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Abstracts of Talks 2008-09

September 2008   Charming (and other sins) on the Black Isle,   Dr Jim Mackay

Kirk Sessions in the 18th and 19th centuries had their work cut out keeping tabs on the sinful goings-on of their Black Isle parishioners. That was the message from local historian Jim Mackay at last week’s meeting of the Cromarty History Society. ‘Charming’- the casting of spells or incantations to protect your own livestock, or disable a neighbour’s – was a particular target of church discipline, with Donald Macinroy (‘The ‘Suddie Charmer’) very much in the sights of the Avoch Parish authorities in the 1720s.

In the same period, Cromarty had a ritual of a more intimate nature – the ‘Knots of Love’ – designed not to disable cattle but a human rival: what Dr Mackay described as ‘viagra in reverse’.

Kirk Sessions throughout the period do appear to have had what appears to modern eyes as an unhealthy obsession with sexual immorality. An unmarried woman becoming pregnant could expect a rigorous interrogation to identify the father, and both parties would be condemned to stand before the congregation for a series of public rebukes as well as a fine. Profanation of the Sabbath was also severely condemned – whether drinking in a public house or gathering seaware by the shore.

Kirk discipline could not be taken lightly. The ultimate sanction of excommunication meant removal from all the privileges of the church, including the entitlement to support in old age from the parish Poor Fund. So it was a brave man or woman who refused to take their punishment.

October 2008   Conserving Historic Buildings in the Highlands,    Mary Miers

Should old buildings be left to crumble into ruin, or should public funds be employed to conserve them for future generations? That was one of the issues raised in a talk by Mary Miers to Cromarty History Society at their recent meeting. Mary Miers is an architectural historian with a wide knowledge of buildings at risk in the Highlands and Islands who is currently the architecture correspondent for Country Life magazine. She illustrated her talk with a series of images of at-risk and restored buildings; ranging from the lighthouse at Barra Head to Balloan Castle in Easter Ross. Neglected buildings can be brought back to life in many different ways. The former cotton mills at Stanley in Perthshire are now highly desirable luxury flats. Taymouth Castle at Kenmore, the former home of the Earls of Breadalbane, is on course to be converted into Scotland’s first six-star hotel.

Some restorations are more controversial than others. The conversion of Tioram Castle in Argyllshire into a private residence is currently stalled by a dispute between the owner and the quango Historic Scotland, with the latter insisting on its preservation as a ‘romantic ruin’. Mary Miers’ sympathies were with the developer in this case, as the alternative would appear to be the eventual crumbling away of the fragile structure.

November 2008   The Highland Archive Network,    Susan Beckley

There is an exciting new building nearing completion on the banks of the Ness, at the Bught park. When it opens for business next year it will house a state of the art archive centre, and Highland Council Archivist Susan Beckley came to Cromarty last week to give Cromarty History Society a virtual tour of the new facilities. The new building will not only store the archive materials currently held at Inverness Library, it will have a specialist centre for the preservation of historic documents and artefacts and will make these more readily available to the public in a large search room and learning centre. Those interested in researching their family history will also find all the available resources in the new building, along with guidance in their use.

Susan Beckley was keen to stress that not everything was being centralised in Inverness. The network model was described as a ‘hub and spokes’ one, with the hub at the Bught and local archive centres in Wick, Fort William and Portree along with a search facility in Strathspey.

Historic documents currently in the archive include 19th century burgh valuation rolls, historic photographs, early maps and census reports, and the 1918 timetable for MacBrayne’s steamers. Cromarty History Society members were particularly interested in the documents of local interest on display – including a list of 19th century applicants for poor relief, an early Cromarty School register and the 1871 Ordnance survey map of Cromarty.

December 2008   The History of Fishing in Cromarty,   Society Members

Fishing played such an important part in the history of Cromarty that it took no less than five different speakers to cover the topic at the local History Society's December meeting. Sandy Thomson first outlined the different types of fishing undertaken over the centuries – net fishing for the herring draves that visited the Moray Firth in the summer months; line fishing for haddock, cod and flounders with several thousand hand-baited lines in each small sailing yawl; and the salmon netting that continued into the 1980s from the Cromarty station. Graham Sutherland then described the different types of fishing boats used. The small lug-sailed Scaffies used all round the Moray Firth faced, in the 19th century, competition from the larger Fifies and Zulus – which could venture further out to sea and stay out for longer.

Mary Bowers described the very active role that women played in the fishing community. Not only did they carry their men out to the boats – to keep their feet and trousers dry – but they would spend hours baiting the long lines with mussels and lugworms, and during the herring season it was teams of women who gutted and salted the fish and packed them into barrels for export throughout Europe. It was also the women – the fishwives – who carted fish in their 'scoos' around the nearby farms, villages and towns to satisfy local market demand for fresh fish.

Ken Dupar looked at the role of religion and folk myths in the lives of the fishing community. Taking the example of the mysterious disappearance of the herring draves in the 1720s, he noted the two explanations which were current locally – namely that it was a punishment for working on the Sabbath and insulting the parish minister, or that it was the result of human blood having been spilt on the water during a fight between two fishing families. Both explanations, he reasoned, were functional in stressing the need for social order and helping bind the fishing community together.

Finally, Jenny Fyfe reported on the widespread emigration from Cromarty's fishing community in the 1920s, when around 140 people left for Canada, Australia and the USA. Both ' push' and 'pull' factors were at work, she suggested – the attractions of the New World contrasting with diminishing prospects at home.

January 2009   Cromarty's Golden Age — 1707 to 1837,   Sandy Thomson and Dr David Alston

The January meeting of Cromarty History Society saw Sandy Thomson and David Alston continue their survey of Cromarty through the ages. Having dealt in previous years with the Medieval and Early Modern periods – taking the story up to 1707 – they focused this time on the 130 years between the Treaty of Union and the accession of Queen Victoria. While Sandy outlined the national context within which local events took place, David Alston concentrated on life in Cromarty and the surrounding area.

The effects of the parliamentary union with England were mixed – some people and places benefited while others lost out – and the Jacobite risings which followed reflected widespread discontent with the Hanoverian settlement that brought George I to the throne. The failure of the '45 accelerated emigration – both voluntary and enforced – from the Highlands, and the industrialisation of the Lowlands brought about a major shift in population from north to south. This was also the period when the Established Church came to dominate every aspect of people's lives – their education, their moral condition and their social welfare.

For Cromarty the years that immediately followed the Union were good ones, and the town became the most important fishing station in the north. Evidence of this prosperity can be seen in existing houses that date from this period. That prosperity was not maintained in mid-century however. In the 1720s the herring disappeared for around fifty years from the Firth, and the revival when it came in the 1760s owed less to fishing than to manufacturing and trade. Local entrepreneur William Forsyth developed linen manufacture and export while the new owner of the Cromarty estate, George Ross, built a brewery, courthouse and a proto-factory for the manufacture of imported hemp. Once again substantial new houses were built in the town. This was truly 'Cromarty's Golden Age'.

February 2009   Restoring Cromarty East Church,    Caroline Vawdrey and Dr David Alston

The restoration of Cromarty's historic East Church is now well underway, and the February meeting of Cromarty History Society heard a report on progress so far from David Alston and Caroline Vawdrey, the two Community and Education Officers who are liaising with the developers of the building. In its present form, the church is a classic, post-Reformation T-shaped building, with all the pews facing the impressive pulpit. But removal of the concrete harling on the exterior and excavation inside the church has highlighted the church's medieval, Roman Catholic origins. Take away the 18th century north aisle and porches, and we are left with a simple rectangular building on an east-west axis, with the altar at the east end and traces of the original doorway at the north-west corner.

Removal of the flooring in this oldest part of the building has revealed numerous human bones and a couple of complete skeletons, reflecting the pre-Reformation practice of burial within the church. Less grisly findings have included several pairs of pince-nez spectacles, coins (one dating back to the reign of George III) and an inexplicably large number of pins. Perhaps Cromarty ladies did their sewing during the sermons.

March 2009   Jacobites in Russia,    Dr Becky Boyd

Throughout history, Scottish mercenary soldiers have plied their trade in the armies of most European states. The first half of the eighteenth century in particular saw a concentration of Scots in the army and navy of Imperial Russia. According to Dr Rebecca Boyd, addressing the March meeting of Cromarty History Society, this was a direct consequence of Jacobite rejection of the Hanoverian settlement that put George I on the British throne. Defeat at Sheriffmuir in 1715 and Glenshiel in 1719 forced hundreds of Jacobites into exile. As so many of them were Episcopalians, their prospects of advancement in the armies of Catholic France and Spain were limited. Orthodox Russia, however, gave them a welcome, and many Scots rose to high office in the armies and navies of Peter the Great and his successors.

Becky Boyd instanced several of these. Thomas Gordon from Aberdeen served in the Scottish navy prior to the Union of 1707, the British navy until 1715, and became Admiral of the Imperial Russian Fleet before his death in Kronstadt in1738. James Keith, also from the North-East, was the second son of William, 9th Earl Marischal of Scotland, and fought in the 1719 Jacobite Rising before obtaining a colonelcy in the Spanish army. Finding his Protestantism a barrier to promotion, he became a general in the Russian army, rising to the rank of Major-General before being headhunted by Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1747.

Throughout this period, while several hundred Scottish Jacobites were based in Moscow, their hopes were alternately raised and dashed of a Russian invasion of Britain in support of the Old Pretender. It was not to be, and after the death of Empress Anna, the niece of Peter the Great, in 1740, Russian opinion turned against the Jacobites and most of them left the country.

April 2009   Geology of Cromarty and the Surrounding Area,   Dr Ian Basham

The final meeting of the Season for Cromarty History Society was a double feature. A very speedy AGM saw approval of the annual accounts (with a healthy bank balance) and the Convener's Report (showing increases in membership and attendance at meetings) as well as the election of a full Committee of office-bearers. This was followed by a very stimulating outline of the geological history of Cromarty and the surrounding area by Dr Ian Basham from Fortrose. Ian spent his working life with the British Geological Survey and was involved in investigations not only in this country but worldwide, so was able to bring an international perspective to his review of landscape formation in the Black Isle and beyond.

The large audience was led through the geologic timescale from the Pre-Cambrian to the Quaternary Eras; from the Lewissian Gneiss of Ben Wyvis, through the Old Red Sandstone of the Black Isle, the Jurassic-era fossils of the Eathie shore and the melting glaciers that ended the Ice Age and shaped so much of our countryside today.

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