The 2nd Statistical Account

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Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness (Image taken from Raeburn painting) with background of west coast outline

Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness standing in front of map of Ross and Cromarty


* Drawn up by Mr Hugh Miller, Author of “Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland.”


The celebrated Macbeth makes his first appearance in history as Thane of Cromarty ; but we are acquainted with only the fact. In a later age, the hill directly behind the town was the scene, says tradition, of one of Wallace’s victories over the English ; and a few shapeless hillocks which may still be seen among the trees and bushes that now cover the eminence, were raised, it is said, over the slain. A still more ancient field of battle is pointed out on a moor in the upper part of the parish. It abounds in tumuli and little heathy ridges which resemble the graves of a churchyard, and towards its eastern extremity there is a huge pile of stones, known to the people of the place as the grey-cairn ; but the conflict, of which only these vestiges remain, seems to have taken place in a remote and misty period, ere the ingenuity of man had taxed itself to record the ravages of his fiercer passions. There was a second cairn on the moor, which, about thirty years ago, was carried away for building by a farmer of the parish, and there were found on its removal human bones of a gigantic size ; among the rest, a skull sufficiently capacious, according to the description of one of the labourers, to contain “two lippies of bear.”

Cromarty owed little to its Highland neighbourhood; the inhabitants were lowland Scots ; and it seems to have constituted one of the battle-fields on which needy barbarism and the imperfectly formed vanguard of a slowly advancing civilization contended for the mastery. Early in the reign of James IV. it was ravaged by a combination of the nearer clans, and so complete was the spoliation, that the entire property of the inhabitants, to their very household furniture, was carried away. Restitution was afterwards enforced by the Lords of Council. We find it decreed in the Acta Dominorum Concilii for 1492, that Hucheon Rose of Kilravock (the main projector of the enterprise) do restore, content, and pay to Mr Alexander Urquhart, Sheriff of Cromarty, and his tenants, the various items carried off by him and his accomplices, viz. 600 cows, 100 horses, 1000 sheep, 400 goats, 200 swine, and 400 bolls of victual ; but how immense an amount of suffering must the foray have occasioned, from which nothing could be subtracted by any after sentence of the law!

Eminent Men.—
Sir Thomas Urquhart, so famous for his Genealogy and his Universal Language, was a native of Cromarty, and during the reign of Charles I. proprietor of nearly the entire shire. He was born in 1613, and died on the continent after an eventful life, spent in courts and camps, in prison and in exile, on the eve of the Restoration. Few of his works survive. Nearly a hundred manuscripts, the labours of his studious hours, were lost on the disastrous field of Worcester, where he was taken prisoner by the army of the Commonwealth. Enough remain, however, to show the extraordinary mind of the writer. He was one of that singular and highly curious class of geniuses, in whom rare and uncommon talents seem to rest, not on their proper basis of practical good sense, but on a substratum of extravagance and absurdity. A periodical critic of the present age describes him as “not only one of the most curious and whimsical, but one of the most powerful also, of all the geniuses our part of the island has produced.” The late Dr James Robertson, Librarian of the University of Edinburgh, and Professor of the Oriental Languages, was, like Sir Thomas, a native of Cromarty. His history is that of many a scholar, and many a man of genius besides. He entered life poor and friendless, and with a thirst for knowledge which every fresh draught served only to increase, spent his early days in a long struggle with difficulties and privations, which a spirit not invincible could not have overcome. He is the author of a Hebrew grammar, to which the self-taught linguist, Dr Alexander Murray, owed, as he tells us in his interesting autobiography, his first introduction to Hebrew ; and we learn from Boswell, in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, that Dr Johnson when in Edinburgh “was much pleased with the College Library, and with the conversation of Dr James Robertson, the librarian.”

Traditional Stories.—
There is hardly a district of Scotland that has more traditional stories connected with it than the parish of Cromarty, or whose legends seem more various in their origin, or are more distinctly impressed with the character of the past ages. Some of these belong evidently to a very early period, and seem to have floated into it from the neighbouring Highlands. There are other stories which are peculiar to it as a remote sea port, inhabited for ages by sailors and fishermen ; while a third and more recent class belongs to it as an insulated lowland colony. No single story, therefore, can be regarded as a specimen of the whole ; and it is, besides, rather a nice matter to make choice of one, when there are hundreds from which to select ; but even one, though taken at random, may serve as a sort of relief to the dryness of topographical history.

There is a little path which, in the eastern part of the parish, goes winding over rock and stone along the edge of a range of low-browed precipices, till it reaches a fine spring of limpid water, that comes gushing out of the side of a bank covered with moss and daisies. This beautiful spring has been known to the people of the town for a century and more, by the name of Fiddler’s-well. Its waters are said to be medicinal ; and there is a tradition still preserved of the circumstance through which its virtues were first discovered, and to which it owes its name. Two young men of the place, who were much attached to each other, were seized at nearly the same time by consumption. In one, the progress of the disease was rapid ; he died two short months after he was attacked by it ; while the other, though wasted almost to a shadow, had yet strength enough left to follow the corpse of his companion to the grave. The sirname of the survivor was Fiddler,—a name still common among the seafaring men of the town. On the evening of the interment, he felt oppressed and unhappy,—his imagination was haunted by a thousand feverish shapes of open graves, with bones mouldering round their edges, and of coffins with the lids displaced ; and after he had fallen asleep, the images, which were still the same, became more grisly and horrible. Towards morning, however, they had all vanished; and he dreamed that he was walking alone by the sea shore in a clear and beautiful day of summer. Suddenly, as he thought, some person stepped up behind, and whispered into his ear, in the voice of his deceased companion, “Go on, Willie, I shall meet you at Stormy.” There is a rock in the neighbourhood of Fiddler’s well so called, from the violence with which the sea beats against it when the wind blows strongly from the east. On hearing the voice, he turned round, and seeing no one, he went on, as he thought, to the place named, in the hope of meeting with his friend, and sat down on a bank to wait his coming; but he waited long, lonely and dejected; and then remembering that he for whom he waited was dead, he burst into tears. At this moment a large field-bee came humming from the west, and began to fly round his head. He raised his hand to brush it away ; it widened its circle, and then came humming into his ear as before. He raised his hand a second time, but the bee could not be scared off ; it hummed ceaselessly round and round him, until at length its murmurings seemed to be fashioned into words, articulated in the voice of his deceased companion, “Dig, Willie, and drink,” it said, “Dig, Willie, and drink.” He accordingly set himself to dig, and no sooner had he torn a sod out of the bank than a spring of clear water gushed from the hollow ; and the bee taking a wider circle, and humming in a voice of triumph that seemed to emulate the sound of a trumpet, flew away. He looked after it, but as he looked, the images of his dream began to mingle with those of the waking world ;—the scenery of the hill seemed obscured by a dark cloud, in the centre of which there glimmered a faint light ;—the rocks, the sea, the long declivity faded into the cloud ; and turning round, he saw only a dark apartment, and the first beams of morning shining in at a window. He rose, and after digging the well, drunk of the water and recovered. And its virtues are still celebrated ; for though the water be only simple water, it must be drunk in the morning, and as it gushes out of the bank; and with pure air, exercise, and early rising for its auxiliaries, it continues to work cures.

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