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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Providence and the Press-Gang

A Lonesome Meal

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 defence.

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 washing-clout.

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 counties.

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 attentions—Jake 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, mother—I'm no' catched yet."

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 dead man."

"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?"

"Yes, sir."

"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, lad—are they after ye again? Ye'll never halt till ye're ta'en."

"Ay—but I'm no' catched yet."

And with that he was off.

Soon he was rowing the stranger across the Forth.

"To Crombie Point—remember."

"Yes, sir—I 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 choosin'."

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 man—get 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.

"Eh, my laddie, ye've won back again?"

"Ay—for I'm no' catched yet."

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