Abstracts 2021-22

Talks from September to January were cancelled due to Covid

February 2022,   7 Braehead:  — a Pickletoun House,   Arthur Bird

Two years without our meetings and the enthusiasm to get back to business again was evident this month by the full house for our first talk of the delayed 2021/22 season.

Over the years, a number of residents have shared their research on the history of the houses they live in and also what they’ve uncovered about former residents. These are always popular sessions and often spur others to start their own studies.

The latest talk was given by Arthur Bird and had a slightly different emphasis, since 7 Braehead in Cromarty now encompasses four generations of Arthur’s family (over 100 years). He was able to present a wealth of information about the evolution of this property through its 300 year history, supported with much evidence, documentation and illustration. Also, there were the personal details — Arthur’s recollections from his youth in the town and memories of some of the relatives who have lived there.

James Reid Snr (1861–1943) was the first family member we were introduced to — Arthur’s great grandfather. This James Reid was a fisherman and fish merchant, renting a property in Fishertown and with a smokehouse on Shore Street. By reputation he was an austere Highland Scot, a Town Provost, an Elder of the Church of Scotland, Master of the Robertson’s Lodge and a member of the Temperance Society. It was this James Reid, who lent his son, another James Reid, £300 to buy the house at 7 Braehead, situated in Cromarty’s Pickletoun in 1919.

From that point, April 1919, the house has remained within Arthur’s family. In 2000 Arthur took over the house himself from his aunts and commenced a renovation. This was the subject of an archaeological watching brief, which uncovered many clues about the building and site. It suggested the existing house was built on top of an early 18th century house on that site. The varying construction methods uncovered indicated that the current house was originally single storey. The house was also formerly a house and shop together. The well-known marriage stone above the door relates to Kenneth Kemp, a tailor, resident in the first property, as it is dated 1727.

In terms of the history of the property, Arthur’s grandfather purchased a neighbouring ‘ruinous’ house and small area of land adjacent to add to his plot in 1944. This had been owned by a vintner who owned seven properties in the town, all said to be unfit and unsafe for human habitation. In the 1970s, this house was demolished. This area now forms part of the gardens of 7 Braehead. There are still signs of windows, doorways and fireplaces within the boundary walls.

Arthur’s talk encompassed many aspects of Cromarty’s history, for example the Fishertown boats, their sizes, tonnage, owners and how many they employed. His near complete record of sales of the property, going back to 1717, show the occupations of the past owners being mainly normal working folk — they certainly did not live extravagant lifestyles.

One former owner did stand out though — George Gordon–Smith, a surgeon in Cromarty for 40 years. He lived in Reay House (the subject of a previous talk) and owned 14 properties in the town including, 7 Braehead. He had quite a reputation and may have been a bit of a cad, or a character depending on your point of view. He was rebuked before the kirk sessions for fathering an illegitimate child and even recorded in Hansard for his connection with the abduction of an electoral voter. He went on to become a JP. He received recognition for his community support and service during the cholera epidemic, making numerous trips to Nigg during this time.

Arthur concluded his talk with a series of old Cromarty photos, some cine film from his parents’ archives and the tale of the “ghostly spirit” of the house and how she has become an accepted part of the family after a tricky start!

We aim to complete our season with 2 more monthly meetings. The next will feature David Alston and his talk “Escape, Resistance and Uprising: enslaved Africans defy their Highland masters, Guyana 1800–1814”. This will take place on Thursday, 24 March in the Old Brewery, Cromarty. For up-to-date details, check Cromarty History Society

March 2022,    Resistance and Uprising — enslaved Africans defy their Highland masters, Guyana 1800-1814,   David Alston

David Alston has devoted the last 20 years to researching the facts of Scotland’s (particularly the Highland’s) involvement in the enslavement of African people. The talk he presented gave us a different viewpoint — seeking to capture the resistance, aspirations and voices of the enslaved.

He did this by focusing on the lives of three enslaved Africans he had researched. Each was part of a plantation owned and run by Highlanders, especially from Easter Ross, who had invested heavily in the areas of Guyana and Suriname.

David had visited these areas in 2020 and showed photos from his travels with some familiar place names — in fact 30 settlements in Berbice (an area of Guyana) come from Easter Ross or nearby. The plantation owners included Lord Seaforth, owner of the Brahan plantation, George Munro, owner of the Alness plantation and James Fraser of Belladrum, who was in partnership with a group of other Highland landowners.

Inverness was the name given to an enslaved African in 1803, when he was bought as part of a group of 20 and set to work on the Brahan plantation. Here they were creating new cotton grounds by cutting drainage channels to reclaim the low–lying coastal lands. It was a feat of immense engineering, all carried out with enslaved labour. Inverness escaped, running away with a man called Dingwall, another of the original group of 20. ‘Maroons’ is the term used to describe runaways — there were large numbers of them who created their own settlements or camps with their own agricultural and industrial activities. These camps succeeded in binding people together from diverse backgrounds.

David reminded us that these enslaved people were from the huge diversity of cultures which exist in Africa and they had essentially been thrown together in a melting pot. They were forced to create their own identities with shared cultures and perhaps related languages. The Maroon camps were attacked by many of the Highland managers who also recruited and armed ‘trusty’ enslaved men to assist them in their endeavours. Inverness was captured and brought back to Brahan and forced to divulge information about Maroon settlements. However, he escaped again and was said to be assisting others in their efforts to escape. His fate is unknown.

Archy was James Fraser’s enslaved personal servant. As part of the household he was trusted and would have been party to the conversations about expeditions to capture and kill the Maroons. However, he would also have known people who had escaped to these camps. In 1810, Archy left for Britain with his master, staying at various places including Belladrum until 1812. While there, under English and Scots law, he was no longer a slave and couldn‘t be forced to return to the colonies. But Archy did go back and became involved in planning a rebellion — which was foiled at the last moment when other enslaved workers betrayed these plans. Archy was sentenced to flogging and sold out of the colony, despite his ‘master’ suggesting he be exiled to Scotland.

Susannah (c.1779–c.1853) was born into slavery and was a domestic servant at the Alness plantation, owned by George Munro. She had 3 sons with George Munro — the first born when she was about 12 years old. Susannah herself was the child of an unknown white man and a ‘mulatto’ woman. Under colony laws her children were also born into a state of slavery — but their names were not entered in the Register of Slaves which plantations were obliged to keep. Her sons, George, John and William were educated at Marischal College in Aberdeen. When their father died, he left his estate to be divided between these 3 sons and 3 nephews in Scotland. Interestingly, when Susannah made her own will in 1850, she instructed her executors to recover the inheritance which should have been paid to her deceased sons George and John. David sees this as yet another form of ‘resistance’ to the system.

Through his talk to our society, David certainly gave voice to the enslaved seeking the potential of freedom, whether by escape, uprising or the use of law.

Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 19 April at 7.30pm in the Old Brewery. We will hold a short AGM and then show some films about Cromarty from the Courthouse archives. This will be the last meeting of this shortened 2021/22 season.

April 2022,    AGM followed by — From the Courthouse archives: Cromarty — the story of a town: memories of Fishertown    

The society met on 19 April for its first face–to–face AGM in 3 years. After formal business, we watched two films about Cromarty.

The first, Cromarty: the story of a town, dated back to 1991 when it was commissioned for the Courthouse museum as part of its exhibition when it opened. It was a whistle–stop history of Cromarty from medieval times to the two world wars. It showed the importance of the sea to the town, together with its fluctuating fortunes and some of the characters who exerted influence throughout its history.

The second film was a more intimate record of the Fishertown, made in 2010. Memories were recalled by some of the older residents, so that there would be a permanent record of the way things were. We will possibly repeat this showing another time, since there were some technical issues which we would like to address in the future.

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