Abstracts of talks 2022-23

September 2022,     William & Paterson Murdoch — Engineers of Highland Railways,   Anne‐Mary Paterson

The Cromarty History Society is back in business! The September lecture was the first of the new 2022‐23 season. We sincerely hope that after the last two years of false starts, we will run for a complete September‐April season again.

Our speaker was freelance writer Anne‐Mary Paterson, who has a special interest in railways, by virtue of coming from a local family of civil engineers, who were engaged in railway building in the nineteenth century.

 Although the concept of a Highland railway was initiated by Joseph Mitchell, a man trained by Thomas Telford, it was Anne‐Mary’s great grand uncles, both of whom went to work with Joseph Mitchell, who were largely responsible for the design and construction of the Highland network we see today.


William and Murdoch Paterson were brought up in Inverness and attended the Inverness Royal Academy. Despite starting out with different careers, they both ended up as railway engineers.

Anne‐Mary showed us fascinating photographs of the building of some of the classic viaducts and bridges of the network and scenes of Victorian trains. There were many stories associated with “spanning the gaps” and the tremendous challenges faced within the rugged landscape of the Highlands. Many of the viaducts and bridges were constructed with stone from local quarries and a few even from wood to reduce costs. Some of the landowners also needed to be appeased and were able to influence the routes taken and the appearance of the infrastructure on their own land.

Key examples of the work of Murdoch Paterson include the Kyle Line — now acknowledged to be one of the great railway journeys of the world and also his ‘masterpiece’ — the Culloden Viaduct. This was his last project and he died before it was open to passengers in 1898. He did however get to be pushed across the structure using a bogie (railway truck) to enable him to give his last orders. Murdoch was conscious of the welfare and safety of those who worked under him and was very popular. He was publically mourned in Inverness after his death.

The talk made us aware of the incredible engineering achievements of the age, based on the skills and determination of people like the Patersons.  Many of their structures are still part of the fabric of our current railway network in the Highlands.


Our next meeting will be on Thursday 20 October at 7.30pm in the West Church Hall, Cromarty. The speaker will be Anne Coombs and her subject “The Herring Gutters of North East Scotland 1840‐1950”. Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

October 2022,    The Herring Gutters of N.E. Scotland — a coastal history,   Anne Coombs

Anne Coombs presented her lecture “The Herring Gutters of N.E. Scotland” to our society this month. She has studied this subject over many years. The content of her talk was enthusiastically received by her audience; there was plenty of photographic reference, bringing that whole gruelling existence to life.

Anne commenced her talk with archaeological evidence of Bronze Age fish traps, built in the Moray Firth, enabling fish to be captured with the ebb and flow of the tides. In these early times, there would have been a limited market for fish and it would have been for local consumption only.

Fast forwarding to after the ’45 Rebellion, more development was taking place all over the Highlands and landowners were actively seeking out the best potential for their estates. In 1789, the British Fisheries Society was founded and commissioned to build forty fishing villages from Skye right round the north coast. The main ports were Ullapool, Stein (Isle of Skye) and Wick. Some estates built their own fishing ports, like the Sutherland Estate did at Helmsdale. Fishing was for white fish, using longlines. It was a family business, with women playing a vital role — carrying men to the boats, baiting lines, processing and selling the fish.

The 19th century saw the boom of herring fishing. Herring stocks were vast and were fished using nets. Fishing was no longer a family enterprise, it had become industrialised.

The herring shoals moved along the north and down the east coast and with them a seasonal movement of curers, merchants, general hands and an army of women, essential to the trade. Curers were responsible for hiring workers to gut the fish and women were regarded as more nimble with their hands for this type of work. The curers would go round crofting communities and hire women for the whole season. They would be paid a retainer to buy the necessary clothing and equipment and then they set off in crews of three, to “follow the herring”. The women hired were generally not the wives of fishermen.

The herring girls had to be quick at their work — they were expected to gut 16 fish a minute, from first thing in the morning until every fish had been processed that same day. Herring needed to be processed quickly (within twelve hours of being landed) so they could be on their feet for hours, bending over the barrels, gutting and packing The girls bound their fingers with cloth to protect their hands from injury using the short sharp knives of their trade.

They were housed in basic accommodation along the way. In some places there were church missions to look after the health and welfare of these girls. This was the life they lived from late May until November, starting off in Shetland and ending up in Yarmouth. They travelled by boat, train and road to reach the next port. These women usually undertook such employment for a few seasons, bringing a welcome income back to the croft. Some loved it — the companionship, seeing different places and having some money in their pockets. Others just went the once!

The main markets for herring were Germany, Russia and the Baltic States, but with the First World War, these markets were wiped out. Also herring stocks were diminishing. By the 1950s stocks had almost crashed to extinction.

Our next meeting will be on Thursday 17 November at 7.30pm in the West Church Hall, Cromarty. The speaker will be Sandy Thomson and his subject “Cromarty Town Council and the end of local democracy”. Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

November 2022,   Cromarty Town Council — and the end of local democracy,   Sandy Thomson

Our November lecture was given by Sandy Thomson, who has delivered many interesting talks to the society. This was another to remember and was greatly appreciated by the audience; it was entitled “Cromarty Town Council and the end of local democracy”.

Sandy neatly divided his talk into 2 sections. The first concerned the way in which Cromarty was run in former times, particularly in the last century. The second looked more specifically at what our Town Council was up to during the 1960s and 70s, up to its demise with local government reorganisation in 1975.

It was probable that Cromarty was a Royal Burgh as far back as 11th century, when King David created a series of castles, sherriffdoms and burghs all along the Moray coast to quell the discontent and frequent risings in the area. We know that in 1593 this royal status was confirmed by an Act of Parliament — one of the advantages bestowed was the ability to trade internationally. Cromarty was a busy market town.

However, from 1685, Cromarty regresses to becoming a Burgh of Barony — a status granted to the estate landowner by the Crown. Moving on two centuries, in 1833, Cromarty became a Parliamentary Burgh, with an elected council — the beginning of democracy, although it has to be said, elected only by the landowning class. 13 Parliamentary Burghs were created at this time, and as a smaller one, Cromarty had an allowance for nine councillors — to include one provost and two bailies.

In 1890, Ross-shire and Cromarty‐shire combined to form the new local government unit of Ross and Cromarty County Council. When Burghs were reclassified in 1930, Cromarty was a Small Burgh and in doing so lost many powers to this County Council. Cromarty Town Council was nevertheless responsible for housing, sewage and roads and the physical infrastructure of the town and its houses.

In 1975, Small Burghs were abolished with a new two tier local government structure and this was later superseded, in 1996, when the Highland Council became a unitary authority. At that point there was a single councillor representing the ward of Black Isle North. Since 2007, we have had three councillors to represent the whole of the Black Isle. Sandy posed the idea that we should be localising local government in Scotland to a larger extent.

Moving onto specifics, as a result of consulting Cromarty Town Council minute books, Sandy revealed that officers of the Town Council included a Town Clerk, a Master of Works, a Sanitary Inspector, Council workmen and a Victoria Hall caretaker. In the 1960s there was a budget of £s; 30,000 — mostly from central government. He looked at a sample year, 1962, and the recurring subjects — derelict property; proposal for a Rat Week; attempts to get a timetabled Nigg ferry service; complaints about a tenant with 10 cats; purchase of the East Church Hall in order to set up a youth club — then all the subsequent complaints about the noisy dances!

Housing was a significant achievement of the Town Council — trying to secure more and better housing. There was a significant council house building programme over the years, culminating in the building of Townlands Park; all achieved by the Town Council, despite the County Council wanting to take control themselves.

Sandy covered some other areas of Town Council activity which involved the Cromarty Estate, communications (ferries and roads) and industrial and commercial development. The Town Council saw a future for Cromarty in attracting craft industries to the town – encouraging entrepreneurs with the offer of housing. Alongside this are of course the recurring issues of vandalism and complaints about noise!

A number of our current and former local councillors were in the audience and they must have recognised many of the themes running through with their own experience of “local democracy”.

The Cromarty Courthouse Museum made available the Provost’s chain of office for the meeting — it was presented to Cromarty Town Council in 1938 following a fundraising campaign.

Our next meeting will be our Christmas event — so expect upgraded refreshments! It will be held on Thursday 15 December at 7.30pm in the West Church Hall, Cromarty. The speaker will be Paul Monk and his subject “From Pupil to Teacher”. Advance notice: from January 2023 our meetings change nights — to the third Tuesday in the month at a new venue — the Victoria Hall, Cromarty. Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

December 2022,    From Pupil to Teacher — One Cromarty Girl’s journey in the first decade of the 20th century,    Paul Monk

A good number of members braved icy conditions in order to make their way to our Christmas meeting.

Our speaker was Paul Monk, a member who has regularly given talks to the society, often relating to his role as the honorary curator at the Courthouse Museum. This lecture was no exception, as the starting point was an envelope handed in to the museum earlier this year.

The contents proved to be an archive of papers relating to Margaret Munro, an ex‐pupil of Cromarty Public School, from the early 20th century. These had been sent by a lady in Essex, addressed to the Cromarty Primary School. It seems that she had bought a box at an auction in Edinburgh some years before and had now decided that the best place for them was back in Cromarty. They found their way to Paul’s desk and he set about his own investigations.

Researching Margaret&rsquo,s family, he found that her father was originally from a farm in Inshes, Inverness, who had moved to Cromarty Mains Farm to work as a ploughman. His daughter Margaret was born in one of the Cromarty Mains farm cottages in 1885 and she attended the local Cromarty Public School.

Scrutinising all the contents, Paul came to realise that Margaret did well enough at school to become a pupil teacher there, as stated in a Leaving Certificate examination from 1902, when she would have been around seventeen. There were numerous testimonials referring to her competence and popularity with both pupils and their parents. These were written by teachers and chairs of school boards. There was also a 1904 notice from the “Scotch Education Department”, Whitehall, advising that she was now a fully qualified teacher.

From Cromarty School she moved on to Scotsburn School at Kildary, where she taught for 3 or 4 years before evidence showed her to be living near Edinburgh and teaching at Dalmeny Public School. There were certificates showing that Margaret had undertaken additional training in PE and drawing and art.

Paul looked through photos in the Courthouse archives and came across two pictures taken on the same day in 1905 — one of the school staff and another of the senior class. By a process of elimination he found Margaret in both. He also found her handwriting by chance — from his own collection of Cromarty postcards, one of which had been sent by Maggie Munro to a female acquaintance in London that she had met at Nigg and wished to keep in contact.

Gradually he was building up a picture of her and he turned his attention to Dalmeny, as it was, when Margaret taught there. The Dalmeny Oil Company developed local shale mines and oil works to produce kerosene. There were four underground mines and a community of houses, Dalmeny Rows, for all the oil workers and their families. The children at Margaret’s school would have lived here — a far cry from her rural Cromarty Mains background.

That’s where the talk ended — but there must surely be more to tell of this young lady from our town and we’d be interested if anyone has further light to shed! Paul explained that the museum tries to tell the stories of the artefacts it holds and went on to talk about a proposal for a project next year. There is a need to systematically go through the museum’s collection of photos, turning it into a meaningful archive which can then be digitised — an interesting assignment for some willing volunteers!

A convivial social time included mulled wine with some festive eats and a chance to catch up on everyone’s news.

The remainder of our programme for 22/23 moves to a different venue and a different day. Meetings will be held on the third Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm in the Victoria Hall, Cromarty.

Our next speaker, on 17 January, 2023, will be Diana Hamilton‐Jones speaking about James Braidwood and his legacy to the modern fire service. Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

January 2023,    James Braidwood, father of the modern fire service — A true Scottish hero,    Diana Hamilton‐Jones

The wild and snowy weather didn’t deter a good crowd of members and visitors venturing out to the latest meeting to find out about a figure most of us had never heard of. Our speaker for the evening was Diana Hamilton‐Jones and her subject, James Braidwood (1800‐1861). Her family connection to James and her admiration for his achievements have motivated Diana to raise his profile more generally.

James was born in Edinburgh, into the large Braidwood family, who were well‐known and respected. They were a close‐knit and devout family. At the age of 8, he was sent to the Royal High School of Edinburgh, leaving at 13 years of age. He joined his father’s building company as an apprentice surveyor, during which time he got to know Edinburgh well and also understand about the construction of buildings. This background would prove invaluable as James’ career took a different course.

In the 19th century, Edinburgh was full of narrow streets and wooden buildings, enabling fires to spread quickly. There was no fire brigade — it was the fire insurance companies that were responsible for any fire‐fighting. Most people couldn’t afford insurance. If they could, then they would place the plaque of their insurance company on the wall of their building, but no other insurance company would assist if a fire developed there.

In 1824, there were three major devastating fires in Edinburgh. At that time there were only five fire engines in the city and people assisted by forming long lines to help pass buckets of water from one to another in order to tackle outbreaks of fire. There was a total lack of co‐ordination in fire‐fighting. A committee met to discuss the seriousness of the situation and they resolved to create the world’s first municipal fire service, with sufficient fire engines, more fire‐fighters and a Superintendent to oversee everything. The funding was to come from the fire insurance companies, with the police authority making up any shortfall.

James’ name was put forward and he was appointed Superintendent and Master of Engines. He had no model for the service, so had to put his own ideas into practise. He divided the city into 4 sections, each with their own dedicated service division and then he recruited younger men from professions that would provide a solid grounding — slaters, mariners, carpenters and plumbers. His force of eighty men was well‐trained and disciplined. He used a boatswain whistle to overcome the problem of noise draining out shouted instruction; rudimentary breathing apparatus; use of fire retardant materials and procedures to increase safety for his officers. He also invented a chain link ladder to help with rescuing people from fires. He also worked closely with the police in order that they assisted too. He spent two years building up a strong team, before the fire insurance companies decided they wanted to reduce their costs and maintain a force of fewer men. As his time in Edinburgh progressed, he established an effective service - the response to fires increased in number, while at the same time there was a dramatic reduction in complete losses of buildings. It was a testament to James’ methods, particularly in understanding that you couldn’t just throw water at the outside of a building, but rather needed to tackle the source of the fire inside.

James wrote a book, On the Construction of Fire Engines and Apparatus, which would see his methods adopted all over the UK and beyond. He was invited to London in 1833 to establish that city&rsquos first full‐time fire brigade — the London Fire Engine Establishment. He used the same methods as he had in Edinburgh. He was particularly concerned about the development of unsafe warehouse in the docklands — his suggestion of installing fire walls and fire doors was not acted upon. This was to lead to an unexpected twist to this story. In 1861, a fire broke out at Cotton’s Wharf in Tooley Street. James attended, showing immense bravery, when a falling wall crushed him and he was instantly killed. He had spent 37 years devoting himself to the fire service in Edinburgh and London. He truly was the “Father of the British Fire Services“.

His funeral was the largest witnessed since that of Wellington, with a procession extending one and a half miles. After his death, many of his recommendations were put into action. Indeed he pioneered many aspects of the fire service we take for granted today. In 2008, a bronze statue of James Braidwood was erected in Parliament Square and Diana was invited to the unveiling. This was her motivation to find out more about her exceptional forbear and now she is committed to getting his story more widely known. The Bicentennial celebration (23 October, 2024) of the founding of the world‘s first fire service in Edinburgh should cement James Braidwood in the history books at last.

Our next speaker, on Tuesday 21 February, 2023, will be Roger Young with a talk about General Richard O’Connor of Rosemarkie Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

February 2023,   General Sir Richard O'Connor of Rosemarkie; A hero of two world wars,    Roger Young

One of our members, Roger Young, delivered a lecture to the society on a figure he regards as a hero of two world wars. The life and career of General Richard O’Connor has been researched fastidiously by Roger and he shared this information and his impressions of someone who preferred to be called just “Dick”.

O’Connor had connections to Cromarty; indeed he is buried here in St Regulus burial ground. He married Jean from the Ross family of Cromarty House in 1935 and her grave is next to his own. Roger showed written evidence of him living at both Clunes House and Clunes Cottage in Cromarty during the 1930s. He is probably better known for his connection to Rosemarkie though, where he lived at Kincurdie House. Members of our audience had their own memories of him.

O’Connor had a distinguished military career in both the First and Sec’nd World Wars, with many honours to his name. However, he was modest and often stressed that to get a medal one really just needed luck — to stay alive and then be noticed by someone for what you had done. He held that many more worthy people deserved medals that didn’t get them.

In the First World War he fought in many hellish battles. He witnessed many deaths from wrong decisions and failures of co-ordination. He was given command of a battalion which had almost been destroyed, rebuilt it  and led it to great success following his own plan of attack. He was notable for remaining calm throughout desperate situations. Roger was able to show the success of his missions in terms of the comparative low number of deaths and casualties under his command. He cared for the people he was in charge of and was able to command others in the forefront of action.

Between the wars, his military career continued and in 1938 he was sent to Palestine and was given responsibility as Military Governor of Jerusalem. He found the old city of Jerusalem under terrorist control and again he used his wily tactics to take the city through advancing on rooftops, rather than in the maze of narrow streets. Only one British soldier died during the operation. The pacification of Palestine was a very complex situation and O’Connor formed alliances with Arabs in order to try and save lives.

During the Second World War, he was moved to Egypt to take command of the Western Desert Force — troops defending against the attack of the Italian army. His decision-making was pragmatic as usual, again with a strategy of keeping troop losses low. He advanced from Egypt and almost reached Tripoli, but he and much of his army were recalled. Troops were sent to Greece instead. The irony was that Tripoli was where Rommel landed later and British troops then had to retreat from Rommel’s advance.

In 1941, O’Connor was captured by the Germans and he spent time in an Italian prisoner of war camp. He planned various escapes which were foiled until the Italian surrender in 1943, when he escaped with the aid of the Italian resistance movement. Returning to battle, he took part in the Normandy campaigns. Roger suggested that Dick was used as a scapegoat in his latter career. He retired to Rosemarkie and took on other responsibilities, including the role of Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty. The talk was well illustrated and the final slides showed Dick at the opening of Resolis Hall and also greeting Queen Elizabeth II on her arrival at Cromarty harbour in 1964.

Our next speaker, on Tuesday 21 March, 2023, will be Shona MacLean talking about setting a historical novel in your own backyard: Where Angels Fear to Tread. The meeting will take place in the West Church Hall, Cromarty, commencing 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

March 2023,   Where Angels Fear to Tread — Setting an historical novel in your own backyard,   Shona MacLean

We were lucky to have acclaimed historical crime writer, Shona MacLean, giving a talk to the society this month. She titled her talk: “Where Angels Fear to Tread: setting an historical novel in your own backyard”. The title was taken from the Alexander Pope quote“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, suggesting she was embarking on an action that most sensible people would avoid. This became clearer as she spoke about her process of writing and particularly wishing to change her literary genre.

As background, Shona spoke about her time as an undergraduate and PhD student at Aberdeen University studying 16th and 17th century Scottish History. There she identified a feeling of being part of the whole body of students who had studied there. Feeling connections with previous generations is something Shona mentioned a number of times. Her historical research often revealed interesting characters and events, whose stories she knew could be developed. Her main haunt at this stage was Aberdeen City Archives.

When Shona embarked on her writing career, she entered the field of historical crime writing. Her first series of four books featured Alexander Seaton, a disgraced schoolmaster, and were set mainly in the N.E. of Scotland in the 17th century — she was living in Banff at the time. Her second series of five Damien Seeker novels were set further afield in London, Oxford, York and Bruges in the 1650s. Damien Seeker, an army captain and intelligence officer, was in the service of Oliver Cromwell.

Following on, Shona moved with her family to Conon Bridge and felt the need to bring her writing and stories back to her own “backyard” — to her original home ground. She discovered Leakey’s bookshop and became a regular visitor to the Highland Archive Centre. She wrote a short story and then put it aside until lockdown, when she wanted to embark on a new project. The Bookseller of Inverness was the result — a tale of revenge set in 1752, 6 years after the Battle of Culloden. It was a time when lives were dominated by adherence to the Stuarts. She needed to be diligent in selecting names (and clans) for her characters and there was a wealth of historical evidence to consult to make the correct choices.

She explored the hinterland around Inverness and chose the joint churches of Dunlichity and Daviot as the place where her main character, Iain MacGillivray (a survivor of the battle of Culloden and the awful aftermath), spent his early life. Shona herself has a family connection to these places. Her walks and forays into the area around Inverness, meant that she was able to incorporate a variety of its features into the story. Names and occupations were also ’borrowed‘ from Greyfriars Kirkyard.

After the defeat at Culloden, the whole area was under occupation, so members of the British Army would need to feature in the story too. Although the characters are fictional, they are based on primary source texts. Again, she was aware of people of the past just sitting there waiting to be discovered. Shona felt that writing this novel was a real adventure, as well as an intensely personal experience.

Now she is turning her attention to a non-historical crime novel, to be set in Cromarty and the wider Black Isle. The characters and outline are in her head and it will be a story she imagines could have happened here. We can’t wait for its publication!

Our next speakers, on Tuesday 18 April, 2023, will be our members Liz Broumley and Pat Haynes speaking about “The Story of Cromarty in 6 maps”. The meeting will take place in Victoria Hall, Cromarty, commencing 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome to our meetings and further information is available on our website: www.cromartyhistory.scot

April 2023,   The Story of Cromarty in Six Maps — (and a few diagrams),   Liz Broumley and Pat Haynes

At our final meeting of the 2022/23 season, we were delighted to welcome two of our members, Liz Broumley and Pat Haynes, to present the last talk. Although they had known each other well for years, this was the first time they had collaborated to deliver a lecture.

The title of their presentation was “The Story of Cromarty in Six Maps (and a few diagrams)”. In their research, they actually found 147 maps of relevance — at which point they had to stop and start an exercise of severe culling.

In the end they presented six groups of maps — each group representing an historical period. From each group they choose what they regarded as the “essential” map to tell the story. The range of maps and plans was diverse and eclectic, representing Cromarty both as a very specific settlement and its place in the wider world. Their talk made us realise that maps are not just about geography, they can also be used to show power, possession and governance. They can indicate how a place develops over time and in the way it is viewed by the rest of the world.

So, we travelled the area with geological maps, archaeological plans, Ordinance Survey maps, maps showing trade routes, military maps, topographical maps, Admiralty maps and WW1 and WW2 plans showing both land and sea defences. The features of the town were highlighted and its reputation as a safe harbour, an economic force and location of significance. It was fascinating to see an 18th century game with a map in which Cromarty was featured — showing its significance at the time.

We gained knowledge of cartographers over a period of 500 years. For example, Timothy Pont, who was the first Scot to set out to survey the whole country, at the end of the 16th century. Then there was Robert Gordon, who was asked to complete Pont’s maps of Scotland for publication by Charles 1. Joan Blaeu, from a successful Dutch map making family, produced an 11 volume atlas of the whole world. His maps added the county boundaries, giving information about the governance of a country. William Roy conducted a survey across Scotland after Culloden to produce maps for military purposes. There were many others as well.

This meeting was preceded by a short AGM. The annual report highlighted the strong membership and regular visitors to all our meetings. There was also reference to our objectives of promoting the history of the town and parish through our lecture syllabus and also encouraging community participation in discovering and preserving our local past. That goal is viewed particularly in relation to supporting our local Cromarty Courthouse Museum.

The programme for the next season has already been devised — like this year, full of variety. Watch our website for further details — www.cromartyhistory.scot

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