Poaching has been part of Island life since the first landowners staked their claim to all that lived, flew and swam within the boundaries of their estate deeds.
This month our nostalgia publication ‘Back in the Day’ recounts some of the tales, tragedies, wiliness and wit of poachers down the years.
Salmon and venison are arguably two of the finest dishes to grace a menu and, as such, have been fiercely protected by those considering themselves in possession of a more discerning palate than the riffraff beyond the estate gates.
That caricature of elitist eating has helped romanticise the Robin Hood of larder, pot and table – the poacher.
Of course it is a much more complicated culinary equation than the haves and have-nots and all game is certainly not fair game for what is essentially theft. But the privileged landowner has always had to protect his domain, and still does, from the poaching predator, be it human-life or wildlife, the latter following nature’s code of the survival of the fittest, the former a more entrepreneural trait.
The Western Isles to this day sees the law pursuing the poacher and through the decades the illegal pursuit of deer and salmon in particular has kept the court busy.
At times though poaching was a political statement, at other times a necessity to fend off starvation, and, when your meagre crop was itself threatened, the disposal of a deer or two was deemed a necessity to fend off even greater hardship.
The newspapers down the years are peppered with tales of the Islands’ poachers. Back in 1877 a pair of likely lads were hauled before Sheriff Spittal in Stornoway for trespassing on Park Farm, tenanated by PP Sellar, in pursuit of game. While pleading guilty, both men said they were only in search of seals, and offered no explanation as to why one of them, having realised they had been rumbled, tossed a gun into the loch.
Several shot deer nearby were seen as somewhat more than coincidence.
The sheriff found them guilty, fined them £1 each...or a month’s imprisonment. They chose jail.
The usual clandestine operations of the poacher became considerably more public in Stornoway in 1889.
A report in the Dundee Advertiser in early February detailed how the good townsfolk were astonished to arise one morning to see a large deer skin, still with head and legs attached, fastened to a flagpole with a large piece of cardboard nailed above it with “The last in Arnish” boldly inscribed upon it.
“It has been known for some time that a good deal poaching was going in the Arnish and other forests at Lochs, and several carcases of deer, as well as skins, have been discovered in out of the way spots in the districts,” said The Advertiser.
“Many people do not hesitate to say that the skin displayed so conspicuously, and which has been taken in charge by the superintendent of police, is all that now remains of the large herd of deer which lately roamed over the Arnish forest, and that very soon no deer at all will be left in the island.”
So, the nailed remains were quite a statement...
However, the poaching profession continued to flourish, though it should noted that it is not without its perils.
A tragic incident in the Park district in October 1924 made headlines the length and breadth of the country. Three men had shot three stags and then carried them to a boat they had berthed nearby. In their urgency to depart the scene, one of the poachers roughly laid his loaded gun down in the boat and was killed by the accidental discharge.
So it should be borne in mind the poacher’s lot is, in the main, an illegal trade and can be a hazardous one. Nevertheless, there are tales a-plenty of their wiliness and their wit.
Some 13 years ago Back in the Day recounted a few of the excuses that have now entered Island folklore...
CROSS COUNTRY RUNNER
“I wasn’t poaching, I was only running with other people on the moor,” protested a 39-year-old Stornoway man when he was caught by the game-keeper and water bailiff on the River Creed.
The keepers had chased the accused and two others for three miles up the river after finding them working a net.
OLD POACHERS NEVER DIE
When an old age pensioner from Lochs was charged with poaching, he pled guilty by letter, but Sheriff Miller continued the case and ordered him to appear in person.
”My policy is to require the appearance of accused persons unless it is a trifling thing like leaving your car a little longer on the street than you should,” he commented.
Asked why he had not appeared at the previous court the accused said “I was feeling too old to come into the court for the first time.”
“But you are not too old to poach. That’s an awfully cheeky thing to say,” commented Sheriff Miller.
CHASED BY A MADMAN WITH A GUN
The poachers were going quietly about their work when three men suddenly rose from the heather close to the boat.
“One of them ran down the beach, pointing what looked like a gun and shouting,” said one of the accused. I thought it was a madman and turned out the harbour. That is all I remember because I was rowing as hard as I could for my life.”
He agreed with the Sheriff that such conduct would not suggest to the police and bailiffs that they had clear consciences but they did not think it necessary to offer any explanation of their conduct when they came ashore again.
In his evidence another accused said that he too thought the baliff was a madman with a gun.
“Why did you leave your companion to be murdered on the beach by this wild man with a gun?” asked the Fiscal.
“It was the easiest way out. The survival of the fittest,” replied the accused.
“You mean the slickest,” commented the sheriff.
WHO WAS LOOKING FOR WHAT?
The three accused went into the witness box and denied positively that they were ashore or poaching. They didn’t see any gamekeeper; they weren’t looking for gamekeepers; they were there looking for lobsters.