Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Providence and the Press-Gang
IT IS ONLY A WEE RED-TILED
TWO STORIED house with a wooden outside stair, but to this day it is
called Providence. It stands on the west side of a steep, narrow lane
which climbs from the ancient seafaring town with its auld-farrant streets
and gable-ends to the high grounds above. There, when once you have peched
up the brae, the eye sweeps in a bonny Scots world of hill and laighland
and sea, from Stobinian to St. Margaret's Hope, with the green-shored
lands of Fife and the quiet Ochils across the fairway of the Forth.
Backed by an old garden,
from which there are many ways of approach to and from the town, with its
vennels, its back doors, and its secret passages, this same wee bit House
of Providence has sheltered many a buirdly man when the king's sailors
were clearing the harbour with the pressgang. Let a man once win up the
brae to Providence, and he was safe. For there were wise folks dwelling
there, with a hidey-hole for every honest man, and from the little
deep-set windows that winked in the sunrise along the eastern braes or
over the old garden to the sunset in the west the sentry could command
every approach from the town below or from the cow-parks above.
Those were the days when
the pressgang struck terror in many a quiet seaport town or village. For
the king's navy had to be manned, and the pressgang was the only way of
getting sailor men. The sight of a ship of war in a fairway or a harbour
was enough to send the waesome news round the whole countryside, for every
sailor lad of eighteen and every sailor man under five-and-fifty was
liable to be pressed into the service.
A party of picked men fully
armed would land at the jetty, or along the quiet shores, and under the
command of a king's officer would scour the district, giving neither mercy
nor quarter. They could enter any house where a likely sailor man lived,
and carry him aboard without saying By your leave. But sailor men are ill
to meddle with, and there was many a fierce fight with fisticuffs and
weapons. Lives were often lost when it came to the cutlass or pistol for
The pressgang could even
board a privateer or merchant ship, for the merchant sailors made the
handiest navy men. So a smart privateer was aye fearful of the friendship
of a man o' war. In harbour or at sea the navy men had law on their side
to seize or to press, and a dooms black outlook had the lover or the
family man who fell into the rough hands of the navy gang. It might then
be good-bye to the old fireside for years, for half a lifetime, or for
ever. And for all the long slumber of these pressgang laws, which from the
year of grace 1835 have fallen into a limbo of disuse, still the laws
remain unrepealed in our land of freedom and mercy.
Yonder, out in the roads, a
king's ship had just appeared, and was now riding at anchor, all taut and
trim with rattlings and yards and the long pennants of Geordie flying from
the peaks of the rakish-looking masts. Down in the harbour lay little
barques and schooners from France, the Baltic, and the Low Countries, the
town whaler new come home from Arctic seas, and a little Dutch ketch lying
alongside with her green-painted leeboard cocked up on the starboard like
the flapper of a great fish. In the vennels and streets and all about the
quayside, crowds of seafaring men were continually coming and going. A man
found it ill to hide in the open streets, for they were so narrow that
whiles a cart could scarce win by the great outside stairs that debouched
on the causey, and the story goes that a housewife who had taigled over-longin
the morning over the washing of her front door step in the main street had
her feet cut off by a passing waggon when she was down on her knees with
The crowds of seafaring men
that kept rubbing shoulders in these mean vennels were from all parts
some speaking in the broad, homely Scots tongue; some in the jabber of
foreign lands; and a few with the soft-sliding lilt of the English Channel
It was these last that got
many a sklenting glance of suspicion thrown at them by the big burly men
of the seaport who were hame-biders and from the women who were their
wives and sweethearts. For under many a douce, plain coat was hidden the
blue uniform of the king's navy men. These were the officers of the
pressgang. They wandered aimlessly up and down, or stood about the
partings of the streets between the Castle of Clouts and Mrs. Rattray's
shop that brave emporium where, cheek-by-jowl with boots and shoes, a
stranded sailor man could buy salts and senna and cream o' tartar,
assafetida and garlic pills. Once a big fellow was marked down by an
officer of the pressgang, he had little chance of seeing either wife or
sweetheart for many a year to come if he went out stravaiging after dark.
That was why the streets were quiet and deserted after sunset when a
king's ship appeared in the Firth.
So a light burned every
night in the little House of Providence on the steep brae high above the
town. An eye was watching at the window there every day. None could
approach the red-tiled, innocent-looking refuge without being challenged
or giving the secret password. Many a big lad has raced up that brae for
life and freedom when the pressgang were busy at their ruthless work.
But there was one man more
than any other who was pestered by their dangerous attentionsJake Beaton
the Waterman. He lived in the vennel with his old mother, and was reputed
to be the strongest man in the town. He could lift his ferry boat on his
back with his own hands and carry it home. His arms were by-ordinary long,
for his finger-tips touched his knees, and his legs were like barrel
stoups. Strong, thick-set, a skilful waterman, and full of a
devil-may-care courage, Jake Beaton was the one man in the old port that
the pressgang were determined to have for their own. And although in the
end he served under Nelson and fought at Trafalgar, yet it was long before
the men in blue could lay hands on him.
One day he breenged in at
the door of the house in the vennel.
"My grief Jake," exclaimed
his old mother, "what's like the matter noo?" "Gie me my bulldogs." It was
always the same, and she knew that the pressgang were after him whenever
he went over to the hole in the kitchen wall and took out a brace of heavy
pistols. These were his bulldogs.
"Oh, Jake, ye'll never halt
till one o' the blue-coats is dead."
"Never fear, motherI'm no'
And off he would go at the
darkening with his bulldogs concealed in his belt.
But he never went near the
town. He took his way up past Providence, and left a message there to warn
those inside that there was danger abroad. Then, working his way
stealthily along the braeheads westward, he soon entered the duke's policy
of Kinneil, where, in a sheltered place of the Gilburn Wood, he had slung
a hammock between two trees. This was Jake Beaton's lodging. For he never
slept at home when the pressgang were about. So to this secret place in
the Gilburn Wood he came when night fell.
But the pressgang found out
his hiding-place, and early one morning, when Jake was sleeping in his
hammock, sailor fashion, with his one eye open, he heard a crackling of
twigs in the wood. Springing to the ground, he pulled out his bulldog.
"John Beaton, you are a
prisoner in the king's name!" said a voice out of the gloom.
And Jake cocked his pistol.
"Surrender, or you are a
"Nae fear o' that," replied
Jake from behind a tree.
"How so?" said the officer.
"Because the pressgang
wants Jake Beaton alive, and has nae use for Jake Beaton deid."
And with that, he bounded
off through the wood with the whole band of the pressgang after him.
Down through the Gilburn
Wood he ran, with leaps and bounds, swifter than any could follow him;
then across the field, and on to the foreshore. When he got to the level
shores of the carse land he was not so swift as some of the lanky
Englishers, and after a mile or two some of the pressgang began to gain
upon him. Jake, realising his danger, plunged into the sea, and made for
the Fife shore, which was a couple of miles away. He swam right across,
and so escaped from his enemies. And the last thing that the officer
heard, as he stood on the shore with his men in the dawnlight, glowering
after the skilly swimmer, was a voice far out in the waves crying, "I'm
no' catched yet!"
Jake's business as a
waterman was to row any stranger across the Firth from the harbour to the
Fife shore. The regular charge was half a sovereign. And on account of his
great strength and skill, Beaton was much sought after by travellers who
wished a safe ferry a-cross the Forth.
One afternoon he was
hanging about the quayhead with his mates when a stranger in a long grey
cloak came up to him.
"Are you a waterman?"
"That I am," replied Jake.
"Then, could you row me
over to the other side and set me down on Crombie Point yonder?"
"And the fare?"
"Half a sovereign."
"Right. Then meet me at the steps with your boat in half an hour."
"I'll be there," said Jake.
And the man in the long grey cloak walked away into the town.
Jake went home to the house
in the vennel.
"Where away now, Jake?"
inquired his mother.
"To the Fife shore with a
stranger. But gie me the bulldogs."
"Eh, ladare they after ye
again? Ye'll never halt till ye're ta'en."
"Aybut I'm no' catched
And with that he was off.
Soon he was rowing the
stranger across the Forth.
"Yes, sirI ken the place
fine. But how will the tide suit?"
And Jake rested on his oars
and looked round. On the near shores he saw a little group of sailor men
hanging about on Crombie Point.
"I fear the tide'll no'
suit for a landing there, sir. We maun gang doon the shore to Charleston."
The grey cloak moved a bit,
and Jake caught a glimpse of blue and gold on the arm beneath that was
working at the belt.
"To Crombie Point, or
nowhere," cried the stranger, whipping out his pistol and covering Jake
with it. He was a pressgang officer in disguise.
"Then it's nowhere,"
replied Jake, whipping out two pistols and covering the officer with both.
"I'm no' catched yet. Two
dogs are better nor one. Lay doon that weapon, or my bulldogs will bite
ye, my bonny man. These braw frien's o' yours on Crombie Point can bide a
wee. But, never fear, I'll land ye a' richt, but on a place o' my ain
And covering the now
defenceless officer with both pistols, Jake skilfully drifted his boat
down firth on the ebb-tide, and grounded her on a spit of muddy land near
Blackness Castle, a few miles from the harbour that they had left an hour
or so before.
"Now, my manget out and
walk ashore. The mud here is nae mair nor a foot deep, and if ye tak' your
time and dinna leave your shoon ahint ye, ye'll dae the journey in ten
minutes. Guid-day to ye, sir, and dinna forget when ye are in the mud that
my twa bulldogs can bite."
So the officer had to walk
ashore in the sludge, and Jake quietly rowed his boat back to the harbour.
That night, when he opened
the kitchen door in the vennel, his old mother, with a white mutch on her
head, was masking tea over the fire.
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