The Press Gang in Orkney and Shetland - John Robertson
The first thing is, if you haven't bought this book already, go out and do so. As well as being informative, it is beautifully produced and illustrated. I'm particularly fond of page 33, a list of army recruits, reproduced front and back, followed on pages 34 and 35 by a list of impressed men. There's a lot to look at.
I'm not aware of any other attempt to bring the story of naval impressment in Orkney and Shetland into one substantial volume. Certainly, there have been articles and essays - particularly valuable attempts by Dr Alan Beattie, Peter Jamieson and Dr Jonathan Wills, but I think, no comprehensive attempt until now. The impress is something difficult not to be aware of - placenames, stories, Arthur Anderson, "Nelson fell at the feet of a Shetlander" - and so on. Two warring European empires struggled for what was to be, for a short time the dominance of the globe, one so desperate for men at times that its navy pursued the impoverished inhabitants of its most northern holding across the moors and ower da banks. "Dey cam an tuk you," I was told, when I asked about the pressgang as a bairn, about 150 years on from the events. There can't be many parts of Britain where these kind of events have resonated so long and so well as Orkney and Shetland.
Most of us associate impressment with the Napoleonic era. It peaked then, but had operated before, and John Robertson quite rightly covers eighteenth century naval recruitment. Records for Kirkwall date back to 1692, and men were taken from a Hudson Bay vessel in 1711. Information is obviously more limited for pre-Napoleonic times, but there's a great deal of illumination here about how things were done for the other wars. But although naval vessels short of men impressed first and asked questions afterward, the use of naval personnel was inefficient. It may have been an unsought after job. Admiral Jackson, a midshipman when HMS Carysfort visited Lerwick to uplift men, is quoted from his autobiography about repenting on having made a capture. John Robertson notes that officers more permanently on this kind of duty rarely advanced further. Unsurprisingly, some had issues, and there's a whole chapter devoted to the notorious Lieutenant Wilson in Shetland. It was much better to have the local authorities administer recruitment, and this is what happened in Orkney and Shetland for much of the time. The "dey" in "dey cam an tuk you" was often close at hand.
Quotas were set for men, and the local system was meant to render them up. There were caveats and exemptions, but the system came under regular stress and could go awry. There wasn't a surplus body of fit seamen in Shetland, they were wanted for fishing. Lairds dragged their feet and protested. Service in the forces was sometimes substituted for prison. The northern isles couldn't produce enough jailbirds to fulfil requirements, and the quotas were filled amidst some reluctance on the part of all classes. It wasn't an atmosphere that could make an already rough and ready system any fairer.
Lairds and like decision makers are often thought of those who gave up men to navy, ridding themselves of those who offended them. They weren't the only ones, and that behaviour ran through society. There was many a chance to revenge an ancient crossing, or simply "if it isn't to be me it has to be someone else." The book makes us well aware of how local officials could be put into invidious positions by this kind of recruitment - someone had to corral the unwilling. The stories of the Orkney constables who had to fulfil this role suggests that some accepted a case made to them, or failed unaccountably to watch a back door. Relationships and lobbying were important at the micro-community level, perhaps as with the more obvious bogeymen.
It may never be possible to get an exact figure for the numbers of men involved, but there were certainly some thousands taken in over the period the book covers. The sheer numbers and the atmosphere - suspicion and fear must have run through the toonships - left us with narratives. The pressgang story is how many people first encounter the impressment system, and these traditions are very well represented in this book. A long time has been spent noting things down and compiling, collecting and listening. They are no longer exact as the author acknowledges, but the mass of them here reveals patterns and themes. Sudden intrusions, flight and betrayal, along with ingenuity, guile, loyalty and dumb insolence. A waking nightmare feel.
There's a strong sense of atmosphere here, aided by quotation at length - Jonathan Wills' rendering of Tammie Laurenson's tale about Jeemie Lamb's escape is a fine example. Some longer accounts though, might have been shortened or put in an appendix. Better still, an enclosed CD, showcasing local storytellers take on these oral traditions. There's a strong sense of place too - one chapter is a veritable guide to the pressgang holes in Orkney and Shetland - cliff hiding places, district by district, often photographed. The author is seen perched in one on page 155.
There's much to study and enjoy here, and reading between the lines a great deal to think about. What the book isn't, oddly enough, is the last word on the naval impressment topic. It uses local sources extensively and very helpfully gives references, and is an enormous advance. But this is a difficult and huge topic, and there's still more to be done. There are records south - the National Archives in England with crew lists, logs, correspondence and so on - requiring an enormous acts of exploration and analysis. I'm sure there are many other approaches that could be pursued. It would be a good thing to compare the northern isles experience with other areas of in Britain where the navy tried to recruit intensely. I like to think that this book will provoke others to explore further, and write more. It's a mark of a good work that it encourages others.