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Place Names of the Week - Press hols

Published: 21 January 2021

Shetland’s reputation of having many excellent seamen made the isles an obvious target for the Press Gang or Bluejackets, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Navy had problems recruiting enough volunteers, particularly during periods of war, so they used the system of impressment right up to 1815. 

Naval ships including a frigate in Lerwick Harbour (Shetland Museum & Archives 01243)


Naval officers intercepted boats returning from the whaling, and scoured the isles, even entering houses at night and taking men out of their beds. To avoid them, desperate measures were taken. One man reputedly slept in a peat stack for an entire winter, many others fled at very short notice to hideouts in the hills or to caves along the shores. Called press hols or hoidy hols, the names of these hideouts reflect their purpose, location or particular individuals. Men often remained in hiding until the ships had left the area, and sustained by supplies carried long distances by the women folk. In Skerries, a stone named Annie Elspeth’s Resting Place is where a woman of that name rested or her way to deliver food to the men hiding in the Paet’s Hoose.

Kathleen Scott junior, at entrance of cave used
as a hideout near Culster, Delting, 1934 (LG Scott, Shetland Museum & Archives LS00729)


Most press hols were very difficult to find without detailed local knowledge. The entrances of many caves are almost obscure from land or sea and some are extremely narrow, necessitating great determination to gain access, e.g. Hoose o Hirdie Geo, Papa Stour and da Hol o da Hellier, Northmavine. Caves used include da Press Hol (Breckon, Yell), Kettlebaak Cave (Uyea, Northmavine), the Barn o Scrada (Eshaness), the Hoidin Hol a Gord, Hoidin Hol a Leeans, Hoidin Hol a Taing and Waterhamars (all in Whalsay), Tammie Tyrie’s Hoidie Hol (Skerries), Hoose o Sholmack (Papa Stour), Press Geng Hol (Mid Waas), da Trow’s Hol (Sandsting), Tammie Mockie’s Haa (Quarff), da Press Mester’s Hol (Cunningsburgh), Da Un (Dunrossness) and Upper and Lower Tief’s Holes (Fair Isle). 

Hoose o Hirdie, the cave to the right of Hirda Stack, Papa Stour was a press hol
(T Kay, Shetland Museum & Archives K00070)


Bressay, a regular target for the naval officers, had several good press hols. The prehistoric structure at Stouraclett proved an excellent bolthole being virtually invisible to most. Lamb’s Leap is where Jeemie Lamb foiled his pursuers by jumping over the banks, not to his apparent death, but to the safety of the hoidy hol known as Hoevdi Scord. Others were not so lucky and, on a few occasions, boys under the required age of 18 were seized, even from the classroom. 

Robert and Sonny Inkster at the Kettlebaak Cave, Uyea, 1950s-60s
(J Angus, Shetland Museum & Archives JA00785)


There were also excellent hideouts in the hills, including da Hol o da Hoidins (Burraland Northmavine), da Hols o Gemla (Waas), Press Gang Hols (Catfirth), and da Warhoose (Stromfirth). The size varied from the single man hole in the heather east of the Loch of Houll, Whalsay; to the hoidy hol in Lunning Head used by men from both Lunnasting and Whalsay, on one occasion concealing over 30 men for over 3 weeks; and the Paet’s (Pecht’s) Hoose in Skerries, said to be able to hold 160 men.

Iron Age buildings at Stouraclett, Bressay made the perfect
hiding place, (J Mundie, 1968 Shetland Museum & Archives SL05580)


Several inland pursuits ended at lochs. Press Gang Point at the Maw Loch, Weisdale marks where a naval officer reputedly fell on his sword and died while chasing Joseph Hunter of Scarpigarth over stepping-stones to the holm in the loch. Walter Jeemson of Sandsting rescued his pursuer from drowning in Gossawater, and traded himself for the release of two youngsters who had been seized.  Kirkcaldy Bight in the Setter Loch at Clousta is a permanent memorial to Lieutenant Kirkcaldy who drowned along with the man he was chasing.

If you can help locate and have photos of any press hols, or have stories of escapes from the Press Gang, please email placenames@shetlandamenity.org

Eileen Brooke-Freeman, Shetland Place Names Expert


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