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The Highland Line: we should never forget the past in the shape of men like Douglas Matheson

Cromarty, the community  at the north-eastern tip of the Black Isle, lost an important  son last week when Douglas Matheson died at the age of 93. 

He was born and bred in the Ross-shire town which was once a Royal Burgh but, to all intents and purposes, is now a village.

A retired physics and maths teacher, he had taught in New Zealand and seen much of the world. But he retired to Cromarty with his  wife Jess and had spent far longer there than ever he had as a boy.

His picture  appears on one of nine, two-metre-long banners  which hang, almost Soviet style, in the village hall.  They were put up in 2005  to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, portraits of nine people who were teenagers in the community  during the Second World War.

Some went into the forces  in the war as Douglas did. Others stayed on the Home Front.  Each is holding a photograph of themselves during the war years.

They were produced by the Highland Print Studio in Inverness,  supported by a lottery funded project, Home Front Recall. For the last eight years, the nine have looked down on virtually every large community gathering. With Douglas's death, only three are still alive.

He was also one of those who featured in "Cromarty - Living  by the Sea",  a local history project  which was part of  Scotland's Year of Highland Culture 2007.  In this, the community wisely recorded the memories of many of the older residents about their years living by the sea at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth.

Douglas recalled the Cromarty of the 1920s when, as a boy, he tried hard to emulate  the skills of the older boys with their slings, the leather tongues from old boots with two strings and a hole for the stone. The distance and accuracy they achieved amazed him. They used to make forts in the enormous piles of seaweed that always seemed to be on the shore.

Most of the supplies would come in boats all the way from Leith and local carriers with horse and carts would deliver to the scores of shops in the town. Now they are counted on one hand.

Some  60 boats would leave daily to fish,  each with a crew of four or five. Now there are just three boats.

This  was a core activity to Douglas Matheson. "The fishwives were a marvellous set of ladies. I remember seeing them carry their men on their backs so they wouldn't get wet  before they went out. But the women wouldn't carry them back ashore when they returned," he recalled.

He talked of how the fishwives would  fill their creels and race round the town to catch their customers. He remembered them coming into the scullery in his house and cleaning the fish for his mother .  He said they would almost run out to the next township five miles away.

Sometimes they would make it up to his auntie's at Culbo,  a good 10 miles away  inland. They would barter with farmers and their wives: fish for eggs, tatties,  turnips and oatmeal.

He had one particularly vivid memory of a woman who was known as Annaig Sponge:  "She went out to Culbo once, sold her fish and was coming back when she stopped at Newhall bridge about five miles from Cromarty.

"My grandfather was the Blacksmith at Newhall.  For a rest she backed up to the wall of the  bridge and let her creel rest on the parapet. A local man played a trick on her by creeping up behind and putting a big stone in her creel. To the amazement of everybody she just pulled it up on her back and away she trotted."

Douglas Matheson wasn't of the fisherfolk,  and laughed when he remembered:  "There were lots of children in the fishertown then and to me, as a young boy, it was dangerous territory. There used to be fights, the east versus the west end. It had nothing to do with parental status, just geography."

A good friend of his was from the fishertown, Bobby Hogg. The face on another of the banners, he  died last year  aged 92, the last fluent native speaker of the Cromarty fisher dialect. It ended a linguistic tradition that had stretched back centuries.

Bobby had been fond of saying: "Our folk have been fishermen all the way back to Galilee." But he himself had begun work as a mechanic in a garage in Dingwall and had served in the RAF as a fitter during the Second World War and then went on to become an engineer working across Britain.

According to the records, there were Hoggs in Cromarty in the 16th century when they were boatmen and fishermen. Bobby's son Robert is still in Cromarty (and yes he has a boat).

After The Herald broke the story of Bobby's death, and that of the dialect, it was reported in around 200 countries, although some seemed to think it was the last Gaelic speaker who had died.

The idea of something living like a language or dialect being consigned to history clearly resonates. But it is more. The need to know, and connect with our past, can be strong.

It underlines the importance of collecting the memories of our communities before they too go. Not the most original of thoughts, but none the less pressing.

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