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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.

February 2019,   From factor’s house to The Factor’s House — a journey through 170 years,   Fran Tilbrook

This month’s lecture continued our popular series investigating the history of various houses in the town. Fran Tilbrook and family lived in Rosenberg, Cromarty for 39 years until 2014. During that time she amassed information about the house and its previous inhabitants through both her own research and by talking to a generation of Cromarty with their own first-hand recollections.

Rosenberg, designed by Tain architect Andrew Maitland, was built in 1847 as the factor’s house for the Cromarty Estate, legal title to which was finally resolved in 1846 in favour of Hugh Rose Ross. He died the same year and, with his heir, George William Holmes Ross away serving in the Army, Hugh’s widow Catharine appointed the new factor. James Strachan moved with his family to Rosenberg to take up this role on the Cromarty estate. Their new house was a substantial property with 5 bedrooms and 4 reception rooms, an outbuilding, 5 acres of land, a walled garden and an avenue of beech trees.

Strachan was charged with reducing the considerable debts of the Cromarty Estate and also undertake a land management programme. He appears to have been very unpopular — no doubt partly due to the way he amalgamated the smaller estate farms into bigger holdings and then brought in outsiders to run them. The eviction of tenants and even widows did not enhance his reputation. Within 3 years of arriving, Strachan was dead and the following year his only child Margaret, aged 6, also died. Early deaths were to become a feature of other inhabitants of the house. The next factor, Donald Mackay, lost 2 young children while living in Rosenberg. His wife no longer wished to stay in the house, so it was then let to various tenants.

One of these tenants was Colina Maxwell Macintyre Brydon, widow of William Brydon, a British Army surgeon, who was immortalised in the famous painting “Remnants of an Army”. He was the only serving soldier (of 16,000) to survive the retreat from Kabul in 1842. Colina was an indomitable character, who deserves a talk of her own. She had accompanied her husband for most of his military service and survived the privations of the Siege of Lucknow, where she cared for the sick and wounded. In 1876 her uncle bought Rosenberg from the Cromarty Estate to enable Colina to live there rent free; on his death the house passed to her. Sadly, three of Colina’s sons died young — at 10, 22 and 45. She herself lived to 79 and died at Rosenberg in 1899. Her only surviving son Hector inherited, but seems not to have lived there much and Rosenberg was again let for some time.

Hector’s sister, Mary Ann Scott was married to the minister of the East Church — Rev. Walter Scott. She inherited Rosenberg on Hector’s death. The Scotts divided their time between Forsyth House (the parish church manse) and Rosenberg. When Mary Ann died in 1932, her son Francis became the new owner. He farmed on the Black Isle but was also well-known for acting and giving talks locally and taking an active role in the community. Like so many of the other figures connected with this house, he died young at 52. With his death, the 68 year dynasty of Brydons at Rosenberg ended.

The property was sold at auction in 1941 for £1000 — £400 less than the price paid in 1876, when it left the Cromarty Estate. Various members of the Paterson family owned the house for the next 18 years. In 1959 Rosenberg was sold to the RW Brooke Trust for Jay Duff (Brooke family housekeeper) to live in. Until 1975, when Jay moved to Fortrose, she was a hospitable hostess taking in guests and holiday makers during her ‘tenure’. The Tilbrook family have fond memories of her when they first visited Rosenberg with a view to purchase.

Fran also talked about some of the changes they made to the house while they lived there and highlighted some of the elegant features found in the house and garden. Her husband Peter, a biologist and conservationist, ran a Rothamsted Light trap at the house which recorded moth numbers on a daily basis. This was one of the longest running ecological monitoring programmes in the world and the ‘Rosenberg moth trap’ became one of the longest running traps in a domestic setting — 33 years!

The Tilbrooks decided to build an energy-efficient house within the walled garden of Rosenberg and this is now their present home. Rosenberg has gone on to become a very successful 5 star B&B and the current owner, Fiona Deakin, has renamed the property appropriately The Factor’s House!

So, in short in 172 years, Rosenberg had 12 owners, but only 5 sales. However, there were many occupants, tenants and regular visitors. What a wealth of information, interspersed with anecdotes and photographs and for so many people in the large audience there were connections.

Please join us on Thursday 21 March at 7.30pm to hear another of our members, Liz Broumley, speak on the subject “Hector the Hero: evidence, interpretation and musical judgement”.

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

March 2019,    Hector the Hero — Evidence, interpretation and musical judgement,   Liz Broumley

Our March talk was given by Liz Broumley, one of our members. Her subject, Hector Macdonald, was a man who inspired and was loved by a generation of Highlanders and beyond. To this day, there remains a high regard for this influential military figure, born on the Black Isle in 1853.

He was a man of contrasts — a crofter’s son who became a major general in the British Army. From a Gaelic speaking family of five sons, Hector took the kings shilling from a recruiting sergeant of the Gordon Highlanders, much against his family’s wishes. His career advanced from enlisting as a private through the ranks due to the opportunities he seized and the recognition of his skill and bravery. He served in India, Afghanistan, South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Ceylon at key moments in British imperial advancement and retreat. He was knighted for his service in the Second Boer War.

Liz recounted his many exploits — restoring the morale of his troops; successes in battle; the respect he gave and received from others, including his foes; and his general popularity. She presented this against a background of the reality of life in the army, in particular the brutal class division. Generally, only people with sufficient wealth could become officers, buying their commissions. Hector Macdonald bucked this trend, only 2% of officers were promoted through the ranks and he was only one of three men in the 19th century to achieve the elevation from a private to a Major General.

His success in the army was not recompensed financially; when he was away from the battlefields he did not have the resources to live the life expected of an officer. Stories surfaced that he was badly treated by the army as he was a ‘ranker’ and a Scot.

Back in Britain he was feted at all levels – like being given the Freedom of Dingwall and the award of a Batchelor of Laws degree from Glasgow University. His national hero status brought with it a plethora of ‘celebrity merchandise’. We saw pictorial examples of his image in pictures, on ceramics and on other mementos — some are now in the collections of the Dingwall and the Gordon Highlanders Museums.

In peacetime, as a military commander in Ceylon, he lacked the money and social skills to integrate into the colonial establishment. He sought friendship with local families and further alienated himself from the British community. Allegations surfaced about sexual misdemeanours with young men. Hector returned to London, where he was advised to either resign (something that would be difficult with no other financial support) or return to Ceylon to face a court martial. In 1903, en route to Ceylon, he reads a newspaper headline about the charges against himself, and commits suicide, aged 50.

Nobody in the army knew he was married – a secret wedding that had taken place nearly 20 years before to a 15 year old girl with whom he had a son. His supporters smelled conspiracy. We will probably never know. He was buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh and many thousands came to pay their respects in the weeks afterwards.

We walked into the hall, before the talk commenced, to the strains of the James Scott Skinner composition “Hector the Hero”. The composer famously said that he felt that Hector’s death was a “national calamity”. During refreshments, we appropriately drank Camp Coffee, which has an image of a seated Highland soldier (reputedly Macdonald himself) on the label. A fitting tribute from Cromarty History Society!

Please join us on Thursday 18 April at 7.30pm for our final meeting of the 2018-19 session. We will have a short AGM followed by The Cromarty Courthouse Talk: a history of our building

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

April 2019,   AGM Meeting,   Paul Monk & Gordon Haynes

The Cromarty History Society met on 18 April for its AGM and to hear a lecture entitled “The Cromarty Courthouse Talk: a History of Our Building”. It was given by both the current and former chairs of the Trustees of the Courthouse Museum — Gordon Haynes and Paul Monk.

Paul Monk, who remains the curator of the museum, opened the talk with a justification of the importance of the Courthouse building to Cromarty — giving a sense of place at the heart of our community. It represents over two centuries of events and interactions.

Paul covered the history of the period from the building’s inception in the 1770s to its state of dereliction 200 years later. After the Battle of Culloden, the estates of Jacobite supporters were sequestrated. The Cromarty estate was however Government supporting and its owner, George Ross, applied for a grant from the commissioners appointed to administer the annexed estates, for a civic building for the town. Ross was a self-made wealthy man, with a progressive outlook, who reorganised the entire economy of the town. He understood the value and need for a high quality civic building in Cromarty and was awarded £350 (from the repossessions) for the building of a courthouse and prison.

The building got underway in 1772. It functioned as a court and single cell prison, but waited for another 10 years before it was fully fitted out. In 1842, an Act of Parliament gave permission for the sheriffdom of Ross and Cromarty to provide proper court accommodations — this resulted in a single storey cell block being built as an extension to the main courthouse building in Cromarty. Improvements to the building included an air ventilation system and an aural squint for the gaoler. The building functioned throughout the Victorian era, but was used as a police station in late 19th and early 20th centuries and the courtroom for minor offences and civil matters.

During WW1, the cells and ground floor were taken over by the Naval Shore Patrol — the courtroom still operating for civil cases. After the war, the building was used as offices of the town council, but by the 1970s and 80s it had fallen into dereliction; then the Ross & Cromarty County Council developed a plan for the building.

At this point, Gordon Haynes took over the story. The building was renovated to become a museum 30 years ago — it is now a registered charity and run by a board of trustees. This accredited museum has won accolades, with permanent and changing exhibitions, displays of local artefacts and a courtroom re-enactment of a trial; it provides a unique visitor experience. There is also a community garden and orchard in its grounds and 12 couples have been married at the Courthouse in recent years!

The focus of Gordon’s presentation was the current state of the building. It is owned by Highland Council and is Grade A listed. This listing requires the owners to carry out a condition survey every 5 years. Although this was done in 2017, as far as the trustees are aware, no action has been taken to move with the urgent and essential repairs highlighted by the survey. Gordon showed photos of the serious issues we are faced with – external problems giving rise to many internal issues. Maintenance of the building has fallen short. The thrust of the trustees is to try to secure the building’s future, but this is mostly out of their hands. They cannot control the fact that there is reluctance by the owner to initiate and act upon a programme of work clearly detailed in the latest condition survey.

The Cromarty Courthouse is an iconic building, not just for Cromarty, but the whole country. It is an emblem of our town and a valued building in the community — but it needs help to secure its future. The frustration of the trustees is evident — over the last 2 years they have pulled together with volunteers and staff to undertake some maintenance work in the absence of anything forthcoming from Highland Council. Trying to keep it in visitor attraction condition is an uphill battle. 247 years after the foundations were first laid and 30 years since the major renovation, we witness the signs of neglect and decay again. So, this was a sobering insight into a gem of a building. What a waste this could all turn out to be.

We now take a break over the summer but please consider joining us on Thursday 19 September at 7.30pm for our first meeting of the 2019-20 session. Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty. Details of our new programme will be posted on our website www.cromartyhistory.scot.

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