Ross & Cromarty – Some history
The County has been a meeting point of history's power struggles, and of its various cultures. On the north, it borders Sutherland, the Southern Lands of the Norse earls, who were based in Orkney and Caithness. Across the waters of the Minch to the west, the Norse could once lay claim to the Hebrides. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Norsemen did come down into the County, and further south into Moray, and beyond. Indeed, one of suggested sources of the name Black Isle (neither black nor an island) is a possible corrupted translation of the Gaelic for “land of the the Black Danes”, (as in black-tempered) differentiating them from the less fierce Norse occupying neighbouring land.
In Easter Ross, Norseman met Pict, who had met Christian. There are many reminders in stone (but scarce written records) of a Pictish culture that had taken on Christian symbols, particularly on the cross-slabs on the Tarbat and Black Isle peninsulas. Christian missionaries to these northern outposts established centres across the County at Applecross (Wester Ross), Old Fearn (Easter Ross) and Rosemarkie (Black Isle).
Through many centuries, Scots kings had only a fragile hold over these lands. Gradually, strongholds were built by the Crown (eg. Redcastle by the Beauly Firth), and the royal sway became to be more firmly felt through the plantation by feu charter from the Crown of favoured loyalists and their familes on confiscated land on the Highland margins. However, in common with much of the Highlands, the County could not be 'taken for granted' by the royal houses of Scotland.
Scottish kings had enough trouble watching their neighbour to the south to spend resources on quelling the power of the strong Highland clans and clan alliances in their barely accessible lairs. The clan was based on mutual trust between a strong leader, who could call on the fighting power of a body of men, and the individual clansman, who looked on the leader to protect him, his family and his property. The clan chief also dispensed local justice, but, until about the 15th C, he was not a landlord: the land was held for and by the clan without a legal disposition. This relationship changed when feudal rights were introduced gradually into the NW Highlands after the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493.
In these circumstances, the Earldom of Ross was a prized title, used by Scottish kings from the 12thC to obtain loyalty in the north from a local 'strong man', who would suppress at source threats to the royal interests. For example, Maud, King Robert the Bruce's sister, married Hugh Ross, who had been given the Earldom by the King. After the Earldom became merged with the rising power of the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles, through marriage in late15thC, the King obtained the assistance of the Clan Mackenzie to oppose the MacDonalds in the North West Highlands. The Mackenzies prospered and stretched their claims into the interior of the County from their base in Kintail, near Kyle of Lochalsh. Ultimately, the Mackenzie power-base was at Brahan, on the River Conon, near Maryburgh in the east of the County.
The bulk of the Highlands was therefore a territory of contention for Scottish kings, until the union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I. James determined to minimise any possibility of future Catholic/French plots (as had occurred during Mary Queen of Scots' disputed reign) by finally bringing the Highlands into his realm. He sought to change Highland culture by modifying its religion and language. He promoted the settlement of Lowland Protestants in the Highlands (despite failure of an attempt in Lewis in 1599). By the Statutes of Iona of 1609, detailed restrictions were imposed on traditional Highland life – the eldest child of chiefs, and of other holders of property, were to be educated away from their homes in English/Scots (eg. in Fortrose, Inverness, Elgin); the use of men at arms was curbed; disputes should go to court, not the battlefield; even bards were banned as they maintained the knowledge of the fighting clan folklore. This occurred almost a century and a half before the final destruction of the clan system, following Culloden.
Just south of the County, close to Inverness, lies Culloden Moor, site of a battle between the forces of the British Hanovarian rule and the Jacobite supporters of Charles Edward Stewart (1746).
The Battle of Culloden sealed the fate of many Ross & Cromarty families, though not all the natives of the County, who participated, were on the losing side.
Clans did not join or disown the Jacobite’s cause in the 1740s en block. For example, the Earl of Cromartie, a Mackenzie, joined; other Mackenzies in the County, whose estates had been forfeited following the first Jacobite Rebellion, declined. Cromartie was a major landowner in the County, holding land in Easter Ross and the large tract of land in Wester Ross, north of Loch Broom, the Coigach peninsula. Following his capture and near execution, the Earl was stripped of his title, lost his estate to the Crown, and with his son, was forced into exile. Many of his tenants, who survived the battle and its bloody aftermath, were transported to America. Much of Cromartie lands were despoiled as the Government sought out insurgents. The outcome for the Cromartie estate and its people has been described as "an almost perfect disaster" (Cromartie: Highland Life 1650-1914: Eric Richards & Monica Clough, 1989)
At least, Cromartie had kept his head; others lost theirs, including Lord Lovat, whose Fraser lands bordered the County, near Beauly. Lovat was the last peer in Britain to be beheaded.
The London government decided that determined action must be taken to ensure that never again would Jacobite sympathies in the Highlands be a source of danger to the British Crown (after all, despite measures to undermine the clan system and culture, the Jacobite army had, in December 1745, come within striking distance of London). The Duke of Cumberland, the victor at Culloden, made the position clear to the Prime Minister "Jacobite rebellious spirit is so rooted in the nation's mind that this generation must be pretty well wore out before this country will be quiet."
By Acts of Parliament, the common dress of Highlanders, the plaid, kilt, etc., was banned, and no arms were to be carried, unless specifically exempted. Many thousands left to foreign lands.
Ironically, a few years later, when required to expand and defend its empire (eg. the Seven Years war), the British government was keen to arm Highlanders, and to pay for their Highland dress. Many regiments were raised from communities across the Highlands.
The County, along with other parts of Scotland, supplied soldiers, sailors, teachers, doctors, engineers, and farmers, who helped create and maintain Britain's Empire. For example, the Seaforth Highlanders were raised, originally in 1778, throughout the County and beyond, by Mackenzie, Earl of Seaforth. It was not an entirely glorious episode. Many people in lands across the globe died during Britain’s empire-building campaigns. Numerous Scots, including landowners such as Seaforth and Munro of Foulis (in Easter Ross), participated in slave-plantations in the Americas.
Throughout the late 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, many thousands of the County's population moved from their clachans and glens, either voluntarily or forcibly, to be re-settled locally, or to migrate to foreign lands. The small port of Cromarty was an important embarkation point for the Northern Highlands. In 2002, a commemorative stone was placed on Cromarty's Links (on the bicentenary of one of the County's renowned sons, Hugh Miller), inscribed with the names of 38 emigrant ships, which had sailed from the town in the 1830s and 1840s.
The Clearances resulted from the force of market-led agriculture backed by landed interests, against traditional subsistence farmers, who crucially had only a tenuous legal right to their land: it was an unequal struggle. It is ironic that cleared emigrants were themselves efficient settlers on the homeland of native peoples in America and Australia.