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Clyne Heritage Society dig to start at Strath Brora site where infamous parish minister lived

By Caroline McMorran

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Clyne Heritage Society is about to embark on its third community archaeological excavation.

The dig, which was due to take place in 2020 but had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, is scheduled to be held over seven days, from Monday to Sunday, June 13-19, at the site of a ruined house in Greeanan, Strath Brora.

The site has huge historical significance, as it is where infamous Clyne parish minister Rev Walter Ross lived in the late 18th century.

Rev Walter Ross was by all accounts quite a character.
Rev Walter Ross was by all accounts quite a character.

It is also hoped that much earlier phases of occupation may well be identified at the prominent site, from as far back as the Bronze Age.

A Facebook page – Greeanan Community Excavation, Strath Brora – has been created especially for the dig to keep the community informed.

And an open invitation has gone out to anyone interested to volunteer at the excavation.

Heritage society chairman Dr Nick Lindsay said: “We already have pledges from a number of volunteers, but we are always looking for more.

“No experience is necessary and all equipment can be supplied. There could be no more beautiful setting for a dig.”

The society has again linked with GUARD Archaeology, formerly part of Glasgow University but now an independent archaeology and heritage consultancy service, to undertake the excavation.

GUARD Archaeology was also involved in the society’s last community dig in 2017 at the site of an 18th century droving inn at Wilkhouse, near Kintradwell, some three miles north of Brora.

The Wilkhouse dig was attended by a total of 51 diggers, with an average of 22 diggers a day, over 12 days.

“People came from far and wide,” said Dr Lindsay. “A Belgian student even hitchhiked all the way to Brora from his university in Germany.”

A number of students from archaeology courses at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities have already committed to joining the Greeanan project to gain valuable professional digging experience, which has been in short supply recently due to Covid.

Some service veterans from the Personnel Recovery Centre in Edinburgh are also attending, some members of whom also joined in the Wilkhouse dig.

P5-7 classes from Brora Primary School will also get involved and get experience of dig activities, as they did at Wilkhouse too.

Funding for the excavation has been sourced from Gordonbush Community Wind farm Benefit Fund, Gordonbush Trust, local landowners, the community and Highland Council’s ward discretionary budget.

Greeanan was identified as “perfect for an archaeological excavation” because of the historical records connected to it, its good access from the nearby public road - and its tremendous view.

The site is linked to Rev Walter Ross whose appointment by Sutherland Estates Minister of the parish of Clyne in 1777 was so unpopular that parishioners, who had favoured another contender for the post, staged a “riot”.

Rev Ross remained in the parish for 49 years but never managed to shake his reputation as “the Bad Minister” and a number of interesting tales about him have percolated down through the years.

It was said that his sermons were never his own, but regurgitated from sermons given by fellow ministers. His general conversation was described as being “light, worldly, and (even) profane”, and was “characterised by exaggeration and absolute untruthfulness.”

He appeared to be more interested in generating capital than growing his congregation. He was a farmer, a cattle dealer, a housekeeper and a first-rate sportsman, knowing exactly how to turn all these to profit.

Rev Ross sub-let an area of land at Greeanan from Sutherland Estates, and in turn had18 sub-tenants, charging them rent.

During the summer months he stayed in dwellings there, rearing his own cattle and selling them on for great profit.

The site at Greeanan in beautiful Strath Brora, as it is today.
The site at Greeanan in beautiful Strath Brora, as it is today.
An archive postcard showing Greeanan as it was in the 18th century.
An archive postcard showing Greeanan as it was in the 18th century.

Rev Ross died in 1725 and the next tenants known of at Greeanan were John Matheson and Isabella Baillie, who were newlyweds in May 1841.

There was a huge discrepancy in ages between the two with John aged 79 and Isabella just 27. It was her first marriage and his third. John was “never unmarried between wives for more than three months”.

A series of shepherds and estate workers lived at Greeanan over the succeeding years, until the house eventually became uninhabitable and was abandoned in the early 20th century.

Dr Lindsay said: “The footings of the 48m long “longhouse” occupied by Rev Ross and his successors still remain, perched on the lofty, level ground immediately to the north west of the newly refurbished private home which previously served as the Scout Hut and before that as Strath Brora school house.”

He added: “There were several impressive finds and much information was learned about the 18th century from the Wilkhouse dig. The society is hoping for more of the same at Greeanan – cameraderie, community and cake!

n If you would like to volunteer at the dig, you can contact the society via the project’s dedicated Facebook page.

The Greeanan site as shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1879.
The Greeanan site as shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1879.

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