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Catriona Fraser: Saving the Past

by Cynthia Rogerson

Nothing about the present ever seems likely to be lost – it’s so obvious, so permanent seeming.  Yet information takes very little time to be distorted and forgotten.  Is this a bad thing? What is the value, for instance, in knowing what happened in one little B-listed ruined church in the Highlands? The answer, of course, is that the past is always rewarding to explore – for it gives us perspective on our present and clues to our future. Perspective is crucial in understanding how the world works.

But the urge to record the past is stronger in some individuals than others, and not everyone can write with the needed eloquence. The Ross-shire village of Evanton is lucky to have one such local hero – Catriona Fraser.  A Black Isle girl, as she says of herself, married to local boy Willie Fraser whose art graces the cover of her book Kiltearn 2020: The Church in the Parish.  

It began when she listened to her father give a talk in the mid-60’s about post-reformation Kiltearn parish history. When the talk was over, she was dismayed at the waste of all his material if nothing else was ever done with it. Perhaps the first impetus of recording history is a strong sense of not wanting to lose things. In the late 90’s, Catriona took up the reins her father had dropped and began to work backwards in time. She re-read his material and proceeded to investigate pre-reformation history. She found the church was far older than previously thought, dating to at least the 12th century. That there’d been more ministers than previously thought, and that legends such as that attached to Reverend Thomas Hogg were more complex. The more books and records she read, the more she felt excited, for historical detective work is a special addiction. She was solving mysteries. And to be physically in a place – a roofless ruin surrounded by ancient headstones near the Cromarty Firth – and vividly imagining the past, is a heady experience.  

But writing about it is not always a smooth process, because the past is not static. Truth tends to wriggle around according to who is recording it as fact.  Catriona found different dates in different books pertaining to the same events, and sometimes different names too. It’s almost impossible to be precise or objective, because not only is every recorder fallible, they each have their own agenda.  Generally people record a version of events that is sympathetic with their own political and religious beliefs.  Historical records, in this sense, are a batch of subjective narratives.

Catriona’s task was simple but huge: To collate, condense and then present in readable form over 800 years of parish history with as much likely truth as she could glean.  I am pleased to tell you she’s been successful, and it is not just Evantonians here and abroad who are grateful. Nor is the book more relevant for church-goers than others. Every history book written with integrity about a small place contributes to our understanding of the whole world.  And any history worth writing begins with the big picture.  Her book opens with:  It took about four centuries after the resurrection of Christ for the first breath of Christianity to reach Scotland.

Is she proud of her book? It’s imperfect, she says, because like every proper historian she recognises accuracy is unachievable. But yes indeed, she is proud of it – and hopes a younger generation picks up the baton now. Arise young historians everywhere, for a decent history book about anything can illuminate everything.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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