The Silver Darlings

 

Nairn Fishwife with silver darlings
The Nairn Fishwife with her speldings

The east coast herring bonanza

In Nairn Harbour stands the statue of a Nairn Fishwife holding a handful of what look like kippers.  They’re Nairn speldings, one of the many ways the silver darlings (herring) were cured.

Unlike kippers, which are smoked, Nairn speldings were split open and dried in the sun.  The name comes from the Scots verb “speld”, meaning to spread out.  Most herrings weren’t turned into speldings, they were salt-cured and packed into barrels for transport to markets far from where they were caught.

Herring fishing  was a huge industry all down the east coast of Scotland, from the early 19th century until the First World War.  The west coast got in on the act later in the 19th century.  Their season was later too.  Boats from the east coast would make the difficult journey through the Pentland Firth to take part when their own season had ended.

At its height, the industry employed thousands of men at sea and women on land. The boats got bigger and the herrings dwindled.  By the 1970s, catching them was banned and stocks are only now recovering.

The fishwives

The women worked in teams of three, two gutting and one salting and packing.  They also kept house, looked after the children and the aged, found bait and attached it to the hooks and helped mend nets.

Around Arbroath, and possibly elsewhere, they also piggy-backed the men out to the boats so they wouldn’t have to spend the whole trip soaked.  I’m not sure how effective that would have been; my experience of small boats is that you get soaked anyway.

The women also sold fish locally, walking miles inland with their creels on their backs to hawk the fish from house to house. The word “fishwife” now has a rather derogatory feel to it, but these women played a very important part in the local economy.  The one in the statue stands tall and strong, sure of her worth.

The statue is interesting in another way.  The sculptor seems to have clothed his clay model in real clothes before casting it.  You can feel the texture of her cardigan and see the weave in her skirt.

The ice-house

Across the Moray Firth from Nairn, at Cromarty, we found an old turf-roofed ice-house built to supply the fishing industry.  Freezing the catch helped preserve it longer and extended the selling season, as well as providing unsalted fish for those who preferred it.

Cromarty ice house
Cromarty ice house

Half built into the bank, the building would have been filled with ice harvested from fresh-water lochs through the winter.  The semi-dungeon construction would have kept the ice cool enough to last until the herring season in May and June.

The Silver Darlings

If you want to get an idea of what the herring fishery meant to the north-east of Scotland, I strongly recommend Neil M Gunn’s book The Silver Darlings.  Published in 1941 and made into a film in 1947 by Clarence Elder, it gives an only-slightly-romanticised view of life in the early years of the industry.

The main characters were victims of the Clearances; fishing became a life-line for many such people, displaced in favour of sheep.  These were tough folk fighting a hard land and a capricious sea to make a living; they earned every penny the hard way.

Find out more

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn (ISBN: 9780571090419)

http://www.historyshelf.org/secf/silver/coull.php

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblrinstagram

Cromarty’s Good Samaritan

James Thomson plaque, Cromarty
James Thomson’s blue plaque, Cromarty

James Thomson MD, hero of the Crimea

Embedded in the weathered sandstone wall of the antique shop at the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty is a blue plaque.  It says “Birthplace of James Thomson MD, 1823-1854.  A Good Samaritan to wounded enemy Russians at the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War”.  Who was this medic who died, aged just 31, saving wounded soldiers on a battlefield?

James Thomson was born and brought up in the house now occupied by the antique shop.  He must have been a bright child and either came from a well-off family or was supported by one, because he trained as a doctor and joined the Army Medical Department.

Malta

He must have joined up almost as soon as he qualified, as by February 1848 he was Assistant Surgeon to the 7th Dragoons.  In 1850 he moved to the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and was posted to Malta, where a cholera epidemic was raging.

Cholera, a vicious diarrheal killer, was common in places where people were crowded together with poor sanitation.  Military hospitals were no exception.  The epidemic wiped out all the other medics working there but Thomson survived.

The website Regimental Surgeons of the Malta Garrison quotes the Roll of Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army.  “The skill, fortitude, and humanity, displayed by him in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief”.

From Malta he went to Gibraltar for three years, then in April 1854 he left for Turkey on the way to the Crimea.

Crimea

The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were trying to prevent Russia gaining territory and influence in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  The allies wanted control of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol, in the Crimean region of the Ukraine.  Crimea has recently in the news again, of course: it’s still strategically important to Russia.

The Battle of Alma, the first major battle of the Crimean War, was a British and French victory.  When the allied armies left the battlefield, Thomson volunteered to stay behind.  With just his batman to help, he looked after 700 desperately wounded Russians.  Despite the dangers of marauding Cossack soldiers nearby and lack of food , within days he’d managed to save some 400 of them and ensure they embarked for Odessa and home.

He moved on to the military hospital at Balaclava, where Florence Nightingale also worked.  Either because of a lack of available doctors or becauseThomson was considered immune after his experiences in Malta, he was assigned to work on the cholera ward.

Sadly, he wasn’t immune.  After just 34 hours on the ward he caught the infection and nine hours later he died, 15 days after the Battle of Alma.  His batman buried him on the shores of the Black Sea.

Thomson was acclaimed in Parliament for his bravery and his work was celebrated by William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent, who also made Florence Nightingale’s reputation.

And back to Cromarty

The blue plaque is not Thomson’s only memorial.  In true philanthropic Victorian style, a bursary was set up in his name to help children educated and living in Cromarty.

And Thomson’s friend Sir James MacGrigor, Director General of the Army Medical Department, erected an obelisk to him at Forres.  He had wanted to erect it in Thomson’s birthplace but the local landowner didn’t approve the chosen site.  So he built it across the Moray Firth instead, where people can see it from Cromarty.

The obelisk makes no mention of the cholera, stating that Thomson died “from the effects of excessive hardship and privation” – which may indeed have contributed by lowering his resistance to infection.

It describes him as an officer “whose life was useful and whose death was glorious”.  That’s a good epitaph for a young man – or, indeed, anyone.

Find out more:

https://www.maltaramc.com/regsurg/t/thomsonj.html

http://www.forres-gazette.co.uk/News/Letters/Forres-fascinating-Crimea-connection-25032014.htm

http://www.cromartyhistory.scot/index.asp?pageid=511913

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblrinstagram

The Lecht Mine

 

Lecht mine
The Lecht mine

Mining, whisky and religion

The Lecht is a steep road – this is, after all, one of Scotland’s main skiing areas.  The road seems to climb for ever to the summit, over 2,000 feet above sea level.  Imagine what it must have been like for the poor bull who helped drag the rollers for the Lecht Mine over it.

The Lecht mines

The mine was built in 1841 and closed just five years later – hopefully, the bull never knew that.  It separated manganese ore, used in the manufacture of household bleach, from the rock.  A slow process.  The rollers brought by the bull were operated by a water wheel.  They performed the first stage of extraction – crushing the rock – so they were heavy.

The workers barrowed the rock into the mine across a plank bridge high above the burn (stream) that fed the water wheel.  It must have been heavy work and, especially in rainy weather, slippery and dangerous.  Despite the risks, more than 60 people worked here at the height of production.  It will have been a big blow for the area when it closed.

There had been an iron-ore mine here in the 1730s, again for just five years. There was talk of opening the mine in the 1920s, again for iron, but it came to nothing.  It would only have been profitable if the iron could have been transported by rail from Tomintoul and nobody was investing the cash to build railways in the “hungry ’20s”.

So the empty shell of the restored Lecht mine building sits quietly at the head of its short glen, lonely and purposeless.

The Lecht Well

You reach the building from the Lecht Well car park, where I was lucky enough to see my first black grouse up close – well, fairly close, anyway.  We’d heard them calling as we walked and suddenly there he was, apparently unfazed by our proximity.

Black grouse at the Lecht
Black grouse at the Lecht

(I later saw two capercaillie and my travelling companion saw a red kite: a great day for us both!)

It’s roughly half a mile each way to the mine and back along a well-worn track, so it makes a good leg-stretcher on a long journey.  The route follows a burn so there’s plenty of water around if you’re travelling with a thirsty dog or puddle-splashing children.

Whisky smuggling

A sign half-way along the track points uphill to the left along an old whisky road.  Well, the sign calls it a road.  It’s hardly a path.  It doesn’t look as though even the sheep use it much nowadays; I certainly wouldn’t want to be carrying awkward contraband cargo along it.

It was quite busy once, though: this was one of the routes used by distillers of illicit whisky. The spirit was heavily taxed in the late 18th-early 19th centuries and local people brewed their own rather than pay the tax (they were made of sterner stuff than us).  These hills were sufficiently lonely and remote to avoid the eyes of the excise-men most of the time.

The whisky wasn’t just for home consumption – in fact some of today’s famous distilleries started illegally way back then – and the “whisky roads” were how it reached its market, smuggled through the heather at the dead of night.  Actually, night-time travel was probably mostly unnecessary: broad daylight would have been safe unless you were very unlucky.

… and religion

Also hiding in these hills was the Scalan Catholic seminary.  From 1717-1739, trainee priests of the then-illegal religion trained here to spread the word to their flock.  Large parts of the Highlands remained staunchly Catholic – some still are – and priests were needed.

But they could still, at that period, have been killed for their faith, so the seminary skulked in the hills, out of the eye of the Justices.  That’s not to say the Justices didn’t know about the seminary; there’s a good chance quite a few of them were themselves Catholics.  But the fact that it was hidden away allowed them to ignore its existence.

What with whisky smugglers and outlaw priests, these hills must have seen a lot of furtive movement.  The Lecht is not far from Culloden, and Jacobites escaping from the retribution after the battle probably “took to the heather” here too, as they did all over the remoter parts of Scotland.

It’s astonishing what you can find on a half-hour walk, even in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  There’s not a house to be seen, but people have worked here, legally and illegally, for centuries.  They still do, of course: employees at the ski resort, gamekeepers and hill farmers and, no doubt, many others.

The Lecht may look as though nothing ever happens there, but it’s just another case of appearances being deceptive.

Find out more:

The Lecht Well is on the A939, about halfway between Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, on the right and after the ski centre if you’re heading towards Tomintoul.  On the map we were using, the mine is marked as “Lecht Iron” – interesting, considering its history.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblrinstagram