At the spring assizes of Inverness, in 1816, Mr. Sellar was brought to trial, before Lord Pitmilly, for his proceedings, as partly detailed in my last letter. The indictment, charging him with culpable homicide, fire-raising, &c., was prosecuted by his Majesty’s advocate. In the report of the trial, published by Mr. Sellar’s counsel, it is said, “To this measure his lordship seems to have been induced, chiefly for the purpose of satisfying the public mind and putting an end to the clamours of the country.” If this, and not the ends of justice, was the intention, it was completely successful, for the gentleman was acquitted, to the astonishment of the natives and of all who understood anything of the true state of the case, and the oppressors were thereby emboldened to proceed in their subsequent operations with a higher hand, and with perfect impunity, as will be seen in the sequel.
It is a difficult and hazardous attempt to impugn proceedings carried on by his Majesty’s advocate, presided over by an honourable judge, and decided by a jury of respectable men; but I may mention a few circumstances which might have a tendency to disappoint the people. Out of forty witnesses examined at a precognition before the sheriff, there were only eleven, and those not the most competent, brought forward for the crown; and the rest, some of whom might have supported material parts of the indictment –as, for instance, in the case of Donald Munro – were never called at all. Besides, the witnesses for the prosecution, being simple, illiterate persons, gave their testimony in Gaelic, which was interpreted to the court; and, it is well-known, much depends upon the translator, whether evidence so taken, retains its weight and strength or not. The jury, with very few exceptions, was composed of persons just similarly circumstanced with the new tenants in Sutherlandshire, and consequently, might very naturally have a leaning to that side, and all the exculpatory witnesses were those who had been art and part, or otherwise interested, in the outrageous proceedings. Mr. Sellar was a man of talent, an expert lawyer, and a justice of the peace, invested with full powers, as factor and law agent to a great absentee proprietor, and strongly supported by the clergy and gentry in the neighbourhood: he was also the incoming tenant to the lands which were the scene of his proceedings – too great odds against a few poor simple Highlanders, who had only their wrongs to plead, whose minds were comparatively uncultivated, and whose pecuniary means were small.
The immediate cause which led to these legal proceedings was, that several petitions from the expelled tenants had been sent to the noble proprietors, representing the illegal and cruel treatment they had received; and, in consequence of the answers received expressing a wish that justice might be done, the case was laid before the sheriff-depute, Mr. Cranstoun, who sent an express injunction to Mr. Robert McKid, sheriff-substitute for the county, to take a precognition of the case, and if there appeared sufficient cause, to take Mr. Sellar into custody. The sheriff-substitute was a man of acknowledged probity, but from the representations he had previously received, was considered unfavourable to the cause of the people. On examining the witnesses, however, a case of such enormity was made out as induced him to use some strong expressions contained in a letter to Lord Stafford, which I here subjoin, and which, with some false allegations, were urged against him on the trial, so that, under the direction of the court, the advocate-depute passed from his evidence on the grounds of malice and unduly expressed opinion, and thus Mr. McKid’s important testimony was lost. On the whole, this case furnishes an instance of successful chicanery, undue influence, and the “glorious uncertainty of Law.”
TO LORD STAFFORD.
KIRKTOWN P. GOLSPIE, 30th May; 1815,
My Lord, – I conceive it a duty I owe to your Lordship, to address you upon the present occasion, and a more distressing task I have seldom had to perform.
Your Lordship knows, that in summer last, an humble petition, subscribed by a number of tenants on Mr. Sellar’s sheep farm in Farr and Kildonan, was presented to Lady Stafford, complaining of various acts of injury, cruelty and oppression, alleged to have been committed upon their persons and property, by Mr. Sellar, in the spring and summer of that year.
To this complaint, her Ladyship, upon the 22nd of July last, was graciously pleased to return an answer in writing. In it, her Ladyship, with her usual candour and justice, with much propriety observes, “That if any person on the estate shall receive any illegal treatment, she will never consider it as hostile to her if they have recourse to legal redress, as a most secure way to receive the justice which she always desires they should have on every occasion.” Her Ladyship also intimates, “That she had communicated the complaint to Mr. Sellar, that he may make proper inquiry and answer to her.”
It would appear, however, that Mr. Sellar still refused, or delayed, to afford that redress to the removed tenants to which they conceived themselves entitled, which emboldened them to approach Earl Gower with a complaint, similar to the one they had presented to Lady Stafford.
To this complaint his Lordship graciously condescended, under date 8th February last, to return such an answer as might have been expected from his Lordship. His Lordship says that he has communicated the contents to your Lordship and Lady Stafford, who as his Lordship nobly expresses himself, “Are desirous, that the tenants should know, that it is always their wish that justice should be impartially administered.” His Lordship then adds, that he has sent the petition, with directions to Mr. Young, that proper steps should be taken for laying the business before the sheriff-depute; and that the petitioners would therefore be assisted by Mr. Young, if they desired it, in having the precognition taken before the sheriff-depute, according to their petition.
Soon after receipt of Earl Gower’s letter, it would appear that a copy of the petition, with his Lordship’s answer, had been transmitted to the sheriff-depute by the tenants. Mr. Cranstoun, in answer, upon 30th March last, says, “that if the tenants mean to take a precognition immediately, it will proceed before the sheriff-substitute, as my engagement will not permit me to be in Sutherland until the month of July.”
In consequence of these proceedings, on an express injunction from his Majesty’s advocate-depute, and a similar one from the sheriff-depute, I was compelled to enter upon an investigation of the complaints.
With this view I was induced to go into Strathnaver, where, at considerable personal inconvenience and expense, and with much patient perseverance, I examined about forty evidences upon the allegations stated in the tenants’ petition; and it is with the deepest regret I have to inform your Lordship, that a more numerous catalogue of crimes, perpetrated by an individual, has seldom disgraced any country, or sullied the pages of a precognition in Scotland.
This being the case, the laws of the country imperiously call upon me to order Mr. Sellar to be arrested and incarcerated, in order for trial, and before this reaches your Lordship this preparatory legal step must be put in execution.
No person can more sincerely regret the cause, nor more feelingly lament the effect, than I do; but your Lordship knows well, and as Earl Gower very properly observed, “Justice should be impartially administered.”
I have, in confidence, stated verbally to Mr. Young my fears upon this distressing subject, and I now take the liberty of stating my sentiments also to your Lordship, in confidence.
The crimes of which Mr. Sellar stands accused are, –
1. Wilful fire-raising; by having set on fire, and reduced to ashes, a poor man’s whole premises, including dwelling-house, barn, kilns, sheep-cot, attended with most aggravating circumstances of cruelty, if not murder.
2. Throwing down and demolishing a mill, also a capital crime.
3. Setting fire to and burning the tenants’ heath pasture, before the legal term of removal.
4. Throwing down and demolishing houses, whereby the lives of sundry aged and bed-ridden persons were endangered, if not actually lost.
5. Throwing down and demolishing barns, kilns, sheep-cots, &c., to the great hurt and prejudice of the owners.
6. Innumerable other charges of lesser importance swell the list.
I subjoin a copy of Mr. Cranstoun’s letter to me upon this subject, for your Lordship’s information, and have the honour to be, &c.
(Signed) ROBT. McKID.
Here, then, I must part with Messrs. Young and Sellars as agents for the noble family of Sutherland, for about this time they ceased to act as such. I shall in my next, proceed to describe the devastating removals of 1819 and ’20 – those which happened in the intermediate years between these and the year 1815, being similar in character to the removals I have already described. Mr. Sellar shall hereafter only figure in my narrative as a leviathan tenant, who individually supplanted scores of the worthy small farmers of the parish of Farr.