Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 10 - Village Life

A statement in 1793 that 'In. . . every parish throughout the country, the roads are made most convenient for travellers',6b simply was not true in the villages. The only road at that time was a public one of sorts which ran along the top of the cliff from Tarbat Ness, behind the villages, and so to Cromarty Ferry (the real name for Nigg Ferry.) It is shown on the 1813 map and was known as the 'rockhead road'.6b The various little vennels or alleys between every three or four houses gave access from this road to the sea.

It was only in 1819 that a road from Hill of Fearn to Balintore was built, thanks to the generosity of Hugh Rose of Glastullich who advanced the total cost of £322.4/-. It was reported on 31st August 1819 that 'Thomas Logan has been employed the greater part of this season in forming and gravelling the road from Fearn to Balintore and that he hoped to finish it in fourteen days' time.  [2O]   It is interesting that an 'S' bend on this same road is at present being straightened out at an estimated cost of £22,000.12

Such a road made a tremendous difference to the population of the Seaboard, but up to the beginning of this century the three villages of Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick still had no roads linking them with each other and were totally separate communities with little communal feeling. Old people remember when there were only sandy hillocks between each of the villages and tinkers used to camp between Balintore and Hilton.

The road from Hilton School to Hilton village was made first and people have vivid memories of the stones being carted from the shore, spread with clay, sprinkled with water, and the clay flattened and worked in among the stones by a wide brush pulled by a horse. The Hilton - Balintore road was made about 1905 and the extension to Shandwick about 1907. Stones from Balintore and Shandwick quarries were used and clay from Rarichie and Tullich. After this, from time to time road metal (broken stones) was used to cover the clay and even up the surface, and later on it was sprayed with tar and made ready for the steam roller, the delight of the children.

Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick men in the Royal Naval Reserve, 1906.

Names and nicknames given by David Morrison, Fulford Harbour, B.C.,Canada, but not guaranteed for accuracy.
Row 1.1: A. Mackay.
Row 2.1:  Wm. Skinner, 'Wowa'; 2 and 3: Danny and Beelie 'Vatt', (Mackenzie), 16 Bank Street; 4: Jock Vorrer, 8 Bank Street; 5: Wm. Sutherland, 'Vullia', Hilton; 6: 'Moses' Morrison; 8: Brother of Wm. Sutherland, Hilton; 9: Hecktor Mackenzie.
Row 3.1: 'Stumpy'; 2: Wm. Vass, 'Goatie', or his brother 'Ort'; 4: Johnnie 'Jeannack' MacAngus, Hilton; 5: A. McKay, 2 Shore Street; 6: David Morrison, 1 Shore Street.
Row 4.1: 'Major'; 2 and 10: D. and W. (Beala) Mackenzie, 1 Port Street; 3. 'Rossi'; 5: David Skinner, 'Russ', Shore Street, Balintore; 6: D. Vass, 'Huge', Shandwick, or his brother; 12: Johndi, Shandwick.
Row 5. 7: D. Mitchell, 'Robb'; 9: David Vass, 'Bolt', Shandwick.
Row 6. 1: Hugh Ross, Hilton, 'Hughie Allie'; 2: Hugh McKay, 'Cear', 'Left-handed', Hilton; 5: Andrew Ross, 'Vullie', Shandwick; 6: Finlay Skinner,' 'Daunie'; 9: George Skinner, 'Crusaire', 4 Shore Street.
Row 7. 1 and 2: Willie and Finlay Ross, 'Leabhain and Filt'.
Row 8. 2: Andrew Ross, 'Reida', 7 Bank Street, Balintore.

Even when the roads were made, there were no streets such as one is familiar with today, only grassy stretches on which houses stood, later being made into tracks of clay and sand which in wet weather were full of rain-filled holes. The streets were pitch dark in winter and when people ran out to chase away mischievous urchins tapping on the windows, they often fell into the holes to the added pleasure of the young rascals.

Although the villages were thus to a great extent apart, there was always some movement from one to the other and even inter-marriage. Even so, what may have applied in one village does not necessarily apply in the others.

When the railway line north of Invergordon was opened in 1864 everyone who possibly could walked up to the station to see the first train pass by. This must have fired their ambitions because after the First World War there was enthusiastic agreement in 1919 for a proposal by Nigg Parish Council to have 'a railway linking up Balintore with Nigg Station, and by a branch line to Nigg Ferry from the Railway, Balintore and Nigg Station with the Ferry.'21 One feels that Dr. Beeching's axe would have fallen by now had this proposal ever come to anything.

The sea on the east side of the harbour has receded quite considerably during this century because it used to be quite common to see seaweed lying on the road in Main Street and Shore Street, Balintore, and for stools to be afloat in Shore Street houses at high tide. However, people tried to build up the shore line with all sorts of rubbish and waste material such as old thatch roofing, ship ballast and so on, which has been most successful even although a freak wave flooded into Main Street in 1956. On the west side of the harbour there is clear evidence over the last twenty to thirty years that the sea is encroaching on the land.

Shore Street, Balintore, showing braze chimneys, c.1900.

Some shops have been forgotten entirely but of those that are remembered, or still survive, the chief one is Ross's Shop (the Big Shop) in Balintore. It now incorporates the Post Office and is still thriving. It is at least a hundred years old and some of its old brass
trading tokens are still to be seen. They were possibly made at the foundry in Tain and have figures on them to denote their value, and the letters A. R. for Andrew Ross and B. for Balintore. These tokens are thought to have been used for paying country women who brought in butter, crowdie etc. and they could only be spent at the shop.

Ross's were ships' chandlers besides supplying a wide range of goods for domestic use. Country people also traded with the shop and twice a year at term time when they were paid in cash the shop was especially busy. Even when they left the district some of the farm workers returned to the shop to settle debts and open the next six months' account. The shop ran two vans, one to Nigg Ferry and one to the Cadbollmount area.
Most of the goods arrived in bulk. Tea came in large boxes and was measured into paper bags with a little scoop. Dried fruit, hard soap and sugar also came in bulk. Salt boats came into the harbour and the loose salt was loaded into carts to be taken to the shop.

There is another grocery in Bank Street, Balintore, Skinner's Shop, which is also about a hundred years old and a close rival of Ross's; and a sweetie shop, Bonny's, used to exist near the Big Shop, where the children spent their New Year pennies. There are nostalgic memories of buying a large poke of sweets at ½d. or ld. and two dozen small ginger snaps for 3d. about sixty years ago. 

Shandwick had a general shop owned by Mr. William Ross, now run by his son, Hugh. There was also a general shop at the east end of Mid Street run by David Vass, but it is no longer in existence.  There were three bakers in Balintore. Two brothers called Fletcher made excellent loaves which were sold at three for 1/- about the end of the 19th century. They also supplies the herring fleet with ships biscuits in addition to loaves. Girls going to the fishing usually made sure they had a loaf of Fletcher's bread with them, which was surely a tribute to its high quality. Fletchers were followed by Ross's bakery.

New Street, Shandwick, between the wars.

Another baker called Sutherland had his shop in Main Street, and a James Vass had a bakery farther west. This last baker supplied about two hundred loaves a day for orders and also made oatcakes. All the mixing was done by hand and the baking in coal ovens. When the baking was ready the bakers got out their two horses from a stable in the old herring yard and went round the district with vans. Mr. Tom Skinner, a well-known baker now retired in Inverness, trained there.

There was a butcher's shop in each village though Johnstone's shop in Balintore has outlived the others and is now run by the third generation. Mackay the Curer had a butcher's shop in Hilton for a few years and John Vass had one in Shandwick in a shed opposite his house at 2, New Street.
One of the Sutherlands, bakers in Balintore, also had a general shop in Hilton which he sold to James Fraser. James Fraser sent a van round the countryside and had a Post Office as well but it was closed in spite of public protests about 1967/8. Denoon's ran a
general shop and ship chandlers in Back Street, Hilton, till about the end of the Second World War. Another small grocery shop on Back Street was owned by Maggie Uisdean (Sutherland) who was so short-sighted that she used to wear three pairs of spectacles simultaneously.

She also sold bread, baked in Hill of Fearn by Gordon's and Leslie's.  Bell Geordie (Skinner) had a little shop in a black-roofed shed adjoining her house in Shore Street, Wilton, and sold bread, tobacco, sweets and paraffin oil. Many a child went to Bell's shoppie with a finished school copybook and exchanged it for ½d. worth of sweets.

The pages were used in lieu of paper bags as pokes for further sales of conversation lozenges, gob-stoppers and the like. Phemie Ross sold bread (Gordon's and Leslie's) in addition to doing sewing in a small white-washed cottage long since vanished at the foot of Hilton brae. Another old lady on Back Street, Isabella Skinner (Belsie), eked out a scanty livelihood selling bread to the neighbours.

Gordon's, bakers and grocers in Hill of Fearn, sent a van round the villages, and a baker's van from Portmahomack came too, with very good bread and specializing in a hard biscuit.  The visits of the packmen, with linen, knick-knacks, books and clothes were always very welcome. A well-known figure as she tramped from Cadboll to Hilton and Balintore with farm produce for her various customers, was Maggie Gillanders. She was equally burdened on her return journey with groceries for her neighbours.

Hilton Post Office in its heyday with Mr James Fraser, Postmaster/Grocer.

As the festive season approached Maggie was a walking Christmas tree, perhaps with hens slung over her shoulder, a basket of butter on one arm and one of eggs on the other. She had many friends and her goodness of heart was shown in the little gifts she gave to young couples on their wedding day.

Donald Ross, Hilton, mentioned in the Session Minutes of 1845 as providing coffins at 7/- each, may well have been the father of Robert Ross who had a general shop in Hilton near Phemie's and was undertaker as well till about the time of the First World War. He made the coffins in a shed opposite his house and shop and school children often stopped in the passing to watch him at work and play among the tinselly stuff with which he ornamented the black-cloth-covered coffins. One old lady remembers a ship's figurehead which Robert had nailed above his shop door - maybe a trophy of his earlier years! George Mackay, the Balintore boat-builder, also made coffins for the other villages, and the Skinner brothers who were celebrated masons made gravestones around the turn of the century at 1, East Street, Balintore.

Hilton had an inn known as the Hilton Hotel, situated at the extreme east end of Lady Street. It belonged to the Sutherlands and in time when the licence was not renewed it became a dwelling-house.  Today all evidence of its former prestige as an hotel has gone. The stabling has disappeared and only the cellars are left intact beside the

In Balintore there were at least two hotels, the Commercial near the entrance to the harbour, and the Balintore Hotel towards the east 'end of the village.These have changed hands from time to time down the years but trade in drams was always brisk, and both are still in use.  Well into this century Fearn held a market in mid-July, and in the late 19th century there was also a pig-market there, the only one in the North of Scotland specifically for pigs.

In addition there had been two much earlier markets - a feeing market about a hundred years ago held in the park east of Hilton, and Hugh's Fair which took place at Wester Rarichie on the third Tuesday of November each year. It moved to a new site at Ankerville and died out about a hundred years ago.
Nearly every household kept a pig, bought as a piglet at Fearn market and perhaps kept in the house for the first week till it settled down. They were well cared for and sometimes even were washed to keep them nice and clean. They were fattened on potatoes, scraps, even 'paddles', and resold at the Fearn market or in Tain, but often to Mr. Johnstone, grandfather of the present butcher. He was a pig-dealer as well as a butcher, and shipped a lot of pigs from Invergordon to Newcastle. The fisherfolk could rarely afford to kill a pig for themselves but on occasion would combine with another family when one pig was killed and shared between the two households, the other being sold and the money divided. A shepherd at Cadboll used to be called in to do the pig-killing.

Then as now there was much scope for the practical joker. Pigsties provided an outlet for fun and often the pigs were let loose in the villages and caused much consternation among the owners who heaped imprecations on their incorrigible young, especially if they were bound by a clause in their house feu such as, 'Should any Pigs or Swine be kept on the subject of this Sett, they must be confined and not suffered to go at large through the village.  [22]

Many people kept hens and several had a cow.  Johnstone the butcher kept goats and many a story is told of these. One billy goat somehow used to get loose at night and wandered through the village with its chain clanking behind it. The superstitious were convinced that the devil was abroad till one, braver than the rest and more curious maybe, determined to face His Satanic Majesty in whatever guise. This was Johnstone's poor old billy goat!

Aged horses were sometimes turned loose to graze around and feed themselves as best they might but sometimes they were killed by axe and buried near the sea between the villages. There were conditions attached to keeping animals on some feus, for instance that any dung and manure made had first of all to be offered to the farm tenants of the estate on the usual terms or as agreed, but failing this it might be disposed of to anyone else.  [22]

Pipe-smoking was common, the clay pipe, with thread wound round the stem to prevent cancer of the lip, and the briar being used, with perhaps an expensive meerschaum brought home as a present by a member of the family in the Merchant Navy. Snuff was used by the older generation, women as well as men indulging the habit. It was often passed around in church and according to one writer they sneezed but never missed a word from the pulpit.  [23]

During the First World War there was a large army camp stationed at Nigg. Sentries were posted at Balintore to guard the harbour and lived in a nearby bothy and a building near the Post Office. The villagers were very kind to these men and on cold nights put out tea on window ledges for them as sentry duty forbade them to go inside. Because of the war a great deal of employment came to the Seaboard, building the - forts at North Sutor and later the oil tanks at Invergordon. This brought much-needed prosperity and many modernised their homes, often adding extensions. It also brought surprising sights and the first time one fishwife saw an airship she thought it was a whale flying!

There were few newspapers about but in Hilton anyway news was dispensed by Mr. Sutherland of the Hilton Inn who used to walk to the shop for his 'Scotsman' and on his return trip read out the news all along the street to the people sitting outside baiting lines, and it was thus that they heard of the triumphs and tragedies of the war.

Again during the Second World War, work was plentiful. Many people from the villages served in both wars. For years the men had been in the habit of joining the Royal Navy Reserve, spending some time annually training in Inverness. Consequently, when war broke out these reservists were called up to serve in the Navy. Others went to the Merchant Navy and some to the Army and the Air Force, while many of the girls joined the women's services. They served faithfully, some even laying down their lives, and not a few medals for gallant service were won.

To give but one instance, the Distinguished Service Medal was won by W. Vass, Main Street, Balintore, who was a gunner on S.S. Cyrene. On 22nd October 1916 a German submarine approached and Cyrene's captain thought it wise to hoist the white flag. W. Vass turned a blind eye like Nelson and continued to fire, destroying the submarine. His family prize an official acknowledgement of this incident from the Minister of Shipping.

Sea Scouts, Hilton, c.1914.

During the First World War a band of Sea Scouts was stationed at Hilton, mainly doing coastguard duty. Their leader was Mr. William Nicoll and their little hut was sited to the west of Patersons' yard.  The boys were welcomed in the villages and people were very kind to them. When they reached calling-up age they joined the services. The following poem was written by one of these boys, Forrest Robertson, from 'somewhere in France' and sent to Miss Anna Skinner, Hilton, now Mrs. Miller, California. Pte. Robertson did not return from the war.

The Road to Balintore. The thoughts of a soldier on the eve of departure, who has spent a happy part of his life at Hilton and Balintore in Ross-shire.
A rending cry from a far off shore
And a voice both wild and free
Borne by a wind that is wet with spray,
Hark! 'tis a voice from the sea.
I hear it a-calling
In crowded street and busy way.
It sets my blood a-tingling
It calls me but I cannot obey.

I see the boats at anchor riding
In the small and peaceful harbour.
I see the big waves rising, falling,
Ever on in strenuous labour.
They beat on harbour wall and sandy bay,
They lash in vain on the rocky shore,
Sending a voice to fetch me
To the road to Balintore.

Then from Tarrel Cove and Geanies ho!
On to the Hill of Nigg
Comes a voice and bids me go
But I cannot do as bid.
How I long for the ships coming up the firth
From a far of distant shore
And see the land on the other side
From the road to Balintore.

I see the old hill lift his head
In solemn dignity,
As if to guard the dead
Who sleep there in the sea.
I can see old Shandwick Bay
Where the breakers sweep and roar,
Where we boys were wont to play
On the road to Balintore.

I long for the harsh North Easter
Lashing the waves in glee,
Sweeping the spray to the Firth
From his home in the dark North Sea,
To hear the sea come foaming in
And break with sullen roar
On the rocks close by old Hilton
On the road to Balintore.

Why did I leave the happy home
Which meant so much to me,
Ne'er to return and roam
By the side of the wild North Sea.
I long for the little boats to come
And it makes my heart feel sore
To think I'll ne'er again see them
From the road to Balintore.

But when I'm free I'll return
And answer the voice that calls me
That makes my heart so yearn
For the dear old Shandwick Bay,
And for the rocks at Hilton,
Till I hear the voice no more
From along that wind-swept coast
And the road to Balintore.

Continue in Chapter 11
Terms & Conditions     © Ross and Cromarty Heritage