Abstracts of Talks 2004-05

September 16, 2004   Archaeology around Cromarty,    John Wood

 Defining archaeology as ‘the study and interpretation of the material remains of people’s past’ or, more colourfully, as ‘rubbish and ruins,’ Mr Wood explained why relatively few remains have been found in the Highlands generally and in Cromarty in particular. People in the Highlands left few remains because they were good at recycling. It is sometimes thought that lack of material remains indicates a primitive culture; it may just as well indicate an environmentally friendly culture. In Cromarty itself, one explanation of the paucity of remains is that the town’s status as a conservation area precludes much digging.

Mr Wood then addressed three questions. What have we got around Cromarty? How do we know about it? What next?

What we have around Cromarty includes, for example, fish traps, shipwrecks, a few cairns on Gallows Hill, probably of Bronze Age, and the fortifications on the Sutors.

We know about this from fieldwork and the recording activities of organizations such as the Ordnance Survey, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, the Sites and Monuments Records, and from various other surveys and archives. Mr Wood briefly summarized the work done by these organizations in the past. He noted also that much information can now be accessed on-line, citing among others, the web sites of Am Baile, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the National Library of Scotland.

As to future work, Mr Wood proposed an agenda which included filling in gaps in the records, further non-invasive fieldwork in and around Cromarty, and sample excavations to prove or disprove some commonly accepted ideas about the early development of Cromarty. For example, the official view that the Causeway was Cromarty’s main street in the Middle Ages may be wrong as it assumes a street plan inconsistent with the usual topography of mediaeval Scottish towns.

October 21, 2004   Rosehaugh House,   Kathleen MacLeman

 Mrs MacLeman began by outlining the history of the Rosehaugh estate from the time when Sir George Mackenzie acquired the lands of Pittanochtie, later to be Rosehaugh, in the 1660s. Three houses were successively built, the first by Sir George, the second by Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Scatwell and, most importantly, the third by James Douglas Fletcher. This was built on the same site as the second.

Following this introduction, Mrs MacLeman took us on a pictorial tour of the interior of the third house. Especially noteworthy were the ornate fireplaces, walls, ceilings and doors throughout, and on the ground floor, the magnificent ballroom, the drawing room with its Louis XIV furniture, and the library. J.D. Fletcher was reputed to have possessed one of the five largest book collections in the country.

We also visited the bedrooms, all themed (Elizabethan, Georgian, etc), the “gentlemen’s area” of snooker and smoking rooms, the luxuriously equipped bathrooms, and the basement swimming pool and Turkish baths. Marble slabs and valuable tiles from Persia adorned this area.

The inhabitants of the house were not neglected; anecdotes of both the owners and the household staff brought them to life for us. Amusing, for example, were the wartime economies practised by Lilian Fletcher. She inserted small modern bathtubs inside the huge older baths to save water, and also blocked up some of the original fireplaces.

Demolition of the house in 1959 was a sad occasion, but Mrs MacLeman explained the circumstances that made it necessary, however regrettable. A final slide showed what is left of the site today.

November 18, 2004   Hugh Miller — Hero or Villain?   Martin Gostwick:

 The three parts of Martin Gostwick’s talk to Cromarty History Society on 18th November (Hugh Miller – Hero or Villain?) can be labelled as the controversial, the personal, and the visual sections. All were well-presented and enjoyable.

In the controversial section, Mr Gostwick took issue with criticisms of Miller made in a previous talk, when Miller was depicted as ‘a fraud in every field of human endeavour he put his hand to, as writer, as scientist, as human being.’ To mention only one example, the previous speaker had slated Miller for wandering about in the smog of Edinburgh with a brace of pistols in his belt, implying that by so doing he had put his own family in danger. Mr Gostwick refuted this by suggesting that Miller was merely walking home late from work and that, even if carrying the pistols indicated a troubled mind, it was not a wholly unreasonable precaution to take, given that ‘the capital was crawling with armed footpads.’

Miller might have appreciated the irony of being defended by Martin Gostwick who, unlike Miller, is not a Scot, was brought up in the Roman Catholic church, and was at one time a ‘card-carrying Marxist.’ In the personal section of his talk, Mr Gostwick highlighted these differences between himself and Miller but also noted how, as a journalist himself, he could appreciate Miller’s hard-hitting leaders in The Witness.

There is no doubt that Miller was not entirely free of bigotry, but Mr Gostwick saw him as less bigoted than many others of that time and place. Miller certainly abhorred what he called ‘Popery’. However, he supported Roman Catholic emancipation and, as editor of  The Witness, he refused to print the more extreme anti-Popery ranting of some of his contemporaries. Similarly, Miller’s anti-Chartist stance and his opposition to strikes were certainly a large part of his approach to working class politics and industrial relations, but he was not fanatical about this. He was sympathetic to the general principle of strikes as ‘unquestionably a just one’, but opposed them on the practical grounds that they were ineffective and almost always defeated.

The visual section centred on Miller House, the new National Trust museum housing the record of Miller’s life and times and associated artefacts. After an introduction detailing the work of the National Trust in Cromarty, Mr Gostwick presented a slide-tour of Miller House, using photographs by Andrew Dowsett. This was a real visual treat and an encouragement for those who have not yet visited the museum to do so as soon as possible.

The answer to the title’s question is implicit in all three sections. In Mr Gostwick’s view, Hugh Miller was neither a hero nor a villain. He had flaws, but he also had ‘heroic qualities, magnificent talents, and considerable worth as a human being, and these far outweighed his flaws.’

December 16, 2004   A Tale of Two Hospitals,   Lilah Dowsett

 Mrs Dowsett outlined the history of Cromarty Cottage Hospital and Cromarty Military Hospital, from 1891 and 1914 respectively. Both narratives were enlivened by reminiscences and amusing anecdotes.

An epidemic of measles was the stimulus that led to the formation of a Committee and a gift of land for a hospital to serve the local community. The project went ahead in spite of some opposition expressed in letters to the Cromarty News. For example, one writer commented that it was a waste of money; housing was more important than a hospital. Another suggestion was that the Gaelic Chapel should be converted, thus avoiding the expense of a new building.

However, the building was undertaken under the direction of the architects, Andrew Maitland & Sons, of Tain. Local men were employed in the construction. Mrs Nicoll of Links House and Mrs Geoffrey St Quinton of Cromarty House furnished one ward each. Brass plaques, now held by Cromarty Courthouse Museum, commemorated their generosity.

In 1892, the first District Nurse, Mrs Buchan Hepburn, was appointed. She was replaced shortly by Miss MacBride, who became Matron when the hospital was completed in 1893 and officially opened on 22nd June 1894.

Under a succession of nurses and matrons the hospital flourished, supported by voluntary contributions until 1948 when it came under the aegis of the National Health Service. It continued in use mainly as a maternity hospital until its closure in 1954.

After the outbreak of the First World War, which brought many servicemen to the area, Cromarty Military Hospital was established as a Central Hospital staffed by RAMC personnel and sisters of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.

It was a 226 bed hutted camp hospital, with 20 beds for officers and the rest for other ranks. Its location is not known for certain, but Mrs Dowsett suggested it might have been in the field behind the West Church Hall or in the Victoria Park, both locations being conveniently near the camp of the 3rd Seaforth Highlanders. The Medical Officer at the hospital was Major Richard Brodie RAMC, formerly, and again after the war, of Munlochy.

January 16, 2005   Rev. Alexander Stewart,   John Tallach

 At the age of five, Rev. Alexander Stewart suffered a severe loss in the death of his mother. His father married again, but young Alexander did not get on well with his stepmother. Later, he developed a very special affection for his aunt, the widowed sister of his mother, who stayed with him in Cromarty. Mr Tallach concluded that this early loss contributed to the emotional depth which characterized him, both as a man and a minister. “Sometimes we are enriched by experiences in which it appears that we have only suffered loss”.

After Stewart’s divinity training was finished, he immersed himself in the Gaelic language and was called to a church in Rothesay where he was expected to preach half in English and half in Gaelic. Although others described his Gaelic as accurate and graceful, his own very high standards led him to decide that he was not suited to preach in Gaelic. As a result, he moved to Cromarty. Here he could confine himself to English as there was a separate Gaelic chapel with its own Gaelic-speaking minister.

Mr Tallach then looked more directly at Stewart’s personality. A marked feature of this was a lack of self confidence, commented on by several people especially Hugh Miller. After Stewart’s death, Miller, who greatly admired him, said of him that “it was the grand defect of this gifted man that that sentiment of self-esteem, which seems in many instances so absurd and ridiculous a thing … was almost wholly wanting.” Like many humble and diffident people, Stewart was sometimes mistakenly considered to be proud and haughty. Mr Tallach admitted that he did find occasional difficulty in relating to others, but this slight defect was clearly outweighed by his many virtues.

As a preacher, Stewart prepared himself by hard study, research, and analysis of the passage he intended to preach on. He then brought together the various aspects of his theme in a brilliantly imaginative way so as to communicate his message effectively to his hearers. Some time after his death, two books based on his sermons were published, even though he had left instructions in his will that his manuscripts should be destroyed. Mr Tallach summed up Stewart’s contribution to preaching in these words: “Add to these intellectual and artistic gifts the depth of emotion which Stewart brought to his task of preaching the gospel, and we have some idea of why the minister of this quiet parish was widely regarded as the most powerful preacher in Scotland in his day, with the only exception of Thomas Chalmers.”

Finally, Mr Tallach considered Stewart’s part in the Disruption and in the Free Church, comparing him in this respect with Miller. Both men were fully committed to the cause, but Stewart avoided public acclaim and was less combative than Miller. Stewart spoke throughout the North East in favour of the Free Church movement. He supported and encouraged the first English-speaking Free Church in Inverness, and he was chosen to preach at the first service organized under the auspices of the Free Church at the time of the Disruption.

After the Disruption, the leadership of the Free Church put pressure on Stewart to move to Edinburgh as minister of St George’s Free Church, an important and prestigious appointment. There, huge crowds would flock to hear him preach and he would necessarily have to play a leading role in the ecclesiastical disputes of the capital. This was not to Stewart’s liking. On receiving the call, he described himself as carrying his gravestone on his back. He spoke perhaps more truly than he knew, for he died before the move to Edinburgh took place.

February 17, 2005   Strathcarnoch,   David Alston

 Dr Alston compared Strathcarnoch in the 18th (shown in David Aitken’s maps) and as it is today (shown in Dr Alston’s own photographs).

The maps come from a volume of 27 coloured plans of farms in Skelbo surveyed by Aitken in 1778. This, then, was land cultivated before the time of agricultural improvement. The type of agriculture also pre-dated crafting.

The land was cleared before 1815. Because it has not been cultivated to any great extent since then, what is seen on the ground today, and in the photographs, represents pre-19th century settlement.

Both the maps and the photographs clearly display the complicated system of fields and dykes, the enclosures used to keep animals inside and collect their dung, and older structures such as the broch known as the Druid’s temple. This dates from the 2nd century A.D., but the area was inhabited long before that. A mound in one of the side glens was probably an Iron Age dun; the remains of a defensive wall can still be seen.

In addition to the maps, Dr Alston showed a variety of original documents relating to particular settlements, such as Brae of Dallnamain. Valuations of property are always interesting; the document Apprising of George Ross’s Biggings 1790 illustrates the extent to which wood and timber was valued in these days.

Colonel George Sutherland’s were larger than Ross’s, as befitted his position as tacksman with subtenants as well as servants. Dr Alston showed the location of his house on high ground. His servants’ houses were less conveniently placed on the low boggy ground.

Sutherland kept detailed records. For example, he listed chronologically all the farm work carried out at Brae between May 19th and September 30th, 1789. A typical entry was: “The sheep lassy came home late and had 43 sheep, 27 wedders and 10 lambs delivered her.” There were also records relating to disputes he had with tenants or servants.

Strathcarnoch in the 18th century was densely populated, so what happened to leave so few people there today? Some settlements, e.g. Loch Buidhe, Brae, Dallmamain, were given over to sheep. Shepherds and sheep managers figured prominently in the Census returns of 1841 to 1891; in earlier days more diverse occupations would have been represented. Other settlements were just abandoned.

Traces of them remain, however. Ruined houses, kilns for drying grain, clearance cairns, cultivation rigs and turf dykes are recognizable features of the landscape today. Dr Alston’s photographs of these features are an eloquent expression of the history of the Strath and its people.

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