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Roger McCann

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Articles - Museums in Scotland


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Caithness Flagstone Industry

2018-05-17 07:13:08

On two hessian covered tables in Castlehill Heritage Centre there is a display of tools that were used by workmen employed locally in the Caithness flagstone industry. Visitors are encouraged to pick up the hammers, to feel their weight. The handles are not overly long or thick, but the head is a heavy lump of metal. Swinging such a hammer accurately to thump short, stubby iron wedges into place over the course of a day must have been physically gruelling.

Despite the tough working conditions the Caithness flagstone industry gave many local men a living. Other men given jobs came from further afield. They had been cleared from their crofts and smallholdings by agents of the landowners in the west of Scotland. Initially these men had been heading to the east coast, to the town of Wick, to work in the herring industry but decided, perhaps by the offer of jobs, to stop in Castletown, the centre of the flagstone industry at the time. Others got work on the estate of James Traill of Rattar, Sheriff of Caithness. However, many of these men remained unemployed.

Sheriff Traill had great compassion for these ‘Highlanders’ as he called them and gave large numbers a place to stay and a piece of land to work. When they could not pay rent, he did not press them, but took instead an I.O.U. or promissory note until times improved.

James Traill had inherited the Castlehill Estate in 1788. His agricultural improvements included the combining of small farms into much larger units which allowed modern husbandry to flourish. He planted trees and experimented with new fertilising methods. By introducing a dairy herd from Dunlop in Ayrshire into his cattle breeding programme he improved Caithness cattle which until then had been seen as inferior to herds in the rest of the country.

Traill did not stop there. Having erected a lint-mill, a barley mill and a corn mill he soon realised that with greater yields, new markets were also needed. Alongside all of these improvements he was also the driving force behind the expansion of the Caithness flagstone industry.

The origins of this industry extend back millions of years when layers of sediment were laid down in Lake Orcadi, a vast shallow sea which once covered much of northern Scotland and Orkney. Through geological time the layers of sediment eventually hardened to sandstone which would be quarried much later for use as a building material.

Over thousands of years Caithness men have had an affinity with this material and evidence of their skilled use of stone is easily found. The remains of brochs, hut circles, cairns and standing stones still mark the landscape. When these structures were left behind some of the stone was carried away by later generations and reused for other purposes.

Closer to our own times there are many buildings on farms and in villages and towns that have been cleverly constructed in stone including the fine public buildings of Wick and Thurso. Much more humble, yet still in use and common across the county are the stock proof fences of single upright flagstones fitted together to make lines of field boundary markers.

Though the business of producing flagstones and exporting them had gone on in a small way for a number of years, it was Sheriff James Traill who had the harbour built at Castlehill to get his products, especially flagstones, to a much wider market. Until then stones were ‘lightered’ in small craft to larger ships anchored in the bay. The cut stone was taken to the harbour from the cutting yards by pony and cart or on a horse drawn bogey pulled along a rail track. Then it was loaded by hand aboard small schooners.

Traill’s harbour builder was James Bremner who was born locally in 1784 near Keiss, a village north of Wick. After an apprenticeship at Steel’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock, Bremner returned to work in Caithness as a shipbuilder, harbour builder and wreck raiser. As well as Castlehill Harbour, Bremner built five other local harbours. In total he planned, built or improved nineteen harbours in the north of Scotland which were much needed for the booming herring and flagstone industries. When the building of Castlehill Harbour was complete, the first cargo was shipped out in 1825.

By 1840, one hundred people worked at Castlehill. By the turn of the century, the work force had increased to five hundred.

There were various specialisms in the workplace. To separate two or more thinner slices from a large piece of sandstone the Splitter would select a line. Then using hammers to knock in chisels the Hammermen would follow the line round the outside of the slab. When a chisel stuck, it would be left poking out of the stone – then a fresh chisel was used. When the complete circumference of the slab had been worked round, water was then poured on and the stone left until the next day. The separated layers of stone could then be lifted.

The Dresser was responsible for cutting the stone slabs into squares or rectangles at the cutting bed using a rough toothed, iron saw blade hung from a frame.

The Sand Boy’s job was to fill a V-shaped box above the cutting saws with abrasive sand for aiding the cutting process. He would also add sand to wooden polishing plates. For this process, each lot of grit added was less coarse than the previous one until the required finish of the stone was reached.

In the early days at Castlehill, power was supplied by a waterwheel. This was succeeded by steam engines and eventually oil engines. The Engineer’s job was to operate, maintain and repair this equipment. He also had to care for the wind pump at Castlehill. Its turning action helped drain the surrounding land and turn grinding wheels on which the engineer would sharpen tools.

The Manager was the owner’s right hand man. As well as striving to get maximum effort from the work force, the manager spoke with customers and searched for business all over the world.

So that ships could be loaded whatever the state of the tide, a derrick was built at the harbour mouth to operate boom gates. In this way, water could be kept in the basin. By keeping the heavily laden ships afloat and so prevented from resting on the harbour bottom, loading could continue and no damage would result. From this small harbour, records show that 7000,000 - 8000,000 feet of stone was shipped out annually.

If the weather was too wet or freezing cold, flagstone work could not continue. If there was no work - there was no pay!

On such days, some stone workers might be given farm work. This change of roles was not always welcomed by the stone workers or the farm workers. But since Sheriff Traill owned the flagstone works and the farms there was little say in the matter. Sharpening tools at a grinder at Castlehill windmill may have been a marginally better alternative.

While employment was high, quarry workers were encouraged to live in Castletown and Mr.Traill offered feus of land or plots for sale. Workers were also allowed to take free off cuts of partially dressed stone so they could build their own homes on the main street and in the ‘backies’.

Though stone workers’ wages compared favourably with those of agricultural workers, life was not easy. Working days were long and holidays were few. Lateness for work was punished – even arriving five minutes late meant the loss of an hours pay. There was no sick pay, no national social security payments and workers were forced to buy provisions and coal from the company store on the Traill estate at fixed prices.

Despite the hardships, when there was time off, the quarrymen competed with each other in feats of strength and in athletic pursuits including long jump and throwing.

Kite flying, singing, storytelling and keeping ferrets for poaching rabbits were also popular pastimes as were the dances which would go on for most of a night, leaving no time to go home before setting off for work in the morning.

Unfortunately, from around 1902, the industry began to decline as manufacturers made similar products in concrete which was cheaper. In the next few years trade at the Castlehill works continued to fall before finally closing in 1912. Increased transport costs, higher wage demands and the continuing competition all affected demand and by the 1920s most of the other Caithness quarries had closed.

The workers had to look for jobs elsewhere and many ended up emigrating. For some of them the streets of Boston were not ‘paved with gold’ as they were led to believe, but were paved with flagstones from Caithness.

The flagstones produced at Castlehill Quarry had been sold for use in towns and cities all over the U.K. Supplies also went to Europe, Australia, North America and South America.

However, recently the flagstone industry has had a change of fortune and a range of high quality flagstone goods including paving, roof slates, fireplace finishes and kitchen surfaces are produced locally using state of the art equipment.

The village of Castletown lies on the coastal road, the A836 which runs across the north of Scotland between Thurso and John O’ Groats. The Castlehill Heritage Centre can be found easily within a few minutes of the village.

The Centre, an updated, refurbished farm steading of local stone and floored with flags is a treasure trove of information about the people and local industries which went on in the immediate area.

Various hands-on classes which take place throughout the year give an insight into traditional crafts that were once commonplace. Beautiful baskets of flowers have been hung from the outside walls and the garden fronting the Centre is stunning.

On leaving the Centre and garden, visitors can cross the road to the start of a signposted trail and walk in the footsteps of the stone workers who made this same short journey from the nearby quarry to Castlehill Harbour.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

Further information: WWW.castletownheritage.co.uk

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The Isle of Skye - Where Dinosaurs Walked

2018-03-18 17:46:44

Dugald Ross remembers the day when his interest in archaeology was first sparked. He was helping his parents at their peat bank at Ellishadder on the Isle of Skye. On the way home, his father had drawn the boy’s attention to a large boulder which seemed out of place. His father went on to say that the previous tenant of their croft had named this particular rock the ‘money stone’.

For reasons unknown, possibly while he was cutting peat, that gentleman had dug below the rock and found shards of pottery which, it was believed, he eventually sold to some place or person in Edinburgh.

Being interested in pre-history, Dugald began scraping away the turf under the ‘money stone’ at his earliest opportunity. To his delight, as well as shards of pottery, he also uncovered six finely shaped arrowheads.

The boy had discovered a Neolithic site. Here, some five thousand years ago, perhaps only five or six thousand years after the last Ice Age a family, or a larger group of people, had set up an encampment.

Though there was no sign of a chambered cairn, the frequently found indicator of a Neolithic burial site, Dugald suspects the arrow heads and shards of pottery may have been placed there carefully as part of a burial ceremony for an important member of that community.

As well as being of ceremonial significance, someone, all those years ago, may have tied one of those arrow heads to a straight length of tree branch, added feathers to the other end and fired the arrow to catch their dinner.

With the arrowheads as a centre piece, Dugald founded Staffin museum in the 1970s at the age of 19. The museum is located just off the A855 at Ellishadder near Staffin in northeast Skye. As well as the arrowheads, the museum houses an impressive array of dinosaur fossils which are of international significance.

The first evidence of dinosaurs ranging across Skye came from the discovery of a single footprint in 1982. After much research and argument amongst scientists, the print found at Rubha nam Brathairean, not far from Ellishadder, is now thought to be that of an ornithopod, a large herbivore that would have stood up on its two long legs.

It was fifteen years later before more prints were found in blocks of sandstone in roughly the same area.

For visitors looking at the artefacts on display in the museum, probably the most impressive exhibit is a thick length of dinosaur limb bone. There are several separate broken parts to it which, when lined up, fit together. After these sections were found, Dugald went searching in the same area and eventually came upon other parts of dinosaur skeleton including a large vertebra and a tooth.

Now the limb bone, possibly the femur of a Cetiosaurus which roamed around 175 million years ago, gives an indication of the size its owner might have been. At 10metres tall this beast was closely related to the Diplodocus, a huge herbivore which would have been similar in size to the even better known Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Dr. Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, who was alerted to the dinosaur finds on Skye, has studied the fossil evidence and has also made his own remarkable discoveries there. As well as slabs of rock bearing numerous dinosaur footprints, he also found what are believed to be the world’s smallest dinosaur footprints (according to his entry in The Guinness Book of Records) on the northwest corner of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.

He had had taken a particular lump of rock with black markings back to his office in Glasgow. It was only when he lifted the rock to look at it in bright sunlight that footprints could be made out more clearly, one almost on top of another. On measuring the clearest print he found it to be just under 1.7 cm in length. The rock is now on display in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.

‘The significance of these prints,’ he said ‘is that they show evidence of dinosaurs breaking out of their eggs and leaving the nest at a very young age.’

It may be hard to imagine, but this area of the earth’s crust we now know as the Isle of Skye extends back some 3 billion years. At different times it has been part of an ocean floor, a tropical sea, a desert, a volcano and an estuary upon which dinosaurs roamed.

‘I’m constantly amazed,’ said Dr. Clark ‘that so much evidence of dinosaurs has been recovered from the storm swept beaches of the Atlantic Isle that is the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s Jurassic Isle.’

Sometimes, searching for dinosaur fossils is not for the fainthearted. After a particularly strenuous day on Skye when Dr. Clark and a few helpers had been hammering, drilling, chiselling and sawing apart a large rock, his leg broke and he had to be airlifted in a dramatic helicopter rescue to hospital in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.

However, some of the most spectacular finds were first spotted by local people walking on An Corran beach, not far from Staffin Museum at Ellishadder. After the sand had been washed away by heavy seas, a big three-toed footprint of a very large meat eating dinosaur was discovered in a flat expanse of exposed rock.

Dugald Ross continues to search for dinosaur fossils. In summer 2013 he recovered a boulder from the shore nearby. Embedded in the boulder was a very large bone – from the time of this finding the process of identifying the bone has been on going. First published in The Scots Magazine

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The Isle of Islay - Queen of the Hebrides

2017-02-09 12:11:41

Should you ever leave the warmth of a docked Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry and drive up the ramp onto Port Ellen pier when rain-filled wind is shrieking in from the Atlantic Ocean, I’m willing to bet you’ll think whoever named the Isle of Islay, ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, made a big mistake.

But in the minutes it takes to reach Bowmore, the island’s ‘capital’, you just might change your mind. A huge rainbow arcing over the church at the top of Main Street might be the decider, or the sight of the sea shimmering at the bottom of the brae, or fluffy white clouds racing across a vast blue sky.

On the other hand, you could have all four seasons within the same few minutes.

Bowmore, founded in 1768, sits on the east shore of Loch Indall. When the wind dies down, and it occasionally does, a distinct smell, some might call it a fragrance, is definitely noticeable. It’s a mixture of peat reek, brine and malted barley. There’s also a hint of the ‘angels portion,’ from the evaporation of whisky stored in barrels laid down over many years.

Bowmore distillery, near the centre of this large village, is a grouping of gleaming white buildings surmounted by a pagoda style roof. As well as producing whisky to delight drinkers of the amber nectar across the world, it has another rare distinction. Waste heat from its whisky making process is recycled to help reduce fuel bills at the leisure centre next door. This building was once Warehouse No. 3. It held barrels filled with more whisky than the swimming pool now holds water. In a nice touch, the pool’s crafted, curved ceiling looks like the inside of an enormous barrel.

I wonder if a swim there would improve a less than perfect breast stroke? For the island’s children, who previously had swimming lessons in the sea, the pool must seem like the lap of luxury.

The church at the top of Main Street was built in 1767 by Daniel Campbell, principal Laird of Islay. One story tells how the church was constructed in a round style so there would be no corners in which the devil could hide. Inside, the pews and plain, polished wood fittings show all the signs of loving care.

Let’s retrace our route back to Port Ellen. The road runs over Duich Moss, a vast peat moor looking dreich in a drizzle. From the flatness on one side, high hills rise, blue-hued with distance. On the other, the moorland ends in sand dunes hiding Islay’s longest beach that stretches some five miles round Laggan Bay. There’s a golf course on the links and an airport.

At Port Ellen we’ll take the road east through the distillery villages of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. No wonder this is called ‘whisky road!’

After a few miles through woodland, the road becomes a roughish, single track with passing places close to the shore at some points. Be ready with the binoculars. Here’s a chance to spot seals and sea birds and let other traffic, in more of a hurry, pass. We’re making for the ruin of Kildalton church.

It’s thought the spectacular cross in the churchyard was sculpted on Islay from a single slab of local stone. The style suggests the sculptor came from the workshops on Iona round about AD 800. On the front there are carvings of saints and angels surrounding a figure of Christ as well as Old Testament biblical scenes. On the back there’s an intricate Celtic pattern. It’s easy to imagine a priest using this cross as a kind of visual aid in explaining the message of the Bible to parishioners.

The church is roofless. It was probably built in the late 12th or early 13th century under the patronage of the Lords of the Isles. Inside, fixed on one wall, there’s a grave slab showing a warrior. Other carved slabs are sunk into the grass floor.

We’ll return to the Lords of the Isles later, but for now, let us consider a wee dram. We’ll go back again towards Port Ellen on ‘whisky road’. Of the three distilleries along here (there are five more on Islay) you’ll notice they are close to the shore. This was for practical reasons. All the distilleries had their own piers where produce was shipped out and materials brought in. Though each gives guided tours, with a complimentary tasting, Ardbeg Distillery is especially welcoming with a café /restaurant and a shop. If you’re not taken with whisky you might appreciate a bowl of soup before heading back round Loch Indall.

Looking across the loch, from one side or the other, lights of lone cottages and small villages are a romantic sight, twinkling in the darkness. By day, it’s a lovely drive following the shoreline to Port Charlotte, arguably the prettiest village on Islay, and home of the Museum of Islay Life.

Some items on display in the museum including gramophone needles, school slates, inkwells and fountain pens may well be remembered by an older generation. The apparatus used in the making of illicit whisky and tools for cutting peat to heat a home might be less familiar.

Islay is a surprisingly large island, with sandy bays between rocky headlands on the coast, a hilly interior studded with fresh water lochs and good farming land. On the north coast, Loch Gruinart is a sea loch running far inland. At Loch Gruinart Visitor Centre, I learnt how local farmers use agricultural practices for the benefit of people and wild life. In places, fields may seem neglected and waterlogged but this is deliberate. These ideal conditions have been created for wading birds. Bird song fills the air, and as you pass other acres of lush grass, hundreds of geese take wing, seem to hang in the wind for a few moments, before flying off to settle beside a new food source.

Travel north eastwards along the road towards Port Askaig and you’ll notice the narrow turn-off leading to Loch Finlaggan. Named after Findlugan, an Irish monk who was a contemporary of Columba, the loch is not especially beautiful or set in dramatic scenery. The surrounding slopes are not overly steep, or high. Yet it was here that the Lords of the Isles had their base, on two fairly small islands.

The MacDonald Lords of the Isles, (including the first MacDonald ever), were descended from Somerled, a 12th century prince. So if your name’s MacDonald, chances are you’ll have royal blood from somewhere down this line.

From Finlaggan Trust Visitor Centre you can stroll out to the larger island by way of a wooden walkway and wander through the ruins of the lords’ church and house.

For a time, these lords ruled over all of the Hebrides and a large part of the north - west mainland of Scotland. In their grand hall on Eilean Mor (Gaelic: large island), though it doesn’t seem so big nowadays, they entertained nobility from Scotland, England, Ireland and France. On the smaller island, a few yards away across the water, privy councillors would sit at a stone table to discuss the business of collecting rents and maintaining a vast territory.

At Port Askaig, as well as arriving from the mainland or leaving Islay on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, you can take a smaller ferry across the narrow strait to the Island of Jura. It only takes ten minutes but Jura’s wildness is another world away as George Orwell discovered when writing his famous novel 1984.

For me, that will have to be another trip, another time.

I left Islay agreeing with the sentiments expressed in the last verse of the song written by Iain Simpson.

And soon I shall return again, to Islay’s gentle shore

And see the tide waves wide, the bright lights of Bowmore

Or wander through Bruichladdich, as night begins to fall

And see the moonlit beam on lovely Lochindall.

First published in The People’s Friend 15.04.2006

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