Tak­ing a stick from the wood

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

THE old High­land proverb, ‘Breac à linne, slat à coille, ‘s fi­adh à fìreach – mèirle nach do ghabh duine ri­amh nàir aisde’ (a fish from the pool, a stick from the wood, a deer from the moun­tain – thefts no man ever was ashamed of), may have found favour with some 19th- cen­tury Gaelic- speak­ing landown­ers, but it cut no ice with one Morvern laird as a party of men from Lis­more found to their cost.

It all be­gan in Septem­ber 1851 when John Alexan­der Sel­lar, son of Pa­trick Sel­lar, who be­came pro­pri­etor of Ard­tor­nish Es­tate in 1844, was fox-hunt­ing on the Garbh Sh­lios, a rough, tree- cov­ered stretch of hill­side on the Morvern penin­sula op­po­site the south­ern end of Lis­more, and found the stumps of birch trees that had been re­cently cut and dragged to the shore. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Sel­lar were John Dou­glas, the es­tate man­ager, and John Mathieson, the Eig­naig shep­herd.

Sel­lar wrote to Henry Nis­bet, the procu­ra­tor fis­cal in Tober­mory, on Septem­ber 20: ‘Sir, in my fa­ther’s ab­sence I take the lib­erty of ad­dress­ing you in your char­ac­ter of procu­ra­tor fis­cal for this district; and to say that more than one hun­dred trees have been cut down and car­ried away from the es­tate by some evil dis­posed per­sons within the past few days.

‘I have rea­son to be­lieve that this has been done by peo­ple in boats from Lis­more. Would you there­fore be so good as to send the po­lice­man here on re­ceipt of this to ex­am­ine into the cir­cum­stances and to re­port to you the re­sult with a view to bring­ing the of­fend­ing par­ties to jus­tice.’

Nis­bet lost no time in tak­ing ac­tion. A few days af­ter re­ceiv­ing Sel­lar’s re­quest, he pe­ti­tioned Wil­liam Robert­son, sher­iff sub­sti­tute of the North­ern District of Ar­gyll, based in Tober­mory, for a war­rant to ap­pre­hend Colin Camp­bell, John McColl and John Carmichael, crofters, James Camp­bell, labourer, Dun­can Carmichael, labourer, Don­ald Carmichael, cot­tar, Gil­bert Carmichael, cot­tar, and Don­ald Macin­tyre and Alexan­der Macin­tyre, crofters, all re­sid­ing at Ach­nad­own [Achin­duin] in the united parish of Ap­pin and Lis­more and to hold them in Tober­mory prison for ex­am­i­na­tion.

The charge was that be­tween Septem­ber 1 and 24 they ‘did all and each, or one or more of them actor or ac­tors, or art and part wickedly and felo­niously cut down and thef­tu­ously steal and carry away 150, or thereby, large birch trees, the prop­erty, or in the law­ful pos­ses­sion, of the said Pa­trick Sel­lar’.

Speak­ing for Ard­tor­nish es­tate, Sel­lar, Mathieson, Dou­glas and Robert Mac­don­ald, the shep­herd at In­niemore, stated that the ac­cused did not have per­mis­sion from Pa­trick Sel­lar to cut and take away tim­ber. But An­gus Mackin­non, wood ranger, Locha­line, aged 60, who had lived at Ca­mus­nagowan close to the place where the trees were cut and which bears his name to this day, stated in Gaelic (as he could not speak English) that some of the Ach­nad­own ten­ants fre­quently came over to the Garbh Sh­lios for fire­wood for which they al­ways paid ac­cord­ing to the prices he fixed.

Af­ter be­ing cau­tioned and charged, all the ac­cused de­nied any wrong­do­ing be­cause they had per­mis­sion. In a care­fully-worded state­ment, Colin Camp­bell, aged about 60, speak­ing for most of his col­leagues, said: ‘I have known the wood [of Garbh Sh­lios] bought by Mr Sel­lar from Mr Gre­gor­son for the past 60 years.

‘Ach­nad­own be­longed to the Duke of Ar­gyll and the peo­ple of Ach­nad­own had the right to take wood from it since my fa­ther’s time some 80 years ago. An­gus Mackin­non, Mr Gre­gor­son’s wood forester, used to go along with us to point out the trees we were to cut. We have been in the habit of cut­ting wood there since Mr Sel­lar bought the prop­erty and we did so in the mid­dle of the day when Mr Sel­lar’s shep­herds were about who must have seen us cut­ting the wood but never chal­lenged us for do­ing so. We never asked nor ob­tained author­ity from Mr Sel­lar to cut wood in Gar­alas.’

And there, un­for­tu­nately, the mat­ter comes to a close. The Tober­mory Sher­iff Court pa­pers for the pe­riod, which would have recorded the dis­posal, have dis­ap­peared. Con­tem­po­rary news­pa­pers are silent, sug­gest­ing the trial did not go ahead. Per­haps Pa­trick Sel­lar’s death a few weeks later, or in­ter­ven­tion by the Gre­gor­son fam­ily, was the rea­son.

The Duke of Ar­gyll’s ten­ants in Tiree had the right to cut trees on the Ross of Mull but only un­der strict su­per­vi­sion. In 1686, the Earl of Breadal­bane, who owned parts of Lis­more, made an ar­range­ment with Dun­can Maclean for each fam­ily among his ten­antry to take an­nu­ally six loads of tim­ber in six- oared boats from Kin­gair­loch and Glen­sanda. They were not, how­ever, al­lowed to take hazel be­cause of its value for fish­ing rods, creels and hoops, or rowan, which was pre­served for its ed­i­ble berries and be­cause of its use as a charm against witch­craft.

Soon, with­out su­per­vi­sion, the Liosach boats got big­ger and, by 1800, the coastal forests and peat bogs dis­ap­peared en­tirely through the chim­neys of the Lis­more houses.

Pa­trick Sel­lar of Ard­tor­nish (1780-1851).

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