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The Pundlar Process
The Pundlar Process was a dispute about the system of weights used in Orkney and concern that these had been tampered with over the years. The dispute was between some of the Orkney lairds and James Douglas, Earl of Morton (b.1702, d.1768).
In 1722, Patrick Fea of Kirbister had a moral victory over the Pundlar measuring beam. A similar disagreement arose in 1736 between Sir James Steuart of Burray and John Hay of Balbithan, factor of the Earldom estate. The Earl defended himself in various ways and attempted to discredit the lairds and tried to deny full credit to James Fea VI of Clestrain for his role in the capture of the pirate, John Gow.
James Fea gradually assumed the role of leader of the campaign against the Earl of Morton and this became a crusade for him. While Sir James Steuart of Burray may have been the natural leader and had the social connections, James Fea was clever and resourceful. The papers drawn up for the case owe much to his drive and imagination.
The circumstances of the two might have been a little frustrating. While James Fea may have provided the drive behind the case, Sir James was still the figurehead leader. For tactical reasons, the final confrontation was brought under the banner of the Earl of Galloway, who was a kinsman of Sir James.
Andrew Ross, the Earl's Stewart-Depute in Orkney, and Thomas Gifford of Busta had around 1737 reached agreement with most of the landowners in Shetland on regulation of the weights at a standard. He called a meeting in April 1743 of the heritors in Orkney with the object of getting agreement to a similar replacement of the ancient weights and beams with more modern standards and implements. Sir James Steuart was not at the meeting and James Fea led objections of the lairds from the North Isles. He was chosen as the praeses or chairman of the meeting.
A few days later, the heritors got the Dean of Guild to test the pundlars and bismars of Kirkwall and found them to be inaccurate. Subsequently, on 16th April 1743, Andrew Ross called in the instruments from the country areas and following a demonstration at a meeting held on 28th April 1743 these were also found to be "fallacious and deceitful".
Andrew Ross was by now trying to avoid further challenge of the validity of the standard weights. He accepted that they were not necessarily perfect but denied that they had been increased by the Earl of Morton. It was clear that any modernisation could result in a reduction of income of the Earl. Around the 10th April, he told George Traill of Hobister and James Fea "that they had been too hasty in putting paper on record; and that they should have delayed it till my Lord Morton came to the Country".
The Orkney lairds were not totally in support of the process which was underway. Andrew Ross collected evidence about the weights and arranged a retrial to be carried out by trustworthy men who were supporters of the Earl of Morton. Sworn evidence was taken on 3rd, 8th and 9th August 1743 from numerous witnesses including ones of venerable age, none of whom believed that there had been any increase in the standard in living memory. There were allegations of selection of witnesses by the anti-Mortonian faction, James Fea included, and complaints of "the Steward or Sheriff-Depute's arbitrary and overbearing deportment in the course of these proceedings".
This resulted in a long running legal dispute which was finally taken forward in the name of Alexander Stewart, the 6th Earl of Galloway who attended a meeting of the lairds in Burray in 1747.
Both James Fea and Sir James Steuart of Burray were Jacobite supporters. After the failure of the rebellion in 1745, Sir James was captured, taken to London and imprisoned in Southwark jail, where he died (1746) of fever before being brought to trial. His estates in Burray and South Ronaldsay were inherited by his kinsman, Alexander Stewart, the 6th Earl of Galloway (b. 1694, d. 1773)
The case was eventually unsuccessful, coming to a conclusion in
1759 shortly after the death of James Fea.