The 2nd Statistical Account
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PARISH OF CROMARTY
(PRESBYTERY OF CHANONRY, SYNOD OF ROSS)
Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness standing in front of map of Ross and Cromarty
The Second Statistical Account (1836)
The New (or Second) Statistical Account of Scotland built on the previous work carried out by Sir John Sinclair for the First Statistical Accounts by including the knowledge of local doctors and schoolmasters. The Second Statistical Accounts were published between 1834 and 1845.
By the Rev. ALEXANDER STEWART, MINISTER. *
* Drawn up by Mr Hugh Miller, Author of “Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland.”
I.—TOPOGRAPHY AND NATURAL HISTORY.
Situation, Boundaries, &c.—
The parish of Cromarty lies in the extreme eastern angle of the old shire of that name,—abutting, on the south and west, on the parishes of Rosemarkie and Resolis ; and on the north and east, on the Cromarty and Moray Friths. It is of an irregularly oblong figure, averaging from 5 to 7 miles in length, and from 2 to 3 in breadth. On the east, it presents to the waves of the Moray Frith an abrupt and lofty wall of precipices ; and attains in this direction to its highest elevation, of about 470 feet above the level of the sea, at a distance of little more than 500 yards from the shore. On the north and west it sweeps gently towards the Frith of Cromarty ; but sinks abruptly over the beach into a steep continuous bank, which, from the shells occasionally dug up at its base, seems at some early period to have formed the coast line. There now intervenes, however, in most places, a lower terrace between it and the shore. Viewed from the north, the parish presents a bold high outline,—rising towards the east, where it marks the junction of the Cromarty and Moray Friths, like a huge leviathan out of the sea, and descending towards the west into a long rectilinear ridge, of the character so peculiar to sandstone districts. An irregularly edged stripe of fir wood covers, for about six miles, the upper line ; a broad arable belt mottled with cottages and farm-steadings occupies the declivity ; while the terrace below,—near the eastern extremity of which the town is situated, and which, like the upper belt, is mostly arable,— advances in some places on the sea in the form of low promontories, and is scooped out in others to nearly the base of the escarpment.
The parish is said to owe its name (Cromba, i. e. crooked bay) to the windings and indentations of its shores. It is surrounded by a highly picturesque country ; and is rich in prospects which combine the softer beauties of the lowlands with the bolder graces peculiar to an alpine district.
In climate, the parish differs considerably from most of the adjacent country. The entrance of the Frith is guarded by two lofty headlands about a mile apart ; and during the warmer months, there sets in at noon a cool sea-breeze, which sometimes hardly ruffles the water for more than half a mile beyond the opening, and rarely extends for more than five miles within. It seems occasioned by the rarefaction of the warmer air in the interior, and the compression of the denser current,—rushing in to restore the equilibrium,—in the narrow entrance of the Frith. The average heat of summer is, in consequence, lower than in most of the neighbouring parishes. I have observed that the acorn rarely attains the ordinary size, and almost never ripens. But the winters are moderate ; it is no uncommon occurrence to find our gooseberry bushes in full blossom at Christmas ; and in no part of Scotland do trees flourish nearer the sea. The parish is rarely visited in the summer months by fever,—an effect, it is probable, of the cool ventilating breeze ; and though the keen damp air is found to bear heavy on persons affected by pulmonary complaints or rheumatism, the inhabitants in general are a robust healthy race, and many of them attain to extreme old age. There is at present residing in the town, a woman who was employed in tending a flock of sheep on the day of Culloden, and who still retains a vivid recollection of her terror on hearing the cannon ; and there died in it in one season, about seventeen years ago, three old men, the first of whom had completed his ninetieth, the second his hundredth, and the third his hundredth and first year.
Bays, Springs, Cascades.—
The bay of Cromarty was deemed one of the finest in the world, at a time when the world was very imperfectly known, and modern discovery seems to have done nothing to lower its character. Almost all the black-letter historians dwell upon it in their quaint and impressive language, as the very paragon of harbours. Stow in his Chronicles characterizes it as “an exceeding quiet and saue hauen.” Boece eulogizes it in his preliminary book as the hail (health) of seamen ; and it has been described by Buchanan in elegant and graphic Latin, (showing us that the poet was not wholly sunk in the historian,) as “formed by the waters of the German Ocean, opening a way through the stupendous cliffs of the most lofty precipices, and expanding within into a spacious basin, affording certain refuge against every tempest.” As described by the historian, the entrance is narrow; the headlands lofty and precipitous, and so exposed to the sea, that it is not uncommon during gales from the north-east to see waves breaking upon them to the height of fully 100 feet ; but so completely sheltered is the basin within, that froth most points of view it presents the appearance of a lake. In breadth it varies from 2 to rather more than 5 miles; its length is about 18; the depth averages from 9 to 12 fathoms, but in the entrance in some places it exceeds 30,—a depth which nearly doubles that of the frith into which it opens. It has frequently been described by seafaring men, who are universally acquainted with it, and who rarely speak of it without an enthusiasm, the result of many a grateful association, as sufficiently capacious to shelter the whole British navy. Most of the springs of the parish are of a petrifying quality. The water of nearly all the draw-wells deposit inside our tea-kettles, in the course of a few years, a crust of lime fully a quarter of an inch thick; and some of our rock springs are so largely charged with this earth, as frequently to block up their older channels, and burst out in new ones, which are to be choked up in turn. There is one little spring which moistens a stripe of precipice not more than a yard in breadth, which yet, by this process of shifting, has covered an extent of at least twenty yards with coral-like petrifactions of moss and lichens, intermingled with grass and nettle stalks, and with a hard breccia, which, more enduring than the rock on the edge of which it has formed, projects over like a cornice, for nearly four feet. There are no rivers in the parish, and the streams are mere runnels ; but there is one of these (the burn of Ethie) which from its cascades, and the beauty of its scenery, is highly deserving of notice. It forms the extreme boundary of the parish towards the south, and runs for the last two miles of its course through a narrow precipitous gulf of great depth, which seems to have been scooped, by some frightful convulsion, out of an immense bed of sandstone, which in this part of the parish attains to an elevation of above 250 feet above the level of the sea. The traveller advances a few yards along the course of the stream, and finds that he is shut in from almost the entire face of nature, and from the whole works of man. A line of mural precipices rises on either hand,—here advancing in gigantic columns like those of an Egyptian temple,—there receding into deep solitary recesses, tapestried with ivy, and darkened by birch and hazel. The cliffs vary their outlines at every step, as if assuming in succession all the various combinations of form which constitute the wild and the picturesque ; and the pale yellow hue of the stone seems, when brightened by the sun, the very tint a painter would choose to heighten the effect of his shades, or to contrast most delicately with the luxuriant profusion of bushes and flowers that wave over every shelf and cranny. A colony of swallows have built, from time immemorial, in the hollows of one of the loftiest precipices. As the traveller proceeds, the dell becomes wilder and more deeply wooded, the stream frets and toils at his feet, here leaping over an opposing ridge, there struggling in a pool, yonder escaping to the light from under some fragment of cliff: There is a richer profusion of flowers, a thicker mantling of ivy and honeysuckle, and after passing a semicircular inflection of the bank, which, waving from summit to base with birch and hawthorn, may remind one of some vast amphitheatre on the morning of a triumph, he finds the passage shut up by a perpendicular wall of rock, about thirty feet in height, over which the stream precipitates itself in a slender column of foam into a dark mossy basin. A little cluster of hazels fling their arms half-way across,—trebling with their shade the apparent depth of the pool, and heightening in an equal ratio the effect of the white flicker of the cascade, and of the little bright patches of foam, which, flung from the rock, incessantly revolve on the eddy. The entire scene is exquisitely wild and picturesque,—such a one as the painter would love to transfer to his canvas, and the man of taste delight to contemplate ; but a larger body of water is wanting to raise it to the dignity of the sublime. There are two other cascades, scarcely inferior in beauty, in the upper part of the dell.
The eastern corner of the parish, which, from its superior elevation, bears the name of the hill of Cromarty, is composed of an immense primary mass of granitic gneiss, partially veined with white quartz, and lined, in some places where it bounds on the Moray Frith, with huge blocks of hornblende. The strata are much twisted and broken, as if shattered by earthquakes when passing under the influence of extreme heat from a solid to a fluid state, and in many places they assume a nearly vertical position. •The precipices of the hill are of great height, rising perpendicularly nearly an hundred yards above the shore, and they abound in caverns, which add much to the wildness of the scenery, and present us in several places with picturesque and highly uncommon combinations of form. In the gorge of a deep precipitous chasm about two miles to the east of the town, there is a natural arch which yields a narrow and doubtful passage to what would have been otherwise an insulated pile of rock, at the height of about an hundred feet over the beach. A second pile of rock, which stands out of the sea like the ruins of an inundated temple, is perforated by no fewer than four natural arches, one of which is about forty feet in span ; and there is a cave near the extreme angle of the hill, which runs so deep into the rock, that at its inner extremity the light of the opening is hardly seen to glimmer along the hoar and dewy sides,—crusted with hardening moss, and ridged with stalactites ; and the objects beyond seem as if viewed through the tube of a telescope. The granitic gneiss extends over a space of about three square miles. The rest of the parish, which is secondary, is variously composed of sandstones, argillaceous shales, breccia, and minute veins of lime ; and the angle of the strata averages in most places from about twenty to thirty, except in the neighbourhood of the hill, where, like that of the granitic mass, it is nearly vertical. The older sandstone formations He in this direction,—the more recent towards the west ; and between these, there intervene beds of a stratified clay, which seem in this part of the country, like the carboniferous shales of Caithness, to represent the coal measures of the south. They abound in animal remains of an obscure but highly interesting class. In a little bay about three hundred yards to the east of the town, where the beds have been laid bare by the sea, and in which they assume a nearly horizontal position, we find their softer clays partially covered with nodules of a firmer texture, which, from their detached and rounded appearance, resemble floats of broken ice on a lake. Each of these, even the most minute, contains the remains of some animal,—plates resembling those of the tortoise, pieces of skin roughened like that of the dog-fish or shark, the scales and bones of fish ; and in some of the better specimens we can still trace the original form, with the fins and tail spread to the full, and the scales as regularly arranged as when they covered the living animal. The clays of the little bay, after losing themselves in the beach, reappear in the bottom of a deep ravine which intersects the old coast line; and here, rather more than a century ago, they were perforated to a considerable depth in boring for coal. But the attempt was unsuccessful. On withdrawing the kind of augre used for the purpose, a bolt of water, which occupied the whole diameter of the bore, came rushing after like the jet of a fountain, and the work was prosecuted no farther ; for, as steam engines were not yet invented, no pit could have been wrought with so large a stream issuing into it. The spring, a fine chalybeate, still continues to flow between its double row of cresses to the sea, at the rate, as was ascertained by experiment about twenty years ago, of nearly a hogshead per minute. A little dome of hewn stone has been raised over it, and, with the wooded ravine in the back ground, and surrounded by trees and bushes, it would form, in the hands of Turner, no bad subject for a vignette. It is still known to the towns-people as “The well of the Coalheugh,” a name commemorative of its origin.
The eastern part of the parish presents a highly interesting field to the geologist. A few hundred yards beyond where it bounds on the Moray Frith, there is a ridge of bituminous shale interspersed with beds and nodules of limestone, which abound in the various fossils peculiar to the lias formation. The ridge itself is covered by the waters of the Frith, but after every fresh storm from the north-east, we find fragments which the waves have detached from it strewed upon the beach. They contain ammonites, belemnites, scallops, both plain and striated, pieces of wood and charcoal, and the fleshy leaf of a plant resembling the aloe. The boulders and water-worn pebbles which line the shores of the parish, and abound in its alluvial clays and gravels, are composed mostly of schistose gneiss, and a variety of granite, of which no rocks are to be found nearer than the western coast of Ross-shire. The rounded and half-polished masses of the latter stone are often of immense size, containing many hundred cubic feet ; and they seem to have been carried across the island in the direction of the larger valleys, by some irresistible flood setting in from the west. In most places, the subsoil of the parish is a stiff alluvial clay, which, on the edge of the old coastline, overlies the sandstone to the depth of nearly an hundred feet, but it thins off in the ascent to not more than ten. It yields easily to the action of water, and hence we find that every little stream in the parish has scooped out a channel for itself to the sandstone below, and runs at the bottom of a deep narrow dell, lined in most cases by steep precipitous banks.
A short half mile to the east of the town, in an inflection of the bank, there is a vast accumulation of drift peat covered over by a layer of soil. Somewhat more than thirty years ago, it was laid open by a waterspout to the depth of twelve feet, when it was first discovered to be composed mostly of vegetable remains,—part of the ruins, perhaps, of one of those forests which covered at one time almost the entire surface of the island, and sheltered the naked inhabitants from the legions of Agricola. Huge trees from two to four feet in diameter, and so entirely decayed that they offered scarcely more resistance to the tool than banks of common clay, were seen to stretch across the bottom of the newly formed chasm, or to protrude from its sides. The soil in which they were imbedded is a black solid peat moss, composed mostly of bark and branches ; and in masses of a fetid unctuous earth, which seems endowed with a stronger preservative quality than even the moss itself, there were found the leaves of plants so little decayed that the species could still be distinguished, stalks of what seemed to have been either grass or straw, and whole handfuls of hazel nuts. It is not yet four years since there were dug out of the sides of the chasm, about nine feet from the surface, three huge oaken planks, which had evidently been fashioned by the hand of man ; and in the bottom, which is now fast filling up, there were found, about fourteen years before, fragments of the bones and horns of deer, and the horn of an elk. In the upper part of the parish, there was a much more extensive moss, which, before the opening of the coal trade with Newcastle, supplied the place with fuel, but it gradually wore out, and the poorer part of the people were subjected in consequence to much hardship during severe winters. “A Cromarty fire” was a name current over the country for a fire just gone out ; and some humorist of the period represents a Cromarty farmer in a phrase which became proverbial, as giving his daughter the key of the peat-chest, and bidding her take out a peat and a-half that she might “put on a good fire.”