Saturday, 7 May 2011

Which is scarier, Dr Who or Press Gangs? You decide!

Tonight's episode of Dr Who has prompted me to put up this document for you all to see about press-gangs in Orkney. It was found recently by one of our volunteers in the Balfour Collection (Reference D2/19/16) and the contents are quite shocking.

The rest of this document cannot be copied as the wax seal still holds it shut, but I have transcribed it by peering in one of the corners, the words in italics indicate handwritten inserts:

"I Do hereby Depute Lieut Wm Balfour belonging to His Majesty's Sloop Lynx under my command, to Impress Seamen, Seafaring Men and Persons whose Occupations and Callings are to work in Vessels and Boats upon Rivers, according to the Tenor of this Warrant. In Testimony whereof I have hereunto set my Hand and Seal this thirtieth day of April 1803."

In our Ernest Marwick Collection (Reference D31/1/6/15) in a transcript of a letter from Alex Skene on 6th November 1800 he states that "I assure you Sir that the impress service is to me the most unpleasant part of an officers duty and it is impossible to defend the propriety of it but on the score of necessity"

Ernest Marwick goes on to describe several places where seamen hid from the press gangs in caves and peat stacks in Orkney and of men escaping up their chimney's and hiding on cliffs.


  1. Err - why are the contents shocking?

    Press gangs aren't a myth.... And note that they were only to impress men with some sailing ability, not landsmen.

  2. Hi Brucefuimus,

    Thank you for your comment. I admit that "shocking" was the wrong word in this instance. Put it down to blogging at speed.

    But the sailing ability qualification did apply to most of the male population of Orkney and therefore must have been at the forefront of everyone's mind. There's another story of a widow from Birsay, who despite all protestations had her only son taken away to fight the French, leaving her with no-one to look after her. She died before he returned.


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