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Abstracts of Talks 2010-11

September 2010   Oral History and Archaeology for Black Isle Communities,   Susan Kruse

 ARCH Highland, the Highland Community Archaeology Unit, recently carried out an oral history programme in the villages of Avoch, Tore and Culbokie, and Susan Kruse of ARCH reported on the results at Cromarty History Society’s September meeting. 

Small groups of local people, gathered round a table in each community, were presented with old maps of their local area and encouraged to talk about buildings that were no longer there, had been altered, or had particular stories attached to them.

In Tore, for example, people recalled the old curling pond which disappeared under the roundabout on the A9 and searched for evidence of the long-gone Tore Castle.  Older Avoch residents recalled the village’s first flushing toilet and the communal laundry last used in the 1950s. The Culbokie group produced photos of the Findon Mill and looked at evidence of cairns and henges in the surrounding farmland.

The benefits of the project have been both historical and social. It generated 124 new records for Highland Council’s Historic Environment Record and updated a further 173 entries. Equally importantly, the communities benefitted by gaining a better understanding of their heritage and by preserving it for the future. Individuals benefitted by having their memories valued and local knowledge appreciated, and this in turn helped to break down generational barriers and bring together long-term residents with newcomers.

October 2010   Cromarty Schools and Schoolteachers,   Dr Jenny Fyfe

Schooling of some description was available in Cromarty before the Reformation of 1560, yet little information survives from that early period. Much more is known about the Parish Schools that existed after 1560 and former Professor of Scottish History Dr Jenny Fyfe shared some of her knowledge of the later period at the October meeting of the Society.

Cromarty Parish schoolmasters can be identified for the period up to 1850 and, surprisingly, one of them turned out to be not a schoolmaster but a schoolmistress. Susan Clerk not only taught the normal range of academic subjects including Latin and Greek, but was also able to offer instruction in Navigation - of obvious value in a fishing community. The Cromarty writer, Hugh Miller, told of another parish schoolmaster during this period who so frightened his pupils that one of them, seeing him across the street many years later in adulthood, fainted clean away in terror.

Scottish Education was radically transformed by the 1872 Education Act, which made the Government, rather than the Church of Scotland, responsible for schooling and made education compulsory for all children aged 5 to 13. Inspectors’ Reports and other documents provide a very full picture of schooling during this period, and prominent Headmasters like James Copland prior to World War I and David Malcolm in the 1930s are still remembered by Cromarty residents today.

November 2010   Heresy, Murder and Witchcraft  — The Story of the Cromarty Bible,   Dr David Alston

An old Latin bible discovered in the attic of a Golspie manse by David Alston’s mother turned out not only to have connections with Cromarty but to have a fascinating history in its own right. Dr Alston explained to the November meeting of the Society that the bible belonged at one time to a George McCulloch, who described himself in a marginal note as ‘a student of Humanities at Cromarty’. The bible was probably presented to him in 1744 on his leaving Cromarty School to study at Aberdeen, after which he became a schoolmaster in Golspie and later a minister in the parish of Loth.

There are numerous scribbles and marginal notes in the bible, with the oldest one dated 1602. This is the signature of William Sinclair de Mey from Easter Ross, who attended the High School in Edinburgh and was involved in a schoolboy riot there in 1595, when he shot and killed Baillie McMorran who had been despatched by the authorities to put down the disturbances. William was exiled to France for four years before being allowed to return to Scotland, where he married Katherine Ross of Balnagowan.

The bible was published in France in 1541, a translation made from the Hebrew in 1528 by Sante Pagnini, but taking its final form in this edition of Michael Servetus of Aragon, who, denying the doctrine of the Trinity, was burnt as a heretic in Geneva in 1553, along with his books.

December 2010   George Bain  — Pioneer in Celtic Art,   Susan Seright

The December meeting of the Society featured Susan Seright of Rosemarkie’s Groam House Museum. Groam House has over the years built up a remarkable body of material relating to the renowned artist and illustrator George Bain, and Susan Seright not only outlined Bain’s life and work but also explained how the museum came to hold the definitive collection of Bain artefacts.

Born in Scrabster (Caithness) in 1881, Bain’s family moved to Edinburgh, where he trained as an artist. He served in Macedonia during the First World War and returned to take up the position of Principal Teacher of Art at Kirkcaldy High School, Fife, remaining in this post until his retirement in 1946. After the war he settled in his wife’s home town of Drumnadrochit, where he established a college of Celtic Art. He died in 1968.

Bain devoted much of his life to the study of the techniques used by the ancients to produce their intricate mathematical designs. These designs appear on the Pictish stones of eastern Scotland, the highly sophisticated metalwork and jewellery from Britain and Ireland, and the early illuminated manuscripts which include the Books of Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne. He published the definitive book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in 1951, which did much to revive interest in the subject.

The Bain collection in Groam House Museum was created very largely as a result of initiatives by Susan Seright, who came across Bain’s work some years ago and made contact with members of the Bain family to arrange an initial exhibition in Rosemarkie. Since then she has helped with further exhibitions including one on his life and work at the Royal Museum (Edinburgh) in 2001. New materials are still being added to the collection and will be on show when the museum re-opens next Easter.

January 2011   Changing Fortunes of Seals and Seabirds,   Professor Paul Thompson

Identifying trends in the marine environment is one thing; explaining those trends is both more difficult and more controversial. That was the conclusion reached by the audience at the January meeting of the Society following a talk by the Director of Aberdeen University’s Lighthouse Fieldwork Station, Professor Paul Thompson.  

Dr. Thompson focused on two species - namely fulmars and harbour seals. Like bottlenose dolphins, these are species that can live for 40 years or more and are therefore very suited to long-term research. The university has been studying the local fulmar population since the 1950s and has amassed a great deal of data about their numbers, behaviour and distribution. At the end of the eighteenth century, the UK population of fulmars was confined to St Kilda. By the late ninetheenth century they had spread to Shetland, and by the 1940s they were found right down both coasts of the British mainland. A continuing increase in numbers has levelled off since the 1980s and may now be starting to decline.

While gray seal numbers have increased considerably since the 1950s, the numbers of harbour (or common) seals in the Moray Firth, and in Orkney and Shetland, are in decline. Dr. Thompson considered some possible reasons - increased disturbance, attack by predators (possibly including killer whales), and changes in the food supply. No one explanation, however, satisfactorily accounts for the trend, and tabloid headlines about the likely impact of industrial developments and other changes to the marine environment need to be treated with a degree of caution.

February 201   Cromarty’s Royal Naval Air Station,   Paul Monk

Cromarty folk had something to marvel at in the summer of 1913 - three seaplanes drawn up on the beach to the east of the harbour and a crowd of young men in assorted uniforms putting the final touches to their flying machines. This was R.N.A.S. Cromarty, the fifth seaplane base to be established in Britain for the new Royal Flying Corps. The machines were, respectively, a Maurice Farman, a Borel monoplane and a Sopwith and their pilots were Lieutenants Oliver and Ross with their C.O. Arthur Longmore.

Paul Monk explained to the February meeting of Cromarty History Society that Longmore was one of the first navy flyers, having volunteered for flying training at the Central Flying School in 1910.

His particular contribution was to suggest the fitting of floats to a Maurice Farman biplane and to demonstrate on the River Medway in 1911 that a plane could take off from, and land, on water.

The first flight from Cromarty took place on 14th July 1913 when French test pilot M. Reynaud took the Farman up into the skies above the Firth. Thereafter there were several high-profile visitors to the base, including Admiral Jellicoe, Prime Minister Asquith and First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, who was taken up on several flights by Longmore.

R.N.A.S. Cromarty was, however, very short-lived. At the end of the summer the planes and hangers re-located to Fort George and the Cromarty chapter in aviation history came to an end.

March 2011   Cromarty in Context: 1901-1939,   Sandy Thomson and David Alston

Scotland may have been ‘the workshop of the world’ before the First World War, but the Black Isle parish of Cromarty was very far from thriving as Queen Victoria’s sixty-three year reign came to an end in 1901. Sandy Thomson and David Alston highlighted the contrast in their talk to Cromarty History Society’s March meeting. 

Sandy reminded the audience of the dramatic events which transformed national life up to the outbreak of World War II - the rise of the Labour Party, Home Rule for Ireland, the General Strike and the Great Depression. He also pointed to some interesting social changes in the period, including the Temperance movement, the re-unification of the Presbyterian churches and the rise of organised sport.

David then outlined the impact some of these developments had on Cromarty life. One local response to economic depression was the promotion of Cromarty as a tourist destination - in which local draper John Bain played a leading part. But it was the First World War which really transformed Cromarty’s fortunes. Fishermen and farmers alike gained from higher prices, and the large numbers of military personnel based around the town stimulated the local economy to an extent that one local writer reckoned that Cromarty had never been so prosperous in its history.

April 2011   The Excavation of the Caird's Cave, Rosemarkie,   Simon Gunn

The Cromarty History Society met on Thursday 21 April for its AGM and to hear Simon Gunn’s account of the excavation of Cairds’ Cave, as part of the Rosemarkie Caves Project, during last summer. He described how there are 19 known caves occurring in the 3 mile distance between Rosemarkie and Ethie, on the south coast of the Black Isle. These caves were formed 9000 years ago and are believed to have been dry and habitable for the last 5000 years. Cairds’ Cave has an association with travellers and was thought previously to have been excavated by the antiquarian William MacLean, a local Ross-shire doctor, during the period 1907-1912.

Simon gave an illustrated account of the excavation carried out during a fortnight in June 2010, which evidenced that MacLean had indeed investigated this cave and supported that travellers had stayed there in the past, possibly working as shoemakers. A range of material was uncovered during the excavation and samples of bone and charcoal have been sent away for analysis hoping to ascertain when the cave was first used and occupied. Simon gave details of the wide range of sponsors and the need for meticulous recording of data by the amateur archaeologists led by a professional archaeologist. The group intends to survey the rest of the caves this year in order to decide which one to work on next.

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