Abstracts of Talks 2001-02

September 2001   Press coverage of Cromarty in the 19th Century,   Dr David Alston and Sandy Thomson

Most of us have lifted a carpet and then wasted hours reading the old newspapers that lay underneath.  The strange fascination of yesterday’s news ensured a capacity audience for last week’s meeting of Cromarty History Society which heard David Alston and Sandy Thomson share some 19th century Cromarty stories gleaned from the pages of the Ross-shire Journal and other local papers. They heard firstly the story from 1877 of the Cromarty farm labourer and his would-be bride from Resolis who had their request to be wed turned down by the Minister on the grounds that ‘the stock of intellect in both cases was a somewhat limited commodity’. Showing admirable determination, the couple turned up at the church the following Sunday, stood up and loudly declared their own wedding vows. 

A few years later the Invergordon Times was reporting that the draught boards were being removed from the town’s Reading Room following allegations of betting on the games, and the same year, 1855, saw the Inverness Advertiser describing Cromarty as ‘a Pharisee’s platter ….. which combines in equal degree the quality of external loveliness with abomination and filth within.’

The campaign, from the 1870s on, to develop a rail link from Cromarty to Dingwall was extensively reported by the Ross-shire Journal. According to Sandy Thomson, a public meeting in 1896 in the Victoria Hall was described as the largest ever held there since the hall was opened, and a resolution was passed calling for a line to be built along the north shore of the Black Isle, crossing the Firth at Alcaig Ferry. This project was begun, but failed to reach completion in the early years of the 20th century.  Despite the lack of a rail connection, however, Cromarty was attracting numerous tourists in the 1870s and 80s. According to the Ross-shire,  many of these were artists, ‘busy sketching in quiet nooks made famous by Hugh Miller.’ 

David Alston told the audience of the 19th century New Year custom of boat burning. The Invergordon Times reported in both 1885 and 1887 that a fishing boat had been filled with tar barrels, set alight and dragged through the town to the West End, where reels were danced to the music of the Volunteer Flute Band. This was, of course, the Old New Year, celebrated in the Black Isle and elsewhere on 12 January.

Still on a nautical theme,  disputes between trawlers and line fishermen were extensively reported in the Inverness Advertiser. In 1885 steam trawler crews were threatened with violence by Cromarty fishermen who blamed them, then and for many years thereafter, for the shortage of fish in the Firth.


October 2001   A Highland Monastery — Fearn Abbey,   Father Mark Dilworth.

On 18th October, Father Mark Dilworth, recent Abbot of St Augustus Abbey and a distinguished mediaeval historian, outlined to the Cromarty History Society the history of Fearn Abbey in the context of what is known about Scottish monasticism from 1100 up to the Reformation. His talk was both learned and entertaining.

Fearn Abbey was founded in the 1220s as a house of the Premonstratensian order, otherwise known as the White Canons. It was a daughter house of Whithorn. Despite being very small, Fearn enjoyed the dignity of being an abbey and exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop at Chanonry. The order was divided into regional groupings called circaries. Because of Fearn’s remote location, its placing in an appropriate circary was problematic. Originally it was grouped with Irish houses in a circary called Scotia, then in a circary along with Danish and Norwegian monasteries (a natural grouping given the importance of sea-routes at that time), then as a circary on it own. Finally, all the six Scottish monasteries of White Canons were included in the circary of Scotland.

Theoretically, Fearn came under three levels of government, the general chapter at Prémontré, the circary, and the Whithorn prior. All had rights of visitation and, although the Canons of Fearn elected their own abbot, the prior of Whithorn was supposed to preside at the election. In fact, its isolated location allowed Fearn a high degree of autonomy.

Mediaeval monasteries needed powerful landowners to found and finance them. Almost certainly, it was the Earl of Ross who founded Fearn. Later a cadet branch, the Rosses of Balnagown, played an important role in the Abbey’s history and increasingly acquired abbatial lands for themselves.

Knowledge about the abbots of Fearn is fragmentary. Up to 1508, they seem all to have been White Canons, with aristocratic connections. Mark Ross, son of Sir Mark Ross, knight, was the first recorded with any detail. Father Dilworth listed him, Donald Pupill, a nephew of William, Earl of Ross, Adam Monilaw, Finlaw, oy (grandson or nephew) of Sir Walter Ferier, Vicar of Tain, Finlay MacFaid, and Thomas MacCulloch, noting that these were all local men.

The nature and status of the abbots changed after 1508, when crown nomination and papal provision became an established procedure. Local men were still elected but they were no longer all White Canons. Andrew Stewart was a bishop who ruled as a commendator so that he could retain his bishopric. Then came young Patrick Hamilton, the future reformer, who was given Fearn Abbey more as a means of financing his studies than for the benefit of the abbey in which he never set foot. Increasingly, the abbots were appointed for political reasons. Robert Denoon was a secular priest who became a regular abbot. Robert Cairncross, bishop of Ross, ruled  as commendator. He was succeeded after his death by his young nephew, James Cairncross. In 1550 James resigned, possibly bought out by Ross of Balnagown, and was succeeded by Nicholas Ross. Of these, Denoon was the only one who was a White Canon.

Fearn was always a very small monastery with usually only about seven canons. This made it the smallest abbey in Scotland and possibly almost the smallest in Europe. The majority of the known canons were, like the abbots, local men. Many had Gaelic names. Small it may have been, but Father Dilworth’s account clearly illuminated both the local importance of Fearn Abbey and its role in the wider monastic history of Scotland and Europe.

November 2001     Ross-shire Man Finds Gold in the Klondyke,   Caroline Shepherd-Barron

The remarkable story of Sutherland Murray of Geanies, 19th century gold prospector, was told to an enthralled audience in Cromarty last week by his great-niece, Caroline Shepherd-Barron. Mrs Shepherd-Barron, well-known locally as a driving force behind the Tarbat Discovery Centre at Portmahomack, was speaking to the members of the Cromarty History Society in the town’s West Church Hall.

Born at Geanies in 1867, Sutherland Murray set off at the age of 21 with his brother George to make his fortune in the United States. After spending some time working on a farm, the brothers bought a small vineyard in California’s Napa Valley.  But it was the discovery of gold in  Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1897 that was to change Sutherland Murray’s life forever.  While brother George settled for the quiet life as a banker in Kansas City, Sutherland set off with two friends on the year-long journey from San Francisco to the Yukon.  Sailing first to Seattle, where the three ‘stampeders’ purchased dogs and supplies, they then travelled north to Skagway in Alaska. From there they faced a nightmare journey overland to Dawson City, narrowly escaping an avalanche on the notorious Chilkoot Pass.  Weighed down with the 1,000 lbs. of gear that was legally required of all prospectors entering Canadian territory, the three friends and their dogs dragged sledges across frozen lakes, survived fearsome rapids on the Yukon River and finally arrived at Dawson City where they staked their claim to a piece of land some thirty-five miles from town.

According to Mrs Shepherd-Barron, whose talk was illustrated with slides made from her great-uncle’s own photographs of his journey, Sutherland Murray failed to strike it rich in his year in the Yukon, although a small amount of gold was found.  He continued, however, in the mining industry, working as an overseer in a major concession, during which time he lost both an eye and a forearm in an accident.  The loss of fingers on his remaining hand, caused this time by a badly-behaved tin opener, cut short his North American adventures, and after World War 1 he retired to Cromarty to stay with his sister at St Ann’s in Church Street,  He was a very well-respected character in Cromarty for many years until his death in 1951, when he was buried in the graveyard at the Gaelic Chapel.

December 20011   The Cromarty Stone — a relic from Sir Thomas Urquhart’s Castle,   Eric Malcolm

Ross-shire folk are rightly proud of their rich heritage of carved stones from the Pictish era.  But another, more recent, piece of stone carving from the local area has perhaps had less attention than it deserves. This is the outstanding carved lintel-stone from above the fireplace in the long-demolished Cromarty Castle. The ‘Cromarty Stone’, also known as the ‘Urquhart Stone’,  now resides in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but members of Cromarty History Society were shown a full-size illustration of it along with two smaller copies at their monthly meeting last week.  The presenter was local researcher Eric Malcolm, who drew on earlier descriptions of the stone - including one by Hugh Miller - to offer a fascinating talk on its history and features.

The stone was commissioned, probably about 1649, by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who was then actively involved on the Royalist side in the Civil War and was captured at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. It is a fine piece of pinkish-red sandstone, 5 feet 1 inch in breadth and 2 feet 9 inches in height. In the centre is a shield bearing three boars’ heads with two greyhounds as supporters; above it a knight’s helmet surmounted by a naked figure bearing a sword and a palm, and below it the motto MEANE WEIL, SPEAK WEIL AND DO WEIL. In each of the top corners is a Scottish lancer on horseback, and below each one is a mermaid playing a harp.

The various inscription on the stone have all the hallmarks of the eccentric Sir Thomas. Not content with inscribing the ‘normal’ date of AC (Anno Christi) 1651, the carver has added another date, namely AM (Anno Mundi) 5612, referring to the years since the creation of the world. As Sir Thomas had traced his own ancestry back to Adam and Eve, this would be a particularly significant date for him. Several of the more distant ancestors are listed around the stone, including ESORMAN, his 16th ancestor after Adam;  RODRIGO, the 50th ancestor who - according to Sir Thomas - ruled all of Ireland; and ASTERIOREMON, number 83 in line, who is claimed to have killed the first King of the Picts in a duel.

After Cromarty Castle was demolished in 1772 the stone was taken to the Cromarty house of Urquhart of Greenhill. When that house was sold, the stone passed to Mr Urquhart of Braelangwell, a small estate in the neighbouring parish of Kirkmichael and from there, about 1818, it came into the possession of Thomas Urquhart of Kinbeachie House. At some point, the much travelled stone was removed from the house and inserted in the side of a porch built onto one of a row of nearby farm workers’ cottages. There it stayed until 1923, when the farm was acquired by the Board of Agriculture, who presented the stone to the Edinburgh museum.

January 2002   Kilts, Pipes and the Highland Soldier,   Gordon Urquhart

The enthusiasm that led young highlanders to volunteer for service on the Western Front during World War I can be hard to understand in the 21st century. Propaganda certainly played its part, as it does in all wars, with tales of German atrocities inflicted on ‘gallant little Belgium’. And of course the naive belief that ‘it would all be over by Christmas’ gave a sense of urgency to the recruitment drive. But the question of who or what exactly the soldiers believed they were fighting for, is perhaps the one that demands closer examination if we are to understand the volunteer phenomenon.

This was the question addressed by Culbokie historian and researcher Gordon Urquhart in his recent talk to the Cromarty History Society on ‘Highland Culture and the Great War’, The highland soldier’s sense of identity, he suggested, put loyalty to his country and regiment above concern for self, and this loyalty was actively fostered and reinforced by the use of those potent symbols of highland culture - the kilt, the bagpipes and (to a lesser extent) the Gaelic language.

The image of the kilted soldier was a powerful one - recognised throughout the world. It  carried a range of sometimes contradictory connotations: of valour and reckless courage; of poverty and deprivation; as well as the obvious one of femininity. The description of ‘the ladies from Hell’ sums up these connotations. In reality, of course, the kilt was a hopelessly impracticable garment for trench warfare. It caught in the barbed wire, it became impossibly heavy when wet, and the many pleats provided attractive homes for trench lice. Yet kilted regiments were formed, not just in the Scottish highlands, but in England (e.g. the Liverpool Scottish), in Ireland - fertile recruiting ground for the Cameron Highlanders, and throughout the Empire. By wearing the kilt, a soldier was in effect buying into a great historical fighting tradition that stretched back through 19th century imperial wars to the Jacobite Risings and beyond.

Bagpipes were, of course, an essential part of this tradition. Military piping was at its height during World War I, not only in Scottish regiments but also in Indian, Irish and Ghurka ones. The historic function of the piper was to lead the men in a highland charge, but this practice was discontinued after the Battle of Loos when great losses were sustained and, in total, over 500 pipers were killed and around 600 injured in the course of the War.

The Gaelic language was put to practical as well as symbolic use in the employment of Gaelic speakers as radio operators in highland regiments - making interception by German eavesdroppers considerably more difficult. Along with the kilt and the pipes, Gaelic helped shape a powerful identity for the highland soldier.

February 2002   Cromarty Church Papers Discovered,   Members of the Society

A large cardboard box of documents was recently unearthed in the Manse of Cromarty Parish Church by the Minister, John Tallach, and handed over to members of the Cromarty History Society. A group of volunteers then spent several months painstakingly reading and cataloguing hundreds of letters, receipts and other papers, before finally presenting the results of their investigations to the Society’s monthly meeting. The outcome was a fascinating insight into Cromarty life, and especially into the role of the Established Church, in the second half of the 19th century.

Many of the papers related to Cromarty’s now roofless and abandoned Gaelic Chapel. This had been erected in 1783 to cater for Gaelic speakers who had moved to Cromarty to work in the hemp factory. But according to Dr Jenny Fyfe, who researched the relevant papers, the congregation by the 1890s numbered only 71, the majority of them being servants, labourers and boatmen. The Minister in the 1890s was the Rev. Andrew Macpherson, and some of the papers related to Macpherson’s struggle for independence from the Parish Church, particularly in matters such as the right to hold on to church collections, as well as the Presbytery’s requirement that he submit regular reports to the Kirk Session of the Parish Church.  In fact, the position was quite straightforward. The Gaelic Chapel was not an independent church but a subordinate one. It was a ‘chapel of ease’ and not a ‘quod sacra parish’, but it is clear that this rankled considerably with Macpherson and was a source of much controversy.

Isobel Tallach had studied materials relating to church buildings and furnishings. Documents about the building of the new church hall  for the Established (East) Church showed that the plans were drawn up in 1897 with an estimated construction cost of £625, and that financial support was sought from the Church of Scotland’s Baird Trust. That funding application also addressed much-needed improvements to the church itself, namely a new pulpit and an improved heating system. The new pulpit was eventually installed, but only after the Minister, the Rev. Walter Scott, was persuaded to moderate his very grand design in favour of something more in keeping with the 16th century building. The heating improvements appear to have been  delayed at the request of Colonel Ross of Cromarty House, pending his return from the Boer War, and a new heating system did not replace the old stove until the 1930s.

Poor relief was a major preoccupation of the 19th century church. In fact, prior to the 1845 Scottish Poor Law, the Established Church was in a sense the Welfare State - guaranteeing to the deserving poor the necessities of food, clothing, fuel and shelter. At least, that was how it was supposed to work.  But according to Sandy Thomson and Lilah Dowsett, who had examined the large number of petitions and other items of correspondence, the reality often fell short of what was required, and there were several reports of appeals against refusal being made to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and Secretary of the Court - one Charles Spence - being forced to write in very strong terms to the Kirk Session and Heritors reminding them of their obligations.

Dr David Alston examined papers relating to the Kirk’s responsibility for education prior to the 1872 Education Act. A Sessional School was ‘set a-going’ in 1829, but only 14 years later the Disruption in the Church of Scotland meant that two schools would now be required - a Free Church school as well as a Parish one. The Free Church school was in a substantial building on the Braehead, above the Links, but the Parish School remained in its original building by the shore - described by the parish schoolmaster as being in ‘the lowest and worst part of town’. A site for a new school was secured on the Braehead, close to the Free Kirk one, and the Tain architect, Andrew Maitland, prepared a plan in 1849 for a a single-storey, one room building. This was not, however, proceeded with, and a new school had to await the 1872 Act and the setting up of Cromarty Parish School Board, who again commissioned Maitland to design the school building still in use today as Cromarty Primary School.

March 2002   Remembering the Clearances,   Christine Mackay

One of the ironies of the Highland Clearances is that there are more memorials to the dispossessed highlanders in far-flung corners of the world than there are here in Scotland. Instead of a monument to the people cleared off the land, we have the imposing statue of one of the most active ‘clearers’ - the Duke of Sutherland - on top of Beinn a’Bhragaidh at the back of Golspie. An attempt to rectify this imbalance is now being made by a small, non-political,  group who are planning a Clearances Centre based in Helmsdale, and the Director of this project, Christine Mackay, outlined progress so far to last week’s meeting of the Cromarty History Society.  

The completed project will have several outcomes. The Clearances Centre in Helmsdale will essentially be an archives and genealogy facility, using state of the art information and internet  technology, which will hold a computerised record of all available information about the clearances. A statue of four bronze figures - representing a family going into exile - will be erected on the hill overlooking the village, and a design for this by the distinguished sculptor Gerald Laing has already been selected. Access to the statue will be by a wide path winding up the hill from  Helmsdale, and this path will be bordered at intervals by ten foot high standing stones, each inscribed with an aspect of Clearances history. A one foot wide polished stone strip will also run alongside the path as a ‘Wall of Descendants’, containing the names of descendants of Highland and Island ancestry who have supported the project by donation.

Christine Mackay stressed that the project was intended to commemorate all those who left the Highlands to settle in new lands, whether they had left voluntarily or been forcibly evicted. Many of them, and their descendants, had made significant contributions to their adopted countries, and this was something to celebrate with pride at the same time as we reflected on the hardships of the dispossessed.

Steady progress was reported on the preparatory stages of the project. Planning permissions have been obtained, as has the approval of the various landowners and the Helmsdale community. Support has been expressed across the political spectrum, both on Highland Council and in the Scottish Parliament, and there is great enthusiasm for the plans in North America, Australia and New Zealand, where funding support has been promised from Scottish and clan organisations.

April 2002   Cromarty Treasure Trove,   Dr David Alston

Enthusiasts have made some major discoveries in and around Cromarty in recent years, but few can compare with the fourteenth century lead seal of an English nobleman that has now returned to the Cromarty Courthouse Museum. Classed as ‘treasure trove’, and the property of the Crown, this historic relic has only now found its way back to where it was discovered, in the company of several other local finds. Museum Curator David Alston showed the seal, along with other artifacts, to last week’s meeting of the Cromarty History Society.

Local legend has it that William Wallace was campaigning in Cromarty during the Wars of Independence, at a time when Cromarty Castle was in the hands of the English Crown. Perhaps this seal was dropped in the heat of battle, or accidentally mislaid by a visiting dignitary.

Another seal that has been returned to the Museum is the linen cloth seal of William Forsyth, the 18th century Cromarty merchant who was the local agent for the British Linen Company. The linen industry was encouraged by Government in the highlands in the period after the Jacobite Rising was put down at Culloden.  Flax was grown on local farms, as well as imported from abroad, and large numbers of outworkers were paid to spin and weave the cloth in their own homes. Forsyth’s seal would have been the quality kitemark for the local area.

A very different exhibit at the History Society meeting was the Communicants book of Cromarty Church for the period that bridged the Disruption of 1843. The property of the Parish Church prior to 1843, it went with all of the Kirk elders to the breakaway Free Church at the Disruption. Dr Alston pointed out that, prior to 1843, only heads of households (predominantly male) were listed, whereas the Free Church adopted the practice of listing all communicants by name, perhaps reflecting more liberal ideas about the status of wives, grown-up children and family servants.