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