Abstracts of Talks 2000-01

September 2000   Cromarty and the Civil War,   Calum Davidson

When we think of the Civil Wars in Scotland that followed the signing of the National Covenant in 1637  and continued up to Cromwell’s victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, we tend to remember the ‘stars’ of the conflict. On one side we had the romantic figure of Montrose, the ex-Covenanter who had changed sides to fight for the king; on the other, Campbell of Argyll, leader of the Covenanting and parliamentary forces. But it was not these stars who were in the limelight at last week’s meeting of the Cromarty History Society. Guest speaker Calum Davidson chose instead to focus on two other groups involved in the struggle; namely the lairds and clan chiefs in the Ross and Cromarty area who became involved, and the rank and file who followed at their command.

With the exception of the Urquharts of Cromarty, most of the local lairds had gained church lands and wealth at the Reformation, and were, unsurprisingly, strong supporters of the presbyterian cause. Many of them, like the Munros of Foulis, had also gained considerable military experience in European wars and were therefore obvious candidates for leadership in the Scots parliamentary army. Regiments raised in the Ross and Cromarty area, therefore, included Sir Hugh Fraser of Kilmylies’ Regiment of Dragoones, which distinguished itself at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, and the Earl of Seaforth’s Regiment of Foote which was destroyed at the battle of Aldearn in 1645.

Cromarty’s own Sir Thomas Urquhart was, of course, on the other side of the conflict, leading an ineffectual Royalist campaign in Aberdeen shire in 1638 and taking up arms once more after Charles I’s execution in 1649 and again in support of Charles II at the battle of Worcester in 1651, when he was captured and imprisoned along with David Ross of Balnagown.

Drawing on his detailed study of military life in the 17th century, Calum Davidson was able to give Society members a very real insight into the everyday experience of the common soldiers involved in the conflict: the clothes they wore, the weapons they used, and the effectiveness or otherwise of these pikes, matchlocks, swords and dirks. Casualties during the height of battle were surprisingly few: pikes being very clumsy weapons and matchlocks being hopelessly inaccurate as well as very slow to reload. Most deaths and injuries occurred when one side broke ranks and fled; to be pursued and hacked down by the victors of the fight.

October 2000   The Poet of the Highland Division,   Colin Campbell MSP

E.A Mackintosh is not a name that appears in too many of the anthologies of poetry written about the First World War. The fame of contemporaries like Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon has largely passed by this young officer of the 1/5th Seaforth Highlanders whose name is among those listed on the Seaforth memorial outside Dingwall railway station. Yet his fine poems of life in the trenches and of his recollections of a highland boyhood should soon become better known following the publication of a forthcoming biography part-written by Colin Campbell, MSP for the West of Scotland and Defence Spokesperson for the Scottish National Party.

An appreciative audience in the Cromarty Centre last week was privileged to have a talk by Colin Campbell which sketched out some details of Mackintosh’s life and included the reading of some of his more important poems. The Cromarty History Society had been aware for some time of the amount of local interest in Mackintosh and was delighted to attract a speaker who has a lifelong interest in First World War history and a real admiration for this particular poet’s work.

Mackintosh’s father was born in Daviot, outside Inverness, but in the 1880s lived at Teaninich House, near Alness, and E.A. (Ewart Alan) Mackintosh - himself born in Brighton in 1893 - returned frequently to this area during his childhood and youth, and also while training with his regiment in 1915. Although born and educated in England, he was passionately committed to all things highland. He learned to speak Gaelic - some of his poems show a familiarity with Gaelic music and poetry - and also to play the pipes. Trained as a bombing officer, his duties when sent to France in August 1915 with the Highland Division consisted of leading small parties of men through no-man’s land to hurl grenades into the German front-line trenches. While under the command of Brigadier Ross of Cromarty in 1916, he led a raiding party of fifty highlanders on the German trenches for which he received the Military Cross for conspicuous heroism. Wounded in the legs in an attack later that year, he was invalided home to Cambridge where, after recovery, he was involved in training fresh troops for the battlefield. Confiding to his sister that he ‘had to get back to his Jocks’, he volunteered to return to the Front in September 1917 - this time to the 4th Seaforths. Killed in action at Cambrai by a shot to the head, Mackintosh was buried in France where his gravestone is carved with the caberfeidh badge of the 4th Seaforths.

Colin Campbell shared with his audience not only the military details of Mackintosh’s life. He spoke also of his romantic attachments - the identity of his ‘Sylvia’ remains a tantalising mystery - and of his friendship with a young widow and her children in Brora. The picture of Mackintosh that emerged was of a young man with a strongly romantic nature, good-natured, a popular entertainer at regimental functions and with an enduring commitment to the men under his command. 

November 2000   Forestry in the Black Isle,   Ian Ross

The days  in the 1950s when some 250 forestry employees were based in the Black Isle were brought vividly to life last week at the meeting of the Cromarty History Society.  The speaker, Ian Ross, is not only the Highland Councillor for Golspie and Rogart, he is also a forester born and bred. Growing up in a Forestry Commission house on the Black Isle, where his father was Chief Forester, he was able to recall the era when local forests supplied the bulk of the timber for the pulp mill at Fort William. As a currently practising forestry consultant, he could also explain to a packed audience in the West Church Hall the many changes that have taken place since the early days.

The Black Isle still makes a significant contribution to Scottish forestry.  With forest cover of 27%, compared with a Scottish average of 15%, the Forestry Commission - set up after World War I - has built upon a foundation of earlier private woodlands at estates like Rosehaugh, Braelangwell, Newhall, and Redcastle. The Commission established its first Forest Units at Milbuie, Kilcoy, Findon and Kessock, and these separate Units were united in 1963 as the Black Isle Forest.

The attractions of the Black Isle included the availability of, sometimes marginal,  land as well as an available workforce for tree planting and for the maintenance of tree nurseries. This workforce included significant numbers of women, particularly during World War II, when the Women’s Land Army made a major contribution - as did the men of the Canadian Forest Corps.  Some of the Commission’s workers in the early days, in fact, included several of the St Kildans who had been evacuated from their island in 1930. The opening up of the smelter at Invergordon and the oil rig yard at Nigg in the early 1970s, however, offered better paid jobs than could be found in forestry. Coupled with increasing harvesting mechanisation as well as the closure of the nurseries in 1983, the local workforce in forestry has now shrunk to a relative handful, and most staff are currently employees of direct contractors rather than of the Forestry Commission.

While recognising the inevitability of change, Councillor Ross shared with his audience some of the regret over what had been lost: in particular the ‘family atmosphere’ among Forestry staff and the active involvement by them in the local community.  

December 2000   Strathpeffer Spa Recalled,   Ian McCrae

Being lowered by crane into a porridge of peat and spa water wouldn't strike many of us nowadays as an effective cure for our aches and pains, but that was just one of the treatments popular among visitors to Strathpeffer Spa in its Victorian and Edwardian heyday. That glorious period in the history of the Ross-shire town was recalled with affection by Ian McCrae at last week's meeting of the Cromarty History Society.  Exploitation of the sulphur springs began in the eighteenth century when the Reverend Colin Mackenzie, factor to the Cromartie Estate, built a hut over one of the wells, and development really took off in the early nineteenth century when a Dr Morrison from Aberdeenshire claimed a dramatic cure for his arthritis and rheumatism, with the first pump room being opened in 1819. The Estate, particularly in the person of the Duchess  of Sutherland, mother of the Earl of Cromartie, greatly expanded facilities at the spa - building not only new bathhouses but also a Spa Hotel to accommodate visitng patients. A hospital followed - later converted to the spa laundry when a newer hospital was built - as well as numerous hotels and guest houses, with all new building in the village requiring the approval of the Duchess herself.

The opening of the branch railway line from Dingwall in 1885 greatly boosted the fortunes of the spa, allowing, for example, English visitors to board a train in London at 8pm and arrive in Strathpeffer at 11am the following morning. By this time there were three pump rooms, with massage and pine baths, and a resident band to entertain the visitors throughout the season.  Those taking the full course of treatment would be wakened by Sandy the piper at 7am in time for their first glass of water at 7.30, followed by another at 12.30 and a third before the evening meal, and  their day would be taken up with the baths and an appropriate exercise regime - perhaps a walk up Ord Hill or Knockfarrel.

The spa was used by the US army during World War I as a rest home for wounded soldiers and continued to be popular up until World War II, with new-fangled electrical treatments and no less than seventeen consulting rooms. Changing fashions in medical treatment, however,  led to a rapid decline in the fortunes of spa towns throughout the UK in the post-war years, and it was not until the 1980s that significant efforts - in which Ian MacCrae played an important part - were made to redevelop the village square and remind visitors why people had flocked to the Strath in days gone by.  

January 2001   Black Highlanders,   Dr David Alston

In his autobiography, Hugh Miller - the Cromarty stonemason who became one of the nineteenth century's most distinguished geologists - wrote of sitting next to a 'mulatto lad' from the West Indies at his Cromarty school. This reference encouraged Dr David Alston of the Cromarty Courthouse Museum to look more deeply into the connections between the Highlands and the West Indies, and last week he shared his findings with the January meeting of the Cromarty History Society.

In fact, markets in the Caribbean were vital to the growth of the Scottish economy in the late eighteenth century. Exports of linen in particular, along with much of the hemp produced in Cromarty's hemp factory, went to the West Indies, and many Highland families began to acquire land in the colonies there to establish sugar, coffee and cotton plantations. George Munro of Poyntzfield, George Ross of Cromarty and Macleod of Geanies, for example,  all became major plantation owners.

But it was the country now known as Guyana - formerly the colonies of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo - that had the strongest links with the Highlands. According to one report in 1807, the majority of sugar estates in Demerara were being run by merchants from Scotland, and - of the five estate managers who gave evidence against the abolition of slavery there in 1824 - four were Scots. Plantations in Berbice and Demerara had names including Foulis, Novar, Tain, Fearn and Cromarty.

It wasn't only landowners, of course, who emigrated to the West Indies. Many local tradesmen and professionals found profitable employment there, with some of them returning to the Highlands on retirement.  Few emigrants went with the intention of permanent settlement, with yellow fever and other tropical diseases providing a disincentive to longer residence. In such a climate, sexual relations with black women, most of them slaves, were the norm, resulting in many mixed race children, some of whom were sent back to Scotland to complete their education: hence the 'mulatto lad' in Hugh Miller's classroom. It would be wrong to assume that all such relations were merely casual and exploitative. The will of one George Jeffrey, made in Berbice in 1846, left his property to his children by his housekeeper, Ajuba, with the provision that a legacy of £50 go to his sister in Dingwall - but only if this could be done without affecting the 'independence and comfort' of his mixed race family.

February 2001   George Romanes and the Nigg Laboratory,    Dr Jenny Fyfe

When Ross-shire's famous sons are listed, the name of George Romanes is not often included in the roll-call. Yet this nineteenth century scientist and keen disciple of Charles Darwin has a claim to be one of the founding fathers of modern biology. Thanks to an engrossing talk by Dr Jenny Fyfe - formerly of the University of Western Ontario - members of Cromarty History Society now appreciate the significance of Romanes' contribution and the importance of the work carried out in his laboratory at Dunskaith House in Nigg.

George John Romanes was actually born in Kingston, Ontario in 1848. His mother, who had emigrated to Canada in 1833, where she married the Rev. George Romanes, was the daughter of the Rev. Robert Smith of Cromarty.  The family returned to Britain when George John was two years old, settled in London and very soon acquired a summer home in Ross-shire. This may have been initially a house in Cromarty. What is certain is that Dunskaith House, across the Firth, was soon to become the Scottish base. After a somewhat haphazard education, George entered Cambridge University, where he graduated in the Natural Sciences. Becoming ill with typhoid fever in 1872, he retired to Dunskaith to convalesce and devoted himself thenceforth to scientific research. 

Charles Darwin soon took notice of this able young man, and the two scientists became firm friends and colleagues. At Dunskaith, Romanes carried out research on the nervous system of the Medusae jellyfish and other animals. One experiment apparently involved collecting all his neighbours' cats, driving with them to a spot some miles distant and releasing them - presumably to see how many of them could find their way home.

On his father's death, the Dunskaith house went to George's elder brother James, and from 1882 to 1890 George rented Geanies, near Portmahomack, which belonged to a distant relative, as his summer residence. At Geanies he began to write and publish poetry - some of it praised by Tennyson. After Darwin's death, Romanes continued his work on evolution and was hailed by the Times as 'the biological investigator upon whom the mantle of Mr Darwin has most conspicuously descended'. He both expanded upon and departed from Darwin's teaching in his books on animal intelligence and 'mental evolution' which he published in the 1880s, and some of these ideas became highly influential in the emerging field of developmental psychology.

In 1890 he was appointed to a lectureship at Edinburgh University, which he held until his early death in 1894.  His brother's family continued to live at Dunskaith, and in fact Lt. Col. Gerry Romanes was Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty during the 1930s.

March 2001   Playing the Game in Ross and Cromarty,   Sandy Thomson

On 8th August 1879, a group of young men in Plockton met together to form a sporting club. Regretting the fact that there was no systematic provision for games in their area, they agreed that a cricket or bowling club would be desirable, but in the absence of a suitable piece of ground it was finally agreed to form a quoiting club.

That little incident was used by Sandy Thomson to open his talk to the Cromarty History Society on the history of organised sport in the local area. It illustrated, he explained, what was happening all over the highlands at that time - namely the setting up of a range of sporting clubs, initially for young men in comfortable circumstances. These clubs gradually replaced the less organised forms of ‘folk football’ and ‘folk shinty’ that often involved hundreds of participants and large quantities of whisky.

Key elements in this ‘sporting revolution’ included the patronage of local landowners. Dingwall Cricket Club, for example in the 1870s, had Davidson of Tulloch as its Patron and Lord Tarbat as its Vice-Patron. This was essential if clubs were to have spaces to play. Another requirement was leisure time, and the gradual adoption of the Saturday half-day in the latter decades of the century made that the customary time for organised matches. Developments in transport were also important, with the opening of the Highland Railway in 1863 allowing local teams to play matches against distant opponents. One indicator of the remoteness of Cromarty in the 1880s, however,  was the decision by the newly-formed North of Scotland Football Association that Cromarty F.C. should play all their home matches in Nairn!

The most basic requirement for inter-club competition, however, was the adoption of agreed rules, and this was facilitated by the setting up of Scottish sporting associations - for football and rugby in 1873, cricket in 1877, shinty in 1893, and so on. Cricket, in particular, was enormously popular in Scotland from about 1860 on. By the late 1870s there were cricket clubs in Tain, Dingwall, Beauly, Inverness, Invergordon, Fortrose and Cromarty, with virtually all of the local schools also running teams. The lack of suitable pitches - and probably the Highland weather - caused many of these clubs to slip out of existence. Certainly the Cromarty club, which had played against Tain, Beauly and Invergordon in 1878/79 had died by the time the North of Scotland Cricket Association was set up in 1893.

Local football clubs, including Dingwall’s Ross-shire County FC, Invergordon FC and the Inverness teams, tended initially to play to Rugby rules. Only in the mid 1880s was there a widespread switch to the Association game - the Dingwall club making the change in 1888. There are references in 1878 to both a Cromarty FC and a Cromarty-based Hugh Miller FC, though it is not clear if they are two separate clubs or which rules they adhered to. Certainly Cromarty FC were playing Association football by 1888 when forced to play their first round match in the North of Scotland Cup against Forres Mechanics at Nairn, being beaten 1-0 for their trouble.

April  2001   From Baltic Seals to the Cromarty Volunteers,   Members of the Society

Museums can be a bit like icebergs, with only ten percent on display on the surface and another ninety percent out of sight below the water - or in this case, locked away in store cupboards and filing cabinets. Cromarty Courthouse Museum is no exception, and so last week’s meeting of the Cromarty History Society gave members an opportunity to explore beneath the surface and learn about some of documents and artefacts not normally on display.

The meeting took the form of a Members Night, when no less than four local members took the floor for a brief talk about a specific area of interest. First up was Rowena Scott, presenting the Museum’s collection of Baltic Seals. These are the small lead tags that were attached to each sack of hemp imported to Cromarty from Baltic ports like St Petersburg in the late 18th and early 19th century. The sacks were bound for George Ross’s hemp factory, whose buildings still stand on the Cromarty seafront, now converted to housing. The seals themselves represent a system of quality control, giving information about the place of origin and the date of production, and the Museum’s collection of more than eighty seals gives a fascinating insight into this important trade.

Rowena was followed by Lilah Dowsett, whose own genealogical research had uncovered the story of Cromarty emigrant to Australia, William Chaucer. Chaucer was not a native of Cromarty - he came to the town in the 1830s to work at his trade as a shoemaker, and married local woman, Janet Hossack.  Claiming descent (rather dubiously) from the English poet of the Middle Ages, he dabbled in verses which were dismissed with contempt by his Cromarty contemporary Hugh Miller. Emigrating to Australia in 1838, he was ordained as a minister and soon fell foul of church authorities when he was accused of having conducted an irregular marriage. He performed the ceremony for a young girl and her older fiancé without, apparently, first obtaining the written consent of the girl’s parents. The parents having protested, Chaucer was obliged to repeat the ceremony - this time with the parents consenting - but this was not enough to save him from the authorities and he was prosecuted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment with hard labour - a sentence eventually overturned after a public protest meeting.

Ian McCrae then reported on some of the historical tourist guides to Cromarty stored in the museum. The town has been marketing itself as a tourist destination for about hundred and fifty years - helped greatly by the evocative writings of best-selling Victorian author Hugh Miller.  Ian highlighted the ways in which the various local attractions have been promoted - the healthgiving walks, the historic buildings, the Miller birthplace, and so on. He concluded by welcoming the recent publication of ‘Cromarty: An Illustrated Guide’, the new guidebook produced by the Community Council and available from local shops and the Courthouse Museum.

Alex Davidson concluded the programme with an account of the Loyal Cromarty Volunteers in the period from 1795 to 1808. Beginning with around 100 men under the leadership of Major Walter Ross, factor of the Cromarty Estate, the Volunteers’ strength reached a peak of more than 300 as the threat of French invasion loomed. They disbanded for a year after the passing of the Scotch Militia Act of 1802, which created the Ross-shire Eastern Militia, but re-formed soon after. The promotion of such units by local landowners and aristocrats, of course, was not unrelated to the fear of revolutionary ideas spreading from France to Ross and Cromarty.

May 2001   Moray Firth Ships and Trade,   Ian Hustwick

Scottish shipbuilding may once have been famed the world over - with ‘Clydebuilt’ as a recognised indicator of quality workmanship - but not too many of us would have identified the small towns around the Moray Firth as playing a significant part in that shipbuilding tradition. Yet ships were being built in Inverness and Findhorn throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the nineteenth century the Speymouth villages of Garmouth and Kingston were both busy ports as well as major centres of the shipbuilding industry.

Details of these ships, and the international trade associated with them, were supplied to members of Cromarty History Society at their final meeting of the current Session by Ian Hustwick - author of several books on maritime history and himself the descendent of Moray Firth shipmasters and shipwrights. Ian has gathered information on as many as possible of the ships built around the Firth in the nineteenth century, including those built at Cromarty as well as other Ross-shire ports including Avoch, Dingwall, Fortrose, Invergordon,  Munlochy and Rosemarkie.  While the ships built in the area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fairly small - up to 30 or 40 tons - the Speymouth yards in the nineteenth century were constructing vessels of 300 to 500 tons; capable of undertaking voyages to the Low Countries, the Baltic and beyond. These ships were built of wood, of course, and the plentiful supply of local timber - especially Scots pine - was a major factor in the development of the industry in this area.

While many of the smaller ports around the Firth engaged in only very local trade, some had a long tradition of trading much further afield. Cromarty, for example, was trading with northern Europe, including Russia, in the seventeenth century and - following the development of the town by George Ross in the late eighteenth century - was importing hemp from St Petersburg and exporting pork and bacon to the English markets. The development of the export trade in salted herring to the Baltic in the first half of the nineteenth century also provided opportunities for ships and men based in Moray Firth ports.

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