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Abstract of Talks 2014-15

September 2014   The Black Isle Railway,   Jack Kernohan

Jack Kernahan presented his extensive research on the now defunct Muir of Ord to Fortrose Railway to the Cromarty History Society this month. 

He explained that four schemes were developed for a railway to Fortrose in the latter part of the 19th century. There were two rival schemes in the 1890s - one was proposed by the Great North of Scotland Railway and the other by The Highland Railway. It was the Highland Railway scheme that eventually went ahead.

The line opened on 1st Feb 1894 with stations at Redcastle, Allangrange, Munlochy, Avoch and Fortrose - the stations being named after the big estates. Actually, the first train didn’t run until the next day (2nd February), as the previous day had been a Fast Day holiday. 

At first there were 4 trains each day but within a month the timetable had 7 trains per day running.  There were turntables at both Fortrose and Muir of Ord and the engines that pulled the trains were turned so as to always having the engine forward facing when travelling.    

After the 2nd World War, the traffic on the line decreased and it closed for passengers on 1st October 1951, with the goods service later withdrawn on 13th June 1960. However, as with the opening of the railway, the last service was actually a day later than the official closure - a rail tour for enthusiasts.

Evidence of the former railway can still be seen, including some of the trackbed, bridges and buildings. The buildings that remain include the former Redcastle Station and several buildings along the line (station masters houses and railway workers cottages) as well as the signal box from Fortrose, which has now been extended and relocated to Rosemarkie.  Many of the bridges still stand - like the 40ft bridge in Avoch, which is remarkably well hidden in the centre of the town and the bridge at Munlochy, which has a curtain of ivy that drops from the parapet to the burn below.

Jack’s talk was well illustrated and his anecdotes about the various workers on the railway brought the whole story to life. It was a good start to our new season of talks. 

October 2014   From Crofting to Oil Rigs —The 1970s 'clearance' of Nigg,   Sandy Thomson

It’s hard to imagine the scene less than 50 years ago, looking across from Cromarty, before the existence of those vast warehouse buildings of the Global Energy Park at Nigg point. The Cromarty History Society had some help to visualise this from our speaker, Sandy Thomson, at this month’s meeting. Sandy, a regular contributor to the Society, gave a talk about the small coastal communities which existed prior to the development of the Nigg oil yard.

Sandy has gathered memories of the community concerning the building of the Nigg yard in the 1970s and the settlement that was there originally.  Much of the information for this talk came from a chance meeting with a lady who grew up in what was the village of Balnabruaich - now the site of the Nigg yard. In fact, in her garden she had a model of that village to keep alive the memory of the place that was there before the industrial developments.

Balnabruaich was one of the clearance villages along this stretch of the coastline. The cottages were built in the 1820s and 1830s from boulders taken from the beach and were thatched with marram grass (the roofs later made use of the corrugated iron from nearby dismantled army camps). Each cottage had half an acre of land and the families (mainly MacLeods and Frasers) followed a traditional crofting way of life. Sandy was able to take us on a ‘tour’ of the village, describing the cottages and their inhabitants with anecdotes that brought a flavour of what it was like to live there as the crofting tenants of the Pitcalzean Estate.

The adjacent village, Balnapaling, was not so much of a crofting community but rather a scattered collection of houses which included the Ferry Inn, Castlecraig Golf Course and Dunskaith House, which burned down in the 1960s.

In the 1950s, when the armed forces withdrew from their operations around the Firth and the Hydro boom was over, the Highlands found its economy in decline. Central government took responsibility for regional development and the Highlands became a Development District. Initiatives such as the setting up of the distillery and the smelter at Invergordon together with offshore oil exploration and re-zoning land for industrial development all heralded a welcome change of fortune for the region.

In the 1970s, Highland Fabricators bought 15 cottages from the two villages, together with Pitcalzean House and also a significant landholding. The area was transformed overnight into a powerhouse of industry, building the huge steel production platforms required to extract oil from the North Sea.  At the end of his talk, Sandy showed a video, made for the Nationwide television programme in 1974, about the early years of the Nigg Yard with Cromarty scenes and interviews, clearly showing the effect on the village.

November 2014   The Evolution of the Highland Hospital,   Steve and Jim Leslie

Six years ago, aware of the lack of documentation to illustrate the rich heritage of healthcare in the Highlands, Jim and Steve Leslie embarked upon a project to rectify this state of affairs. They described to members of the Cromarty History Society how they formed a small group of researchers to find out details of the origin and development of each Highland hospital past and present.

They brought along pictures and stories, illustrating how healthcare developed in a region of uncompromising environment, isolated communities, sparse population, poor transport networks and a general lack of wealth. This was part of the country where few communities were able to pay to keep a doctor and some were never visited regularly by a practitioner.

Hospitals were regarded as essential to improve access to and quality of healthcare. Small local hospitals were the norm, funded by voluntary donations and contributions or endowed by major benefactors. They were scattered across the region more at the whim of sponsors than part of any cohesive plan. 

The History of Highland Hospital Project uncovered the range of hospitals across the Highlands – general hospitals, poorhouses, asylums, maternity hospitals, industrial hospitals, military hospitals, sanatoriums and units for infectious diseases. Recruitment of staff was always a problem and most facilities were under resourced. Usually it was left to a matron to run a general hospital and during her annual holiday, the hospital would close down! The variety of hospital buildings was well illustrated – from stately homes to hospital vans drawn by horses and from prefabricated huts to purpose built facilities.

Now, over 100 years later, centralisation has resulted in far fewer hospitals in Highland. Without the research undertaken by this project, accessible through a series of booklets and presentations, much of the history of these early establishments would have been lost.

The next meeting on Thursday December 18th is a festive celebration with short talks on the Cromarty Fourways Club and state-owned pubs around the Cromarty Firth together with the obligatory mulled wine and mince pies. All welcome!

December 2014   State-owned Pubs Around the Cromarty Firth,   Sandy Thomson and
Forty Years of the Cromarty Fourways Club,    Anne Short.

It was a special Christmas meeting for the Cromarty History Society in December, with two popular local speakers to entertain everyone.

Sandy Thomson’s subject was the “State Owned Pubs around the Cromarty Firth”. He explained that serious concerns about the amount of drunkenness attributed to the many illicit stills led to attempts to control the sale and drinking of alcohol. The Brewery in Cromarty was built in the late 18thC by George Ross, the owner of the Cromarty estate, in order to produce beer with a controlled potency. A controlled system of pubs was also introduced in various places in the UK (based on a Swedish model), where only beer and no spirits were sold and bench seating was deliberately uncomfortable so as not to encourage customers to stay long! Churches also campaigned for the prohibition of the sale of intoxicating liquor.

In the First World War, servicemen were seen to be the problem drinkers around the Cromarty Firth.  The 1915 Liquor Control Regulations brought 3 areas in the country under state control (State Management Districts) one was the area immediately around the Cromarty Firth. The Cromarty State Management District encompassed 18 premises which employed 97 people.  Beer was sold from commercial suppliers as well as ‘Rare Old’, the state-owned whisky from Invergordon. Substandard pubs were closed and replaced by “New Model Inns”. In 1924, there was a recorded profit of over £10,000 from the state-controlled premises around the Firth; so the system was certainly sustainable and not a drain on the public purse. In fact after the war, nobody sought to privatise these establishments again and they stayed in public ownership until the abolishing of the State Management Districts, when the premises were sold off in 1972-3.

Drinking and merriment continued to be a theme in the next short talk given by Anne Short. Anne’s presentation was a delightful glimpse of a warm spirit of community inclusiveness.  1975 saw the establishment of the Cromarty Fourways Club, after there was deemed to be support for an over 60s group in the town. Anne had everyone laughing with her reminiscences (as a founding member) covering the 40 years of the club’s history. Tales of “out-of-the-box” fundraising efforts and celebrations were all illustrated with photos of the various events. They brought back many happy memories, particularly to some current Fourways members, who were guests of the Society that evening. These members brought events to a close in the style of a Fourways meeting, with a hearty rendition of “The Fourways Song”. The Club continues to be a strong local organisation and the light-hearted presentation by Anne was appreciated by everyone present.

The evening was rounded off with a festive social gathering befitting the spirit of the evening’s talks!

January 2015   4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders in the Great War,    Lynsey Easton and Robert Shanks

Lindsey Easton and Robert Shanks from the Highlanders’ Museum at Fort George delivered the first presentation of the New Year to our society. Lindsey’s absorbing talk was about the 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders and their engagement in the First World War, drawing her information from the letters, diaries and photographs held in the archive of the Museum.

The Seaforths began life as the Ross-shire Rifle Volunteers in 1860, comprising of five companies. Three more companies were added in 1864 and in 1881 as a result of army reforms, all these volunteer companies became an integral part of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Every year, all territorial units came together for summer camps in order to train with each other.

At the outbreak of the Great War, the Seaforths were mobilised in Dingwall on 4 August. Their first task was the construction of defences at Nigg prior to heading off to a training camp in Bedford. Lindsey pointed out that territorials were not contracted to serve at war, however most did step forward, either out of duty or under pressure. These territorials had been trained for defence but now, in the arena of war, offensive training was imperative.

During their time in Bedford, householders were paid to billet these soldiers. Many good friendships were made with locals and the Highlanders were welcomed in the town. Many of these young men had never left their localities before and finding themselves in a populous area, were exposed to new viruses. A significant number fell victim to a measles outbreak, some losing their lives before even leaving for foreign lands. A member of the audience from Bedford recalled attending the annual commemorative marches to the graves of the soldiers who had died whilst training in Bedford, which take place every year on Armistice Day.

The Seaforths were the first territorial soldiers to go off to war and arrived in France on 6 November 2014. Lindsey’s account concentrated on the personal experiences of the soldiers told through scrapbooks, letters, diaries and objects. She showed us a letter which was a first-hand account of the Christmas Truce and also a photograph of the soldiers making crosses for the graves of the fallen from boxes which had contained soap. Particularly moving was a casualty list from a battle, with biographical information written against some of the names. The photographs of the soldiers, showed how mismatched their uniforms were throughout the war, but they proved themselves in battle, serving alongside regular soldiers. Lindsey introduced us to some of the personalities like the poet EA Mackintosh, who raised the morale of his fellow soldiers and John Miekle, awarded the VC for inspirational bravery.

Robert brought along a variety of medals and other artifacts to show us, so we ended up with a real “hands on” session! The Highlanders’ Museum’s contribution to the commemoration of WW1 was to reprint the Ross-shire Roll of Honour, which amongst other information, lists all the Seaforths that were first mobilised, giving their home address and occupation. A copy of this publication has been given to every school in Ross-shire.

Linsey also made an appeal for post 1961 artefacts for the museum’s collection, in particular the Queens Own Highlanders (1961-1994). She would be interested to hear of any memorabilia that individuals or families would be prepared to loan.

February 2015   A Safe Place for Cromarty's Poor — the Black Isle Combination Poorhouse,   Dr Jenny Fyfe

How did Cromarty treat its poor? That was the question posed by Dr Jenny Fyfe, a member of the Cromarty History Society, at our February meeting. In formulating her answer, Jenny undertook research into the local Poorhouses. Her lecture centred on the 1845 Poor Law (Scotland) Act. Prior to this legislation, the poor were dealt with in a haphazard way through the auspices of the Kirk Session and various charities. Generally the poor would either be boarded out with local households (on payment of a fee) or they were given monetary aid through different charities. The aid that was dispensed did however depend on the behaviour of the recipient.  On death certificates or the era, the acronym “PP” meant Parish Pauper.

The provisions of the new Poor Law allowed communities of over 5,000 inhabitants to establish their own Poorhouse. Where parishes were smaller, they could combine with neighbouring ones to set up a shared one. The legislation allowed for destitute individuals to board at any Poorhouse in the region. Parishes paid for their residents to enter the Poorhouse and a property tax was also levied to assist in their funding.

Cromarty took the route of combining with the parishes of Avoch, Urquhart, Rosemarkie (including Fortrose), Killearnan, Resolis and Knockbain to establish the Black Isle Combined Poorhouse. The building, on the outskirts of Fortrose, was designed by local architect William Lawrie and built in 1859. The plans were not universally welcomed and met with some controversy.  The building was felt to be an “unnecessary extravagance” and too big for the number of inmates there would be (this proved to be correct). 

Poorhouses were run by Governors and Matrons, with mandatory checks carried out by Prison Inspectors. These were comfortable positions with a good salary and furnished rooms. Although from different social backgrounds, Governors and Matrons needed to empathise with their residents and have their welfare at heart. The regime was strict, but not as punitive as the English Workhouses, and the diet was moderately healthy.

Jenny has made a point of looking at the Cromarty residents of the Poorhouse. Actually, the proportion of Cromarty residents was very low – about 2 out of 40 and some years there were none. As far as Cromarty was concerned this Poorhouse operated as an old people’s home or a home for single mothers (and their children). The young women had been domestic servants, needlewomen or outworkers – respectable working class people fallen on hard times. She remarked that there were few fishermen from Cromarty that ended up there, unlike Avoch. Compared to other places, Jenny believes that Cromarty gave help to people to keep them out of the Poorhouse if they could.

In the First World War, soldiers were billeted in the under-occupied building. It closed down in 1940 and was subsequently converted into flats.

There was a lively question and answer session after Jenny’s talk, where we learned of the difficulty in finding records about this Poorhouse, compared to some others.

March 2015   Thief's Row Re-visited — An Update on the Cromarty Medieval Burgh Archaeology Project,   Steven Birch

A packed house gathered to listen to archaeologist, Steven Birch, update members and visitors of the Cromarty History Society on the Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project. 

We were reminded how the storms of late 2012 had caused erosions at the east end of Cromarty at Reeds Park field and that this had led to a community archaeology project, with an initial dig in the summer of 2013. The site was stripped by an excavator prior to “cleaning” by hand. Many finds were made and recorded and a picture emerged of features of the settlement around the time of its abandonment (1880s). However, there was much excitement when the foundations of medieval buildings underneath this later settlement became apparent and it was these features that formed the main part of the archaeological work in the summer last year.

The overall project brief has been to establish the layout of the settlement and what the buildings looked like and also find out what the buildings were used for in order to better understand the local economy.

Steven described the revelations so far. The combination of styles of housing – from thatched single storey cruck framed structures to substantial 2 to 3 storey houses with undercut eaves. He believes that the settlement plan was fairly regulated with the pattern of boundary wall – building – vennel repeated at regular plot intervals and that boundaries were maintained over time. A large range of artefacts and materials were excavated on a day-to-day basis, including some surprisingly delicate objects. There is evidence of merchants living there and the possibility of a local pottery. Also in lower layers there is an indication of fairly widespread burning and destruction.

A further dig will take place this summer (July 2015) to solve some of the puzzles encountered and to go back further into the history of the pre-burgh of Cromarty. Documentary research will be undertaken to flesh out the archaeology and a further dig area will be uncovered. Again, training sessions with volunteers will be an important feature as well as further expert lectures, to which the whole community is invited.

April 2015   Two Communities Changed by War — Cromarty and Resolis in WW1   Dr Jim Mackay

We were pleased to welcome back Jim Mackay, a popular speaker, to tell us about how the Great War changed the communities of Cromarty and Resolis. Although Jim talked about examples of young men who went to war and didn’t return or were invalided and those who came back unscathed, his talk mainly concentrated on the impact of the war at home.

The information that Jim had gathered together was a result of a WW1 commemorative project run by the Cromarty Courthouse Museum and the Kirkmichael Trust, of which Jim is Chairman. Local people had been asked to contribute memorabilia and stories of the time. Research was done using local newspaper reports of the era as well as records of war tribunals.

The war paradoxically brought good times to the area. Ships of war were a common sight in the Cromarty Firth and the military population stationed here needed provisions and supplies. The increased trade was good for the area and the farming community. More land was turned over to arable for increased crop production. Where farm workers could prove to be essential labour, then they were exempted from joining up.

Temporarily, women came into their own being called upon to do traditional men’s’ work in factories and on the land. School log books showed that whenever there was a busy time on the land, the pupils would stop going to school in order to help out, often necessitating closures.

Jim also talked about the aftermath of the war – the breakup of the big estates, with the land being sold to sitting tenants. Small farms multiplied and there was also a movement to create small holdings for those returning from war. However an impoverished time for agriculture was in store and in many cases, people could not survive on their small parcels of land.

Another visual change to the Black Isle was as a result the plantation of forestry. During the war the country suffered from not having enough timber, so the Forestry Commission was established to prevent this situation happening again.

Jim was able to draw on anecdotes of the time and contemporary photos and sources to illustrate a very informative and thoroughly enjoyable lecture.