Abstracts of Talks 2007-08

October 2007   Inverness Museum ‘Future-Proofed’,   Catherine Niven

When plans were being drawn up for the refurbishment of Inverness’s Museum and Art Gallery, one key decision was to ‘future-proof’ the displays to ensure that they could be re-used in an anticipated brand-new building elsewhere in the city. Catherine Niven, curator of the museum, explained to members of Cromarty History Society at their recent meeting that state of the art display cases were purchased in 2006 so that they could be re-used in any new location. The result has been an exciting ‘re-display’ of the existing collections which shows them to best advantage, incorporates excellent visitor facilities and is now fully accessible to visitors with disabilities.

The ‘new’ museum – opened in time for the Highland Year of Culture 2007 – is the product of extensive public consultation, which generated a vision of the building as promoting a sense of belonging, fostering a sense of local pride, and contributing to the debate on the future of the Highlands. Facilities in the museum reflect this vision in the Community Display Space and the Imagination Room as well as the modern café and shop areas. Society members were delighted to have an update on these developments and an insight into the planning and development processes that led up to them.

November 2007   Archaeological Investigations in Cromarty,   John Wood

‘The study of rubbish and ruins’. That was one definition of archaeology offered by freelance archaeologist John Wood when he addressed a recent meeting of Cromarty History Society. Outlining his recent excavations in Cromarty, he offered a theory of the town’s development with a castle-centred thirteenth century burgh spreading westward in later centuries to form the town we know today. As the burgh expanded to the west, so the medieval east end declined leaving only a handful of houses on the present-day Causeway.

The particular rubbish and ruins that had been studied in recent years were at three different locations – the former Cromarty house walled garden, the East Church and the seventeenth century Townlands Barn. Trenches had been dug in the walled garden in 2004 in an ultimately fruitless search for a lost road linking the parish church to the castle. More recently, excavation had taken place at the historic East Church as a preliminary to the planned programme of restoration. This had exposed an unsuccessful 1970s attempt to inhibit water penetration by the laying of drains and bitumen sealing of the foundations, and had identified a serious problem of underwater springs beneath the flagstones of the church.  Development-led work at Townlands Barn had established that the exterior ground level had been built up in the nineteenth century to accommodate a horse mill. It had also been possible to chart the changing fortunes of the building as it changed from being the town house of Bernard Mackenzie, last Episcopalian parish minister of Cromarty, to become a series of workmen’s cottages and finally the barn of Townlands Farm.  

December 2007   Slaves, Highlanders and Freedom,   Dr David Alston and Margot Henderson

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire was marked by Cromarty History Society at its December meeting by an intriguing ‘double bill’ consisting of a talk by Dr David Alston on Highland involvement in the slave trade plus poems and songs on the theme of ‘Freedom’ by Cromarty Arts Trust’s Writer in Residence, Margot Henderson.

Any lingering notions that Scots had little if any involvement in the slave trade were firmly squashed by Dr Alston. The names of the slave-dependent cotton plantations in the Caribbean colonies of Berbice and Demerara (now Guyana) tell a different story: Cromarty, Dunrobin, Novar, Belladrum, Foulis, and many more. The truth is that Highland landowners were also plantation owners – often employing Highland friends and relations as managers and overseers. Lord Seaforth, in a letter to the Duke of Portland, commented that a great many of his neighbours had plantations in present-day Guyana, and some of the substantial profits from these plantations helped fund important Highland institutions. Inverness Royal Academy, Tain Royal Academy and the Northern Infirmary in Inverness were endowed by slave owners, as was – to a lesser extent – Fortrose Academy on the Black Isle.

Life for a plantation slave who survived the passage from Africa was seldom comfortable. Dr Alston offered the example of the slave ‘Inverness’; sold in 1803 by a cousin of the Barrs of Dochfour to Peter Fairbairn, secretary to Lord Seaforth and administrator of his plantation in Demerara. ‘Inverness’ escaped into the jungle later that year, but was hunted down and recaptured. Recapturing runaway slaves was a profitable sideline for some enterprising Scots. There were, of course, few white women in the slave colonies, and sexual exploitation of female slaves was commonplace. Some lasting liaisons were formed, and a few mulatto wives and mistresses brought back to the Highlands, and their children educated in Highland schools.

Findhorn-based Margot Henderson followed Dr Alston’s talk with a series of poems (and a couple of songs), some of which had been inspired by David Alston’s researches. One poem, in particular, was based on a chance conversation in London with a group of West Indians who were only too well aware of Scottish involvement in their ancestors’ enslavement.

January 2008   From Flodden to the Union —  Cromarty from 1513 to 1707,    Dr David Alston and Sandy Thomson

In 2007, David Alston and Sandy Thomson gave an illustrated talk to the Society on Cromarty in the medieval period. For the January 2008 meeting, the two local members took Cromarty’s history forward to the early modern period – up to the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments. While Sandy Thomson outlined the national context within which local events took place, David Alston focused on life in Cromarty with the help of slides of artefacts from the surrounding area.

This was the era of the Protestant Reformation of 1560, the Union of the Crowns of 1603, the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 50s and the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe, with the Treaty of Union closing the period in 1707. In a high-speed canter through these major events, Mr Thomson described a remarkably peaceful Reformation, but one which deprived us of much of our medieval artistic heritage; the departure of a glittering Renaissance royal court to London; the attempts by London-based Stuart kings to establish religious uniformity throughout their three kingdoms; the Government’s ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics at Glencoe; and the dynastic tensions and economic pressures that led to parliamentary union.

Artefacts from Cromarty included a number of silver coins from the burgh, including a ‘quarter thistle merk’ of James VI and a Scots 12 shilling piece of Charles I, as well as an elegant gold ‘poesy ring’, with a hidden inscription on the inside of the ring reading ‘Thy virtuous spirit doth honours merit’. Dr Alston pointed out that some of the most important objects surviving from the period were carved stones. These included a pre-Reformation priest’s gravestone at Cullicudden, bearing the symbols of a chalice and a pierced hand; a stone panel from Cromarty Castle, now in Cromarty House, showing a hunting scene; and a number of carved stones which once adorned the houses of the merchant families of the seventeenth-century burgh.

February 2008   The Fleet in the Cromarty Firth,   Estelle Quick

The Royal Navy’s connections with the Cromarty Firth go back a long way. As Estelle Quick explained to the Cromarty History Society at their last meeting, naval warships appeared in the Firth during the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745 to support government forces and to prevent French ships from landing troops in support of the rebels.

The huge expansion of the navy in the period leading up to the First World War highlighted the need for secure naval bases around our shores, and it was Admiral Fisher and subsequently Winston Churchill as first Lord of the Admiralty who identified the potential of the Firth. The expansion of Invergordon that followed included not only port facilities but also new housing and even a golf course.

The mysterious sinking of HMS Natal in December 1915 with the loss of over 400 lives was the biggest tragedy in the history of the Firth. The meeting was shown some moving pieces of memorabilia associated with the Natal, including a copy of the ship’s newspaper and some first hand accounts from witnesses and a survivor of the explosion.

The 1931 Invergordon Mutiny again focused national attention on the Firth, and the meeting heard of the reduction in wages which triggered the discontent as well as the fate of the mutiny’s ringleaders.

April 2008   Cromarty in the 1950s,   Dougie MacPhee

At the final meeting of the 2007-08 Session, members of Cromarty History Society were fascinated by a detailed account of Cromarty life in the 1950s, in a talk given by local resident Dougie MacPhee. Mr MacPhee, who is also a Community Councillor in the Black Isle town, led his listeners in an imaginary walk through the streets of Cromarty: streets which were full of local shops including a chemist, ironmonger, butcher, chip shop, countless sweetie shops, and even an Indian takeaway.

Before the Kessock and Cromarty bridges were built, Cromarty was both more isolated and more self-sufficient. The town’s Victoria Hall was in non-stop use by a whole range of community groups, and on Friday and Saturday nights was transformed into the local picture house – courtesy of Hercher’s travelling cinema. The parish church and the church hall were also at the centre of town life, with two services every Sunday and a full range of youth organisations.

Cromarty had more licensed premises in the 1950s than it has now, but these were all state-owned. Because of the concentration of military personnel based in the town during both World Wars, the government had nationalised the pubs and off-licence in order to control drunkenness and maintain public order.

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