Thursday, January 16, 2014

Press Gangs

Press-gangs were groups of men in the 18th and 19th centuries working under a British Royal Navy officer who forced men to join the navy, with or without their consent. They took "eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 45 years”. The press-gangs particularly searched coastal towns and villages for men who had experience in boats. Press-gangs were a very unpopular part of life for those living in coastal areas including Scotland. While many men were forcibly abducted others managed (for a while at least) to escape by hiding in various places such as peat stacks, caves, and wilderness areas. Unpopular though it was, impressment was repeatedly upheld by the courts, as it was deemed vital to the strength of the navy and, by extension, to the survival of the realm. When living conditions were particularly bad in Scotland more young men volunteered for naval service where they were at least unlikely to starve. Impressment came to an end with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.

One branch of the Gunn family who had lived in the Langwell area had their brushes with the press-gangs and in this story written by Alexander Gunn (aka 'Badbea' and 'A.G.') the press-gang had a brush with the woman of the house.

Similar amplifications to that of "Badbea" came from "A.G." thus :-
'We were of the Cattag Gunns, where my great-great-grandfather lived. My great-grandfather, George Gunn, married a daughter of Sutherland of Langwell, and became his cattleman. He lived at Borgue of Langwell, a cosy nook on the south side of the Langwell River, where the ruins of his house are still visible. The furrows and rigs are also plainly to be seen. He lost his life at the age of 48 at Berriedale Head while trying to secure a sheep that had got fixed on the rocks. He had two sons, Robert and John, the latter being my grandfather. He never lived at Helmsdale, but first at Ousdale, then at Auchencraig and last at Badbea.

He was very much sought after by the press-gang, and had many a hairbreadth escape from them. Once the press-gang came at night, and forced their way into the house. The family were asleep. John seized his clothes, did not wait to put them on but carried them in his arms, passed through the kitchen in the dark before his pursuers could light their lamp, and got clear away.
One of the officers of the party conducted himself in an insolent manner at losing his quarry, which upset my grandmother, a tall strong woman. She seized his sword, wrenched it from his grasp and broke it across her knee. My grandfather was very swift. On one occasion, after eluding the grasp of his pursuers, he crossed the Auchencraig burn and called out to his pursuers if they had found the person they wanted. He was forced to enlist and became body servant to Captain Gray who he accompanied to Orkney.  Many a story I have heard him relate of his adventures whilst serving with Captain Grey who had great regard for him. My grandmother lived to the age of 93.
In an additional detail Alexander Gunn says: The Captain was sent to Orkney in course of time and my grandfather of course accompanied him. On one occasion he happened to get into some scrape or other and was likely to be taken. He was pursued so hard that he rushed into the Captain's bedroom. The Captain was in bed.. And he sprang into the bed, going over his master to the back of the bed, where he was safe, the Captain daring his pursuers to lay a finger on him

An Orkney press-gang document reads:

By the Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, etc. and of all His Majesty’s Plantations, etc.
In Pursuance of His majesty’s Order in Council, dated the twentieth Day of April, 1803, We do hereby Impower and Direct you to Impress, or cause to be Impressed, so many Seamen, Seafaring men, and Persons whose occupations and Callings are to work in Vessels and Boats upon Rivers, as shall be necessary either to man His Majesty’s Ships, giving unto each Man so Impressed One Shilling for Prest money. And in the execution hereof, you are to take care, that neither yourself nor any Officer authorized by you, do demand or receive any Money, Gratuity, Reward, or other Consideration whatsoever, for the Sparing, Exchanging, or Discharging, any Person or persons Impressed or to be Impressed, as you will answer it at your peril. – You are not to intrust any Person with the Execution of this Warrant but a Commission Officer, and to insert his Name and office in the Deputation on the other Side hereof, and set your Hand and Seal thereto. – This Warrant to continue in Force till the thirty-first Day of December, 1803; And in the due Execution thereof, all Mayors, Sheriffs justices of the Peace, bailiffs, Constables, Headboroughs, and all His Majesty’s Officers and Subjects whom it may concern, are hereby required to be aiding and assisting unto you, and those employed by you, as they tender His majesty’s Service, and will answer the contrary at their Perils. Given under our Hands, and the Seal of the Office of Admiralty, the twenty-fifth Day of April, 1803.
To Captain I L Willoughby Marshall
Commander of His Majesty’s Sloop the Lynx. By Command of their Lordships