You are here
The Orinsay Trials II: the Prosecution
The Orinsay Trials II: the Prosecution
An account of the Orinsay Trials of 1891, in the wake of attempts by crofters to resettle the farm; from Tional, 1996.
The first witness for the prosecution, Roderick Martin, tenant of Orinsay Farm stated that the men encamped on prime grazing land about a hundred yards from the foreshore at Orinsay and Stiomreway. He spoke to them and told them that they were damaging his property and that if they did not leave he would proceed against them for damages. They replied that he could take any action he liked as they were determined to remain where they were. They worked hard at establishing a camp and in the second week he visted them again and observed that the sheep had been frightened away from the area, one of his cows had gone mad and a portion of the land had been dug.
Donald MacRae reminded the witness that there was no charge for damage, only trespass, but the Sheriff intervened to say that evidence about tilling the ground was relvant in a matter of trespass. It would also prove fatal to the plea that they had occupied the land for fishing purposes. Mr Martin, continuing his evidence said that the men were quiet and well behaved, but as they were always walking about the place they disturbed his livestock. Under cross examination by Donald MacRae, he said that he had applied for interdict against the men and as soon as they took delivery of the interdict they left the ground. They did not return and he had not seen any of them since. At the same time he lodged a complaint with the Procurator Fiscal on the grounds that the men were destroying his property.
At this stage in the proceedings, Donald MacRae tried to establish collusion between the Estate and the Procurator Fiscal by taking civil and criminal action simultaenously. As the men had left as soon as they were served with the interdict, he thought that the criminal proceedings were un-necessary and vexatious. Mr MacRae stressed the importance of taking all the recent circumstances surrounding the land into account as the men had petitioned Lady Matheson for Stiomreway and Orinsay before Mr Martin had applied for the lease. If their actions were held to be criminal these matters should be considered in mitigation of their sentences. "If a man was starving on the streets of Stornoway and he took a loaf from a baker's shop, his case was very different from that of the man who - ".
The Sheriff exploded!
"I cannot listen to arguments like these in a court of law. If a man, however hungry, steals a loaf he is guilty of theft. He has no excuse and must apply to the parochial authorities. I saw in the newspapers some time ago that a Member of Parliament gave utterance to a doctrine of this kind. It is the worst doctrine that could be promulgated and against all the laws of civilisation".
Mr Martin then said that he had lodged his complaint with the Procurator Fiscal before he saw the Chamberlain and agreed that he knew that the people were applying for the lands before he sought the lease. He had also heard that more men might be taking the place of those served with interdict. Mr MacRae asked if he had pulled down the settlers huts before the interdict had been served on them. Mr Martin told him to go and see for himself.
The Sheriff remarked that he was perfectly entitled to remove them. Mr MacRae, however replied that the men had a boat and a trawl net and that their settlements were within one hundred yards of the high water mark and they should have received the protection of an Act passed in the reign of George 111 for landing nets and curing white fish. The Sheriff dismissed that line of argument because the ground had been cultivated and the Act only allowed for temporary shelter,the drying of nets and other small tasks on the foreshore.
The next prosecution witness called to testify was William MacLennan, Chamberlain to Lady Matheson. "Are you aware", asked Donald MacRae, "that these men are landless cottars".
"They are cottars and fishermen."
The Sheriff intervened. "What is the meaning of this term landless cottars - all the cottars in the low country are landless so far as I know. Is it the suggestion that because they are landless they are entitled to go and take land".
"The case is different here, there is no work for the people" said Mr MacRae.
The Sheriff replied "There is as much work on the new railway at Fort William as people can be found for. Get up a fund to enable them to go".
Donald MacRae returned to questioning the Chamberlain.
"Are you aware that the people are in very poor circumstances".
"No I am not aware of that"
"Are you aware that the Crown sent a Commission to enquire into the condition of the people".
"That is not evidence", the Sheriff said.
"It is if the Chamberlain says he is not aware that these cottars are in very poor circumstances,"Donald MacRae replied.
When the question was put to him again the Chamberlain said he knew about the Commission Report in 1888. Pressed further by Donald MacRae he denied that the Report was accurate in describing the condition of the cottars of Lochs as living in a state of poverty bordering on starvation. He said that he personally disagreed with that statement as the men were found afterwards to have meal and potatoes in their houses.
The Sheriff asked him if the settlers were descendants of the people evicted in 1838. The Chamberlain replied that those sent away had been given land at Crossbost and other places, but he was not prepared to say if the accused were related to them.
The next witness, Police Superintendent Smith said that he had received a complaint from Roderick Martin that cottars had invaded his land in Orinsay and he wanted police protection. With Constable John MacLeod, who corroborated his evidence, he went to Orinsay and spoke to the men. He advised them to leave and assured them that they were committing an illegal act by taking possession of the land. They were polite and peaceful, but refused to leave. "Roderick Martin came down and said they were occupying the best grazing land for his sheep and I asked them again to go away".
"What can we do," they said.
He understood then that they were hard pressed for land and that they had no place to go to. Under questioning by Donald MacRae, he testified that he saw the ruins of old houses and the traces of old rigs that had once been cultivated. He confirmed that there was a good anchorage at Orinsay and that he had heard that there were splendid fishing banks out to the Shiant Islands. He also knew that there was a good deal of poverty among the cottars of Crossbost and that the district was thickly populated.
The last witness called for the prosecution was the farm manager, Malcolm Martin, son of the tenant. He corroborated his fathers evidence and was asked by Donald MacRae if he had seen the accused setting nets for fish.
"You had better ask did he see men digging for fish on the land", said the Sheriff.
"I saw some bones of fish."
"Then someone must have been fishing."
"Someone must have been eating," the Sheriff interrupted again.
The cross examination continued with Mr MacRae asking Martin how many houses there were in Orinsay.
"I did not count them", he replied.
"There are nine", said Mr MacRae. Martin looked to his father and then shook his head.
"Don't look at your father! Is Roderick Martin the Junior Counsel for the Prosecution here?"
"Did you see a cow going mad?"
"I did not see the cow although it was said she went mad. I don't believe she is mad now."
Mr MacRae's comment, "She just cocked up her tail and ran off", brought the prosecution case to a close to an outburst of laughter.