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Cromarty


The town of Cromarty lies at the north-east tip of the Black Isle, its feet in the waters of the Cromarty Firth and its back to the heather covered slopes of the South Sutor. With wide views across the Cromarty and the Moray Firths to distant encircling mountains and nearer glimpses of narrow streets and secluded courts, the district has much with which to enchant the visitor. But those who would wish to enjoy it to the full, and especially those who seek the atmosphere of the birthplace of the Cromarty Stonemason, must see not only the length, breadth and height of the scene but should view it in the fourth dimension of time also.

The deserted little town of today, however picturesque, bears little resemblance to the busy place it was when Hugh Miller was a boy. At the dawn of the nineteenth century the streets of Cromarty were astir with seafaring men for then the industry of the town was concerned with the broad waters that lay beyond the Sutors. Cromarty was an important centre of the fishing industry and in the fishertown men and women baited lines for the boats at anchor in the harbour while the sea air was heavy with the tang of fish curing from a previous catch. Beside the herring-barrels on the quay lay the manufactures of the town, hempen cloth, linen, lace, ale, nails and spades, and bacon awaiting shipment on one of the tall-masted sloops to ports around the Scottish coast and the Continent.

Before this active time, Cromarty had had its ups and downs. The Cromarty Firth, protected from east winds and open seas by the bastions of the Sutors, had been from time immemorial a haven for shipping and its geographical situation was well adapted to make it a centre for coastal trading. Thus the population of Cromarty, in common with so many of the east-coast ports of Scotland, was of lowland or Scandinavian origin. The lowland seafarers had to fight for their foothold on Celtic soil on more than one occasion, however, and it is recorded that the neighbouring clans sacked the town in the reign of James IV. Cromarty comes into historical prominence for the first time under the Stuarts when the Urquharts were the lairds. The most famous of the family was the whimsical Sir Thomas Urquhart, translator of Rabelais and author of several rare and eccentric works. Sir Thomas continued the family tradition of royalist and fought at the field of Worcester. He died in exile on the Continent—it is said of joy at hearing of the news of the Restoration.

Today tribute is paid to Sir Thomas Urquhart on a memorial plaque erected by the Saltire Society in the Old Kirk of Cromarty. This is one of the few buildings of the old town that remain, the seventeenth century town, built to the north of the present site, having been washed house by house into the sea. The Church, being built to the south of the old town, has escaped coast erosion. It is a T-plan kirk dating from 1700. It has harled walls and a simple belfry (1799) with large round-headed windows flanking the pulpit. The eighteenth century Cromarty House loft at the east end is decorated with pillars and panelling while opposite it is a simpler loft. The north loft or poor’s loft has been described as a more rudimentary piece of work. Other interesting features of the Old Kirk are the box pews at its centre and the hatchments or funeral escutcheons. These were displayed outside the houses of the dead during mourning and were later hung in the kirk near the family pew.

The union of 1707 brought depression to Cromarty and failure of the fishing made the first half of the eighteenth century a black time for the town. The house in which Hugh Miller was born dates from these days being built about 1711. Its builder, John Fiddes, was unlucky in his love for the beautiful Jean Gallie and little caring for his future he became a buccaneer on the Spanish Main. Returning later to Cromarty with his money-bag filled with dollars and doubloons he found his old sweetheart a widow and soon they became man and wife. With some of his Spanish gold he built the long low thatched cottage ‘with its tiny windows half buried in the eaves’ which was to be their home and the home of their family for so many years. Hugh Miller tells us that the death of the old buccaneer did not sever his connection with the house, for young Hugh saw his apparition there over fifty years after they had laid the seafarer in his grave, a tall figure dressed in a light blue greatcoat standing at the head of the stairs gazing down at his terrified great-grandson.

Prosperity began to return through the enterprise of William Forsyth, a merchant and native of Cromarty. He tried to help the fishing trade by instituting a bounty on herrings which encouraged the fitting out of boats and later he provided the fishers with nets and tackle. Although the venture met with limited success it was over a century before herring returned to the firth in large numbers. Forsyth expanded the interest which his father had in importing and exporting, and in 1746 he was appointed agent of the British linen Company in the north of Scotland.

Flax was shipped from Holland and prepared in Cromarty whence it was shipped again to the ports of the north. Employment was thus provided for many linen spinners which made up in some measure for the loss of the herring fisheries. William Forsyth built for himself the fine red sandstone house which is known today as Forsyth House around which he planted a spacious garden. 'Both serve to show how completely this merchant of the eighteenth century had anticipated the improvements of the nineteenth. There are not loftier nor better proportioned rooms in the place, larger windows, nor easier stairs; and his garden is such a one as would satisfy an Englishman of the present day’ (Hugh Miller Tales and Sketches).

The coasting schooners brought other goods from the Continent such as Swedish iron and Norwegian timber which provided raw materials for other manufactures. These and local resources were put into use by George Ross who bought the Cromarty estate in 1722, and who did more for the town than anyone else has been able to do. Ross had made his fortune as an army agent owing his advancement to Lord Mansfield and the Duke of Grafton. He instituted the manufacture of biscuit and cotton-bagging from imported hemp which for many years was a flourishing industry employing over 200 people in the factory and more than twice that number in their own homes.

He also erected what was at the time the largest brewery in the north which was intended to encourage ale drinking rather than whisky drinking among the people. A nail and spade factory was set up and lace makers were brought from England. Such was the consequent trade that Ross persuaded the Government to contribute 7000 for the building of the pier to which he also gave liberally and which was constructed in 1785. Later a factory for the curing of pork and cod was set up which for twenty years prior to 1845 had sent between fifteen and twenty thousand pounds worth of goods annually to the English market. In 1829 smacks sailed from Cromarty every Tuesday.

The employment thus created, coupled with the break up of the clan system in the Highlands, caused an immigration of Gaelic speakers into Cromarty, for whom Mr Ross gave the elegant Gaelic Chapel (1783) which stands on the high ground above the town. He also gave the Court-House (1782) whose cupola and clock have since been landmarks in the Cromarty scene. Building was a product of the new-found prosperity of the townsfolk and the greater part of the town as we know it today was built in the latter part of the eighteenth century or the opening years of the nineteenth. It ranged from the unique and stately merchants’ houses, with their three storeys and wide steps rising to their well proportioned front doors, to the humble cottages of the fisherfolk with their gables to the sea and their tiny windows peeping at one another across the vennels. Hugh Miller’s father, master of one of the Cromarty sloops, shared in the fashion by building a two storeyed sandstone villa between the Court-House and old John Fiddes’ cottage but the sea claimed Captain Miller before the new house could become a family home.

A visitor to Cromarty during Hugh Miller’s time was Robert Chambers who records that ‘Cromarty is one of the neatest, cleanest, prettiest towns of the size in Scotland.. . . Most of the houses are whitewashed, owing to the generosity of a candidate for the representation of the county in Parliament, who, anxious to gather golden opinions from all sorts of men, offered thus to adorn the house of any person who so desired; the consequence of which has been that Cromarty came cleaner out of the election business of 1826 than perhaps any other town in his Majesty’s dominions’!

During Hugh Miller’s years in Cromarty the business of the town was still done by way of the sea. On 6 January 1830 he published in the Inverness Courier an account of the launching from Hugh Allan’s shipyard in the town of a large and handsome schooner which was christened The Sutors of Cromarty. He was not always able to report such happy events, however, for he saw the harbour, which under George Ross and his successors had become the artery for the town’s trade, gradually change into one of the ports through which ebbed so much of Scotland’s life blood in the emigrant ships. These ships left Cromarty for Canada and Australia taking with them emigrants from Ross and Sutherland not all of whom, at least in the earlier days, were impoverished for we read that many possessed property and many were young and eager for adventure. The ships themselves, however, must have been a nightmare for one young man from Sutherland who sailed from Cromarty in May 1830 wrote: ‘Nearly the whole of the passengers, about 220 in number, were attacked by a severe fever owing to bad water. The water had been put in palm-oil casks, or some other obnoxious stuff was in them formerly, and we could neither use it for tea, coffee, or anything else, and of which we got a very small allowance. We lost nine passengers in all.’ Another ship, the Asia, sailing from Cromarty to Australia with 280 emigrants, was stopped at Plymouth on 17 September 1838 and declared unfit, being leaky and the passengers’ food poor and insufficient.

Thus it was that through a changing social structure and by competition from the industrial south whose steam looms were to rob the local weavers of employment, Cromarty shared depression with the Highlands. Even the railway-builders were to bypass the town leaving it in isolation and at the same time undercutting the economy of the coastal trade. Only in the first world war was the quietness of the little town interrupted when the Army was encamped nearby and the ships of the Navy once again used the firth and the old streets echoed to the voices of seafaring men.


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