for them? How would his mother and sister manage?

“Na beuy, we canna fight back, thur The Kings men. We can only hide fae the beasts and pray they dinnae come fur us,” explained Jim

“Bit Fither…,” argued Tam.

“Na Tam! That’s an end o’ it, come let’s go and brack the news tae yur mither an’ Maggie.” Jim grabbed his cap and with a grim look he led the two solemn looking boys off the peat hill.

The Mainland family sat limply around the archaic wooden table. Not a word was spoken of what had happened on the island of Gairsay. Muriel set out the meal of salt fish and tatties onto the table in no unusual manner. A sinister mood floated over the table mingling with the hot steam rising from the dinner. Jock, too young to understand the enormity of the situation, danced hyperactively on his chair, rabbiting away about the voles he had caught in the sheep park.

The noise of the door sneck awoke the diners and Maggie flew through the low doorway. The two brothers instantly leapt up to ask Maggie what the fuss was about. Tam had a feeling he knew already.

“Mags wit is thoo fluster fur? Has thoo seen a ghoul?”

“Hid’s the lights, they are coming ower the water noo, tens o them. You mist run fur the hidie hole noo! You mist run!” She blurted out, choking on her sobs and grabbing Tam by his shirt.

Tam looked across at his Father and he knew what Jim was going to say but Tam had a sudden overpowering anger towards these men coming for him and his family. He wanted to stay and fight, as Tam opened his mouth to protest he felt his Mother’s hand on his sleeve. It was her small, frail, frightened face begging him to run that made him hold his silence on the matter.

“Fither we mist run fur the hills noo,” Tam and Jock both chanted simultaneously.

“Had still boys, an tak supplies. We mist go queek and quiet. Mags, go git the supply bags fae the loft,” steadily replied Jim.  

Maggie dashed up to the loft like a ferret, she went straight to the spot where the hidden supplies lay. Slowly stepping down the wooden ladder, pausing for a moment to steady her balance she walked over to the table placing two big bundles of cloth down. Jim picked up the bundles placing them into the arms of each of his sons. The eerie silence put everyone on edge and a knowing looked past between them. Jim then kissed his wife and daughter and nodded to the door. All three departed out of the warmly lit croft and stepped out into the face of cold endless gloom, the full faced moon tipping above the edge of the hill.

Jim gave precise orders to his sons: “Boys we mist run noo, run fur the Clivvie of Heshiber up by the Hills o’ Glifter. Dinna stop running ‘til you get tae the Clivvie. Wance you get there yur no tae leave til yur Mither comes and tells us the besterds hiv geen.”

Both boys replied with a knowing nod. They all disappeared into the darkness, fleeing from the evil that spread over the fields below. Over the crisp sharp heather and over glistening burns they ran in silence. None of them slowed, the blood and adrenaline pulsed through their bodies. A sharp glance back and they could see the singular lights dotted along the peat road they had just crossed. As all three reached the tip of the hill they spotted a huge mass of sparkling waves made by the moon cutting through the clouds and dancing off the loch. They were near to the hide now and Jim paused for a moment to study the dark land below.

“See there lads, you can see the Clivvie Stane casting a small shadow on the heather in front. Run fur there noo, queek noo, queeker than afore,” Jim commanded the boys.

On they ran with determination, since their lives depended on it, the owl swooping silently above them. The ground before them grew deeper with heather which led Jock to trip more than a few times – once completely disappearing into the deep trenches. All the men arrived at the hide and one by one they slid through the tiny entrance into a deep, dark hole under the giant stone.

Not a light flickered across the hill, not a single sound could be heard. It was the silence that would keep them safe unless the devils of King and Country fell in their cave by mistake. This damp, dark hole was the best nest for keeping safe from the probing eye of the Press Gangs when they begun to hunt. Tam listened for voices but dared not to look.

Suddenly he heard the muffled voices of men coming near. He looked cautiously through the break in the overgrowth. All he could make out were five burning torches moving erratically down the hill. He frowned. Tam knew it was possible to tramp over the very stone he hid under and not be any the wiser that they were there, but only if they held their pact of silence.

As he watched, the lights crept nearer with every minute. The men lay packed in a sphere of fright and panic but Tam held his calm.

The torches disappeared only for a snap shot in time, then they burst over the mound right before the great stone. Tam could not make out the faces in the darkness of the night. The torches cut in two going either side of the stone and two planted right on the top of their fortress. Tam thought he heard a whisper in the wind saying his name but it was cut short by a scrabbling at the built up door.

A dirty hand clawed through the narrow entrance of their sanctuary silhouetted by a bright light. The captors shrank back in fear. Silence followed.  

Across the sparkling loch the cat-faced owl rose effortlessly from the heather with a tiny vole clasped tightly in its talons. Soaring over the Clivvie Stane it returned to its post by the peat bank.

Robbie receives the Marjorie Linklater Writing Award certificate from Orkney Heritage Society president Sandy Firth.

Robbie would like to express his thanks to KGS Principal Teacher English Simon Hall,
and his English teacher Ann McTaggart who helped with the early drafts and
correcting and also suggesting he submitted the story for the competition.