Abstracts of Talks 2013-14

September 2013   The Baby in the Biscuit Box — A Case Study from 1882,   Norman Newton

There was a double purpose to Norman Newton’s talk to the Cromarty History Society on 19th September: to tell the fascinating story of a mystery not yet completely solved, and to explain the methods and sources which, although they led to a partial solution, were often misleading especially when any one of them was taken in isolation from others.

In 1882 a live baby girl was conveyed in a biscuit box to a farm near Fort George, addressed to Mrs Macbean who turned out to have died three years earlier. Who was this child? Who was the respectably dressed woman who had handed it out of a railway carriage to a porter, requesting him to get the mail-gig to carry it to the farm? Why did she send it to that particular farm? What subsequently happened to both the child and its mother?

It seems possible from Norman’s research that the mother had previously worked at the farm and must have known that Mrs Macbean was no longer alive. Perhaps the baby was the illegitimate offspring of Mr Macbean. A census record indicates that the mother, Margaret Matheson may have been a married woman with children. If this is so, perhaps she needed to keep the birth hidden from her husband, although how could she have accounted to him for an absence from home of more than a month while she stayed, as later testified, at a boarding house near Nairn where the birth took place? The census record, however, could merely represent a coincidence of name.

Eventually Margaret Matheson was tried and convicted of child desertion at Inverness Sheriff Court. The question of paternity was not proven although the farmer was interrogated thoroughly by the defence lawyer. He was shown a photograph and asked if he did not see a likeness of himself in the baby’s face.  He replied that he did see a resemblance, not immediately understanding the implication of the question, but then corrected himself, causing some hilarity. Mrs Matheson was sentenced to sixty days in prison. The baby was given into the charge of a wet nurse, but what happened to her after that is not known.

Even after meticulous examination of different and inconsistent newspaper accounts, censuses, statutory birth, marriage and death records, and other sources, there is still much that is unknown about the case. It provides, however, an excellent object lesson for the local historian in the necessity of examining all available sources rather than taking any one of them at face value. Some more information may yet turn up.

October 2013   Tent Pegs and Treasures  — Metal Detecting at Belleadrum,   Eric Soane

Members and visitors to this month’s meeting were entertained by Eric Soane and tales of his fourteen-year metal detecting hobby which have resulted in his becoming one of the top three suppliers of Treasure Trove in Scotland. The Treasure Trove system ensures that significant findings from the past are made available for preservation for the public benefit through our network of museums.

Eric introduced the equipment he uses, ranging from sophisticated GPS units to a simple toothbrush. His methods are painstaking and require him to continually recover his steps remaining optimistic that he will uncover the secrets of a site. His interest is in helping to build up knowledge of the local history of an area.

He has good relations with the farmers and landowners, who allow him access to suitable land for his metal detecting activities. However, we were surprised to hear about the lucrative finds on school playing fields (lost pocket money!) Eric gives back the value of his finds to the respective school funds!

In 2009, he was put in touch with the owner of the Belladrum estate, who was having problems with tent pegs left in the ground after the annual Tartan Heart festivals. The pegs had the potential to be harmful to the animals farmed there and also could damage farm equipment. Over the last 4 years, Eric estimates he has found over 10,000 tent pegs on the site with the use of his equipment. He manages to recycle the pegs, which find uses in agriculture, by archaeology groups and even in charitable use abroad. It was during the exploration at Belladrum that Eric uncovered a hoard of both Roman coins and some from the reign of the first Stewart king. These finds led to an archaeological dig, which has since found evidence of Iron Age settlement there.

November 2013   Building your Own History: — Climbing the Family Tree,   Jonathan McColl

​Family history is a subject that interests many of the members of Cromarty History Society, so we were delighted that our meeting on November 21st was devoted to a lecture by Jonathan McColl:

  “Building your own History – Climbing the family tree and what our ancestors did there”. Jonathan is an Irish-Canadian with family roots in Canada, Ireland and Scotland, with a correspondingly international mix of ancestors. Besides his own family tree, Jonathan has undertaken the mammoth task of being, essentially, Dingwall’s resident genealogist.


There were two intermingled strands in the talk; how to do family history, and an account of Jonathan’s own progression in such research starting from initial encouragement from his grandmother to his present level of expertise. By cleverly weaving these strands together Jonathan was able to discuss not only the various records and methods that are useful in family history but also to illustrate them by a fascinating anecdotal study of his family, including notable and sometimes eccentric members.


The talk was accompanied by excellent slides, many of them portraits of particularly interesting ancestors. Jonathan pointed out the value of collecting such visual reminders and other family mementoes and supplementing them with the appropriate official records, not only for the benefit of one’s own descendants but because they become pieces in the jigsaw of history.

December 2013   Christmas Crackers — Hugh Miller, James Thomson plus a Quiz!

Members and visitors who attended the December meeting of the Cromarty History Society were entertained with a varied programme as part of a “Christmas Cracker” experience!

The evening commenced with a short film by Holly Allen, a media studies student with some local connections. The production was her interpretation of Cromarty’s Hugh Miller and in particular the events leading up to his suicide on Christmas Eve 1856.

This was followed by a talk about a less well-known Cromarty native, who lived around the same time as Hugh Miller. On the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty, a blue plaque has been erected to commemorate the life of James Thomson M.D., born and brought up in that house. Mary Bowers, a member of the society, related how having this plaque on the gable end of her home prompted her to research James’ story.  She uncovered an inspirational tale of a young man who qualified as a doctor and chose to join the Army Medical Service at a time of international tension and warfare. His subsequent actions were both heroic and selfless. After the First Battle of Alma, in the Crimean War in 1854, he volunteered to stay behind, with the sole assistance of his batman, and attend to the hundreds of wounded enemy soldiers. Persevering in dire circumstances, he managed to save hundreds of Russian lives, only to then contract cholera and die within a few days of being relieved.  James Thomson was recognised in Parliament and across the land for his bravery at the time. Locally, a monument was erected to his memory in Forres, a memorial publication produced and a bursary in his name established for children educated and living in Cromarty.

The evening’s entertainment included a “local history” quiz – which proved to be quite testing! The winner was Andrew Dowsett and he was presented with a prize of a book on world history. To conclude, a festive selection of eats and mulled wine was served by committee members.

January 2014   Monumental Isles —  Journeys to Historic Scotland's island-based properties,   Kenny Taylor

At the latest Cromarty History Society meeting, members and visitors were entertained by local multi-talented writer and broadcaster, Kenny Taylor.  During 2011-2013, Kenny undertook a project with Historic Scotland, having been challenged to visit all of their island-based properties. He had been fascinated by islands for most of his life, so this assignment meant he was able to indulge this interest to the full! The task of travelling around, often to quite inaccessible places, and to write, blog and photograph his journey took longer than first anticipated – in fact two and a half years. During this time, he visited over 80 properties within the Historic Scotland islands estate; from Threave Castle in the south to Muness Castle in the north; from the Callanish Stones in the west to Loch Leven Castle in the east. Kenny had never heard of many of these monuments, so it was a real journey of discovery for him and one that he was able to share with others through his personal blog during the project. 

Seeing some of his beautiful images and quirky videos gave us all a real flavour of the spirit in which he had undertaken his travels. The sweep of history encapsulated in these monuments:  including pre-historic sites; traditional domestic buildings; ecclesiastical structures; fortified structures and residences, was astonishing. Kenny’s thoughts, impressions and stories were both enlightening and entertaining. Kenny’s blog is available on the Historic Scotland website.

February 2014   A Wander along Thief's Row — Community Archaeology at the Reeds Park,   Steven Birch

At our February meeting, archaeologist Steven Birch gave a presentation of the recent work undertaken by the Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project.  He described the severe winter storms of 2012, and their effect in eroding some of our local coastline and how this was turned into an opportunity to discover more about the Cromarty of an earlier era.

The area of shore eroded revealed layers of significant archaeological deposits including some medieval pottery. The site excavated is beyond the limits of the current town and was called Thief’s Row in early records. The project was established to evaluate the archaeological remains of this area. It was also a research opportunity for interested local people to work under the guidance of professional archaeologists.

Steven described the methods used together with the constant recording of the hundreds of artefacts found and the uncovering of some significant built features, giving clues to the economic and social life of the community.  The time to conduct the excavation was limited to July and August 2013 and the results have raised further questions. It is intended to undertake a more extensive excavation later this year to paint a fuller picture of what was going on in this area of the town. The enthusiasm of all the volunteers and visitors to the site showed that people have a passion for understanding their past. 

March 2014   The Murchisons of Tarradale,   Eric Grant

Time changes everything; including landscape.  The focus of this month’s talk was the placing, making, losing and re-finding of a Highland Estate – the Tarradale Estate.  Eric Grant, who gave this fascinating lecture, not only stayed and studied at Tarradale House when it was a University Field Centre but also now lives in the House and has intimate knowledge of its history and pre-history.

Eric led the audience along the line of time for the Estate and House.  Using aerial photography, contemporary and OS maps, documentary evidence and his enormous personal knowledge of the fields and knolls, he guided and informed us of the changing agricultural and social landscape of the area.  Sitting on the northern edge of the Beauly Firth, Tarradale (meaning The Plain of the Bull) was literally a landing stage and gateway to inner Ross-shire and beyond.  A Pictish cemetery and motte-and-bailey castle were once key features of the land but they are now hidden in the fields and local place names.  Later in the 16th and 17th centuries the MacKenzie family became owners of Tarradale and then in 1788 Dr Kenneth Murchison bought the Estate and began a programme of surveying and ‘improvement’.  Murchison was a self-made man, a surgeon, who accumulated his fortune as a doctor in India; a man who aspired to become a Highland laird with a Highland wife and life.  His son, the eminent Victorian geologist and friend of Hugh Miller, Sir Roderick Murchison, was born in the House although he later went on to sell the Estate.

Eric showed how the many farms, small land-holdings, labourers’ houses and even a distillery, once scattered across the Estate, are now lost in the ridges and furrows of field systems.  Where once families and widows reclaimed the moorland in a desperate attempt to eke out an existence, today only a few individuals make their living from the land.

April 2014   Sutherland Murray — the Yukon Gold Rush to Cromarty,   Paul Monk

Members and visitors were welcomed to the AGM. The annual report reminded everyone of this season’s stimulating programme. We were pleased to welcome back member and Curator of the Cromarty Courthouse Museum, Paul Monk. for the final lecture of the current syllabus. Paul and his wife Brenda had put together an exhibition during the last season at the museum of the remarkable photographs of a notable Cromarty character – Sutherland Murray.

Paul explained how a meeting with Caroline Shepherd-Barron, a niece of Sutherland Murray, had prompted the exhibition. She had contacted the Courthouse with a view to bequeathing photograph albums and other personal writings of her uncle. Paul and Brenda persuaded her to keep these documents in the family, but allow the museum to borrow and copy them. Caroline passed away earlier this year and Paul dedicated this evening’s talk to her.

Sutherland Murray was the youngest son of a Provost of Tain; his father died when he was only nine years old and he went to live with his mother in Edinburgh.  In his twenties, he was despatched to America with one of his brothers, initially finding employment on a cattle ranch. Together they bought a vineyard, but the enterprise failed when disease wiped out the vines. At the same time, gold was discovered in the Klondike River in the Yukon, Canada. He decided to try out his luck there.

The photographs that Paul chose to illustrate his talk, spoke for themselves. Sutherland Murray took his camera everywhere and captured the spirit of the times, illuminating the harsh conditions and the characters he found on the scene. His hand held photographs are atmospheric and indicated that he was using the newly invented roll film rather than plates.

Paul described Sutherland Murray’s entrepreneurship, from freight deals (using his dog teams) to buying and selling essentials to other prospectors (often at great profit margins).  However, it is thought he was less successful when it came to panning for gold – indeed he did not record how much gold he found. 

Sutherland Murray moved to California and continued in the field of gold exploration, until losing a hand and an eye in an accident – self-inflicted through carelessness! He returned to the UK in 1920 and the following year moved to Cromarty to join his sister, who owned St. Anne’s in Church Street. Some people in our audience remembered him when they were children!

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