Abstracts of Talks 2005-06

September 2005   The Parish of Edderton,    Reay Clarke

 Cromarty History Society’s new season opened successfully on 15th September with an excellent slide/talk presentation by Reay Clarke on land use in the parish of Edderton.

At present the parish consists of 22,000 acres of which 3,000 are arable, 5,000 forestry, and 14,000 rough grazing. Of a population of 450, only 30 people actually work on the land.

Mr Clarke put these facts into historical perspective beginning from c.3000 BC with a picture of a chambered cairn on what was probably the earliest site of farming.

He described various prehistoric remains, emphasizing especially their significance for farming. For example, the Pictish stone in Edderton churchyard tells us that the Picts had good farming techniques as well as skilled sculptors; the mounted horseman design clearly shows a horse not just with its legs in a peculiar position, as a quick glance might suggest, but actually performing a recognisable dressage movement.

At a much later date, agricultural improvements brought both benefit and tragedy to the area. Runrig fields were squared off and crop rotation instituted. Smallholders, however, had to be moved off the good land to make way for the five large farms still existing today. At one time, a population of over 100 scraped a living on the Hill of Edderton, while looking down on the good land they had been turned away from.

Old photographs of the crofts of the Hill of Edderton and their people were particularly fascinating. The last person to live there was Teenie Lachie. For twenty years she lived there alone in primitive conditions until finally ending up in a home in Inverness where the conditions were markedly less primitive.

Now there is little left of the crofts except stones and rubble among the forestry plantations. Mr Clarke showed interesting photographs contrasting good and bad forestry, the types of trees grown on the Hill of Edderton, and the provision now made for walkers.

Although much has been done to improve the land at Edderton, for which some credit must surely go to Mr Clarke himself, not everything is perfect. What will happen to this land in the next 50 years? Slides of podzols showed that some of the soil is in very poor condition, and this needs to be remedied. In contrast, Mr Clarke showed a slide of land in Switzerland, which would originally have been no better than that of  Edderton’s moorland, as an example of what could be achieved by good husbandry.

October 2005   Unearthing Redcastle's Secret History,   Colin MacLeod

The Society had a rare treat at its October meeting. To accompany his talk on ‘Unearthing Redcastle’s Secret History’ Colin MacLeod brought along an intriguing display of metal objects which either confirmed or added to existing knowledge of Redcastle’s history. He also demonstrated the use of two metal detectors, his first, acquired many years ago, and his more sophisticated present one. This was great fun, but the following talk showed that his project had serious aims.

After outlining the known history of Redcastle and its owners from William the Lyon to the present, Mr MacLeod discussed the importance to that history of particular finds.

Many significant coins turned up in three fields, with impressions of eighteen different monarchs. There were, for example, two of Edward I. A George III half crown in excellent condition provoked the speculation that someone had dropped his wages while crossing the field. The presence of an unusually large number of coins indicated that the field might have been the site of a market or Lammas fair.

Buttons were also plentiful. Some were livery buttons which could be traced by their designs to particular families. Others had naval or military significance, such as the very rare gold embossed ‘Regiment 56’ button, probably dating from the Crimean War.

Also of military significance was the discovery of 160 musket balls in one field, probably indicating the location of a firing range for training purposes.

How some of the artefacts came to be found at Redcastle is puzzling. One pendant, for example, could only have been lost by Edward I or someone in his immediate entourage. There is no record of this monarch ever having been in Redcastle, although he did get up as far as Elgin in 1286.

These are only a few of the many artefacts vividly described and placed in their historical contexts by Mr MacLeod. Metal detecting, certainly in the hands of this practitioner, is not only an absorbing hobby but also a true contributor to serious historical research.

November 2005   The Grahams of Drynie,   John McDonald

 A walled-off chamber in Kilmuir churchyard contains a large number of memorials to members of the Graham family. Examining these memorials inspired John McDonald to undertake admirably thorough research into the history of this family and their estate of Drynie.

Mr McDonald presented the results of this research to the Cromarty History Society at its 17th November meeting. After outlining the family genealogy from the time when William Graham was created 1st Earl of Montrose in 1505, he went into more detail about their history and land transactions from 1589, when William Keith of Delny sold Drynie to Robert Graham, to 1875 when the estate passed out of Graham hands.

This Robert Graham, the second son of Patrick Graham of Inchbrakie, had a colourful and controversial career in the Church. Mr McDonald discussed this man’s duties as Archdeacon of Ross and the complaints that were made against him, including a curious case of ‘hamesucken’. This possibly came about through his friendship with Rory Mackenzie, brother of Mackenzie of Kintail and ‘a bit of a rogue’.

Over several generations the Grahams maintained a feud with the Mackenzies whose estates surrounded theirs. Robert’s son, George, quarrelled with them as later did Colin, Lord Lieutenant of the County of Ross. In 1716, Colin wrote that his house was being continually raided by Mackenzies. Mr McDonald noted the irony that, despite this feud, the Grahams kept marrying the daughters of their sworn enemies. Similarly ironical was Henrietta Graham’s appointment of a local Mackenzie as her factor even although she had brought, and lost, a legal suit against her Mackenzie neighbours.

Although primarily concerned with the Graham family over the 300 years of their existence, Mr McDonald also talked about the lives of the humbler people of the area, with special reference to the effect the Clearances had in bringing settlers to Drynie Park.

He concluded by discussing the later Grahams, many of whom resided in Cromarty in the late 19th and 20th centuries. These were descendants of Colin, 5th Baron of Drynie. Older people can remember the last of these, Henrietta Graham, who died here in 1938.

December 2005   Cromarty Town Council  — the Last Days,   Sandy Thomson

 Sandy Thomson’s talk to the Cromarty History Society on 15th December was more substantial than the title ‘Snippets from the Minutes’ implies. It gave a good overview of the history of Cromarty from 1964 to 1975, derived mainly from the Town Council minutes between these dates but with due regard to their limitations as a historical source and to the need for a wider context. By way of introduction, Mr Thomson noted that this was a low period in Cromarty’s history. Its population in 1851 had been 1988; by 1971 it had diminished to 484. It was also, however, a period of hope arising from the new Labour government’s commitment to regional planning.

Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1930, a small burgh like Cromarty had many responsibilities ranging over lighting, cleansing, libraries, parks, burial grounds, roads, sewers, public health, and especially housing. They could, however, and did, remit some of these powers upwards to the County Council. The Town Council consisted of a provost, two baillies, and six councillors one of whom acted as treasurer. They employed a Town Clerk, a Master of Works, a Sanitary Inspector, sundry workmen and a Victoria Hall caretaker. In 1965 they had an annual budget of £30,000.

Housing was an important issue. Many private houses, even such imposing and historical properties as the Retreat and Bellevue, were derelict, unoccupied, or under disputed ownership. In 1972 the Council seriously considered a demolition order for the Retreat. The need for repairs to Council houses was also frequently discussed, as, for example in 1965 when the new tenant of a house in Bayview refused to move in because of the bad state of decoration. The Council agreed to redecorate the hall and staircase and to give the tenant a couple of pots of paint to do the kitchen and bathroom himself.

The biggest achievement, however, was the development of Townlands Park, initiated at the September 1968 meeting. Eventually ninety-seven new Council houses were allocated there.

Relationship with the Cromarty Estate was sometimes acrimonious. Disputed ownership was at issue here, too, particularly of the Gaelic Chapel and the Courthouse.

Other major issues discussed related to communications, particularly the Nigg and Balblair ferry services and unclassified roads. There was, for example, a proposal to tarmac the Links road.

Industrial and commercial developments were supported or proposed. Craftspeople were encouraged to locale in Cromarty by the provision of Council houses or loans for house purchase. The oil yard at Nigg was enthusiastically welcomed. However, the Council objected to the establishment of an oil refinery on grounds of pollution.

Mr Thomson ended by mentioning a few miscellaneous recurring items. Familiar complaints then, as today, concerned vandalism, particularly of the public toilets and the bus shelter, and noise from Youth Club dances and other functions. Wryly, he noted that possibly the former vandals were now the complainants!  

When the provisions of the Wheatley Report on the reform of local government in Scotland took effect in 1975, the Town Council met for the last time on 8th May. After a gap of two years it was succeeded by a Community Council covering both the town and the landward area of the parish.

In recognition of the use he had made of her index to the Town Council minutes, Mr Thomson wished to dedicate his talk to the memory of Lonna Davidson, the Society’s popular and efficient treasurer who died on 9th November this year.

January 2006   A Walk through Resolis Parish,   Dr Jim MacKay

At the Cromarty History Society meeting on 16th February, Dr Jim Mackay led the members on an imaginary historical walk through the parish of Resolis, starting from the observation point on Udale Bay. A plaque at this site commemorates the role of the Cromarty Firth in war time. Surprisingly, Dr Mackay noted, the plaque makes no mention of the accidental shelling of Jemimaville by the Royal Navy in 1914 although a similar plaque on the north side of the Firth does.

This site is in the parish of Cromarty, but continuing west we cross the bridge over Udale Burn into Resolis proper, admiring on the way the distinctive raised beach and the remnants of the Cromarty & Dingwall Light Railway. (See the publication about this railway, by Eric H. Malcolm, available from Cromarty Courthouse Museum).

For a village of its size, Jemimaville is remarkably rich in architecture and history. Slides of Scott’s garage (formerly the United Free Church of Resolis located at Newmills), and houses with interesting features, such as skewputts, marriage lintels and carvings of tradesmen’s symbols, emphasized this richness. Particularly notable is the first Free Church Manse, the home of Rev. Donald Sage, author of Memorabilia Domestica.

Another author associated with Jemimaville was Jane Duncan, whose ‘My Friends …’ series contains characters, locations and incidents drawn from the parish.

At a short distance to the west of Jemimaville we come to the fine avenue leading up to Poyntzfield House (formerly Ardoch) built in 1720. The first laird of Poyntzfield, Sir George Gun Munro, renamed the estate in 1760 in honour of his wife, Mary Poyntz. Dr Mackay traced some family connections of the Gun Munro and Poyntz families and also those of the later Major George Gun Munro whose marriage to Jemima, or Jamima, Charlotte Graham is commemorated in the name of Jemimaville.

Along the track behind Poyntzfield House is Poyntzfield Mills, ‘an historically important and unusual mill complex’ consisting of a one-storeyed corn mill and a two-storeyed flour mill, both water driven. The cross on one gable of the flour mill suggests that the upper storey may have been used for a religious purpose.

The end of this track joins the main road at Mount High across which, by Braelangwell Lodge, is the start of the old road towards the Kessock Ferry, known as the Military Road. Dr Mackay mentioned several historical remains in this forested area, such as old croft houses and prehistoric burial sites, before changing course and leading us to the shore.

The main structure on the shore is the 16th century Castle Craig, residence of the Bishops of Ross before passing into the hands of the Urquhart family.

Along the shore below Castle Craig there is evidence of several old quarries and their associated piers, including the pier for the biggest quarry at Cullicudden.

Dr Mackay also mentioned the many ferries around the Black Isle, with special attention to Balblair Ferry and its colourful past. In 1679, for example, the Balblair ferryman violently refused to carry a group of religious prisoners being taken to the magistrates at Fortrose. In 1812, it was from here that Robert Ferguson fled into Easter Ross after fatally stabbing Captain Munro. In 1843 the Coastguard, armed with cudgels and muskets, were stationed at the ferry to prevent boats bringing crowds from Easter Ross to support the Resolis rioters resisting the settlement of a minister of the established church.

The tour ended at Kirkmichael where the Kirkmichael Trust is presently seeking to conserve the medieval church, including its gravestones and the Urquhart of Braelangwell mausoleum.

In conclusion, Dr Mackay hoped he had given a flavour of the history of the parish. He had certainly succeeded in this aim.

February 2006   Restoration of the East Church,   Sam Russell and Ian Fraser

The restoration of the historic Cromarty East Church is an issue of great importance to the town at present. For this reason, the meeting of the Cromarty History Society of 15th February, consisting of a presentation by the project architects, Sam Russell and Ian Fraser, was particularly timely.

The speakers described the state of the fabric as it is now, what is wrong with it, and how they propose to conserve it, in fascinating detail. Conservation, as they understand it, is the process of looking after a place or building so that it retains what is significant about it, such as its cultural history. Cromarty East Church, from at least the 15th century to date, certainly rates highly on such cultural and historical significance.

It also, however, possesses conservation problems in abundance. The existence of burials close to the walls, use of inappropriate building materials in the past, such as strong cement, which traps moisture, as does gypsum plaster, high ground level, and failure of the lofts to meet modern loading standards, are only a few of these.

The amount of necessary work is daunting, but the speakers ended on a positive note: it can be done, hopefully within their time schedule.

March 2006   Cromarty Place Names,   Dr Jenny Fyfe

The origin of place names, whether of linguistic, topographical, folk-lore, literary or historical interest, makes an intriguing and addictive study. At an early stage in what she expects to be a life-time pursuit, Dr Janet Fyfe shared her current knowledge of the place names of Cromarty and district with the Cromarty History Society at its March 16th meeting. Documents held by Cromarty Courthouse Museum provided most of the information.

After summarizing the various names attributed to the town from the Romans to the present, Dr Fyfe looked more closely at some local names derived from natural history (Myre of Green Risk, Sauchan Leitches), landscape or agricultural features (Wester Haugh, Dailypool), and economic or social function (Court Hill, Pickleton, Sluicht Moocht). The inclusion of Thief’s Row in the latter class, as distinct from the plural Thieve’s Row, might perhaps be taken to indicate that Cromarty was a particularly law-abiding place – one solitary thief being such an unusual phenomenon that a street had to be named after him!

In order to illustrate both how certain streets got their names and how these names changed over time, Dr Fyfe conducted an imaginary tour around Cromarty following the 1871 Ordnance Survey map, noting changes both before and after that date.

Changes over time were especially frequent for the present Big Vennel. From being Fisher Vennel in 1829, it was subsequently Big Vennel, Fish Lane, Big Vennel again, Big Fisher Vennel, Big Fisher Close, and finally Big Vennel for the third time.

The east end is interesting because it was once a more focal part of the town than it is now. There were many name changes not all of which can be reliably dated because in some documents, even up to 1910, they seem to have been included in the general term of ‘east end’. Among them, Burnside (Brewery) Place, Miller Road (East Street) and the Causeway (Castle Street, High Street) existed in 1871 and today. Orchard Terrace, Orchard Square, Chapel Brae, Thief’s Road, and another street with four houses, one of which was Grove Cottage, have passed into history.

April 2006   The Nigg Fabrication Yard,   Bill Shannon

The 2005-6 session of the Cromarty History Society concluded on 20th April with an excellent and well-attended talk by Bill Shannon on the Fabrication Yard at Nigg. Mr Shannon worked for Highland Fabricators as Community Relations Office and Press Manager for over 17 years. He was therefore well-placed to observe and report on the creation of the yard, its achievements, and its effects on the local economy and society.

The choice of Nigg as a location was due primarily to the deep water in mid-channel. Additionally, there was cheaply available reclaimable land, support by local and national authorities for job creation, and the perception by the American employers that Highlanders were hard working, honest, and resilient enough to master new skills.

So in 1971, work began. When complete, the Yard was exceptionally well-equipped; the graving dock itself and many of the structures were amongst the largest in the world. However, according to Mr Shannon, it was the work force that was the greatest achievement.

Field supervisors came from America and set up a training school for welders and fabricators in an old Admiralty mine depot. In addition, a full four-year City and Guilds apprenticeship scheme was started. Experienced craftsmen from the major industrial centres were also recruited, but later it was local people who took the lead. The engineering team built up and led by Eric Dowsett was to become one of the finest in the country.

With a large itinerant work force came, of course, social problems. On the other hand, there were social advantages in, for example, development of new housing and schools. The local economy benefited to the tune of some millions of pounds.

Mr Shannon went on to discuss the structures themselves. The earliest to leave Nigg was a small satellite jacket for BP’s Sole Field. In 1974, the Yard floated out the 31,000 tonne Highland One, the largest steel structure  built at that time. Mr Shannon stopped at this point to show a short film about this rig.

Following the film, Mr Shannon discussed the reasons for the Yard’s closure: increasing competition, change from cost-price to fixed-price contracts, decreasing need for massive fixed towers like those of Highland One, industrial relations problems, and failure to diversify out of the oil and gas sector.

Summing up the historical legacy of the Yard, Mr Shannon saw it as resoundingly positive. It reversed the trend of emigration to the area, brought in new people with qualifications and expertise, and helped to create a middle class in a previously somewhat polarised community. These new people brought with them expectations of a good quality of life which became the norm. The children of the new middle class received good schooling and expected to go to University.

Mr Shannon supplemented his talk by an exhibition of photographs. He kindly donated these, along with a video of Hi-Fab films and an item of work clothing, to the Cromarty Courthouse Museum.