Abstracts of Talks 2018-19

September 2018,    Kirkmichael  — Back from the brink of destruction,    Dr Jim Mackay

Just how close Kirkmichael, on the shores of Udale Bay in the Black Isle, came to destruction was apparent within the opening sentences of Jim MacKay’s talk to our society this month. Jim is Chair of the Kirkmichael Trust and his presentation showed how some determined and focussed individuals have managed to turn this sorry situation around over the last 15 years.

Setting the scene with some excellent photos, the building looked almost irretrievable. The roof had completely collapsed causing the walls to crack and move outwards. It was really only being held together by the ivy that encased it. Internal memorials were sadly rapidly deteriorating and would only be saved by reroofing. The outside churchyard was not faring any better. Through neglect, burial enclosures had collapsed, gravestones had been damaged and headstones had been knocked down over the years.

Fundraising started in earnest, but it was an uphill struggle, with many setbacks. Employing an artist to create visuals of the proposal for turning the building into a heritage centre was an important move. This enabled the team to approach funders with some success.

In tandem, some exceptional medieval crosses at nearby Cullicudden churchyard had suffered the ravages of the weather and also damage inflicted by grass cutting mowers. In order to rescue and conserve these stones and the have the chance to display them, there needed to be an appropriate setting. Kirkmichael and Cullicudden were combined together as a unified parish of Resolis, so a refurbished Kirkmichael building would be the ideal location.

Materials were re-used where possible and to keep costs down a tremendous amount of work was carried out by the volunteers themselves. What a success story this project has proved to be. The rescue and display of the ornate medieval crosses has been shortlisted for a Scottish Heritage Angel award this year — the result is due next month. Kirkmichael has also won an art design award as well as achieving commendations in a number of other awards.

However, work hasn’t stopped — there’s still 100 years of dereliction to fix in the Kirk yard. Every Saturday, from 10.00am until 12.00am, maintenance is carried out — both simple and more challenging tasks. New volunteers are always welcome!

So, Jim’s lessons to us in a nutshell:

  1. Do it yourself! The kirk is a Scheduled Ancient Monument listed under the auspices of Historic Environment Scotland. It was also a property owned by Highland Council. However, it was only when the community came together to take action themselves that the situation started to improve.
  2. Do it early! The longer it takes to complete a project, the more it will cost. When the Trust commenced fundraising the estimated cost was £150,000; 15 years later the project total had reached the £750,000 mark.

What an inspiring story to start our season.

Our next meeting will be on Thursday 18 October at 7.30 pm when Richard Jenner will tell us about The Yankee Mining Squadron and their impact on the Inverness Firth in 1918.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

October 2018,    The Yankee Mining Squadron  — Impact on the Inverness Firth in 1918,   Richard Jenner, Chanonry Sailing Club

Knowledge about the wartime naval activity in this area has generally referenced the arena of the Cromarty Firth. However, this month our lecture gave us a new perspective — towards the Moray Firth. Richard Jenner has researched the history of Fortrose harbour over a number of years. But it was when he and others undertook further study for this year’s World War 1 project for the Groam House Museum (Rosemarkie), that he first became aware of the US Navy mining operations in the area.

Inverness was a hive of naval activity in WW1. Naval personnel active in the Highlands and Islands generally travelled to postings by rail through the town. In fact the Navy ran its own trains through Inverness railway station. All mail came via this route too, as did all the munitions required for action. In order to enable this logistics operation, hundreds of naval staff were based in Inverness. Richard took us through those latter years of WW1, starting with the Battle of Jutland in 1916 — an action where both sides claimed victory, but the reality was that it was a defeat for both. At the beginning of 1917, allied ships were blockading German ports heralding food riots and strikes in Germany. Then Germany announced unrestricted U-boat activity with the result that one in every four allied ships was sunk.

The Germans were getting into the North Atlantic through the North Sea and the US Navy were aware of the clear submarine threat and committed to bring their own contribution to what became known as the “North Barrage”. The proposal was to lay 100,000 mines along defensive minefields (250 miles) to seal up the northern exits of the North Sea. The US had massive industrial capability for the production of mines and a strong desire to be involved. They built a factory to produce the required explosives and shipped the mine components to the West of Scotland (Corpach and Kyle of Lochalsh). These were then transferred to the Muirton Basin via the Caledonian Canal. Inverness was chosen at the HQ for the whole operation. Urgent preparation needed to be carried out in the Firth of Inverness — the dredging of a channel through a sandbank (the “Yankee Channel”); the installation of lighted buoys and mooring buoys; signal stations to control the movement of ships; land-based defence positions and the building of a submarine boom.

The Northern Barrage was chiefly laid by the US Navy — over 70,000 mines were laid along 230 miles. In fact the war ended before the task was completed. The number of U-boats sunk as a result of this operation is debateable, but there was a known significant impact on the morale of the German navy.

Richard illustrated his talk with photographs of the time, showing the scale of the operation. Original documentation and plans also formed part of this well researched informative presentation.

Our next meeting will be on Thursday 15 November at 7.30 pm when Jim Miller will speak about The Great North Road: the story of the A9

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

November 2018,   The Great North Road  —  The story of the A9,   Jim Miller

Our speaker this month was Jim Miller, well-known local writer and columnist, who hails from Caithness. The subject of his talk was “The Great North Road” — looking back at the origins of the road network across the Highlands and then focussing on the route of the A9.

Hundreds of years ago, there was an absence of roads as we now know them, but this did not mean that people were unable to move around. There were drove roads, tracks and paths, which carried them on their way.

In the 18thC, the first phase of modern road building began when military roads were built across the central Highlands under the direction of General Wade and then William Caulfield. There were political and military reasons for this road building programme; troops needed to move around more quickly and easily. The origins of the A9 date to this period.

By the end of the 18thC there was a huge variation in the extent and quality of roads, with very few in the north Highlands. At the beginning of the 19thC, a Commission for Roads and Bridges was established to provide infrastructure investment. Thomas Telford was appointed to oversee the construction of roads and canals in the Highlands and it was he who was mainly responsible for extending the road network further north. By 1821, the bulk of these roads had been built.

In the 19thC, the stagecoach was the new form of public transport. Fifty years later the railways displaced it, although the last Highland stagecoach ran until the outbreak of WW1. In the 1920s, the Ministry of Transport decided to rebuild the A9 (and the A82), taking into account the needs of the motorcar. Of course the volume of traffic has kept increasing, showing up the inadequacies of the road. Jim said that when the oil came — this changed everything and the A9 had to be upgraded. Reconstruction included new bridges — Cromarty Firth Bridge (1979), Kessock Bridge (1982) and the Dornoch Firth Bridge (1992).

Jim concluded his talk with some headlines from recent years about the A9 and cautioned that the development of the A9 north of Inverness was a different story with many challenges still to overcome.

Our Christmas meeting will be on Thursday 20 December at 7.30 pm, complete with mulled wine and festive eats, when committee members will give short talks under the title “Cromarty Cameos: portraits of our town”.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

December 2018,   Cromarty Cameos:  —  Portraits from our Town,   Committee Members

At the commencement of our Christmas meeting, we paid tribute to our longstanding member and speaker, Jenny Fyfe. Jenny passed away last month and we wished to acknowledge her contribution to the society as well to the understanding of aspects of our local history.

Our December talk was billed as “Cromarty Cameos” and committee members presented three short talks which offered some conundrums to our members and visitors.

We heard about the visit to Cromarty of a literary giant. Two hundred years ago (in August 1818), a 23 year old Englishman waited for a boat in Cromarty. He and a companion had undertaken a walking tour of the Lake District, Burn’s house in Dumfries, a quick visit to Ireland, Fingal’s Cave and the Scottish Highlands. He caught a bad cold and developed toothache. When he arrived in Inverness, a doctor suggested he head home. So he set off for Cromarty to get the boat for London — it was a better port than Inverness, with regular sailings south. The sea trip took nine days and once he’d arrived home in Hampstead he sent a letter to his sister, mentioning his voyage from Cromarty. The story that Sheila Currie uncovered was from this one short letter from the famous Romantic poet, John Keats.

Paul Monk revealed the subject of his talk from the start — former Cromarty postie, Hugh Finlayson Watson. It was only when Paul, as curator of the Cromarty Courthouse Museum, was presented with a carrier bag full of papers and photos relating to Hugh that he became interested and started an investigation into Hugh’s career. He had served the whole of his working career (forty years) as Cromarty’s postie and was given the Imperial Service Award in 1963 in recognition. However, on further exploration, Paul uncovered that Hugh was marked as someone with special skills in Morse code operation. Trained as a telegraphist by the Post Office and then by the Royal Navy, he became a specialist radio operator. All the evidence of his wartime career has led Paul to the conclusion that Hugh was involved in secret operations!

The final presentation was given by Mary Bowers and Ross Couper. They had come across an account of a young life in Cromarty (covering the years 1926-1938) written by a former resident. There was no author’s name, but there were some clues in the text. Extracts were read and then some background and photographic interpretation presented. The document gave a real insight into the life of a small coastal town. After some good guesses by the audience, the speakers were able to reference some printed evidence which revealed the author to be — Dr Elizabeth D Fraser, Professor of Psychology at Aberdeen University — the first woman to hold a professorship at that institution. It turned out that this account was written to give a talk to the History Society twenty-five years ago! Over mulled wine and festive eats, there was certainly a lot to discuss!

Our next meeting will be on Thursday 17 January at 7.30 pm, and the talk entitled “Making Plans for Daldon: the story of Cromarty’s Provost and Edinburgh College of Art’s class of ‘62”

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

January 2019,   Making Plans for Daldon:  — the story of Cromarty’s Provost and Edinburgh College of Art’s class of ‘62’,   Gordon Haynes

Our talk this month was entitled “Making Plans for Daldon: the story of Cromarty’s Provost and Edinburgh College of Art’s class of ‘62”. “Daldon” — was this to be a new name for Cromarty? We were intrigued! Our speaker was one of our committee members, Gordon Haynes, who firmly placed his presentation within the context of the 1960s.

“Daldon” was in fact Donald Daldon Ross — the town’s chemist and sometime Provost. He and Donald Matheson, another member to the town council, were key figures in turning round the fortunes of Cromarty. In 1961, the town council formed the Cromarty Development Committee in order to regenerate the town, which over the years had slipped into decline. There were increasingly fewer businesses and inhabitants, high unemployment, and the town’s built environment radiated a general air of decay. Initiatives were sought from outside bodies to help stem this tide. One such group approached was the Edinburgh College of Art’s Town and Country Planning Department. In 1962, the development committee commissioned them to provide new ideas for the town’s future. They wanted the best advice. For the students and their lecturers, it was an excellent fieldwork opportunity.

They surveyed the town, recording details of each property. They highlighted the large number of “ruinous” and substandard buildings and gap sites and compiled a list recommended for demolition. They noted the decaying character of the Fishertown, the inability to find uses for the buildings of character and were concerned with lack of parking places and the resultant traffic congestion. Gordon, a former town and landscape planner, presented their proposals, illustrated with their drawings, under their own headings: housing, hotels, parking, sporting facilities, the harbour, The Denny, Shore Street. It was a mixed bag of ideas — some good, some bad, with some obvious factors omitted altogether. Their focus was on Cromarty becoming a hub of tourism, possibly encouraging new sources of employment by promoting crafts and providing housing that would attract retired people. That doesn’t sound too far wrong! However, their building design proposals were firmly ‘cutting edge’ 60s style and did not complement Cromarty’s architectural heritage.

It was hard for Gordon to find much that was acted upon from this report. So, how has Cromarty fared in the aftermath? The opening of the Kessock Bridge, twenty years later, heralded improving fortunes. People moved back, many houses were restored and yes, artists and craftspeople were attracted here to set up their businesses. Cromarty has sought to achieve a balance in coping with its status as a tourist hotspot, while maintaining its strong community identity. As you can imagine there was a lot of discussion.

Our February lecture will continue our programme of looking at the history of particular houses in the town. Fran Tilbrook will uncover the story of Rosenberg (now The Factor’s House) for us. Please join us on Thursday 21 February at 7.30pm.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

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