Abstracts of Talks 2009-10

September 2009   Education in the Highlands,    Eileen McCaskill

Teaching in a 19th century highland school could be a pretty demanding experience. Especially if, as generally happened with new teachers, your first post was in a remote rural area where you could find yourself in a one teacher school with pupils who spoke only Gaelic. The difficulties were spelled out by education historian Eileen McCaskill to an appreciative audience at last week's meeting of Cromarty History Society.

Regardless of the difficulties, the authorities had high expectations of highland schools, and the dreaded visits by Her Majesty's Inspectors were designed to ensure that standards in rural schools were as high as in town and city schools. In at least one island school, pupils were assembled in the middle of the night for an Inspector's visit because that was the only time that the gentleman could make the crossing.

Surviving school log books provide a fascinating record of school life. These had to be meticulously kept by the headmaster – no blots allowed – and would be inspected for proof that the approved curriculum was being followed to the letter.

There was little gender equality in 19th century schools. Headmasters were, of course, male – and might earn £100 plus a schoolhouse, while a female teacher had to be content with £70.

Mrs McCaskill also touched on the 20th century phenomenon of evacuee children in highland schools, commenting on the double dose of culture shock experienced by city children transported to a rural setting and then returned years later to an urban environment.

October 2009   The Mackenzies of Redcastle,   Dr Graham Clark

The ruins of Redcastle, overlooking the inner Beauly Firth, have a series of stories to tell. Founded by William I to defend his kingdom against Norse earls and rivals to his throne, the first castle – built in 1179 - changed hands several times before coming into the possession of the Mackenzie barons of Kintail in 1568. The fluctuating fortunes of the eight generations of Mackenzies of Redcastle were outlined by Dr Graham Clark at last week's meeting of the Cromarty History Society.

Ruairidh Mòr, first of the eight, was involved in acts of violence against his neighbours, but received a royal pardon for his misdeeds and enlarged the estate beyond North Kessock. His grandson, another Ruairidh, fought on the Royalist side in the Civil War, was captured by Covenanting forces, and his castle set on fire.

The fourth Mackenzie of Redcastle, Colin 'Niag' received a charter from Oliver Cromwell in 1651 allowing him to re-build the castle and awarding him £21,000 in compensation for the damage caused. Colin amassed a substantial fortune and succeeded in having Redcastle erected as a Burgh of Barony, with the right to hold weekly markets and two fairs per year.

Colin's grandson, the sixth Mackenzie, was responsible for the decline in Redcastle's fortunes due to costly legal disputes with his neighbours, and the eighth and final Mackenzie, Kenneth, ended a controversial military career by being killed in a duel in Constantinople leaving a bankrupt estate to his creditors.

November 2009   The Episcopal Church in the Highlands,   Bishop Mark Strange

The Right Reverend Mark Strange is the Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness and is proud to be the latest in a line stretching back to St. Boniface, founder of a cathedral at Rosemarkie in the 7th century. In a talk to Cromarty History Society, Bishop Mark highlighted the historic relationships between his church and the Scottish Highlands. An unfortunate habit of being on the losing side in repeated conflicts with the British State was born out of a tenacious loyalty to the Stuart kings. It led to the Episcopalian MacDonalds of Glencoe being massacred because of their chief's reluctance to sign an oath of loyalty to William of Orange. It brought Episcopalian highlanders out in their thousands in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745, and it led to repression of their church after each failed rebellion.

When King William succeeded James VII on the British throne in 1689, around 89% of the population north of the Tay was Episcopalian, and few highland parishes rushed to eject their existing priests in favour of Presbyterian clergy (Cromarty being the exception). The Penal Acts of the 18th century, however, made Episcopalian worship ever more difficult, with the result that by 1798 there were only four priests left in the Diocese of Ross and church buildings at Arpafeelie, Tain and elsewhere had been destroyed.

The death of the exiled, childless, Charles Edward Stuart in that year freed the clergy from their loyalty to the Stuart cause and, in return for the lifting of restrictions on their worship, they agreed to pray for the Hanoverian monarchy. A new stage in the life of an old Scottish church had begun.

December 2009   Cromarty in the Victorian Age,   Sandy Thomson and Dr David Alston

Sandy Thomson and David Alston's annual presentation on the history of Cromarty began four years ago with a talk on the early medieval period and has been advancing through time since then. The very well-attended December meeting of the Society heard a fascinating outline of life in the Victorian era, with Mr. Thomson opening with a summary of the national context before Dr. Alston focussed in related events in the Cromarty of the period.

Victoria's reign, from 1837 to 1901, was marked by a doubling of the Scottish population and a major shift of people towards the west central Lowlands. It was also the period when Scotland became the workshop of the world, with heavy industry taking over from textile production. Church affairs dominated public and political life, with the Kirk splitting in two at the Disruption of 1843.

Cromarty was not immune to any of these developments.  It did, however, have particular problems during the Victorian era. As Dr Alston pointed out, there are very few houses in Cromarty today that can be dated to this period, as this was when the town went into a sharp decline following the collapse of the hemp industry, the decline in fishing, and the rise of Invergordon as both an improved harbour and a railhead. In spite of these problems, Cromarty played a major role in Church politics, with both the parish minister Alexander Stewart and of course Hugh Miller being key players in the events leading up to the Disruption. Cromarty folk also took an enthusiastic part in the celebrations of Victoria's Jubilee in 1887, with processions through the town and an issue of free candles to the poor fisher folk to put in their windows.

January 2010   Cromarty Estate Farms in the 18th and 19th Centuries,   Sandy Thomson

When a Sunderland aircraft on a training flight crashed into high tension wires on the night of July 28th 1944, it skidded along the ground for a quarter mile before ploughing into Allerton farmhouse, two miles west of Cromarty. The building it destroyed was a 19th century farmstead, but it stood on the site of one of the first 'improved' farms on the Black Isle – built not by the laird but by the tenant Kenneth MacCulloch in the 1750s. At last week's meeting of Cromarty History Society, Sandy Thomson described how MacCulloch abandoned the traditional fermtoun of Mickle Farnes to build a modern single-tenant farm.

There were more than twenty fermtouns on the Cromarty estate in the mid-18th century – groupings of maybe half a dozen tenant families tilling small patches of land on the runrig system, grazing their livestock on the poorer land and collecting peat and thatch on the common muir. Changes were, however, just round the corner. With the laird keen to exploit his lands to the full, new methods were being introduced on the Mains farm, and when George Ross bought the estate in 1767 the pace of improvement quickened. In the mid 19th century another new laird, Hugh Rose Ross, appointed an energetic factor, Mr Strachan, who forced through farm amalgamations with little regard for the rights of sitting tenants and sub-tenants. Now, instead of fermtouns there was a relatively small number of large modern farms employing some former tenants and sub-tenants as agricultural workers and profiting from the expanding urban markets in the south.

They didn't profit for long. The last decades of the 19th century were disastrous years for Scottish farmers, as cheap imports of grain flooded in from North America and Russia and wool and dairy produce arrived from Australia and New Zealand. The Cromarty estate was forced to reduce farm rentals by about a quarter in the first decade of the 20th century. It took a World War to make Cromarty farms profitable once more.

February 2010   Highlanders in Poland/Lithuania 1500-1800,   Dr David Worthington

Much has been written about emigration from the Highlands to North America and other parts of the British Empire, but much less attention has been paid to an earlier diaspora - that of emigrants to the European mainland. At the February meeting of Cromarty History Society, Dr David Worthington of UHI’s Centre for History spoke of the thousands who left Scotland to trade and fight in Poland and Lithuania. Not all were Highlanders, but many were, and the impact they made was mercantile, military and cultural. Public archives in Gdansk tell of Highland Scots trading - sometimes illegally - as early as the 15th century, and by the 17th century there was a sizeable group of Scottish merchants there, enough to have two areas of the city called ‘Old Scotland’ and ‘New Scotland’. When Charles II was seeking funds in 1651 to carry on his fight for the British thrones, he asked the King of Poland to levy a tax on his Scottish subjects.

Some, like Alexander ‘Polander’ Ross, who purchased the Ankerville estate in Nigg Parish, brought their wealth back home. Others stayed in Poland and went on to found dynasties of Polish citizens who lost all touch with their Highland roots. Jim Hunter has written of Wanda Machlejd who survived the Warsaw uprising in 1944 and whose MacLeod ancestor left Skye in 1620 to fight as a mercenary in the Thirty Years War. Highland soldiers were much in demand in the 17th century, and there exists a contemporary print of soldiers of Mackay’s Regiment at Stettin in Poland - having sailed from Cromarty in 1626.

March 2010   Gravestones at Cromarty East Kirk,   History Society Members

The graveyard of a historic church dating back to Pre-Reformation times has many stories to tell. At the most recent meeting of Cromarty History Society, Society members shared some of these stories with an appreciative audience. Susan Florence and Dr Lindsay Hemy  focused on those distressing gravestones which listed large numbers of children dying in infancy. Analysis of  available death certificates showed that common causes of death were diphtheria, enteritis, whooping cough and malnutrition, along with periodic outbreaks of smallpox and cholera - and a mysterious ailment called ‘bowel hives’.

Paul Monk explored the stories behind three gravestones - those of Midshipman George Dunbar, Margaret Williamson and John Thomson. Dunbar’s stone tells us that he died in 1789 aged 15 in Cromarty harbour. Paul had established that he was midshipman on HMS Champion, a small warship engaged in a survey of the east coast of Britain, but the cause of his death remains a mystery. 

Margaret Williamson - from Shoremill, west of Cromarty - appears on another 18th century gravestone and features as ‘Meggie o’ the Shore’, a profoundly religious woman with supernatural gifts, in Hugh Miller’s ‘Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland’. 

John Thomson was Coastguard Officer in Cromarty who died in 1878, and was widely acclaimed for his heroism when serving on the East India Company ship ‘Kent’ which went on fire in 1825 in a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay, when Thomson took command of a small cutter and ferried the passengers to safety.

Dr David Alston concluded by sharing the reminiscences of Harriet Taylor, close friend of Hugh Miller’s wife Lydia, who wrote of Miller working in the graveyard while patiently tolerating the presence of local children.

April 2010   Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty,   Helma Reynolds

At the final meeting of the current Session, Helma Reynolds outlined the extraordinary life of Sir Thomas Urquhart - 17th century Laird of Cromarty, civil war soldier, would-be inventor of a Universal Language and self-proclaimed direct descendant of Adam and Eve. A student at Aberdeen University aged 11, he studied Classics and Mathematics before leaving to tour the Continent where he appears to have been involved in the wars of the period as well as fighting duels to defend the honour of Scotland.

Returning in 1636 he found the Cromarty estate in serious debt and, along with his brother, was forced to lock up his father in Cromarty Castle to stop the debts getting worse. Three years later, the Covenanting Wars broke out and Thomas was part of a group of Royalist and Episcopalian lairds who routed a covenanting force at the Trot of Turriff before going on to capture the city of Aberdeen. When that was retaken by the Covenanters shortly after, Thomas took ship for London and the court of Charles I, who knighted him for his services in 1641.

When his father died the following year, Sir Thomas returned to Cromarty where he struggled to deal with his creditors as well as facing the opposition of the local Presbyterian ministers of Cromarty, Kirkmichael and Cullicudden. The execution of Charles I by the English Parliament in 1649 led to another Royalist rising in the North, and Sir Thomas took part in an attack on Inverness for which he was declared a traitor by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651, however, saw a large Scottish army mustered to fight for their king against Cromwell’s army, and Sir Thomas marched south with them to meet defeat at the Battle of Worcester.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, he bargained for his freedom with an offer to produce a work of genius - his Universal Language - and was paroled and allowed to return to Cromarty for five months to sort out his affairs. Having dealt as best he could with the circling creditors he returned to the Tower, from where he either escaped or was released in 1653 and went to the Continent where he apparently died in 1660.

Helma Reynolds outlined Sir Thomas’ writings, which included an impenetrable work of mathematics  The Trissotetras in 1644,  an extraordinary Urquhart genealogy Pantochronochranon in 1651 which traced his ancestors via Methuselah and Noah back to Adam and Eve, his introduction to the Universal Language The Jewel in 1652, and his highly regarded translation in 1653 of Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French writer Rabelais.

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