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The Orinsay Trials IV: the Second Trial
The Orinsay Trials IV: the Second Trial
An account of the Orinsay Trials of 1891, in the wake of attempts by crofters to resettle the farm; from Tional, 1996.
On the following Tuesday, 20th April 1891, the second batch of fifteen cottars took their place in the dock at Stornoway Sheriff Court. Great interest was taken in the proceedings and the courtroom was packed, mainly with crofters and cottars from the island. Sheriff Jameson was, once again, on the bench and the case for the prosecution was conducted by the Depute Fiscal, Mr John Ross. The men were charged with the same offence under the Trespass (Scotland) Act of 1865.
The men appearing before the court were:- John MacLeod, Calbost; Angus Morrison, Calbost; Malcolm MacDonald, Gravir; John Matheson, Gravir; Angus MacPhail, Gravir; Kenneth MacAskill, Gravir; John Campbell, Gravir; Andrew Matheson, Gravir; John MacKenzie, Crossbost; Neil MacLean, Crossbost; Donald MacInnes, Crossbost; Malcolm MacLeod, Crossbost; Donald MacAulay, Crossbost; Roderick Kennedy, Crossbost and Alexander MacLeod, Ranish.
John MacLeod of Calbost was the first case called. On being asked to plead he said that Mr Donald MacRae would speak for him.
In a statement to the court, Donald MacRae said that after the painful and tedious trial of the week before and his lordship's interpretation of the Act of Parliament under which the accused were convicted, all the men who were before the court had resolved to plead guilty, although he wished to make a further statement in mitigation of sentence.
The Sheriff said that as they had pleaded guilty to this offence against the law of the land and not attempted to defend themselves on any grounds, he was prepared to let them off altogether on condition that they would give him their word of honour that they would not commit this offence again and would not return to Orinsay or Stiomreway, except to collect their belongings. Each of the men were brought to the bar of the court in turn and asked by the Sheriff to accept this condition. Nine of the men accepted the condition and six declined.
John MacKenzie and Neil MacLean of Crossbost could only give the Sheriff such an assurance if they could get land somewhere else. Angus MacPhail, Gravir said that it was necessity that had compelled him to go Stiomreway. To applause from the public benches, he said, "Although I have broken the laws of man I have not broken the law of God."
The Sheriff replied, "I do not want to know what you think of it, I want to know if you will promise not to break the law of man again."
"I will not go back or break the law willingly."
"Who is to compel you to go."
"Poverty and want of food."
"You must promise unconditionally. That is not the way to cure your poverty, to go and take other people's land."
"I will not promise that", said the accused.
Malcolm MacLeod, Crossbost said that he did not know what he would do and would not say anything. Roderick Kennedy, Crossbost said "If I don't go back to Orinsay I'll have to go somewhere else."
The Sheriff; "I cannot let you off on that promise."
"But I am compelled to go somewhere, I have not got an inch of land."
"Why can't you go and work in some other part of the country?"
"I am not able to go out of the island. I could not even buy an ounce of tobacco."
Alex MacLeod, Ranish said that he took up the same position as Roderick Kennedy and declined to give his promise.
The nine men who had given the required promise were then dismissed with an admonition.
Donald MacRae on behalf of the six accused men remaining said that it was a very effecting sight to see from day to day multitudes of men coming to plead in a court of law on charges of this kind. He thought that the spectacle raised serious questions of the utmost importance to all concerned. In particular, he thought that there were parties to these difficulties whose guilt was much greater than that of the poor men who now stood in the dock. These men were engaged in a land movement not only finding active expression on the Island of Lewis but across the Highlands, because the condition of the people in their deprivation was extreme and exceptional. In the earlier trial a statement had been made calculated to injure the cause of these men unless it was publicly contradicted. It was said that the men were urged on by unscrupulous agitators to acts of violence, indeed he himself had sometimes been mentioned by name as one of those.
The actions of the men was not the result of political intrigue but the consequence of greed and neglect by the estate authorities. As long as the congestion on the crofting lands was allowed to go on, impoverishment to an extraordinary degree would follow in its wake and he deliberately blamed the estate for the congestion and its attendant misery, because they allowed it and encouraged it so long as it continued to be a fruitful source of revenue to their own coffers. He hoped that his lordship would take account of the apathy of the estate in facing up to the crisis among the people by granting an acquittal or reducing the severity of the sentence he imposed. As a man who was in intimate acquaintance with the thoughts and aspirations of the men he believed the men who stood in the dock and he did not believe the men who had made a promise to his lordship not to repeat the offence.
"I do not think you have any right to say that", said the Sheriff. "I must assume that the men who made a promise to me were men of honour."
"All the men approached me this morning and asked me to tender a not guilty plea on their behalf", replied Donald MacRae.
"I cannot listen to what passes between agent and client."
Before passing sentence the Sheriff said that he was sorry the men did not choose to follow the course adopted by their companions. He had considered what had been said by Mr MacRae and was sorry to hear of the poverty in Lewis. It seemed to him that the poverty had arisen because men like the accused became squatters on the land of their relatives instead of seeking work for themselves elsewhere. They were not so poor that they could not get boats to take them to the mainland or they might all take to regular fishing. Last year the Government supplied several fishing boats which he understood had not been used for fishing constantly but had been used on these raids as well. He was sorry to see men of otherwise good character breaking the law, but poverty was no excuse for laying siege to other men's property and he would impose the maximum penalty allowed by the Act of fourteen days imprisonment.
The village was finally resettled 32 years later.