Taking a stick from the wood
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).