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

Patrick Sellar’s auld hoose stauns 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 stauns tuim tae this day. It’s kent as ‘Patrick Sellar’s hoose’, 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 thereaboot intae sheep ferms. Tae dae this he wis gied the richt tae evict the fowk wha bade there.

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

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 hoose, mair a But an Ben, aa its lane twa-three mile fae the clachan. It wisnae owre lang syne that ah took masel a walk oot tae the site. It’s nae easy tae finn the day, but gin ye rake amang the heather the auld stanes o the biggin are there yet. Ye keek aa aboot ye there the day, an there’s just naethin. Heather and space whaur fowk an hooses uised tae be. Aahins 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 hoose here. His auld mither-in-law bade in wi him, auld Mrs Magaret MacKay.

This rickle o stanes oot at Bedinloskin is whaur Patrick Sellar killed this auld Mrs MacKay. He burnt the hoose wi her alive in it.

He an his wee baund o hired men had cleared mony a hoose in the area afore they got tae Chisholm’s. They aye turnt the fowk oot, afttimes wi a skelp ahint the lug an a boot in the dowp. But as far’s ah ken he hadnae 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 had been furthset at the kirk aforehaundd, 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 aboot. His auld mither-in-law wis hame, but, lyin in the bed. She wis ordered oot by the burnin perty. She wisnae able, on accoont o her bein a hunner year auld or thereaboot. She wis owre frail an auld tae be lowpin oot o bed an stertin aff doun the lanie.

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

This cruel craitirs men pit their torches tae the hoose an the flames had soon taen it owre.

The auld wimmin inside cried oot “God tak us, ah kennae whit ingle sae bleezes aboot me.” Auld Mrs Chisholm’s dochter cam back as the hoosie burnt, an got her auld mither oot. The reek wis owre 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 hooses thereaboot 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 them stalk the strath, deith merchin thegither wi them: “The deith o mony o wir fowk cam aboot through auld yins bein fleggit, wabbit an cauld. Ah ken o auld chiels wha took thirsels aff tae wids an craigs efter their hooses war burnt. They’d stravaig aboot, aff their heids wi greif an shock. Maist o them dee’d efter a week. Livin bairns dee’d, an mithers had 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 coud thole. It wis this act that wad see him up on murder charges in coort in Inverness.

The puir didnae hae ony lawyers, an Sellar didnae get the jyle. A London newspaper had furthset the hale sorry tale but. Nou the ootside warld kent, an sic horrors coudnae 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 has had fowk ettlin tae blaw it up, an had “monster” paintit owre 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 warks wi the Elphinstone Institute promotin the cultur o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.

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