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Abstracts 2019-20

September 2019,   Archaeology and the Historic Environment  —  in Scotland’s National Forests,   Matt Ritchie

One hundred years ago the Forestry Commission was set up to increase the amount of woodland after the country’s forests had been depleted after WW1. Our speaker this month was Matt Ritchie from Forestry and Land Scotland — the new agency for managing and promoting Scotland’s forest estate. Matt came to tell us about what else there was to find in the woods other than trees — specifically in terms of the historic environment.

To put things in perspective, Scotland’s forests amount to 9% of the land surface of the country. Up until recent times, not much interest had been taken in archaeology within the forest estate, but that has now changed. Matt is an archaeologist and one of a team of national advisors giving guidance in relation to the protection, conservation and presentation of archaeological sites and historic environments.

He outlined three key priorities: to understand, to care and protect and to value. He used a number of case studies to expound these themes. Where culturally significant and scheduled sites are identified, then positive actions need to be taken, such as preventing future tree planting and active conservation management. Protection, interpretation, access to sites and public safety are also key considerations.

Methods such as laser scanning and drone photography can be used to survey and record places, providing the detailed archaeological information which can be used by artists to reconstruct these sites to express an historical narrative.

However, in all cases a pragmatic approach needs to be taken. Sometimes this can mean making an accurate record, but then allowing a site to decay naturally. The progress of time, exposure to the elements and the reclamation of nature are all part of history too.

Matt’s talk showed many examples of digital images and artistic narrative drawings to reconstruct and explain sites and celebrate the heritage within Scotland’s forests.

Please join us on Thursday 17 October at 7.30pm for our next talk on Healing Wells: their contemporary use, history and folklore. Our speaker that evening will be Roddy McKenzie.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

October 2019,   Healing wells  —  Their contemporary use, history and folklore,   Roddy McKenzie

No meeting took place owing to the illness of the speaker.

November 2019,   Cromarty Emigrants  —  and the Ships that took them,   Sandy Thomson

Sandy Thomson has spoken to the society many times and covered a wide range of topics for our audience. On this occasion he was motivated by the study of a former member, the late Jenny Fyfe, on “Cromarty Emigrants and the ships that took them”. Jenny’s book was published by the Cromarty Courthouse in 1998 and Sandy felt that he would be able to add to Jenny’s research.

Scots have always travelled abroad in search of a better life and the town of Cromarty found itself playing a crucial role in this story between the years of 1707 and 1850. 1707 was the date of the Treaty of Union, when the parliaments of England and Scotland united and the English colonies of North America were opened up for Scottish settlements. The 1850s was the period after the railway came to Invergordon providing easier travel to ports further south, thus diminishing the status of Cromarty as a key emigration port.

Cromarty served as an emigration port for the disposed of Sutherland, Easter Ross and the Moray Coast. Emigration agents were active in promoting the business from the town. Passengers often arrived some weeks before embarkation, so Cromarty found its population mushrooming with heavy demands on provision of food and accommodation. Jenny had listed 39 emigrant ships that left Cromarty harbour during this period, whilst the Cromarty Emigration Stone on the Links records 38. However, there were others unidentified.

Most emigration from Cromarty was to North America. North Carolina and Georgia were favoured places but after the 1783 War of Independence, emigration moved to Canada. The 1830s were peak years for the emigrant ships to take their passengers to Australia — a more hazardous journey. Sandy recounted the story of the colony of Topo in Colombia, South America (now Venezuela). In 1825, 191 Scots emigrated from Cromarty having been recruited by the Columbia Society of London with promises of land and houses. They ended up betrayed and destitute.

Potato famines, changes to agriculture and rent increases had led many people to seek opportunity and a piece of land of their own abroad. Landowners, after the 1845 Poor Law made them responsible for the support of local poor, would encourage their tenants to emigrate, sometimes paying their fares. Assisted passage schemes also became available.

There is no way of knowing how many of the emigrants were local to Cromarty and the Black Isle, but Sandy was able to talk about some individuals who are known — usually the ones that did well in their new country. Audience participation was encouraged with the singing of a Victorian emigration song!

Please join us for our Christmas meeting on Thursday 19 December at 7.30pm. Our speaker that evening will be David Ross, former Highland Correspondent with the Herald newspaper, “Telling the Highland Story”. Following custom, we will be serving mulled wine and festive eats for our social gathering.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

December 2019,   Telling the Highland Story  —  30 years reporting the news from the north,   David Ross

In his talk to our Christmas meeting, David Ross, former Highland Correspondent with the Herald newspaper, reminded us of the maxim “journalism is the first rough draft of history”. He touched on the role of journalism as a historical source, providing historians with significant material for their studies.

His focus was on his own career reporting the news from the North in features and editorials in what came to be regarded as the national newspaper of Scotland. His outpost in the North was Cromarty — where he has made his home for over 30 years. Working from an office in his house, David’s patch was huge, encompassing the area from the northern tip of the Shetland Isles to the southern tip of Kintyre and from St Kilda to Moray.

David told us about some of the key Highland news stories he investigated and wrote about — Dounreay waste, the Skye Bridge tolls, the Assynt crofters’ buyout and Gaelic language concerns. Then to the other extreme — covering Madonna’s wedding in Dornoch and interviewing the Naked Rambler in John o’ Groats!

He talked about some of the Highland giants he had encountered and came to know well. He particularly singled out John Prebble as the man who brought the history of the Highlands to more people than any other historian. David made many acquaintances during his career including politicians and has interviewed prime ministers and presidents, with the local news angle.

He admitted that his journalistic tendency was to side with the local people and support local campaigning. In this regard, he cited the case of the Harris super quarry which initially had the support of locals — but then they changed their minds. His own reporting and interpretation mirrored this change as well. He also mentioned the more recent Cromarty Rising campaign, combating the threat from the local port authority to conduct ship-to-ship oil transfers. He named it as a most memorable campaign with a community coming together to successfully fight their cause.

David has witnessed the changes in newsgathering operations. At the start of his career it was essential for him to travel the length and breadth of his patch. Latterly he would sit in front of a screen producing his copy. At the beginning of his working life for the Herald, the daily circulation reached 130,000 copies, but nowadays it barely reaches 30,000. Digital and online alternatives have become the news sources of choice.

Turning full circle, David speculated on historians’ future use of social media news alternatives. He ventured that it could prove to be a minefield.

Please join us for our next meeting on Thursday 16 January at 7.30pm. Our speaker that evening will be David Alston telling the stories of “Three Doctors: Highland medics at home and in the Empire”.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

January 2020,   Three Doctors  —  Highland medics at home and in the Empire,   Dr. David Alston

This month Dr David Alston gave a talk to the society about three doctors with local connections. He felt that they were representative of the general fields in which Scottish physicians furthered their careers in the past. David described how up until the mid-1900s, Scottish universities produced a disproportionately large number of doctors in comparison to the rest of the UK and so they sought their prospects beyond Scotland’s borders. Many found that their future lay abroad with the armed forces as career army surgeons. Others spent their working lives as surgeons and general practitioners across the whole British Isles. A surprising number found work as doctors on slave ships and slave plantations, becoming an essential part of the slave trade.

William Brydon (1811-1873), a Scots army surgeon, was immortalised in a painting by Elizabeth Butler, showing a tragic, but heroic figure under the title ‘The Remnants of the Army’. The implication being that he was the sole survivor of an attack during the First Afghan War. This was not accurate, although Elizabeth was the most popular military artist of the Victorian era. She looked for her painting to impart a sense of heroism — but not the glory of war. In fact Brydon would never have seen this painting, which was produced after his death. Not only did Brydon survive the siege of Kabul, fifteen years later he found himself involved at the Siege of Lucknow. Here he was singled out for special praise and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for his work during this long siege. In 1859, he retired to Pitcalzean House, Nigg and after his death his widow and family moved across the Cromarty Firth to Rosenburg in Cromarty itself.

Dr Colin Chisholm (1754/5-1825) was from Inverness. He began his studies in medicine at Edinburgh University becoming a surgeon to the Fraser’s Highlanders, and then embarking to America. When he returned to Inverness in 1783, through family connections to the Baillie family who had their own established slaving business, he found himself choosing to move to Grenada where he settled and established a practise to look after both settlers and slaves on plantations. He started contributing papers to medical journals and used his influence in seeking important appointments. He acquired his own properties and continued to be an absentee slave plantation owner after his return to this country. He returned to Grenada under the role of Surgeon-general to the Ordnance and then Inspector-general to the Ordnance in the Windward Islands. He retired to Demerara where he then started to carry out research. Later, he returned to live in Bath and then Switzerland, continuing to write medical books. Despite the fact that he never returned to the Highlands, he donated 100 guineas for the establishment of the Royal Infirmary in Inverness.

The final doctor discussed was Dr George Gordon Smith (1805-1876), son of a Forres minister, a radical and most probably an atheist. His ‘claim to fame’ was fathering two children out of wedlock, for which he was summoned before both the Cromarty and Resolis Kirk Sessions and sentenced to be publically rebuked before their congregations. He failed to appear and then appealed the decisions as far as the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He made it clear that he would agree to only private admonishment. This was the last ever attempt to invoke public retribution for the crime of fornication. He had battles in the civil courts too, which included prosecution and fining for kidnapping (with another Cromarty resident and radical, William Watson) a Tory voter to prevent him from voting in the general election of 1837! It was surprising to note that both of these Cromarty radicals were JPs at the time! They did however win some battles too. Smith-s gravestone can be seen in the Gaelic Chapel in Cromarty.

These three individuals generated much interest and discussion at the close of the meeting.

Please join us for our next meeting on Thursday 20 February at 7.30pm. Our speaker that evening will be Pat Haynes giving us a history of Cromarty harbour — ‘One of the best portes in this yslande’.

Visitors are always welcome and the meeting takes place, as usual, in the West Church Hall, Cromarty.

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