Kilmuir and Logie Easter History

Kilmuir and Logie Easter Community Collage

History by Helen Myers Meldrum


Chapter I   The Parish Described
Chapter II  Church Affairs
Chapter III  Schools and Schoolmasters
Chapter IV  Social Conditions and the Develop-      ment of the Land
Chapter V  Lairds and their Lands
Chapter VI  The Cromartie Family
Chapter VII  Balnagown and its Lairds

Duncan Forbes Ross of Kindeace.  [Photo of oil painting courtesy of Bradley Ross of North Carolina, USA.]
Mr Bradley Ross believes the painting is approximately 250 years old.  It was discovered at an auction in Portland, Oregon, USA, c.1960.

The History of a Highland Parish by Helen Myers Meldrum

Chapter I - The Parish Described

In a corner of Easter Ross, one of the richest agricultural districts of Scotland, lies the parish of Kilmuir Easter. Its name is Gaelic - Cill Mhoir (the Church of Mary) - possibly from an ancient chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which, in pre-Reformation days, stood on the banks of the Delny burn, on the site now occupied by Delny farm steading.

Composed for the most part of rich woods and well cultivated farms and crofts, Kilmuir slopes gently from the hills of Kinrive and Strathrory in the north to the shores of the Cromarty Firth in the south; on the north-east it is bounded by the Balnagown River, the largest stream in the parish, and on the west by the parish of Rosskeen.

The soil by the shore is light and sandy; farther inland there are stretches of rich black loam with a subsoil of clay or gravel, while on the highest reaches of the parish the cultivated parts are interspersed with patches of scrub and straggling woods of birch and Scotch fir. These finally  merge into a stretch of heathery moorland which culminates in a height of about 1100 feet.

The scenery has changed in character during the passing of the centuries. In remote times the lower levels were covered by the sea, while only a little over a hundred years ago many acres lay waste - untrenched, undrained and unfenced, with no roads other than rough tracks. Until the seventeenth century the parish is frequently referred to as Kilmuir-Methat, but later the name became Kilmuir Easter.

To-day the parish is one of the most pleasant in the countryside, with rich fields and clustering woods, hedges and rippling burns, neat cottages and comfortable farmhouses scattered up and down, and here and there an imposing mansion.

In every direction there are well-constructed roads, so that there is no corner of the parish which is not easily accessible by any sort of vehicle.

The principal road runs northward along the coast until, at the village of Barbaraville, it slants inland between hawthorn and beech hedges, overshadowed at either side by ancient trees of oak, ash, beech and poplar. It then curves round by the old churchyard, passing the little row of thatched cottages on the right, known as Tornabrock, up Adam's Brae, until it reaches the smithy at Appitauldt, where it turns sharply to the left, under the railway bridge, then, swinging to the right, crosses the old Balnagown Bridge which spans the river, and enters the neighbouring parish of Logie.

The beach is level, and when the tide recedes it leaves a muddy flat with drifts of seaweed. This is in demand as; a covering for the "pits" where potatoes and turnips are stored during the winter.

During the last fifty years the sea has encroached slightly on the land, and the pathway along the shore has become rough, and broken by the little springs flowing out from the land to the sea. At times the tide recedes so far that, at a certain point below Tarbat House to the east of the mouth of Balnagown River, it is possible by vehicle or on foot to cross to Nigg on the opposite side of the Firth. But there are risks and sometimes travellers crossing in this way have been caught by the tide and drowned.

This strip of sand and shallow water extends well up the Firth, but between it and the land on the opposite side the channel is deep enough to float the heaviest of our warships.

A tragic episode of the Great War is still (1935) recalled there by the derelict hull of H.M.S. Natal, which, one sunny December day in 1915, was blown up with the loss of all on board. Stories of spies and of treachery were long current, but the real cause of the disaster has never been ascertained.

From any point in the eastern part of the parish the Firth presents the appearance of an inland loch, the long arm of the Black Isle on the opposite side apparently meeting a tongue of land from the Hill of Nigg. But as one travels westwards to Barbaraville and Balintraid, the entrance leading from the open sea to the sheltered waters of the Firth gradually becomes visible, with the great rocks known as the Sutors of Cromarty towering on either side.

"Black Isle'" in spite of its name, is neither "island" nor "black," but about twenty miles of rich and fertile country jutting out from the mainland. The name dates from early times when it was black moorland.

From the shore of Kilmuir can be seen, resting at the base of the southern Sutor, the little old-world town of Cromarty, its light-house being a familiar feature of the landscape at night, with the lights of the town twinkling close by.

Cromarty was long a port of considerable importance, and a centre of the herring industry. It is now known to fame as the birthplace of Hugh Miller, the distinguished geologist, who was born there in 1802. His parents were seafaring people of Scandinavian descent.

As a child Hugh is said to have been wild and intractable. He left school early after a violent encounter with his schoolmaster, whose one method of dealing with every fault was no doubt corporal punishment, psychology at that period not being one of the subjects included in the training of teachers. Hugh's active mind, however, found plenty scope in the study of natural phenomena, in which he was keenly interested.

At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to a stone-mason. He proved an excellent workman. In 1822 his apprenticeship was completed, and as a journeyman-mason, he pursued his craft in different parts of the country, through the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland, visiting towns and villages and country places. In the churchyard of Kilmuir Easter is a gravestone with neat lettering said to be his work.

He acquired a thorough knowledge of the antiquities and geology of his native town of Cromarty and the district around, and of old tales and traditions. He wrote widely on these subjects, and his Writings were received with great delight not only by the general public, but by learned authorities.

In his "Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland" he narrates the various theories regarding the origin of the name Sutors, by which are known the two promontories at the entrance to the Firth.

One tradition ascribes the name to a remote age when the whole country is said to have been peopled by a race of giants. The promontories served as work-stools to two giants who plied the trade of sutor or shoemaker, having only one set of tools between them. When necessary, these they used to fling across the strait to one another.

Another tradition has it that the name originated from a tale of two lovers who, many ages ago, met in a field near by. The youth in urging his suit pointed to the promontories and compared them to lovers advancing towards each other, eager to embrace, while the maiden, in her reply, referred to them as "tongueless suitors", thus bestowing on them the name by which they have since been known.

The Gaelic form - Na Sudraichean - favours a derivation from sudaire, a tanner, and would thus mean the place of tanners, or the tanneries.

In the parish of Kilmuir there are, strictly speaking, three villages. Two of these, Barbaraville and Portleich, are merged in one, Barbaraville proper consisting of a cluster of substantially-built houses, with an inn and one or two shops, while Portleich is a long, single row of cottages. Their roofs were at one time thatched, but these are now replaced by the more durable but less picturesque slates or corrugated iron.

The cottages (except one, larger than the rest, which was an inn in bygone days, and which stands facing southwards at the bend of the road just as it leaves the village) stand well apart from each other and face the sea, their backs to the high-road. One result of this is that those little knots of people which elsewhere foregather of an evening to discuss local or national affairs, are seldom seen here, and the impression on a casual visitor is of a deserted village.

The inhabit,ants are mostly crofters. Their strips of cultivated land slope from the cottage doors to the shore below. The name of this village, which is from a Gaelic word, meaning 'wet port," arose from the fact that there were no proper places for landing at a time when fishing was the principal occupation of its inhabitants.

It is, at the lowest reckoning, two hundred years old, but, compared with the village of Milntown at the opposite end of the parish, it is a mere "infant," for the history of Milntown goes back to at least 1479, when it is referred to in a document as "Myltoun of Methat with its two mills."

This village nestles against the woods of New Tarbat, not far from the Balnagown River, and is of entirely different character from Barbaraville and Portleich, being rather English in style than typically Highland. Its street of straggling houses is set round a village green, where a grey old market cross still stands, remnant of stirring days when markets were held here of a week's duration, when crowds travelled from far and near to trade with each other, to meet acquaintances, or to join in the sports of the times.

For this little village was not always so unassuming as it now appears, but was once a "burgh of baronie", possessing the right of holding a yearly fair on "the tenth of August each year . . . with the libertie and priviledge of erecting and making stalls and yaires upon the Sands of Milntown and Nigg."

Round the top of the cross the word Cromartie, now almost indecipherable, is carved, indicating the estate of Cromartie, in which the village is situated, and below that, the date 1799; thus this cross probably replaced an older one, for the markets were in full swing long before that date. They continued well into the nineteenth century. Until 1838 four markets were held in each year, but gradually they became less important, and finally faded out.

A much respected resident, John Munro, who still lives in the village, was one of two men employed by the laird to collect the dues demanded from those who brought their produce to the market for sale. This included not only farm produce, but all sorts of commodities from gingerbread to wooden tubs. He tells that the charges were ld for a pig, 2d for a sheep, and 3d for a "beast". On the last occasion when this duty was performed by him and his colleague the drawings amounted to 4d !

Although the markets are no more, the stream flowing under the low bridge at the east end of the village still drives the mill from which the village takes its name, and its flour and oatmeal can stand comparison with similar products from the most up-to-date factories.

In 1780 it was reported that the mill of Milntown was in urgent need of repair. Plans for a new mill and a dam across the water of New Tarbat, with estimates of the cost, were submitted by two men - James Kyle and one Smeaton. Smeaton's plans showed the higher cost, being £179 against Kyle's £157, but were considered the more satisfactory, and the work was begun. It was completed in May 1785, the mason work being carried out by James Anderson, Forres.

It was in the eighteenth century that Milntown reached its zenith as an industrial centre. At that period it was one of the most important centres of the linen trade which was then thriving throughout the Highlands.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Royal mail coach started running between Wick and Inverness, Milntown was one of its stopping places. The ancient weather-beaten inn (now converted into tenement dwellings), before which the coach used to draw up, remains to this day, with the iron fixture from which the sign was suspended, still projecting from the wall.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth there stood at the east end of the village on the banks of the mill stream a handsome mansion known as Millmount. It is said that the reason for its demolition was the jealousy of one of the Cromartie family who could not tolerate - so near to his own residence - a house surpassing his in elegance. Some loose stones from its foundations, the gateway which led to its policies, and a few straggling gooseberry bushes from its once flourishing orchard, are all that remain to mark the site of the stately edifice, but, in certain houses of the neighbourhood, a table, a mirror, a handsome though cumbersome fireplace may be pointed out as having once been part of its furnishing.

This house was occupied for some years by one James Baillie, who had been a merchant in Rotterdam. An inventory of its contents, dated 1748, was discovered not many years ago among some ancient documents stored in the Municipal Buildings of Tain. Baillie's wife was Marjorie Dunbar, daughter of Alexander Dunbar of Boath, and in terms of the marriage contract, dated 21st January 1745, she had a life-rent of the house with "the Gaerdens and parks enclosures and others therein contained."

Baillie, who died in 1747, was buried in the churchyard of Kilmuir Easter, where a gravestone bears the inscription - "In Memoriam Jacobi Baylie de Migdale Rotterdam non nunquam mercatoris qui 25 Mensis Martii die 1747 Mortem obiit anno AETATIS 45 et cujus corpus hoc sub cippo Humatum est." (In memory of James Baillie of Migdale, sometime merchant of Rotterdam, who died on 25th March 1747, in the forty-fifth year of his age, and whose body lies under this stone."

A romantic story is told of another occupant of the house of Millmount - a girl whose love was bestowed on one below her in social status, and whom, on this account, she was forbidden to wed. Two foundling children, one discovered at the door of a house in Kilmuir, the other in the neighbouring parish of Logie, were believed to be the offspring of their ill starred love. They were named Bell Kilmuir and Jimmy Logie, and the descendants of the former can still be traced.

In common with the parish generally the population of Milntown has steadily declined. In 1838 its inhabitants numbered two hundred; they are now about seventy. The army of busy tradespeople has disappeared, the spinning wheels are silent, and long ago the mail coach clattered from the inn door for the last time. To-day life in the old village seems to flow on as placidly as its mill stream, but memories of the past still hover about its ancient ways, endowing it with that quality, subtle and elusive as the scent of thyme or of old lavender, which we call charm.

On the stretch of moorland at the top of the parish there is a rich field of prehistoric remains. Innumerable mounds, believed to be the burial places of our prehistoric ancestors, are dotted about, while no fewer than twelve hut circles may be seen, plainly marked, varying in diameter from 24 to 42 feet. A long burial cairn and, close beside it, a smaller one, lie to the west of these, in both of which human bones have been found.

There are also, some distance to the east of these, the quite considerable remains of an ancient hill fort. It stands on a grassy plateau not far from the edge of Scotsburn Ravine, a picturesque gorge formed by the waters of the Balnagown River, where an extensive view may be obtained of the hills and valleys of Easter Ross. Far away to the west rises lofty Ben Wyvis, the Hill of Fyrish in the foreground, while in the other direction, far below, lie the waters of the Cromarty Firth, with a glimpse between the Sutors of the yellow sands of Nairn, Ben Rinnes faintly outlined beyond.

The fort, still in a fair state of preservation, consists of an inner and outer wall, the latter about 348 feet in circumference, while the inner rampart measures about 35 feet across. Both are well marked, although they consist mostly of small stones, the larger ones having been removed, possibly for building purposes. On a knoll a short distance away is another circle less plainly marked, thought. to be a companion fort.

It is said that somewhere in the same neighbourhood until near the end of the eighteenth century there was a Druidical circle, the stones of which were removed by a farmer to "build a dyke". In 1751 some labourers digging near the village of Milntown came upon four large stones arranged in the form of a circle, in the centre of which was a skeleton in a sitting posture on a stone seat, evidently made for the purpose.

There was also at one time near the village quite a number of mounds similar to those described above, which were believed by the people to be the graves of victims of the plague. The plague referred to was probably one that swept over the country in the closing years of the seventeenth century. Whole villages are said to have been depopulated, and so swift was the progress of the disease that people apparently in good health one evening might be found dead in their houses next morning. The living were wearied with the business of burying, and many got neither coffin nor shroud. Such was the horror created among the people that, nearly a hundred years later, few would dare to walk over these mounds or suffer their horses or carriages to come in contact with them.

By 1768 all the mounds had disappeared, except one which remained situated in the middle of the road at the principal entrance to the village, the belief being prevalent that interference with it would bring disaster. At length one man with more courage than his fellows declared his intention of removing it, and in presence of a large crowd who, at a "safe" distance watched the proceedings, carried out his resolution. It is not recorded whether any ancient relics were excavated, but no doom befell the perpetrator, and the superstition died out.

The language spoken by the inhabitants of Easter Ross, in very early times, when the Picts inhabited the country, is said to have been Celtic, more akin, however, to the Welsh or Brittonic than to the modern Scottish Gaelic. Later, it is probable that for a considerable period Pictish, Norse and Gaelic were spoken concurrently. By the beginning of the twelfth century Gaelic, the language of the Celtic Church, had become predominant. By the end of that century intercourse between Ross and the South had increased considerably. The English language then began to creep in, and gradually to spread, until, about the end of the nineteenth century, many of the inhabitants of Easter Ross spoke both Gaelic and English with equal facility.

When, in 1792, Alexander Fraser, kirk officer of Kilmuir Easter, presented a petition to the Sheriff protesting against the action of the minister and the session in dismissing him from his post, the libel against him was read before the session in English, but nine out of the ten elders did not know English. The complainer was also ignorant of English, and had signed a confession written out in that language, not fully understanding its import. It is reasonable to suppose that among the older people the proportion who spoke no English would be as high as that of the Session, but from the Old Statistical Account (1793) we learn that at that time there were few in the parish under the age of thirty who did not know both languages. In 1891, when the population of Kilmuir Easter was 1024, 432 of these were returned as Gaelic-speaking.

With the spread of education Gaelic tended to die out, and now few of the inhabitants of Easter Ross, in spite of the efforts of An Comunn Gaidhealach to keep it alive, can converse with any degree of facility in that ancient tongue, while the majority are entirely ignorant of it.

The ownership of the parish is divided among about seven or eight proprietors, the estates varying greatly in extent. The two most important, Balnagown and Cromartie, extend far beyond the boundaries of Kilmuir.

Kindeace comes next in size and importance, its whole area, however, being contained within the parish, the same being true of the smaller estates of Priesthill, Pollo, Balintraid and Delny.

The estate of Kincraig, the greater part of which lies in the neighbouring parish of Rosskeen, is represented in Kilmuir by the farm of Broomhill.

There are several small general merchants' shops throughout the parish, but the principal shopping centre for the district is Invergordon, in the parish of Rosskeen, that quiet little Highland town on the Cromarty Firth, almost unheard of until the Great War, when it rapidly became a centre of busy life. The Firth was one of the Naval Bases, and a temporary dockyard was set up in the town, with the result that there was a large influx of population, a considerable number of men being employed in the yard who, with wives and children, settled down in the town and district. Many new houses were erected at the east end of the town for their accommodation, while the wives of the officers of the Fleet found quarters in the town and in the villages along the coast. The sailors from the Fleet, and the soldiers from a large training camp which had been established in Nigg, when on leave, swarmed over the countryside, and all over Easter Ross trade flourished as never before in its history.

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