A pensioner has been cleared of plundering a Highland river for freshwater pearls after arguing that a collection found in her home were family heirlooms dating back decades.
Isabella Newlands, of Tulloch Road in Perth, went on trial via video link at Inverness Justice Centre accused of killing dozens of the protected freshwater pearl mussels in the River Spey, near Grantown, on June 10, 2018.
The 69-year-old had denied the charge and also pleaded not guilty to possessing six pearls derived from mussels at her home when police raided it on December 14, 2018.
The first charge, of killing the mussels, was withdrawn by the Crown and Sheriff Gary Aitken, who had previously read a lengthy document of agreed evidence, found the second charge against Mrs Newlands not proven.
He said he believed her 71-year-old husband, Hugh, that the pearls had been in his family for decades having been gathered by his late father 70 years ago when pearl fishing was legal.
Mr Newlands said that they were his birthright and family heirlooms which would be handed down to his family, which included 35 grandchildren and more than 30 great-grandchildren.
Mr Newlands said he was not a well man, and had not fished for pearls for more than than 30 years.
He said his wife suffered from arthritis and was not fit to fish for pearls any longer.
Mr Newlands told the court that he had campaigned for the licensing of pearl fishing, which would have ensured pearls could be gathered without the mussels being harmed.
But he insisted he had not taken part in the activity since before 1998.
He told the court: “I have been involved all my life in trying to get the law changed so that the pearls can be taken safely, leaving the mussels intact.
“If people knew how to do it properly and were licensed, then it could continue.
“The mussels are important for ensuring we have fresh water in our rivers and for the salmon industry.”
Pearl fishing was made completely illegal by an EU directive in 2006.
A local police officer told the court he found dozens of dead and discarded mussels on the banks of the Spey after a report by a water bailiff in June 2018.
Several months later, he executed a search warrant of the Newlands’ home and six pearls were found in a relatively new prescription envelope in an Irish trinket box.
It also contained other heirlooms of Mr Newlands’ family members – a tradition, he said, of the Travelling community of which the couple are part.
He said Travelling people traditionally made their living from pearl fishing, then selling them on either individually or making jewellery.
No other evidence of paraphernalia associated with pearl fishing was found in the search of the Newlands’ home.