Dingwall Museum Book Group

19th December 2023

The first meeting of the Dingwall Museum Book Group took place on the Tuesday before Christmas, kindly hosted by the Community Library. This is an initiative by our Trustees to bring more people into the Museum and the Museum out to more people!

A dozen of us gathered, and the discussion was led and guided by Roland Spencer-Jones, a Museum Trustee. We were met to discuss the only book that specialises in telling Dingwall’s history: Norman Macrae’s Romance of a Royal Burgh; Dingwall’s Story of a Thousand Years

Norman Macrae (1866-1933) was a journalist here. He published his first book Highland Second-Sight in 1908, with stories from many sources. In his new book published one hundred years ago in 1923, he retells the stories he learned from knowledgeable people and from books such as the Orkneyinga Saga and Dingwall shoemaker Robert Bain’s History of Ross (1899). Many years later Norman’s youngest son Alexander (Sandy) would become the last Provost of Dingwall’s Burgh Council before it was merged with the District council and he organised the first volunteers to set up the Dingwall Museum in the Town House. 

For the Book Group, we had read in advance the first three chapters, looking at the pre-history of the area, the Pictish period and the Norse. What came out for us from everyone’s contributions, especially Susan Kruse, another Trustee and well-versed in these historical periods? 

The valley of the Peffery thousands of years ago was very different from nowadays and the Iron Age fort on Knockfarrel would have looked down on a marshy valley floor where the confluence of Conon outflow and tidal Cromarty Firth soaked it. Bain, followed by Macrae both stated that until the Pictish period it was marshy and uninhabitable up to Fodderty. There is (as yet) no evidence when it became possible to settle where Dingwall is now, and we all agreed this would be a great project to investigate through dated core samples. 

Over the centuries the valley was drained, whether naturally or through human agency, but remains could be seen on the 1789 Aitken map with fludders between the fields, and the 1790 Brown map drawn at high tide.

Much has been published about the early history in the hundred years since Norman’s book came out. The Pictish symbol stone in St Clements churchyard has Neolithic cup marks on it. There have been Bronze Age finds along the Heights, such as the axe-heads and neck ring found ‘in the Dingwall area’ now in the Aberdeen Museum, and not least the largest surviving gold hoard dating to the Late Bronze Age ever found in Scotland—now in Edinburgh, but brought back here for a temporary exhibition in 2000. 

The sagas must not be considered dependable histories, having been compiled from many orally-transmitted stories and written down long after they were first told, but we have the stories from Flateyjarbók (that Norman called the Orkades) and Orkneyinga Saga to give us a flavour. Even archaeological surveys are often not easy to interpret but we have the name ‘Dingwall’ (from Þing an assembly) to demonstrate this town was an admin centre. We talked about the Norse struggles with Picts and Scots, about Thorfin of Orkney and MacBeth of Moray. We realised the important strategic position this place held as a crossroads of the major land and sea routes, coast and river valleys and the ridges between, that gave reason for different rulers to possess it and build strongholds here.

The (rhetorical!) question was posed: Would it have been better if this book had not been written? We could not be conclusive: writing it turned myths and legends into ‘facts’ everyone knew, but on the other hand someone had to write something like this at some stage, to give those who came after something to improve.

The next Book Group meeting was fixed for 2:00pm on Tuesday 16th January 2024, again in the Dingwall Community Library, where we will discuss the next chapters on the period of the Earls of Ross and their Dingwall Castle.


MHG8921 - Bronze Age hoard - Heights of Brae: https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG8921

Susan Kruse: The Origins of Dingwall https://scarf.scot/regional/higharf/highland-archaeological-research-framework-case-studies/origins-of-dingwall/

Alex Woolf: From Pictland to Alba: Scotland, 789-1070 (2007)

David Aitken: Tulloch Estate map of 1789

George Brown 



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