Abstracts of Talks 2015-16

17th September    Inverness Man Lost at Sea — Highlanders on the Titanic,   Norman Newton

Cromarty History Society's new season of lectures commenced this month with a talk given by local historian Norman Newton. Norman's subject concerned the maiden voyage of the Titanic in April 1912 and the Highland and North of Scotland passengers and crew on board for that fatal journey. Although 28 Scots were eventually identified as being on board the liner, just a handful of those were from the North.

Norman highlighted local newspaper reports of the time (the Inverness Courier, the Highland News and the Northern Chronicle) as the reporting of the tragedy unfolded over a number of days. Early reporting did not reveal the full extent of the loss of life; however, as time progressed the magnitude of the disaster became all too apparent. These newspapers then began to uncover victims with northern connections, mostly crew, like James Fraser from Inverness. James was 30 years old and a greaser (mechanic) with a wife and 2 children living in Southampton. He signed on for work on the Titanic just four days before the voyage commenced. The Inverness Courier eventually printed a prominent editorial using the phrase "humanity is made to feel its frailty" to make some sense of what had occurred. As a case study in conducting local history research, Norman investigated a report in the Inverness Courier a week after the sinking disclosing a "Skye woman drowned". By using information sources on the internet and trawling through microfilm newspapers, he uncovered the story behind the news headline. 2 Gaelic- speaking sisters originally from Glenbrittle on Skye, were travelling together with their families (including 6 children) in order to start a new life in Connecticut. Norman traced the family ancestry on census records, reproduced their entries on the passenger lists and showed us how much they had paid for their third class tickets. They all drowned and their bodies were not recovered. The sadness of this particular tale includes the fact that the eldest daughter of one of the sisters was already living in Connecticut and it was she who encouraged the rest of the family to seek a new future in the land of opportunity.

17th October    A Curate's Egg — Hugh Rose Ross of Gastullic 1767-1846,   Dr Jim McKay

A packed audience at the October meeting of the Cromarty History Society was intrigued by the title of the evening’s talk “A Curate’s Egg”. Popular speaker, Dr Jim MacKay, initially explained that this phrase represented the idea of being “excellent in parts” and went on to argue how this could justly be applied to the subject of his talk – Hugh Rose Ross of Gastullich (and subsequently of Cromarty).

Hugh was born in 1767, the son of Rev. Hugh Rose, and one of four brothers. The family soon moved to Tain, the place he most identified with during his life. Hugh’s father died when he was just 6 years old, but there were sources of assistance for the bereaved children of clergy. Such connections and money assisted the brothers in pursuing their careers.

Hugh journeyed to the West Indies. Here, as well as being a merchant in his own right, investing in sugar and cotton plantations, Hugh also became agent for the Deputy Paymaster General, based in Martinique. Jim illustrated how his business affairs and dealings were entangled in a web of corruption, which lined his and other officials’ pockets.

In 1797 he returned to Easter Ross a rich man and purchased a number of estates there, taking the title Hugh Rose Ross of Glastullich. His first marriage followed two years later to a young Arabella Phipps. They had four children and lived near Nigg at Bayfield. It was a calculated alliance and Arabella died suddenly in 1806 at the age of 27. One of the circulating rumours was that she was murdered by Hugh’s West Indian mistress, although there are no grounds to support this.

In 1815, Hugh undertook another strategic marriage to Catherine Munro. It was through this union he was able to lay claim to the estate of Cromarty. Their first child was born in Cromarty House.

Jim described Hugh as corrupt, vicious, intolerant and grudge-bearing. He was a bully, addicted to litigation and conducting his battles in the press. He also had a propensity for challenging duels, of which he fought a number during his lifetime.

In contrast, he was also a social benefactor (establishing Tain Academy) and an agricultural improver obsessed with field drainage, which ultimately had a large impact on the area. Vast numbers of trees were planted on his estates and he employed many workers. He gave away a lot of his wealth to the poor. When he died in 1846 aged 79, 5,000 people attended his funeral and all the shops in Tain closed as a mark of respect.

So, Hugh Rose Ross evoked strong opposing opinions and as far as Jim is concerned he was “excellent in parts”! Jim’s entertaining and informed talk was well received by all.

19th November    Tea and Rusty Bicycles — The Great Black Isle Drought of 1955,    Sinclair Dunnett

This month one of our members, Sinclair Dunnett, presented his memories of growing up in the Black Isle with particular reference to the year 1955. This was when there were 2 major and memorable weather events. Firstly in January 1955 there was the biggest snowstorm experienced in most people’s lives in the north of Scotland. Then in the summer of that year, drought affected many areas in the north of Scotland as well as the UK generally.

Despite its reputation for high rainfall, periods of no rain in Scotland are not that unusual. The Moray Firth area in particular, has low rainfall records compared with other parts of the country. With the backdrop of this “glorious” summer, Sinclair spoke of the effects on his life and other inhabitants of the Black Isle, as the wells ran dry. He was growing up on a farm, so lack of water was not only a problem for the family, but also for all the animals.

Most cottages lacked ”mod cons” and used wells for potable water and rainwater collected from the roofs running into tanks for other purposes. When your own well or burn ran dry, then you had to travel further afield to collect water for your needs. Sinclair remembers going with a tractor every day with drums and a pump to find water elsewhere, then siphoning the water from the drums into containers in the fields for the cattle. If you had no transport, as was the situation for most people, then you had to walk for miles with buckets to bring back an essential supply of water. Lives revolved around the search for reliable supplies, with the falling water table. He remembers an outside broadcast unit coming to Culbokie to record these events.

When wells ran dry, it provided an opportunity to do some housekeeping and clean them out – often revealing unusual contents. Sinclair particularly remembers rusty bicycles being hauled out!

This drought hastened the area at last getting a mains water supply (1956/7). Lean-tos were typically added on to cottages for a new bathroom and water was able to be piped into the fields for cattle. It made a huge difference to people’s lives. However, many people said that water from the well made a better cup of tea!

3rd December   Eric Malcolm  — Readings and Reflections

On 3 December, Cromarty History Society hosted an evening of memories of a former convenor, regular contributor and the only known life member of the society. Eric Malcolm was Cromarty born and bred with an abundant interest in matters of local history. His work as a civil engineer took him around Scotland (with the Hydro Board) and also around the world – he was working in Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution, when he and his wife were evacuated with other British nationals.

In retirement he was able to devote time to his interest in local history and undertake research which led to the publication of books and articles. Friends, family and members of the community gathered to hear readings from his publications, which illustrated the breadth of his work from memoir to scholarly research. After the formal part of the evening there was time to socialise and swap stories, while enjoying refreshments and toasting Eric’s memory with a dram. We think he would have enjoyed the evening!

The Society will be presenting an annual “Malcolm” history prize to a pupil of Cromarty Primary School, where Eric’s father was headmaster and he was also a pupil. We think that this is a fitting tribute to a member who contributed so much to the fuller understanding of our local heritage.

17th December   Every Object Tells a Story,   Dr Alix Powers-Jones

Our Christmas meeting represented a departure from our usual programme of talks. The session was titled “Every Object Tells a Story” and was facilitated by Dr Alix Powers-Jones from Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage and Museum in Cromarty.

Alix explained the importance of “dipping into the narrative” – finding out the story behind an object. In a museum you generally expect to look at exhibits behind glass and yet you can often learn more through touching an object or hearing the story that relates to it.

The audience had brought along a range of “objects” and we divided into small groups to see, touch and hear about the significance of each one from their owner. It was a fascinating exercise and led to much discussion often resulting in stories that other people could bring that related in some way.Alix stressed the importance of keeping our stories alive – telling them will be the only way they survive. It was a lovely evening of sharing parts of our lives and connecting with each other.


19th January   Scandals and Reay House,   Roger Young

Delving into the history of a house can sometimes reveal unexpected results. One of our members, Roger Young, moved to Reay House, opposite Cromarty’s lighthouse, 5 years ago. He set about uncovering a fascinating history of the former owners and inhabitants which is full of controversy, fraud, bankruptcy and court cases.

Reay House, or rather Braehead House as it was first named, was built in 1815, by Alexander Sibbald, a merchant from London. He was variously described and a “merchant and tailor” and also a “merchant and slopseller”. In essence, he was an entrepreneur engaged in the business of ready-made clothes, produced by a sweatshop system.

Sibbald was declared bankrupt before his connections with Cromarty – he was later discharged of this bankruptcy. There is a lot of confusion over his business dealings, the breakup of a business partnership and whether or not he lived and traded in the US. There are certainly many anomalies and problems with deeds and documentation relating to his purchase of land and building Reay House.

The following owners were the Gordon family, who ‘de facto’ possessed the house, but perhaps not legally. They were also declared bankrupt.

In 1855, George Gordon Smith bought the house and extra land and established the legal title. He was a complex character – a surgeon (with a diploma, not a doctorate). He attended patients in the area with cholera, despite not being a proper doctor. He was known as a political radical and also had the “hobby” of engaging in court cases – taking people to court for debt and rent arrears. He bought 27 cases against other people and himself was taken to court 3 times for debt. He was also summoned by the Kirk for fornication – 2 pregnancies with different women, where he acknowledged paternity but refused to concede any public rebuke.

In 1882, the Mackays bought the house. They changed the name to Reay House, probably because a Lord Reay was the Head of the Clan Mackay.

Roger has certainly put a huge effort into tracking down information on former owners and we feel sure that he hasn’t finished in his investigations, which he views in the context of both national and international events.

18th February     Still Life —  Distilling in the Black Isle and surrounding area in the 18th Century,    Meryl Marshall

At our February meeting, Meryl Marshall, of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS), acquainted us with projects the Society has been involved with in recent years, which have looked into evidence of legal and illegal distilling in and around the Black Isle.

Whisky has played an important role in the Scottish economy and is inextricably woven into her history, culture and customs. The earliest documented record evidencing the trade of whisky distillation in Scotland appeared at the end of the 15thC, but it was certainly established well before then. Ross-shire had its fair share of distilleries and NOSAS has explored sites in Ferintosh and Strathconon.

In the 17thC, a large whisky industry was established in Ferintosh by the Forbes family. It prospered, free of duty from 1690, as a reward for the support given to the Crown during the Jacobite rebellions. The local population grew in relation to the increase in whisky production here. At this time, over 1,000 people were employed by the industry. In 1786, the duty-free privilege was withdrawn due to the success of the Forbes production at the expense of other distillers. From this point the market started to turn to illicit distilling. The site of an 18thC whisky distillery at Mulchaich is now the only known remains of an industry which thrived in the Ferintosh area around this time. NOSAS undertook excavation, surveying and recording here between 2009 and 2011.

In Strathconon, NOSAS has located and surveyed over 50 illicit ‘still bothies’. Strathconon had a large population, which was marginalised with the introduction of sheep in the late 18thC. Illicit distilling was one method to help ensure survival. The sites were in secret, remote locations close to spring water, often in wooded areas. Strathconon became a ‘no-go’ area for excise men and the trade flourished here for many years. Farmers and landowners actively encouraged the illegal industry as a market for their grain and there is much documentary evidence of the crime from court cases at the time. Eventually, the powers of the courts and the excise men were increased so that they were able to call on the military to help destroy stills and seize spirits.

The research and fieldwork undertaken by the Society has uncovered a fascinating story of social history in our locality.

17th March     In the wake of the Betsey — Following Hugh Miller to Eigg,   Ro Scott & Martin Gostwick

Hugh Miller is such a significant character in the history of Cromarty that we feel it is important for our Society to revisit aspects of his story when an opportunity arises. We jumped at the chance of hearing members Martin Gostwick and Ro Scott recount their experience of replicating part of Miller’s voyage around the Inner Hebrides in 2014.

Martin and Ro’s double-act presented the story of two separate journeys. In 1844, Hugh Miller met up with his friend the Rev John Swanson at Tobermoray to join him on his Free Church yacht, the Betsey. This was a year after the Disruption and Swanson was using the Betsey to reach his island congregations in order to minister to them. There was one crew member with them, John Stewart, a native Gaelic speaker from Eigg. Their journey lasted for 5 weeks – the Betsey having no engine and being entirely dependent on sail.

Martin and Ro’s journey, 170 years later, retraced part of Hugh’s original voyage on the historic sailing trawler Leader, built in 1892 and run by the Trinity Sailing Trust. The Royal Scottish Geographical Society and The Friends of Hugh Miller jointly led this replicating voyage. There were 14 participants and 4 crew members (and an engine in addition to sails!) With 6 days at sea, this group managed to cover the first half of the original voyage, turning back after reaching the island of Eigg.

Miller recorded his expedition in his book, The Cruise of the Betsey. The format of the lecture switched between Miller’s written account and the experiences had by the modern crew, aptly illustrated with a slide presentation, showing the features that Miller had himself described.

The 1944 voyage can be seen as one of the most strenuous geological field trips of all time, so for the group it was interesting to see how Hugh’s legacy would inspire and influence them on their own journey.  The different backgrounds, abilities and persuasions of the participants all added to this very enjoyable tale of a modern voyage of discovery.

21st April    Does Archaeology Matter?   Mary Peteranna and Steve Birch

The Cromarty History Society met on Thursday 21 April for its AGM and also to hear Mary Peteranna and Steven Birch, co-directors of the Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project (CMBCAP), update our audience on developments with this inspiring project and place it in the wider context of the purpose of archaeology.

Mary spoke about the prerequisite to be able to justify the need for archaeology. The aims of this project were refreshingly honourable – advancing the social, cultural, educational and recreational development of people in the district of Cromarty. Activities have been inclusive enabling people to be involved in many different ways – excavating, researching, recording, attending talks and visiting the site. Working with local pupils and students has taken a high priority, aiming to encourage an interest and understanding of heritage. Specialist training has been delivered to university students, who have gained valuable site experience. Volunteers have been welcomed to develop their skills, teamwork and critical thinking. Visitors have been encouraged to come to Cromarty in order to go on site open days, attend specialist talks as well as the arts and craft days. Social media has been used to reach and inform those who are unable to come to see the Dig in progress.

Steven described the complex unravelling of the archaeology of the site with its different phases of development from medieval times to the late nineteenth century. The pattern of settlement, the various types of building structures that existed there and the sorts of activities they witnessed have given us all a priceless insight into the past here.

There is still a lot of work to be achieved this year and discussions are underway as to how best accomplish this in the timeframe available. Backfilling of the site will be essential before another winter comes and once this is done, the location is unlikely to be opened up again soon.

Excavating, recording, interpreting, educating and displaying the products of archaeology ultimately empower current day communities to understand the history of cultures and this in turn fosters openness to societies that are different to our own.

“Does Archaeology Matter?” – It certainly matters to Cromarty!

This was the final talk of the season and there is now a break until September. The details of our new programme will be available on the Cromarty History Society website at http://www.cromartyhistory.scot/index.asp and also published locally.

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