An un­usual case at Oban Sher­iff Court – but is it fact or fic­tion?

The Oban Times - - Districts -

WHEN I was look­ing through some old Oban Sher­iff Court ref­er­ences re­cently, I found a re­port of a case that sup­pos­edly came be­fore Sher­iff MacTav­ish on Novem­ber 18, 1896. It was an ac­tion for dam­ages of £12 brought against a lo­cal dis­tillery by John Turner, Lag­gan Farm, for in­jury to his ducks and hens by the dis­tillery com­pany for al­low­ing in­tox­i­cat­ing ma­te­rial to be dis­charged into the Lag­gan Burn.

This ma­te­rial, it was al­leged, caused drunk­en­ness among Mr Turner’s fowls, mak­ing them of lit­tle or no value. Mr Turner, who was rep­re­sented by John Scott, a lo­cal so­lic­i­tor, main­tained that for some years he had made a rea­son­able liv­ing keep­ing poul­try but since the dis­tillery opened, his busi­ness had dwin­dled to al­most noth­ing. His hens and ducks, he told the court, were drunk every day of the week ex­cept on Sun­days, when the dis­tillery was not work­ing.

Mr Turner thought it was a hen he had bought in Fort Wil­liam which made the dis­cov­ery first and that she had led the rest astray. Cross- ex­am­ined by Mr Wil­liam Smith, so­lic­i­tor for the dis­tillery com­pany, Mr Turner was asked: ‘Have you ever seen gapes [a small red worm which lodges in the wind­pipe of chick­ens], in hens?’ ‘ Yes.’ ‘Do you not con­sider that your hens are suf­fer­ing from them?’ ‘ Yes, whisky gapes [laugh­ter].’ ‘Did you know any­thing about the Fort Wil­liam hen be­fore you bought her?’ ‘Noth­ing what­ever.’ Mr Scott at this point asked if he could pro­duce an ar­ti­cle re­fer­ring to a sim­i­lar case. Mr Smith ob­jected as the au­thor was not present and the ob­jec­tion was sus­tained. Mr Moss, the bar of­fi­cer, was then asked by Mr Scott to place on the bench be­side the sher­iff a large wicker cage con­tain­ing the Fort Wil­liam hen.

Mr Scott asked Mr Turner: ‘Is this the Fort Wil­liam hen?’ ‘It is.’ ‘Is it sober?’ ‘It is not.’ A fact es­tab­lished be­cause it was sit­ting on the bot­tom of the cage with its neck through the bars look­ing side­ways at the ceil­ing, croon­ing to it­self in what Mr Turner de­scribed as a ‘maudlin style’ which al­ways hap­pened when she was ‘far gone’.

At this point it was recorded that the hen made some forcible re­marks in the di­rec­tion of Sher­iff MacTav­ish, which re­sulted in her ejec­tion from the court house. The ex­am­i­na­tion con­tin­ued: ‘ Was this hen in the dis­tillery burn this morn­ing?’ ‘Any­one could see that [laugh­ter].’ ‘How are the other hens to­day?’ ‘ Worse than this one.’ ‘ Was this the only one you could take to court?’ ‘ Yes.’ ‘Why?’ ‘The rest were too drunk.’ ‘So that on the whole the Fort Wil­liam hen is not the worst?’ ‘That is so.’ ‘How do you ac­count for that?’ ‘She can stand it bet­ter.’ Cross- ex­am­ined: ‘What do the hens do when they re­turn from the burn?’ ‘Sleep.’ ‘Any­thing else?’ ‘Af­ter a sleep they gen­er­ally fight.’ ‘Have you no sober hens at all?’ ‘Yes, but the drunk ones break their eggs.’ For the pur­suer (John Scott), it was con­tended that he had made out he was en­ti­tled to dam­ages. In an able speech for the de­fence, Mr Smith sub­mit­ted that the con­tention had not been proved and that the con­di­tion of the pur­suer’s hen might be due to in­fluenza.

The sher­iff stated that as the case was a pe­cu­liar one, he would de­lay giv­ing a de­ci­sion that day. The court was crowded and the Fort Wil­liam hen be­came the ob­ject of much in­ter­est after­wards when a thought­ful in­di­vid­ual put some whisky in front of her which she drank. This, it was said, re­vived her con­sid­er­ably and she be­gan cack­ling loudly to the en­joy­ment of the on­look­ers.

This story seems ab­surd yet it was car­ried in sev­eral na­tional news­pa­pers up and down the coun­try. Fact or fic­tion? A search of the won­der­ful Oban Times ar­chive should con­firm it be­cause I don’t imag­ine the ed­i­tor at the time would have been party to such a leg-pull, even on April Fools’ Day, if that in­deed is what it was.

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