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The History and Heritage of Tain & Easter Ross

The Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust exists to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of the local architectural environment. This area has an impressive heritage built up over many centuries and resulting in a very distinctive and impressive locality. The Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust (T&ERCT) is keen to share our history and maintain our local heritage.

A Brief History of Tain & Easter Ross

After the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, nomadic hunters arrived in Scotland. By about 4,000 BC, Neolithic farmers were settled in the North Highlands and the archaeology of Easter Ross shows traces of their houses, cairns and standing stones. Some Neolithic standing stones were later re-used by the Picts, who added carved symbols, as seen in the case of the Ardjachie Stone.

Our Pictish Heritage

The Pictish era lasted from about 300AD until around 900AD. The Picts (we do not know what they called themselves) were probably Britons. They were not a race although they may briefly have been a nation. They were artistically brilliant and great warriors who occupied the eastern part of north Britain. They were visited by Christian missions from the sixth century onwards and by the eighth century they were the dominant force in Scotland. They ruled from Orkney to the Forth until the arrival of the Vikings and the disappearance of the Picts into a new kingdom of the Scots.

Yet Pictish symbol stones are widely spread through Easter Ross showing intricate abstract and animal designs, scenes of hunting, music, battle and court and later crosses and scenes from Christian scripture. Important symbol stones can be seen across Easter Ross in Edderton, Hilton of Cadboll,  Nigg, Shandwick, Tain and at the Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack. Many characteristic ‘pit ’place names, as in Pitcalnie and Pithogarty, remain across the area.

Above Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula, stands Tarbat Old Church on the site of one of the earliest Christian monasteries found in Britain and the first in the land of the Picts. Dating from the 6th to the 9th centuries the monastery was destroyed between 780 and 830, by Viking raids it is assumed, and then lost to history until unearthed by Professor Martin Carver and his colleagues (1996-2008). Tarbat Old Church was rebuilt, repaired and extended several times between 12th and 17th centuries but a wall in the crypt dates from the 8th century. It now houses the award-winning Tarbat Discovery Centre.

The Vikings

After years of raiding and destruction the Vikings settled on the rich agricultural land and  left their mark on Easter Ross in the surviving place names of their farms and settlements, such as Shandwick and Cadboll.

The Medieval Centuries

Little is known of the history of Tain and Easter Ross before the mid-13th century although there is evidence of the development of the town as a place of trade and of religious pilgrimage.

The Celtic Church of Saint Duthus or Duthac, who was born in Tain, led to the town becoming a place of Immunity as well as a place of pilgrimage. Duthus was accepted into the Catholic Church with Tain becoming an important and profitable religious centre between 1200 and 1560. The St Duthus Chapel on the Tain links was built c1200 and housed a hermit who looked after St Duthus’s remains and artefacts. In 1483, King James III paid for the Tain Collegiate Church to be built to house St Duthus’s remains and James IV completed 19 pilgrimages.

Other important religious buildings in the area include Fearn Abbey, founded by Premonstratensian canons in the 13th century, with a stone Abbey Church built 1338-72. The Reformation and the demise of Catholicism had a devastating effect on the economy of Easter Ross and led to an era of poverty. However, the Church of Scotland rebuilt churches and built new manses during this period: Nigg Church (1626), Edderton Church (1743), Tarbat Church (1756) and Tain Manse (1720). Tain Tolbooth was built in 1613 and rebuilt by Alexander Stronach in 1708.

The great powers in Medieval Scotland were the Catholic Church and the local lords and lairds operating on behalf of the King. These local lords and lairds built castles and fortified houses to impose their powerful hold on the area. The significant castles including Cadboll, Little Tarrel and Ballone were built in the 16th century. Lochslin and Balnagown Castles were earlier constructions with Balnagown being reconstructed in the 18th century.

Prosperity in the 17th and 18th Centuries

The impoverished economy lasted for over 200 years until a number of local lairds became wealthy in London and the colonies and returned to develop Tain. Tain High Street was rebuilt above the old High Street in the late 17th and early 18th century, resulting in Tain having numerous cellars with blocked doors and window frames. The High Street was raised by about 8 feet to allow for the construction of a bridge over the river to allow building on the other side. The bridge arches can be seen in the current Rose Garden, which itself is the bed of one of the old river now piped under Tain. The new area became a planned settlement around the new Parish Church (1811-14), now the Duthac Centre. Another important new building was Tain Royal Academy, built 1810-13 (now Duthac House).

Outside Tain many of the successful entrepreneurs began to build imposing houses. Geanies House near Portmahomack was gradually built from 1742 onwards, followed by Bayfield House in 1790.  More new houses followed in the 19th century including Hartfield House and Knockbreck House.

New Industries

At the same time as new houses were being built there was a development of new industries, one in particular was malt whisky with Balblair Distillery opening in 1790 and Glenmorangie in 1849. Prior to using the barley crop in whisky it was an important export item for the area, which can be seen in Portmahomack with the two grain girnals built in 1699 and 1779 and Thomas Telford’s harbour (1813-15).

Architectural Heritage

Tain and Easter Ross’s architectural heritage has been blessed by having a number of important architects. Firstly, Alexander Stronach, a local stonemason built the grain girnal in Portmahomack and rebuilt Tain Tolbooth. James Smith built the new Parish Church and Tain Royal Academy between 1810-14. Then in 1842, the architect, Andrew Maitland, arrived in Tain and he and his family built a considerable number of properties over succeeding generations throughout the area. In Tain the Maitlands built Knockbreck School, Clydesdale Bank, Mansefield House and the Royal Hotel, Glenmorangie Distillery and much of the High Street. In wider Easter Ross they built Tarbat Free Church and Parish Church, also schools in Portmahomack and Fearn.

Modern Times

The second half of the 20th century saw a dramatic expansion of the economy and population of Easter Ross with the development of a short-lived aluminium smelter at Invergordon and oil rig construction at Nigg. This activity continued for 30 years and saw a sizeable population growth with commensurate house building.

In the last 30 years there has grown a greater interest in our heritage and this is a similar timescale for the Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust. Over these years, we have seen buildings preserved and the erection of a replica Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Stone, plus a renewal of Tain Rose Garden and the rebuilding of Ballone Castle. The Civic Trust wants to ensure that the development of the area remains in keeping with its rich and varied architectural heritage.

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