Press gangs

Parent Category: Timeline
Category: Pre-1900

Press Gangs Balaich a’ Chnuic Ard

Recently I spent a most enjoyable afternoon in the company of Calum Ferguson and his wife Sandra and, with the ‘lilting voice of a sennachie’, Calum entertained us all afternoon with stories in both Gaelic and English. One of the stories he told us took us to the Cnoc Ard in Ness and to a story that he had first heard more than sixty years ago - a story that he never forgot.

Calum’s great, great grandfather was Murchadh Bàn, one of the first pioneers from the West-side of Lewis, who had left from Galson in 1824, along with his brother Donald and set up home in Portvoller, Point. Seven families had left Galson at that time and the seven bread winners from these families made up the crew of a fishing boat, which was involved in exploiting the rich fisheries of the Loch a Tuath.

During the Second World War the youngster, Calum Ferguson, stayed next door to his grand aunt Anna, his grandmother’s sister, and for Calum, listening to stories from Anna was much more interesting than listening to the radio. This particular story, told to him by Anna, concerned a Galson family, which consisted of girls and at least two boys.

One day the father told his nineteen year old son, who was very shy, “It’s time for you to find a wife and get married. We need extra hands to help with the croft work and with the fishing.” Having assured his father that none of the girls in the village took his fancy, he was instructed to go to the Cnoc Ard in Ness. The father knew of a family there and in the family there were three, beautiful, eligible daughters and maybe one of these would agree to be his wife.

The following morning the nineteen year old, accompanied by his ten year old brother, set off for the Cnoc Ard. The younger lad, apparently, had an eye for picking out the best sheep from a flock and the older boy thought this ‘gift’ would be very useful in helping him to choose a wife. They found the house without too much difficulty. It was a fine summer’s day and, as they entered the house, the family, including the three beautiful girls, was about to have their midday meal.

The boys were invited to partake of the food, but they refused and, having had enough time to form an opinion on the daughters, they moved on to the house next door, where they were given a meal of potatoes and herring. During the course of the afternoon they walked through the village. They discussed the beautiful girls, came to a decision as to the one they thought was most suitable and decided on a plan of action. They would stay overnight in the village and in the morning the nineteen year old would tell the father of his interest in one particular daughter.

Returning to the house in which they had eaten, they were made very welcome and invited to stay the night, sleeping on the straw in the barn. But their sleep was rudely interrupted. In the dead of the night the boys were awakened and frightened by a very loud bang.

The ten year old jumped to his feet, rushed to the winnowing hole in the barn wall and, on looking out, he could scarcely believe what he saw. Men, armed with guns and bayonets, were dragging the village men from their houses, handling them in a most brutal manner and tying them by their wrists to chains and ropes. Clearly a press gang had arrived in the village.

The women, distressed and screaming were trying in vain to pull the men back, but they were no match for the ‘gang’. They were given the same rough treatment as the men folk. The boys realised that their only chance of escaping capture was to hide under the straw and keep as quiet as possible.

Soon the house door burst open and, once the house was ransacked, the soldiers then proceeded to the barn. With a few pokes of their bayonets in the straw they soon found the two boys and dragged them outside. They were not interested in the ten year old and he was told to clear off, but the nineteen year old was tied up and marched out of the village with the other men.

When Calum first heard the story from his great aunt Anna, she was of the opinion that none of the men, press ganged from Cnoc Ard that night ever came back. She finished the story by saying that when the distraught young lad arrived home in Galson and told his father of the events of the night, the broken hearted father exclaimed with great feeling, “Mìle mallachd air sionnaich an Rìgh a dh’fhalbh le m’uan.”

His hurt was deep. He had lost a dear son – a son who would have been such a support to his aging father. Iain Buidhe Towards the end of the war, Calum Ferguson’s father worked out of Stornoway as the second skipper on a converted trawler, the minesweeper Walwonce Castle. Calum’s father became very friendly with some of the crew and one of these was a Tolsta man.

One day when this Tolsta man was visiting in Portvoller, Anna Mhòr told him the story of Balaich a Chnuic Ard. He agreed that this was a true story. He had heard it before, but he knew that one of these men had in fact come back and that man was Iain Buidhe from the Cnoc Ard.

After teens of years, Iain Buidhe came back to the Cnoc Ard in search of his family only to find the place more or less deserted. On enquiring about his father’s whereabouts he was directed to a bothy on a boggy piece of ground in Habost. Furious that his father had been treated in this way he headed for Habost and what a reunion that must have been!

“I’m going to get justice for you and for me and we are going to get a piece of decent ground,” Iain insisted. Ignoring his father’s protests not to go, Iain confronted the ground-officer, the maor baile and put his request for ground to him. The maor baile’s first reaction was to laugh at Iain Buidhe’s request, but Iain was having none of it. He had given teens of years of loyal service for His Majesty the King and he now demanded justice for his family. Not only did he have proof of his record of service, but he had come back with something more powerful – the ability to speak English fluently.

Iain was now a confident, articulate English speaker. “If you fail me, I’ll go to Lord Seaforth and if I still do not get justice then I’m perfectly capable of going to the Houses of Parliament in London and failing that I’ll go the King”. Startled by Iain’s determination the maor obviously thought hard about what Iain had said and came back a week later offering land at Cùile Totair. Iain, being the powerful character that he was, inspected this piece of ground first and then agreed to take it. He enclosed a few acres of land there and built a house where he brought up his family.

The ruins of his house are still at Cùile Totair. In Seanchas No.54 we published the poem Caoidh Caraid air Caraid, a piece of bàrdachd composed by John Macdonald of No. 12 Tolsta, who was also known as Iain Buidhe, the Elder, following the death of his best friend Iain mac Dhòmhnaill Oig of No.10 Tolsta. This Iain Buidhe, was the soldier’s son and was one of a family of three sons and four daughters, who grew up at Cùile Totair. The Iain Buidhe, who composed the bàrdachd, was my great grandfather and I, like so many in Tolsta and Ness and indeed throughout the world, am a direct descendant of the one soldier, who, having been press-ganged into the army from the Cnoc Ard, returned teens of years later to Lewis.

*I’m grateful to Calum Ferguson for giving me the information for these two stories. Although my story-telling skills cannot compare with Calum’s I trust that I have told the stories accurately. Donald Murray