Abstracts of Talks: Session 1999-2000

September 1999   The ‘Power Centre’ of Cromarty,   Dr Richard Oram

The origins of Cromarty were pushed back a couple of hundred years by Dr Richard Oram at last week’s meeting of the Cromarty History Society.  Dr Oram, a distinguished writer and historian on the Scottish medieval period, told a packed meeting at the Cromarty Centre that the evidence suggested that the town had been a centre of royal authority since at least the tenth century and probably ‘since time immemorial’.    Cromarty, he argued, was a natural location for a ‘power centre’.  In a period when sea transport was more important than overland routes, Cromarty’s natural harbour gave it considerable strategic importance.  When coupled with a rich agricultural hinterland, this made Cromarty the logical location for a ‘Thanage’ - administered on the King’s behalf by a Thane, a kind of high-ranking bureaucrat.

Dr Oram reminded his audience that Andrew Wyntoun’s fourteenth-century ‘Chronicle’ spoke of Macbeth as ‘Thane of Cromarty, Thane of Moray and King of Scotland’,  giving a clear indication of the importance of the Cromarty Thanage in the eleventh century.  Much of this importance stemmed from the location of the Black Isle as a key frontier zone, sandwiched between the Norwegian dynasty in Caithness to the North and the capital of the Scots kings to the South.  Guarding the strategic ferry crossings in the Firthlands required royal castles and royal authority.

By the thirteenth century, when Cromarty was created a Royal Burgh, it could no longer be viewed as a frontier town.  The power of the Scots kings was fairly well established, and Royal Burghs like Cromarty, Dingwall and Tain were now places not only where goods could be exchanged in the weekly markets but also where  justice was administered:  where the King’s writ could be enforced.  Cromarty was now firmly in the heartland of the medieval kingdom.

October 1999   Our Episcopal Forefathers,   Colin Page

People who refer to the Scottish Episcopal Church as the ‘English Church’  simply don’t know their history.  That was the clear message from Colin Page, Principal Teacher of History at Invergordon Academy and guest speaker at Cromarty History Society’s most recent meeting.  Mr Page reminded his audience that Bishops played a major part in the Church of Scotland at various times in the period between the Reformation of 1560 and the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.  This was particularly the case during the reigns of the last two Stuart kings,  Charles II and James VII and II, which lasted from 1660 to 1688.  During this period, the Established Kirk was Episcopalian in terms of its government and forms of worship.

Mr Page, was careful to stress, however, that there was comparatively little difference in practice between the styles of worship in the Presbyterian and Episcopalian periods.  Many of the features  associated with Episcopalian worship today - frequent Communions, surplices, elaborately decorated altars - were largely absent in Episcopalian churches until well into the 19th century.

From a Highland perspective, it was useful to be reminded that the North of Scotland was overwhelmingly Episcopalian at the time that William and Mary ascended the throne in 1688.   King William had made it clear, in conversation with the Bishop of Edinburgh, that he would be happy to continue the Establishment of the Episcopalian Kirk.  The Scottish Bishops’ perverse loyalty to the Stuart monarchs - seen as Divinely appointed - however meant that Scottish Episcopalian clergy refused to take the oath of loyalty to the new sovereign and as a result the Presbyterian minority were able to consolidate their position as the Established Church of Scotland.

Episcopalian clergy and laity, thereafter, were heavily involved in all of the Jacobite risings from 1689 to 1745, suffering restrictions and persecution after each failed attempt to return the Stuarts to the throne.  The result was a steady decline in numbers of adherents which continued until the death of Prince Chales Edward in 1788, and the end of the Stuart line, which meant that Episcopalians could accept the Hanoverian monarchy and that the restrictions on their freedom of worship could  end at last.

November 1999   Bringing Power From the Glens,   Eric Malcolm

The electric power now taken for granted in the Highlands didn’t come without a fight.  That was the conclusion of the audience at the latest meeting of Cromarty History Society, when Eric Malcolm provided an account of the early days of the Hydro Board.  Not only was the 1943 Bill to set up the Board vigorously opposed in Parliament by Highland landowners, sporting interests and the private coal industry, but all of the early proposals for dams and power stations starting with  Loch Sloy in 1944 also faced a barrage of objections from County Councils, local hoteliers and environmental lobbyists.  Opposition to the Board’s second scheme - at Loch Tummel and Pitlochry - was so fierce that the Board’s engineers were ostracised and denied accommodation in the neighbourhood hotels. 

Relations between the Board and local communities improved over the following twenty years, as the wider population of the Highlands came to appreciate the determination of the Board’s Chairman, Tom Johnston, to put the needs of the ordinary domestic user first, no matter how remote the croft house or island community.  But there were other threats to the Board’s existence from the post-war Labour government’s desire to centralise the newly-nationalised electricity industry.  Only Johnston’s determination and his close contacts with Government Ministers like Emmanuel Shinwell and Herbert Morrison - both dragged North to see for themselves both Sloy and Tummel - enabled the Board to retain its autonomy. 

Working conditions were arduous and labour turnover high.  German POWs  worked at Loch Tummel alongside Poles, Latvians and Cornish tin miners until, in time, a core of experienced Scottish workers were recruited who would travel from scheme to scheme across the Highlands.  These were the men who, in less than twenty years, built fifty-three dams and power stations and brought electric power into almost every home in the North. 

December 1999   Brewing on the Black Isle,   Dr David Alston

Cromarty History Society wrapped up its Winter Term programme in festive style when Dr David Alston of the Cromarty Courthouse Museum gave the final talk of the century on the history of brewing in the Black Isle.  The fact that the meeting took place in the restored 18th century Brewery building in Burnside Place gave a particular focus to the presentation.

Dr Alston described the prevalence of small-scale home brewing in the 17th century, when much of the grain grown on local farms would be malted for ale.  The growth of a more valuable export trade for grain, to Edinburgh and overseas, in the 18th century probably contributed to a decline in this small-scale production, but even in 1744 there were no fewer  than 25 brewers operating in Cromarty.  The introduction in the South of England of ‘London porter’, which used hops in its production helped to further develop the export market for Scottish grain.  This provoked in turn a ‘patriotic backlash’ in the late 18th century, with Scottish landowners - including George Ross of Cromarty - being encouraged to set up commercial breweries of their own, using local grain and imported hops.  Members were shown some of the artifacts from the Cromarty Brewery which survived from this early period, including receipts for the purchase of barrel staves and corks from London and glass bottles from Leith.

The Cromarty Brewery was in financial difficulties as early as the 1820s, at a time when several small whisky distilleries were opening up throughout the Black Isle.  Dr Alston reported that Courthouse Museum records told of lead being stolen from the roof of the building in the 1840s, and production apparently came to an end sometime in the mid 1850s.

January 2000   The Archaeology of the Moray Firth,   Dr Alex Hale

The coastline of the Moray Firth, from Clachnaharry at the east end of the Caledonian Canal round to Tarbat Ness, contains no less than 470 sites of archaeological interest - about half of them under threat from coastal erosion.  That was the conclusion of the fieldwork carried out by Dr Alex Hale of the University of Edinburgh and reported to a packed meeting of the Cromarty History Society.   The survey formed part of Historic Scotland’s nationwide coastal archaeology project, which aims to catalogue all archaeological sites around the Scottish coast and to record those sites under threat from coastal erosion.

Dr Hale took his audience on an illustrated tour of the coastline, giving an insight into the ways in which past inhabitants had utilised the coast and its resources.  The survey revealed a wide variety of sites ranging from modern harbours to iron age crannogs in the Beauly Firth.  These marine crannogs, notably the one just offshore at Redcastle, appear to have consisted of timber and stone-built structures and were probably used both for occupation and as animal processing sites in the early iron age period, around 300 BC.

The survey provided clear evidence of long dependence on the waters of the Firth as a source of food.  A total of 62 different fish traps, both stone and wooden, were identified.  Dating from the 18th and early 19th  centuries, these traps provided shore-based fishermen with large catches of both salmon and herring.  The traps themselves were of several different kinds - simple curved lines of stones or wooden stakes with wattle interweave, and making use of bag nets or stake nets to retain the catch.    Shell  middens, found near Inverness, show that the sea was being harvested as far back as the Mesolithic period - approximately 10,000 to 4,000 BC.

The shores of the Cromarty Firth, of course, provided archaeological sites of a more recent vintage in the form of the numerous military structures dating from both World Wars - the remains of military airfields as well as the camps, observation posts, gun emplacements and searchlight mountings at the north and south Sutors. 

February 2000   Highland Drovers and Wild West Cowboys,   Rob Gibson

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that emigrants from the Scottish Highlands were involved with the cattle business in the American West. After all droving was one of the mainstays of the Highland economy for at least a thousand years, and the tasks of rounding up and herding cattle are what are now called "transferable skills"- easily exported across the Atlantic.  But the sheer scale of Highland droving, and the extent of Scottish involvement in American ranching, astonished the audience at Rob Gibson’s recent talk to the Cromarty History Society. 

The presentation fell neatly into two parts.  In the first half, Rob emphasised the importance of cattle to the earliest Celtic societies across Europe.  In the Scottish Highlands,  the traditional black cattle were the mainstay of small farmers incomes on the islands as well as on the mainland.  As urban development in the South created a growing demand for beef, professional and highly skilled drovers contracted to drive large herds the length of Britain. The development of the railways and auction marts eventually saw Dingwall replace Muir of Ord as the great cattle market of the north, but drovers also penetrated far beyond the great trysts at Falkirk and into south east England itself.

The second half of the illustrated talk followed the drovers across the ocean:  to Texas and Montana and the other great cattle ranching states; where Scots settlers gave their names to many towns and cities, and where the most famous cattle trail of all - the Chisholm Trail - was named after a trader of Scots decent, Jesse Chisholm.  But it was not only Scottish drovers who made the US cattle industry the most profitable in the world. Scottish capital played a major part in developing the business, with major investors like the Earl of Airlie and modest investors like Dundee engineers helping to finance the ranches and distribution networks.   Rob Gibson’s forthcoming book ‘Plaids and Bandanas’ fleshes out this story and traces the many connections between Ross-shire emigrants and the cowboys of the Wild West.

April 2000   Cromarty in the 1930s,   Eric Malcolm

The most chilling sound a Cromarty schoolchild in the 1930s could hear was the thumping of a wooden leg on the concrete floor of the school corridor as the one-legged dentist from Saltburn made his way from classroom to classroom. Those unlucky enough to be summoned for treatment faced either the trauma of extraction - with discarded teeth chucked into an uncovered bucket in the corner of the Men's Staffroom - or the slow grinding of the drill, powered only by a foot treadle.  Especially cursed was the unfortunate boy delegated to meet the dentist off the morning ferry and made to carry the instruments of torture up the brae to the school.

For that glimpse of life in by-gone days, the Cromarty History Society was indebted last week to local member, Eric Malcolm.  Eric has given four previous talks to the Society based largely on his own recollections of the town in the years before the war. Last week's talk, attended by a capacity audience in the Cromarty Centre, covered not only memories of the Cromarty School, where his father was the Headmaster, but also a fascinating account of the early days of the war, details of the thriving Cromarty Literary Society and the activities that took place in the town's Victoria Hall.

Given the strategic nature of the Firth in wartime, there was a real expectation of enemy attack. Preparations of war began seriously in 1938 with lectures to townsfolk on the dangers of poison gas and the recruitment of air raid wardens, each with their own designated areas of responsibility. During the weekend before war broke out, blackout curtains were hurriedly improvised and trenches dug in the Victoria Park and, shortly after, on the Links in front of the school. Eric Malcolm himself, as a Fortrose Academy schoolboy at the time, was made an ARP messenger and for the first week of the war slept fully clothed in the Town Clerk's Office ready to spring into action in the event of an air raid.

On a lighter note, the audience was also reminded of happier times before the war. The town's Literary Society was a particularly thriving organisation.  Founded in 1889, by the mid 1930s it had well over 100 members, meeting weekly in the Hugh Miller Institute. Each year would see the visit of at least one big-name speaker - Ramsey MacDonald and Compton MacKenzie both spoke during the 1930s - but local members would give regular talks on matters of social, political and literary interest. Debates on questions like the abolition of capital punishment, women in the Ministry and the raising of the school leaving age all attracted townsfolk away from their firesides in that pre-television age.

As did, of course, the concerts, plays, whist drives and dances held in the town's Victoria Hall. Full details of these, and of all the topics covered by Eric Malcolm, will shortly be available to a wider public when the talks on life in the 1930s are published in book form by the Cromarty Courthouse Museum.