Adventures in Arboll: An Abandoned Township on the Tarbat Peninsula

by Karen Clarke (NOSAS)

The area between Inver and Portmahomack (OS 1:50,000)

NOSAS members John Wombell and Jonie Guest have been organising a series of Ad Hoc coastal walks.  The purpose of these walks is to observe and survey sections of coastline particularly after winter storms in order to interpret, record and note the condition of newly exposed archaeology, also to revisit and record possible threats to known structures and update the Scotland Coastal at Risk Project (SCARP) data base.  There had been a great deal of Second World War (WW2) activity along this section of the Coast.  Military activity continues even now with proximate areas requisitioned as bombing ranges.  In January 2017 we walked between Dornoch Golf Course Car Park and Dornoch Bridge mainly recording the WW2 Anti Glider Poles.  On 1st February 2017 John Wombell and Meryl Marshall led a group between Inver and Portmohomack, Tarbat Ness.  Tarbat derives from the Gaelic for Isthmus but the area it comprises is perhaps better described as a peninsula.

One township of particular interest to us was the proximate long abandoned Arboll (NH 8835 8283, HER ref. MHG8523  Canmore ID 15318) which can be seen on Google Earth reasonably well.  Meryl Marshall and NOSAS volunteers had part recorded this in 2003.  Meryl was keen to continue with her re-creation of the township.  Arboll now refers to several scattered farms 10km East of Tain a short distance inland from the Dornoch Firth.  Information with respect to the township of Arboll’s early history and eventual abandonment is sparse however David Findlay, NOSAS member and proximate resident, kindly sourced some maps and historical references.  The 1984 Ross-Cromarty Book of the Northern Times Ltd suggests that the name Arboll derives from the Old Norse ‘bolstadr’ meaning a homestead with the first element of the name, also Norse, meaning Ark or Seal.  Place names of Easter Ross also informs us that Arboll (Arkboll 1463 and 1535) is Norse ork-bol or ark-stead but perhaps orkin meaning seal.

Arboll township as seen via satellite on Google Maps

History. Early references to Arboll appear in Calendar of Fearn 1471 – 1667 whereby a judge delegate Abbot Donald was instrumental in dividing Arboll into thirds in November 1539 and a certain Robert of Balloan bought two-thirds of Arboll in June 1647.  The earliest Valuation Roll for Tarbat is 1644 where Alex Corbet of Arboll was main landowner.  The principle historical reference for this article particularly with respect to estates and heritors is the informative and well researched Tarbet:  Easter Ross published by Ross & Cromarty Heritage Society in 1988.  

In 1506 James IV granted two thirds of the lands of Arboll to John, Bishop of Ross and the ownership changed hands many times over the ensuing century.  In 1721 Colonel Alex Urqhart III was forced to sell part of the lands of Arboll when he found himself in debt resulting from his involvement with the South Sea Scheme.  By 1770 Alex Ross of Pitcalnie owned Wester Arboll and the Heirs of Colonel Urquhart owned Easter Arboll.  In 1793 a large portion of the lands of Arboll were acquired by the Macleods of Geanies with Naomi Ross ‘liferentrix of the lands of Arbol’ occupying the House of Arboll.

The Rosses and Macleods of Geanies did not co-exist well and I first found reference to the Fishertown of Arboll in 1769 when Donald Macleod of Geanies wrote to Naomi Ross complaining that “round the lands of Arboll there are several new fisher houses erected at your express desire”.  It appears that the construction materials were taken from the best of the Geanies ground close to the corn fields.  Feisty Mrs Ross retaliated and complained that the Geanies fishing boats were reported in the Fisher Town and that Geanies tenants were taking ‘seaware’ from the shore and cutting ‘feal and divot’ in the vicinity thereby damaging the land. NOSAS member Anne Coombs explained to me that seaware refers to seaweed (used as fertilizer) and that feals and divot are different types and quality of turf used as material in building construction, feal for the walls and divot for the roofs.  In 1834 Sheriff Macleod (Geanies) encountered financial difficulties and in 1837 his trustees sold off much of the estate including the Links of Arboll, Mill of Arboll and the Fisher Houses to a George Murray.  When the Murray family in turn disposed of these holdings there is reference to Arboll Mains but not to the Fishertown.

Arboll township from Canmore website – Canmore ID 15318

The Kirk. In 1771 there is reference to Messrs McKay Cumming and Corbat “fishers in Arboll” allocated 5 seats in the Kirk for themselves and their crew.  These seats were paid for by the “poor’s money”.

Farming. There is reference to boundary disputes around Arboll in 1779 (“the march betwixt my lands of Arboll”) and again in 1860 during one period of land improvement when tenants (also known as mealers or cotters) were provided with small portions of land, wood, tools, seed etc in order to encourage them to build houses and sow seed on ground deemed suitable, paying their rent in produce.  Before improvement the land was poor and merely provided subsistence living supplemented by farm labouring and fishing.  By 1884 there is reference to 25 farming families living comfortably in the vicinity of Arboll.  Mains of Arboll is still farmed by one such family.

Fishing. The Factor for Arboll wrote to the Laird in 1752 requesting help after a boat was damaged leading to fishing families in his area starving.  Ling, halibut, turbot, cod and lobster were fished.  The lairds of coastal estates were principal entrepreneurs. In 1892 there is reference to the decline in the fishing around Portmahomack.  This was due in part to commercial fishing by steam trawlers and the building of new harbours elsewhere to facilitate them.  Consequent overfishing led to a decline in cod and herring.  In 1896 there is reference to the crew of Arboll being prosecuted for being prevented from retrieving their leaders (the part of the net which guides the fish into the bag) during a severe gale on Saturday.  This was a legal requirement to prevent salmon being fished on a Sunday.  Non commercial salmon fishing was from shallow draft cobbles where access to a harbour was not required.  The later 18th century saw a population drift away from the parishes including emigration.

Health. There was heavy mortality from diseases such as Typhus and Smallpox (1756-8) especially amongst children.  The cholera epidemic (1832) almost depopulated the Tarbat Peninsula.  It hit the fishing villages especially Arboll particularly hard and apart from mortality led to hired men fleeing the area, virtually putting a stop to the fishing.  There was a shortage of doctors and few midwives.  Some of the medical staff also died and in any case the cost of medical attention was prohibitive.  As a retired midwife I found the descriptions of the dire conditions from the medical folk compelling.  Florence Nightingale’s famous quote referring to health and nursing practice “what it is and what it is not” seems pertinent to archaeology and history.  Overcrowding and poor sanitation in the fishing villages, lack of food (especially that winter as the potato crop had failed), consequent poor nutrition and no income compounded the problem.  There was a call for “adequate supplies of lime” for cleaning.  Other charitable resources were also requested.  In 1894 a cholera hospital was eventually established in Portmohomack which recovered from the epidemics due in part to the Clearances with displaced land based folk seeking employment in coastal areas and ports in order to emigrate.

Hugh Miller writing about the results of these epidemics noted that half of the population of Inver died and survivors from Portmahomack and Inver took shelter in the dunes bordering Arboll only to die from exposure in the winter conditions.  This led to the long held and still prevalent belief throughout the district that the links of Arboll are haunted.  Perhaps superstition led to the area being less attractive to potential inhabitants.

Decline. It seems likely that a combination of events including Arboll’s relative isolation, inhabitants being marginalised onto poorer ground, the encroachment of sand dunes and a decline in good fishing led to the eventual total abandonment of the township.  The subsequent hammering sustained from ongoing military activities particularly during war time would no doubt have made it a less viable place to return to or develop in the future.

The Tarbat Peninsula. Groomes Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland.

The route we walked from ‘Fishertown of Inver’ is shown on the Groomes Ordnance Gazetteer map.  Note the Mill and Mains of Arboll, House and Castle of Arboll and other structures of interest to us.  The Roy Highlands map (1747-1752) also shows two small mills below Arboll on Arboll burn but not on the 1843-1882 version.  This coincides with a steam mill being started at Rockfield, more reliable than waiting until there was enough water filling the dams to start milling.  Road improvement allowed grain to be transported to Rockfield.

En-route between Inver and Arboll our group separated into smaller groups.  Some folk walked the shore looking for fresh erosions and noted further upstanding poles exposed by low tide.  Others ventured further inland to the surrounding dune and field area where there was previous evidence of Iron Age activity hoping to discover more pre-historic evidence.

Upon reaching Arboll the first thing Meryl commented upon was how woefully covered with vegetation the site had become despite it being the winter season.  This was due, in part, to the lack of grazing animals.

The Vegetation Covered Site of Arboll Looking Towards the Coast (Meryl Marshall)

Nevertheless provided with Meryl’s 2003 plan we were still able to get a good general idea of the township and make out most of the structures shown which included possible buildings, platforms and enclosed areas which may have been kale yards or used for flax preparation for linen production.

There were also pits suggested to be middens.  The stone used in construction appeared to be of good quality, well prepared and dressed.  Meryl’s crib sheet gave guidance on how to record the structures.

The site clearly did not lend itself to ground photography however Alan Thompson had recently invested in an interactive pole camera set up for capturing aerial views of archaeological sites which may then be processed with photogrammetry and with Frank van Duivenbode in control of the pole they set off to photograph the area.

Alan, Frank and the Pole Camera in Action (Meryl Marshall)

The rest of us as part of a recording and training exercise to measure and draw changes in the structures were organised by Meryl (who on a voluntary basis has been instrumental in training, mentoring and encouraging many NOSAS members over the years) into groups of two where an experienced member mentored a novice or less confident individual.  We were particularly interested in the features outlined in the full description guidelines on the plan.

Roland Spencer-Jones produced these drawings of a large complex of structures numbered 1-5.  The first gives a diagrammatic, stripped-down version of the structures surveyed on the day which he described as “representing two, possibly three, structures retained within a dyke to the north with each of the walls of the structures approximately 1m wide and up to 0.25m tall.  The lower drawing provides a better idea of the dimensions and margins of the structures.  The rank grass made it difficult to identify whether any particular ridge was associated with any other.  There were definitely two platforms on the west side of this congregation of structures and two round pits”.  It was suggested that these might be middens.

Structures 1-5, Diagrammatic and Stripped Down

Structures 1-5 Dimensions and Margins

Once recording was complete some of us ventured further inland to investigate the castle and mill sites shown on Pont’s map.

Pont’s Map of Tarbet Ness, Easter Ross.

We were not successful in identifying sound evidence of these structures but did come across a large damaged ceramic object containing what appeared to be the remains of animal lick bearing the legend Hurlford of Kilmarnock.  We discovered another one on a walk between Portmohomack and Tarbet Ness the following week.  A useful website (www.scottishbrickhistory.co.uk) a Scottish wide community based project bearing the great logo “I get my kick out of bricks” references the Hurlford Fire Clay Works owned by John Howie 1833-1897 (evident on the 1897 OS map) and features pages from the J & R Howie catalogue depicting variations in trough design for different animals (horse, cow, sheep, pigs and poultry). This one appears to be a square sheep feeder or oil cake dish, perhaps a cattle trough.  It has a flat side presumably to facilitate transport and stacking and no drainage hole to prevent the valuable cake or lick trickling away in wet weather.

Ceramic Container (Karen Clarke)

Following the estate wall which led at least 1km eastwards we also came across two huge dumps of farming equipment, general detritius and animal bones but no obvious evidence for the castle.

A Portion of the Estate Wall (Meryl Marshall)

Reconvening at Portmahomack our group continued to puzzle over the location of the Mill and Castle of Arboll and the events which led to the eventual abandonment of the sizeable township of Arboll.  However despite the conditions on site being less than ideal with heavy vegetation cover Meryl was able to identify threats to the structures and better re-create them by producing an amended sketch of Arboll based on the 2003 findings and our recordings earlier in the day.

Arboll Links 2003 and 2017 (Meryl Marshall)

One happy conclusion to our adventures in Arboll is that on 18th March 2017 David Findlay arranged and led a visit to the designed landscape of Geanies.  John Wombell led us around the surrounding cliffs and beaches containing salmon bothies, hill forts, caves, bait mortars, interesting geology and unknown structures and pits enthusiastically recorded by Meryl Marshall and others – but that is another story.  However imagine Meryl’s and our delight when at Geanie’s House our welcoming and informative host Willie Mackenzie told us about an estate map on one of the bedroom walls showing the Fishertown of Arboll.  He kindly allowed us to view, photograph and use it for this article.  The map is dated 1833, so was probably created before the 1832 cholera outbreak and shows a number of structures which compare favourably with Meryl’s 2017 plan.

Estate Map 1833.

References:

Arboll Survey Report, January 2017

Calendar of Fearn 1471 – 1667.

Mills of Easter Ross Peninsula.  Douglas Gordon.

Place Names of Ross and Cromarty.  Professor W. J. Watson.

Scotland’s Brick Manufacturing Industry.  Mark Cranston.  (www.scottishbrickhistory.co.uk).

Tarbat:  Easter Ross.  Alexander Fraser/Finlay Munro.  1988.

The Ross-Cromarty Book of the Northern Times Ltd.  1984.

Valuation Roll for Tarbat 1644.

 

Postscript: WW2 on the Tarbat Peninsula

At Inver David Findlay informed us how an area of 15 miles East of Fearn was particularly affected by WW2 when in 1943 the entire community of more than 900 people were evacuated at short notice to the nearby towns of Portmahomack and Tain in order to allow the armed forces to take over the area and rehearse with their new swimming tanks in advance of the D-Day landings.  The social history and impact of war on these evacuees and the towns they were evacuated to has parallels with contemporary times and reading witness reports is poignant.  Three years later the Inver and proximate area evacuees finally returned to their homes therefore more fortunate than residents of the coincidentally similarly named town of Imber near Trowbridge in Wiltshire (also evacuated in December 1943 when US troops requisitioned the area to prepare for D-Day).  Those unfortunate people were never allowed to return home and to this day Imber remains a ghost town open to interested members of the public a handful of days a year.  Thankfully Inver escaped that fate as evacuees reported how after three years confined to towns they were desperate to return to their own homes and possessions and a preferred environment of beaches and fields.  At least one evacuee and a notorious, persistent Collie dog (eventually fed and cared for by the military) are reputed to have returned long before permission was given.  Upon return some residents discovered that their homes had been destroyed.  Further information about the social and military history of Inver during WW2 may be found, amongst other sources, on a board in the main Inver car park.  David Findlay also referred us to an excellent article published in The Scotsman in 2004, “The secret beach where Britain rehearsed D-Day”.

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