Monthly scrap book, for October/Passages in a Provost's Life;—the Press-gang

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Monthly scrap book, for October  (1832) 
Passages in a Provost's Life;—the Press-gang




During the same just and necessary war for all that was dear to us, in which the volunteers were raised, one of the severest trials happened to me that ever any magistrate was subjected to. I had, at the time, again subsided into an ordinary counsellor, but it so fell out, that by reason of Mr Shuttlethrift, who was then provost, having occasion and need to go into Glasgow upon some affairs of his own private concerns, he being interested in the Kilbeacon Cotton Mill and Mr Dalrye, the bailie, who should have acted for him being likewise from home, anent a plea he had with a neighbour concerning the bounds of their right and gables, the whole authority and power of the magistrates devolved, by a courtesy on the part of their colleague Bailie Hammerman, into my hands.

For some time before, there had been an in gathering among us of sailor lads from the neighbouring ports, who, on their arrival, in order to shun the press-gangs, left their vessels, and came to scog themselves with us. By this a rumour of a suspicion rose, that the men-of-wars-men were suddenly to come at the dead hour of the night and sweep them all away. Heaven only knows whether this notice was bred in the fears and jealousies of the people, or was a humane inkling given by some of the men-of-wars-men, to put the poor sailor lads on their guard, was never knowing. But, on a Saturday night, as I was on the eve of stepping into my bed, I shall never forget it, Mrs Pawkie was already in and as sound as a door-nail, and I was just crooking my mouth to blow out the candle, when I heard a rap. As our bed-room window was over the door, I looked out. It was a dark night, but I could see by a glaike of light from a neighbour's window that there was a man with a cocked hat at the door.

"What's your will?" said I to him, as I looked out at him in my night-cap. He made no other answer, but that he was one of his Majesty's officers, and had business with the justice.

I did not like this Englification and voice of claim and authority; however, I drew on my stockings and breeks again, and taking my wife's flannel coaty about my shoulders, for I was then troubled with rheumatise, I went down, and, opening the door, let in the lieutenant,

"I come," said he, "to show you my warrant and commission, and to acquaint you that having information of several able-bodied seamen being in the town, I mean to make a search for them."

I really did not well know what to say at the moment; but I begged him, for the love of peace and quietness, to defer his work till the next morning; but he said he must obey his orders, and he was sorry that it was his duty to be on so disagreeable a service, with many other things, that showed something like a sense of compassion, that could not have been hoped for in the captain of a press-gang.

When he had said this, he then went away, saying, for he saw my tribulation, that it would be as well for me to be prepared in case of any riot. This was the worst news of all; but what could I do? I thereupon went again to Mrs Pawkie, and shaking her awake, told her what was going on, and a terrified woman she was. I then dressed myself with all possible expedition, and went to the town clerk's, and we sent for the town officers, and then adjourned to the council chamber, to wait the issue of what might betide.

In my absence, Mrs Pawkie rose out of her bed, and by some wonderful instinct, collecting all the bairns, went with them to the minister's house, as to a place of refuge and sanctuary.

Shortly after we had been in the council room, I opened the window, and looked out, but all was still; the town was lying in the defencelessness of sleep, and nothing was heard but the clicking of the town-clock in the steeple over our heads. By and bye, however, a sough and pattering of feet was heard approaching; and shortly after, in looking out, we saw the press-gang, beaded by their officers, with cutlasses by their side, and great club-sticks in their hands. They said nothing, but the sound of their feet on the silent stones of the causey was as the noise of a dreadful engine. They passed, and went on; and all that were with me in the council stood at the windows and listened. In the course of a minute or twa after, two lassies, with a callan, that had been out came flying and wailing, giving the alarm to the town. Then we heard the driving of the bludgeons on the doors, and the outcries of terrified women; and, presently after, we saw the poor chased sailors running, in their shirts, with their clothes in their hands, as if they had been felons and blackguards caught in guilt, and flying from the hands of justice.

The town was awakened with the din, as with the cry of fire; and lights came starting forward as it were, te the windows. The women were out with lamentations and vows of vengeance. I was in a state of horror unspeakable. Then came some three or four of the press-gang, with a struggling sailor in their clutches, with nothing but his trowsers on, his shirt riven from his back in the fury. Syne came the rest of the gang, and their officers, scattered, as it were, with a tempest of mud and stones, pursued and battered by a troop of desperate women and weans, whose fathers and brothers were in jeopardy. And these were followed by the wailing wife of the pressed man, with her five bairns, clamouring in their agony to Heaven against the king and government for the outrage. I could na listen to the fearful justice of their outcry; but sat down in a corner of the council-chamber, with my fingers in my ears.

In a little while, a shout of triumph rose from the mob, and we heard them returning, and I felt, as it were, relieved; but the sound of their voices became hoarse and terrible as they drew near; and, in a moment, I heard the jingle of twenty broken windows rattle in the street. My hear misgave me; and, indeed, it was my own windows They left not one pane unbroken; and nothing kept them from demolishing the house to the ground-stone but the exhortations of Major Pipe; who, on hearing the uproar was up and out; and did all in his power to arrest the fury of the tumult. It seems, the mob had taken it into their head that I had signed, what they called the press-warrants; and, on driving the gang out of the town, and rescuing the man, they came to revenge themselves on me and mine; which is the cause, that made me say, it was a miraculous instinct that led Mrs Pawkie to take the family to Mr Pittle's; for had they been in the house, it is not to be told what the consequences might have been.

Before morning the riot was ended; but the damage to my house was very great; and I was intending, as the public had done the deed, that the town should have paid for it. "But," said Mr Keelivine, the town-clerk, "I think you may do better; and this calamity, if properly handled to the government, may make your fortune." I reflected on the hint; and, accordingly, the next day, I went over to the regulating Captain of the press-gang, and represented to him the great damage and detriment which I had suffered; requesting him to represent to government, that it was all owing to the part I had taken in his behalf. To this, for a time, he made some scruple of objection; but, at last, he drew up, in my presence, a letter to the lord's of the Admirality; telling what he had done, and how he and his men had been ill-used; and, that the house of the chief-magistrate of the town, had been in a manner destroyed by the rioters.

By the same post, I wrote off myself to the Lord Advocate, and likewise to the Secretary of State, in London; commending, very properly, the prudent and circumspect manner in which the officer had come to apprize me of his duty, and giving as faithful an account as I well could of the riot; concluding, with a simple notification of what had been done to my house, and the outcry that might be raised in the town were any part of the town's funds to be used in the repair.

Both the Lord Advocate and Mr Secretary of State wrote me back by retour of post, thanking me for my zeal in the public service; and I was informed, that as it might not be expedient to agitate in the town the payment of the damage which my house had received, the Lords of the Treasury would indemnify me for the same; and this was done in a manner which showed the blessings we enjoy, under our most venerable constitution; for I was not only thereby enabled, by what I got, to repair the windows, but to build up a vacant steading; the same, which I settled last year on my dochter, Marion, when she was married to Mr Geery, of the Gatherton Holme.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.