1. Environmental
August 21, 2015

No. 4: Ross-shire and Cromartyshire, two Scottish counties for the price of one

By Jonn Elledge

The Association of British Counties is a society dedicated to “promoting awareness of the continuing importance of the 92 history counties of the United Kingdom”. It utterly rejects any changes to administrative geography of the British isles that have come about more recently than about the 1890s.

It is, in other words, an amateur society composed entirely of the sort of people who go to parties and say things like, “What’s ‘Merseyside’? Liverpool is in Lancashire actually.”

I love the ABC, as it jauntily styles itself. Absolutely adore the sheer insanity of the entire exercise. It holds a “historic county flag day”. It maintains a gazetteer, with which you can identify which county any town in Great Britain was when William Gladstone was still moving about. It puts out press releases announcing the installation of new (historic) border markers. There’s even a bit of its website called “solutions for your organisation”. I have no idea what that means. I don’t care. I just love it.

But there is one issue on which the Association of British Counties has been rather remiss in its pedantry. For all its commitment to maintaining exact historic borders – and its refusal to acknowledge the fact that many of those borders have changed repeatedly – it has committed the unpardonable sin of merging two historic counties together, because it makes life easier.

Check out this detail from the ABC’s map of the historic counties:

It is, otherwise, a very lovely map. Image: Association of British Counties.

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The problem is that, if we’re being strictly historical about this, “Ross-shire & Cromartyshire” shouldn’t be one county at all. It should be two. On this map, Cromartyshire is in red, Ross-shire is in dark blue.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

You see the problem?

Cromartyshire consists of 23 separate areas: a big one, Coigach, nestling between Sutherland and Ross-shire, and 22 exclaves within the latter.

This rather silly shape for a county has its origins in some 17th century social climbing, when Sir George Mackenzie, the sheriff of Cromarty, somehow managed to persuade James II & VII to let him turn his scattered estates in Ross-shire into a whole new county. As you do. Despite the fact this was an obviously ludicrous thing to do, it stuck for the next two hundred years, and Mackenzie managed to get himself ennobled as Earl of Cromartie into the bargain.

Nonetheless, the sheer ludicrousness of a county that consisted mostly of land deep inside another county was always a bit of an administrative nightmare, and from very early on in Cromartyshire’s history it was being managed alongside its neighbour. From 1747 the two had a common Sheriff. By 1832 they were a single constituency.

And in 1889, the Local Government (Scotland) Act finally put an end to this rather silly experiment, when it ruled that  “the counties of Ross and Cromarty shall cease to be separate counties, and shall be united for all purposes whatsoever, under the name of the county of Ross and Cromarty”.

Fair enough. Can’t blame them, really. Both counties are anyway now part of the giant Highland local authority, that swallowed up the northernmost quarter of mainland Scotland. 

We are, nonetheless, very disappointed in the Association of British counties. Either you’re committed to sticking to historic boundaries, regardless of how ridiculous and inappropriate they are, or you’re not. Up your game, guys. Bring back the two-county system in Ross & Cromarty, now.

EDIT TO ADD: It’s mere moments since we published the above, but it’s already been pointed by Twitter user Oliver Savory that there’s a very fine map of the exact extent of Cromartyshire available on Wikishire (yes, that exists):

So, now you know.


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