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Abstracts 2012-13

September 2012   How the Highlands and Islands Pioneered the Health Service,   Dr Miles Mack

Cromarty History Society commenced its autumn programme with a talk by Dingwall GP Dr Miles Mack, who is helping to organise centenary events in commemoration of the publishing of the Dewar Report in 1912. The report resulted in ground-breaking advances in medical and nursing care for the Highlands and Islands.

Dr Mack highlighted the social background of the times in the Highlands and the desperate lack of medical care available to its population. The region warranted special attention and the Dewar committee was constituted to look into medical provision in the region. The committee took written evidence from doctors and local dignitaries and also toured the remotest parts to gather the information needed to recommend appropriate reforms. People generally couldn’t afford the fees needed for medical attention and doctors struggled to make any living in such sparsely populated areas. Lack of infrastructure added to the chaotic situation.

The Dewar committee report led to the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service in 1913 with a Treasury grant. It meant that doctors would have a basic income, although could continue to treat private patients. Also fees were set at minimal levels but any who couldn't pay were still treated.

Other areas looked to the Highlands and Islands with envy. Out of adversity, something very special had been created. The solutions had come from the doctors and population themselves and Dr Mack argued that in many senses this proved to be a precursor of the National Health Service. Reflection on this innovative period now gives another opportunity to make sure that high quality healthcare is achieved using means appropriate to this region.

October 2012   Buildings of the Western Seaboard,   Mary Miers

Mary Miers, a renowned author on historical architecture, gave a well-attended lecture to the Cromarty History Society at its October meeting. Mary’s ancestors hailed from South Uist and although she works in London as an editor of Country Life, her weekends are often spent at her Black Isle home.

She based her talk on her book: “The Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide.” In the area covering the Western Isles, Skye and Lochalsh together with Lochaber, she offered a fascinating history of the region through its built heritage. She presented the rich diversity of buildings and structures that were found here; from Iron Age brochs and pre- and early Christian stone carvings to the built legacies of the clan system. From religious buildings of all denominations to the military structures that were a result of the long history of intervention of the English in attempting to quell the Highlands. Castles to crofts were all reviewed with comments contemporary to their times.

The Jacobite legacy of the area, the influence of famous architects and the impact of wealthy incomers who constructed grand lodges for their seasonal use, all added to the account Mary gave. Thatched vernacular buildings were typical and each island had its own style. They evolved after legislation was introduced to improve health and hygiene.

Mary illustrated her talk with slides of paintings, drawings, architectural plans and photographs and also read excerpts from letters, diaries and poetry to enhance her message. She also referred to current controversies in the restoration and reconstruction of great castles together with the modern vernacular housing designs which increasingly use the traditional materials of the landscape.

November 2012   Maps of the Black Isle,   Graham Clark

The Society was delighted to welcome back Graham Clark to talk to us about his fascination with the development of cartography.

Graham pointed out that there were 17,000 maps held in the National Library of Scotland, with a further 30,000 waiting to be digitised. Most of these would show the Black Isle. He made a personal selection for the talk in order to show how mapping came about and overview their development, from crude outlines to more detailed and accurate records.

Maps of the British Isles date from the thirteenth century, with printed maps becoming widespread from the sixteenth century onwards. However, there was huge variation in the detail contained in them. Early on, no roads were depicted, but this all changed following the Jacobite Rebellions. Road maps started to be provided for the forces against the Rebellions and a Military Survey of Scotland was established. He showed examples of how Scotland and in particular the Black Isle had been represented throughout this early period.

The first purely Black Isle map was part of an agricultural survey carried out in 1794 and showed estates, castles and roads. With travel becoming more important, road maps improved and atlases started being produced. Graham also covered the establishment of the Ordnance Survey and its methods and resulting maps in various editions, right up to the recent Landranger and Explorer maps of this area.

December 2012   Cromarty Radicals (Not the Friends of Hugh Miller) ,   Dr David Alston

A packed audience attended the Christmas meeting of the Cromarty History Society, where local historian David Alston engaged everyone with his take on some “Cromarty Radicals”.

The key character of his talk was James Calder, a young man who was inspired by the ideals of those Scottish Political Martyrs seeking peaceful parliamentary reform in the late 18th century. One of the Martyrs, Thomas Muir, was attributed with being the founder of Scottish modern democracy. This was set in the context of the European-wide Enlightenment movement.

James Calder was caught up with the spirit of a time, when there was belief that society could fundamentally change for the better. He was born in Cromarty in 1773. His father Donald was a merchant and until the age of nine he attended the school here. After that he continued his education at Fort George, then at fourteen  went to the University of Aberdeen and later went on to Edinburgh University to read law and medicine. Whilst he was at Aberdeen, he was converted to the ideals of parliamentary reform and became a Friend of The People (for parliamentary reform). We learned that he was involved in a procession and planting of a tree of liberty (at the town gallows on the Braehead, Cromarty). He was arrested and taken to the Cromarty Courthouse and then onto Tain, where his case was dismissed. He was both present and active in various conventions held at the time and was called upon as a witness at the trials of the Martyrs.

As a result of his activities, his career as a lawyer was ruined. He went off to be a ship’s doctor on a slave ship, which took him to the Caribbean where he remained for a while. Later he returned to the UK and entered journalism, ending up as editor and joint owner of The Englishman or Sunday Express. He used his journalism career to further promote the cause of reform. He married a widow of mixed race from the East Indies.

Hugh Miller, himself a radical in respect of religion, managed to consistently fall out with people of radical political views and James Calder was no exception. Miller dismissively called Calder “the democrat” and published unfavourable comments about him in Scenes and Legends.  This led to Calder threatening to sue Miller.

There were other Cromarty Radicals too, but James Calder is the one who has the potential to become a local hero.

January 2013   Robert Dick — Baker, Botanist and Geologist of Thurso,   Jane Verburg

The society enjoyed a fascinating insight into the life of Robert Dick (baker, botanist and geologist) from Thurso at its January meeting. Speaker, Jane Verburg, brought alive the life and significance of this complex 19th century character.

Robert was born into a comfortable life in Clackmannanshire in 1811. As an able child, the expectation would have been for him to go to college and enter a profession. However, family circumstances changed when, at the age of seven, Robert’s mother died. His father remarried and had a second family with his new wife, who favoured her own children. Dick later recalled that his youthful spirits were “broken” in a bad relationship with his stepmother. He began to go off by himself, walking and exploring in the hills around, as an escape from the situation at home – this set a pattern for his future.

He became an apprentice baker at the age of 13, a trade that he continued throughout his life. At the same time he continued to educate himself stating, “Had my mother been alive, I would never have been a baker.”

His father moved to Thurso and suggested to Robert that he should move there too as there was a lack of bakers in the area. Once Robert got to Thurso – he never left the area again.

Robert Dick was a keen observer and genuine collector of shells, insects, botanical and geological specimens. He worked hard as a baker (becoming well known for his parlie biscuits), but established a routine of when he’d finished baking in the early morning; he would spend the rest of the day walking, observing, collecting and studying. A local minister was particularly critical of Dick’s Sunday excursions!

Locally, he was regarded as an eccentric, renowned for his dress (top hat, tailcoat, jeans and hobnail boots) and his mannerisms. His interest in geology led him to become a great friend of Hugh Miller. Miller made efforts to acknowledge the contribution Dick made to his own studies and understanding. Other professionals in the field at the time also recognised the importance of Dick’s knowledge base. But Dick never sought recognition, and saw himself as simply gathering facts and educating himself. Perhaps this was the reason he published so little in his lifetime.

His final years saw the collapse of his health, business and finances. His death in 1866 heralded an outpouring of guilt in the way that he had been ridiculed locally and a large memorial was erected on his grave in an attempt to remedy this situation.

In addition to her entertaining talk, Jane also produced a culinary footnote – parlie biscuits - which were appreciated by members at closing refreshments!

February 2013   Nigg and Rigs,   Ross Couper

Ross Couper brought together information on technology, economics and politics to give his audience a comprehensive background to the history of drilling for oil in the North Sea and Nigg’s part in that history.

Vital developments in technology, from the first oil wells drilled over water in Ohio in 1891, included the Maunsell Sea Forts constructed in the Thames and Mersey in 1942 and the building of ‘liberty ships’ in the USA from 1941-45 by a process which used welding rather than riveting. These were the technological ‘ancestors’ of the structures which would later be built at Nigg.

The discovery of oil in the Forties Field in July 1970 was followed, in 1972, by a dramatic rise in the price of oil as a result of the politics of the Middle East. Two key figures in the resulting drive to develop production from the North Sea were Sir Philip Southwell and Eric Drake. Southwell had been responsible for semi-secret onshore oil wells drilled in England during the Second World War, a project carried out using American labour and which had given him lasting links with the US oil industry. Drake had become chairman of British Petroleum in 1958 and the relationship of trust between the two men enabled the creation of Brown & Root as the company which would use American expertise to build rigs for BP.

One of their key demands was for non-unionised labour and this, in part, brought them to Nigg. The creation of the Nigg Yard followed earlier, largely unsuccessful, plans for industrial developments in the Cromarty Firth. There had at one time been proposals for two aluminium smelters and a nuclear power station at Invergordon but, since this was prime agriculture land, a farming lobby had called for these to be located at Nigg. Ross produced drawing, from the Ross-shire Journal of this period, showing the smelters and nuclear power station where the Nigg Yard and oil terminal are now sited.

Nigg brought employment to an area which had had an air of desolation in the 1950s and 60s. The labour force peaked at 7000 and when BP’s Highland 1 was launched 13,000 attended the completion party. Since then Nigg has been responsible for 12% of UK production of structures for the North Sea, more than either Ardersier or Methil.

March 2013   Remember who stole the Mulbuie?  — The Division of a Black Isle Commonty,   Ro Scott

The Commonty of Mulbuie once dominated the spine of the Black Isle from Muir of Ord to Cromarty. Yet today there is scant awareness of its former existence or its extent. Local biologist and natural scientist, Ro Scott, sought to redress this lack of knowledge in her lecture to the Society. Mulbuie (one of many different forms of the spelling) was actually Gaelic for “yellow rounded ridge”.

Commonties were in existence all over Scotland in the pre-agricultural improvement era. They were areas of land that were owned in common by the surrounding landowners, but over which others had certain traditional rights. The resources of a commonty were important to enable self-sufficient living off the land. The collection of peat for fuel; heather for fuel, thatching, bedding and rope-making; stone for building; turf for dyke building, roofing, burning and fertiliser were all practised. The ability to graze animals there - cattle, sheep and horses made it a valuable and free resource for people.

Progressively there were attempts to divide the commonties and share them out to the local land owners in relation to the value of their estates. The division of the Mulbuie Commonty was only achieved after ten years of landowner disputes and was finally achieved in 1827. In fact some landowners had already appropriated parts of the Commonty before the division.

For the landowning class, the division was a good cause - bringing what was regarded by them as unproductive wasteland into use. But this ignored the use made of it by the non-landowning class. During the court hearings, which travelled around the area taking evidence, there appears to be no defence made of these traditional uses. It was only in the aftermath of the division that there was any suggestion that a wrong had been done to ordinary people.

Ro advocated that this division had immense social consequences. People were forced from a fairly self-sufficient life into one where they had to participate in a monetary economy, find employment locally or travel further for work. For many, emigration was the only alternative. Only one landowner here made any recompense to the poor of his estate – “2 bolls of oatmeal annually”. Much later, during the era of the Napier Commission on crofting, one of the mottos used on flags in demonstrations was “Remember who stole the Mulbuie Commonty”.

In looking at what is left of the Mulbuie Commonty today, Ro pointed to one Special Area of Conservation where the bog woodland has been designated for its natural heritage value. Some former plots can also still be seen in the landscape and possibly some of the Mulbuie boundaries have been incorporated into dykes that exist now.

April 2013   Spinning a Yarn — the Cromarty Hemp Factory,   Dr David Alston

Showed two images of the Factory, from 1799 and 1930, and described it as Cromarty's most important building.

There was some flax growing in Cromarty but most was imported.  Flax spinning became important after Culloden. There was a government policy of encouraging flax spinning in the Highlands, the idea of preventing conflict by encouraging trade.

The original method of spinning was distaff and spindle.  The more modern more efficient system was a spinning wheel or muckle wheel.  Distaff and spindle is a sociable and portable system.  The muckle wheel was a much less sociable system and tended not to be used because of this.

William Forsyth managed to get the Muckle wheel adopted for spinning. He was the principal agent for British Linen in the north.  He tried weaving fine cloth using the links as a bleach field but the demand was for coarse, Osnaberg, cloth.

Most of the flax and hemp was imported from the Baltic, the home grown product was inferior.  The Baltic states had the resources, plenty of water and empty space, for carrying out retting - removing rotted vegetable matter - a very smelly process.

Hemp becomes the important fibre for ropes and coarse bags.  The Cromarty factory, at its height, had 250 workers (weaving?) with 800 outworkers (spinning the yarn?) outworkers.  This is a very considerable industrial development and must have brought considerable prosperity to the town. The demand was for coarse bags for the sugar (west Indies) and cotton (southern US) trade.

The factory had William Forsyth as manager being funded by William Ross and other landowners who financed a similar factory in Inverness.

Rope making was carried out for a short time probably during Napoleonic Wars.

Dundee starts making Jute and the Highland factories decline, the Cromarty factory eventually closes in 1850.

Cromarty population falls by 500.

Danny Allen the last of the Cromarty weavers was described by Bain (in 1890's?) as wearing a blue swallow-tail coat and blue bonnet.

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