Lat the auld witch burn — A tale telt by Marsaili MacLeod, a native o Strathnaver, tae Alistair Heather

Patrick Sellar’s auld hous staunds on the toff’s estate doun the river Naver fae the clachan. The biggin itsel is cuttit intae twa; ae side is hame tae the ciobair — shepherd in the Gaelic — an the ithir side staunds tuim tae this day. It’s kent as ‘Patrick Sellar’s hous’, and naebody will bide intae it. A hunner year an mair syne he wis pit in the grund in the kirkyaird at Elgin, an still there isnae a body wha’ll gang near the place. He wis taen on as Factor for the Duke o Sutherland, tae turn the laund at Strathnaver an thereabout intae sheep ferms. Tae dae this he wis gied the richt tae evict the fowk wha bade there.

Mair nor a dozen brochs rise out the earth tae gie witness tae auncient life in the strath. Viking place names gar ye ken that thae northren raiders haed their time o ascendancy here an aa. The name Sutherland itsel is derived fae the Auld Norse for South-laund. But at the stert o the 19t century Patrick Seller tried tae pit a stap tae the muisic o life that haed played in the strath for millenia. He wis efter replacin it wi the fuilish bleatin o sheep an the cauld clink o siller in his pootch.

Sellar’s maist dulesome wark wis duin at Badinloskin. There’s summit gey queer an eldritch tae it tae this day. It wis anely a wee hous, mair a But an Ben, aa its lane twa-three mile fae the clachan. It wisnae ower lang syne that ah teuk masel a walk out tae the site. It’s nae easy tae find the day, but gin ye rake amang the heather, the auld stanes o the biggin are there yet. Ye keek aa about ye there the day, an there’s just naething. Heather an space whaur fowk an houses uised tae be. Aathings been cleared an ne’er replaced.

Ah dout it maun hae been gey sair wark tae bide there, tholin the cauld in the winter, the puir hairst, the isolation. It sae happens that a tinker cried William Chilsholm ance bade in the hous here. His auld mither-in-law bade in wi him, auld Mrs Magaret MacKay.

This rickle o stanes out at Bedinloskin is whaur Patrick Sellar killt this auld Mrs MacKay. He burnt the hous wi her alive in it.

He an his wee baund o hired men haed cleared mony a hous in the area afore they got tae Chisholm’s. They aye turnt the fowk out, afttimes wi a skelp ahint the lug an a buit in the dowp. But as far’s ah ken he haednae killt onybody afore he got tae Badinloskin.

It maun hae been the first o June 1814. A Monday, gin ah mind richt. A notice o eviction haed been furthset at the kirk aforehaund, but that wis nae uiss. Maist fowk in the strath in thae days war Gaelic monolinguals an Patrick Sellar, hailin fae Moray, didnae ken that leid. Sae as muckle as he micht hae thocht they kent he wis comin, chances are they didnae.

Patrick Sellar an his burnin perty arrived at Badinloskin. William hissel wisnae about. His auld mither-in-law wis hame, but, lyin in the bed. She wis ordered out by the burnin perty. She wisnae able, on account o her bein a hunner year auld or thereabout. She wis ower frail an auld tae be lowpin out o bed an stertin aff doun the lanie.

As the burnin perty reportit tae Sellar that there wis an auld wifie ben the hous wha couldnae or wadnae leave, Sellar spak his maist famous wirds: “Ach, she’s líved lang eneuch, the auld witch. Lat her dee.”

The cruel craiturs pit their torches tae the hous an the flames haed suin taen it ower.

The auld weimen inside cried out, “God tak us, ah kennae whit ingle sae bleezes aboot me.” Auld Mrs Chisholm’s dochter cam back as the housie burnt, an got her auld mither out. The reek wis ower muckle for her auld lungs, but, an she didnae líve lang. Five days later she wis deid, wi nae mair wirds spoken than thon abuin.

Auld Mrs Chisholm wisnae the anely puir sowel tae thole sic cruelties at the haunds o Sellar’s burnin perty. A wheen houses thereabout war cleared, an mony deiths are pit agin Sellar’s name in the muckle black beuk intae which aa wir sins are merkit.

The stane mason Donald MacLeod scrieved the follaein lines anent the burnin perty, he haein watched thaim stalk the strath, deith merchin thegither wi thaim: “The deith o mony o wir fowk cam about through auld yins bein fleggit, wabbit an cauld. Ah ken o auld chiels wha teuk theirsels aff tae wids an craigs efter their houses war burnt. They’d stravaig about, aff their heids wi greif an shock. Maist o thaim dee’d efter a week. Livin bairns dee’d, an mithers haed still born bairns. These ah saw wi ma ain een.”

But it wis his treatment o Auld Chisholm that pit peyed tae Sellar. The cruelty fae a braw, strang an wealthy chiel tae sic an auld wumman in a cultur that ayeweys revered the aulder generation wis mair nor fowk could thole. It wis this act that wad see him up on murder chairges in court in Inverness.

The pair didnae hae ony lawyers, an Sellar didnae get the jyle. A London newspaper haed furthset the hale sorry tale, but. Nou the outside warld kent, an sic horrors couldnae cairry on. Sellar’s name wis dirt.

The Duke o Sutherland biggit hissel a muckle stookie carvit in his ain image on the estate. Sellar lies deid in a tomb at Elgin. The stookie haes haed fowk ettlin tae blaw it up, an haed “monster” paintit ower it. Patrick Sellar’s tomb wis hit wi a sledgehammer, its ance braw kist o marble nou dunted permanent.

“The sportsman now roams o’er the Sutherland hills
      And down where the Naver runs clear;
And the land a brave race had for centuries owned
      Is now trod by the sheep and the deer.
The halls, where our ancestors first saw the light,
      Now blackened in ruins they lie.
And the moss-covered cairns are all that remain
      Of the once pleasant homes of MacKay.”

— Elizabeth MacKay, 1889

Alistair HeatherAlistair Heather is the Scots Editor at Bella Caledonia. He studies History an French at Aiberdeen University, an wirks wi the Elphinstone Institute promotin the cultur o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.

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