Abstracts of Talks 1998-1999

November 1998   Images of Highland Archaeology,   Sena MacKay

On 16th November, the Cromarty History Society was taken on a swift and enjoyable journey through 6000+ years of Highland history and archaeology.

The well-known architect, local historian, and past president of the Inverness Field Club, Edward Meldrum, collected a vast number of slides of Highland archaeological sites. These slides are now being arranged and catalogued by Sena Mackay. Using them as a basis for her talk, Ms Mackay traced trends in Highland ancestry from Mesolithic times through each successive group of inhabitants with particular attention to the buildings and artefacts typical of each group.

Starting from chambered cairns of the Clava type and proceeding through henges, hill forts, brochs, Pictish stones, hut circles and crannochs, Ms Mackay located examples of each type and discussed some associated mysteries and legends. For example, she noted that the meaning of the cup-marked stones at Clava and elsewhere is not clear, and questioned whether it was by accident or design that the fort at Craig Phadrig was vitrified.

Beyond the dates covered by the slides, Ms Mackay gave a brief account of the influence of the Vikings and Romans in the northern areas of Scotland and the archaeological evidence for this. In the introductions to his Local History and Archaeology Guides, Edward Meldrum wrote ‘This area of the Scottish Highlands is particularly rich in prehistoric antiquities and more and more are being identified every year’. Ms Mackay’s talk has certainly demonstrated the truth of this statement.


February 1999   The Five Euphemias of Ross,   Elizabeth Sutherland

 On 16th  February, Elizabeth Sutherland gave the Cromarty History Society a fascinating foretaste of her new book, The Five Euphemias of Ross.

How did she get the idea for this book? Anticipating that question, the speaker recalled the historical novel she had written twenty-two years ago, The Eye of God, about Catherine Ross of Balnagown, second wife of the chief of  Clan Munro, who was tried for witchcraft at the end of the 16th century. A reader, Dr A. C. Gordon, who had himself considered writing a novel about the seven Euphemias related to the medieval Earls of Ross but had given up the idea on account of his advanced age, wrote suggesting that Elizabeth Sutherland took over this project. Although too busy with other work to do anything about it at the time, she kept the notes he had given her. Eventually she reconsidered the idea, but reduced the number of Euphemias to five.

However, the material seemed better suited to a factual multiple biography than to fiction, so, with this in mind, the author started on serious research. As so often happens, the research led to a change in focus. Rather than containing detailed biographies of the Euphemias, the book became  “a journey to discover what life was like for Scottish noblewomen in the 13th and 14th centuries.”

Each of the five Euphemias exemplified some aspects of that life. The first Euphemia was the daughter of Farquhar MacTaggart, lay abbot and lord of Applecross in the early 13th century. To use an unmarried daughter as currency for the purchase of favours or promotion was a normal custom in these days and one which Farquhar MacTaggart followed in disposing of his two daughters. Euphemia’s lot was to marry into an important Anglo-Norman family, that of Walter de Moravia. Thus, she was uprooted from the Celtic culture she had known in Aopplecross and transplanted into an alien, French way of life. Although the establishment of which she became chatelaine would have been largely French speaking, Euphemia would have transmitted her own Gaelic language to her children. “It is,” the speaker noted, “thanks to Celtic women like Euphemia that French did not become the first language of Scotland and that Gaelic continued to be spoken until superseded in the south and east by old Scots.”

During the Wars of Independence, Farquhar’s grandson William, Earl of Ross, was taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar (1296) and held in the Tower of London. Elizabeth Sutherland’s second Euphemia was his wife, a lady of unknown origin but considerable diplomatic skill. She supported the king (Edward I), wrote flattering letters to him, and may have visited him in Elgin and sworn personal loyalty to him. The result was that after seven years her husband was freed and became warden of the north of Scotland. Later, William changed sides again and supported Robert Bruce.

The granddaughter of this Euphemia was brought up at Dingwall Castle. Her upbringing illustrated two contrasting principles in medieval education for girls, one which exposed the girls to much company in public and another which required seclusion for their private lives. This Euphemia took part in two political marriages, the second one to Robert II. She spent the last sixteen years of her life, therefore, as Queen of Scotland.

The fourth Euphemia also was forced to marry two husbands, Sir Walter Lesley and the notorious Wolf of Badenoch. Her association with the building of Fortrose Cathedral makes her of particular local interest.

Quite different was the life of the fifth Euphemia: no husband of any kind for her since she was deformed and therefore, according to the ideas of the time, unmarriageable. She was sent to a nunnery where presumably she led a useful if not necessarily fulfilling life.

The timing of this lecture to coincide with the publication of Elizabeth Sutherland’s book was quite accidental, but it was certainly a happy accident. Several members left the meeting expressing a desire to read the book

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