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

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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

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Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness

Hugh Miller's cottage, Cromarty
Hugh Miller’s cottage, Cromarty

Three Firths and a Loch

Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness sound like an old-fashioned firm of lawyers, don’t they?  And the Black Isle adds a touch of intrigue to the proceedings…  The reality is slightly less dramatic.

The Moray, Beauly and Cromarty firths almost completely encircle the Black Isle (we’ll come to Ness later). The delta of the River Conon does its best to finish the circuit to the north east, and the Beauly River does the same to the south west, but the Black Isle isn’t actually an island at all.  It’s what the French call a presqu’isle, a nearly-island: a peninsula.

The Black Isle

It’s an unexpectedly beautiful peninsula.  The “black” name (it’s the same in Gaelic: an t-Eilean Dubh) comes from the fact that, since it’s rather flat land and almost surrounded by water, snow doesn’t lie there in winter.  So it looks dark compared to the white hills ranged behind it.  No skulduggery involved.

In the soft rain of March it looked not black but very green across the Moray Firth.

Heading north from Inverness, it was a case of “Beauly to left of them, Moray to right, over the Kessock Bridge the car thundered” (to misquote Tennyson).  Shortly afterwards we thankfully left the busy A9 and headed east, across the top of Munlochy Bay.

Passing through Fortrose, a handsome, largely Victorian town with a ruined 13th century cathedral, we turned left at Rosemarkie.  Both places looked as though they’d repay a closer look – another trip for another day.

We were headed for Cromarty, the historic town at the north-eastern tip of the Isle.  It’s beautifully preserved, without having been set in aspic.  In fact, it’s very much alive, with all sorts of cultural happenings and events throughout the year.

Cromarty

We had hardly entered the town when the welcome sign “Tea, coffee and books” brought us up all standing.  A good cup of coffee surrounded by second-hand books?  It would have been churlish to drive on.

Later, abandoning our purchases in the car, we pottered down to the shoreline and found a couple of craft shops to spend more money in.  Walking along the green near the water’s edge we came across what must be one of the smallest wooden cabin boats ever built, and the old lighthouse, now a Field Studies Centre for Aberdeen University.

We also passed an intriguing grass-thatched building which bore a tiny plaque explaining that it was a 19th century ice-house – an important installation during the boom years of the “silver darlings”, the herring fisheries that briefly made these shores rich.

Sadly, one of the reasons for visiting Cromarty was closed: Hugh Miller’s cottage.  Miller was an early geologist and fossil-studier and his tiny thatched childhood home sits almost next door to the old Court House (also a museum; also closed).  Ah well, another reason to come back; next time in summer.

Arts, crafts and dolphins

We rather fell for Cromarty – as have all sorts of artists and crafters, drawn to the quality of the light, the (formerly) cheap property prices and the sense of community.  Perhaps also to the opportunities for dolphin watching.  We didn’t see any – just oil and gas rigs – but “you should have been here this morning” when they’d been cavorting in the bay.  Ain’t it always the way?

Following the coast round to the north west, we crossed the Cromarty Firth via the rather odd Cromarty Bridge: it’s about three miles long and flat as a pancake.  Most bridges rise a bit in the middle; crossing this one feels more like driving over a causeway.  Obviously they’re not expecting any ships to pass underneath.

Reaching the other side, we did consider heading north to Wick and Thurso, but we had to be back for dinner…  Instead we turned the car towards Dingwall, Beauly and Loch Ness, hoping to visit Urquhart Castle.

Loch Ness

It was not our day for visitor attractions.  Rush hour in Beauly (five minutes) delayed us enough that we arrived as they were cashing up – though they kindly allowed us downstairs in the visitor centre to use the loos.  So all we saw was the view over the stone wall from the car park.

It’s a good view and you can see why the Urquharts built their castle where they did.  In a fine defensive position on a small promontory, it has commanding views of both the loch and the road along the edge of it.  Probably very windy and damp, mind you; great views have their drawbacks.

Returning towards Inverness, we passed the first section of the Caledonian Canal, one of Thomas Telford’s great engineering feats.  By connecting Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe through the Great Glen, he created a route for ships that avoided the long and dangerous passage through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath.

It took longer than expected to build and cost over twice its original budget (of course) but it’s saved incalculable time, money and lives, especially during the two World Wars.  Not only has it survived to become a scheduled ancient monument but it’s never stopped carrying working boats, unlike most British canals.  One of these days I’ll take a boat along it.

“Another time”, “another reason to come back”, “one of these days” – I definitely haven’t finished with Messrs. Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness.

Find out more at

http://www.black-isle.info/

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/urquhart-castle/

https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/canals/caledonian-canal/

 

 

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