Trying to catch some of the washed-out midwinter daylight in the Christmas holidays, we took my parents out on an expedition to find a hidden cave, which, according to local tradition, was used as a hide-out by Orkney lads not wishing to be enrolled in the navy.
The Press Gang, as they were known, were a recruitment team that stopped at nothing to meet their target numbers of young men for the Navy during the many wars between England and France in the 1700s, and the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s.
Orkney families had lots of tricks to make sure the Press Gang didn’t steal away their sons. We once visited an old house that had a secret room built into the hillside for just such an occasion. There were also secret signals, such as tethering a cow on a certain hilltop spot if the Press Gang had been seen in the vicinity.
One clever Kirkwall lad, while on the run from the Press Gang officers, rolled himself in nettles, and got off by pretending to suffer from a contagious disease!
This cave, in the parish of Deerness on the very eastern tip of the Orkney Mainland, is difficult to access, and completely invisible until you are right at it.
When following the footpath to the Medieval Norse settlement at the Brough of Deerness, carry on to the left along the cliffs until you get to a gate where there is a steep, grassy slope down to a rocky beach.
Once down on the beach, you will see the smashed remains of a yacht which has perished in recent times against the Orkney cliffs.
The rounded boulders piled up on the beach are the visible result of a tsunami in the early 1900s. Before this, the Press Gang cave would have been higher up off the ground.
I remember visiting it in the early 2000s, when it was still possible to crawl inside it. A local Deerness man and some friends had cleared away the boulders from the entrance, and you could then crawl inside until you got to a place inside the cave where it was possible to stand up.
Now, however, the beach has moved and almost completely blocked the entrance. Only a small gap is still visible, large enough perhaps for a dog to get inside. None of us were brave or small enough to attempt it this time.