Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness

Hugh Miller's cottage, Cromarty
Hugh Miller’s cottage, Cromarty

Three Firths and a Loch

Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness sound like an old-fashioned firm of lawyers, don’t they?  And the Black Isle adds a touch of intrigue to the proceedings…  The reality is slightly less dramatic.

The Moray, Beauly and Cromarty firths almost completely encircle the Black Isle (we’ll come to Ness later). The delta of the River Conon does its best to finish the circuit to the north east, and the Beauly River does the same to the south west, but the Black Isle isn’t actually an island at all.  It’s what the French call a presqu’isle, a nearly-island: a peninsula.

The Black Isle

It’s an unexpectedly beautiful peninsula.  The “black” name (it’s the same in Gaelic: an t-Eilean Dubh) comes from the fact that, since it’s rather flat land and almost surrounded by water, snow doesn’t lie there in winter.  So it looks dark compared to the white hills ranged behind it.  No skulduggery involved.

In the soft rain of March it looked not black but very green across the Moray Firth.

Heading north from Inverness, it was a case of “Beauly to left of them, Moray to right, over the Kessock Bridge the car thundered” (to misquote Tennyson).  Shortly afterwards we thankfully left the busy A9 and headed east, across the top of Munlochy Bay.

Passing through Fortrose, a handsome, largely Victorian town with a ruined 13th century cathedral, we turned left at Rosemarkie.  Both places looked as though they’d repay a closer look – another trip for another day.

We were headed for Cromarty, the historic town at the north-eastern tip of the Isle.  It’s beautifully preserved, without having been set in aspic.  In fact, it’s very much alive, with all sorts of cultural happenings and events throughout the year.


We had hardly entered the town when the welcome sign “Tea, coffee and books” brought us up all standing.  A good cup of coffee surrounded by second-hand books?  It would have been churlish to drive on.

Later, abandoning our purchases in the car, we pottered down to the shoreline and found a couple of craft shops to spend more money in.  Walking along the green near the water’s edge we came across what must be one of the smallest wooden cabin boats ever built, and the old lighthouse, now a Field Studies Centre for Aberdeen University.

We also passed an intriguing grass-thatched building which bore a tiny plaque explaining that it was a 19th century ice-house – an important installation during the boom years of the “silver darlings”, the herring fisheries that briefly made these shores rich.

Sadly, one of the reasons for visiting Cromarty was closed: Hugh Miller’s cottage.  Miller was an early geologist and fossil-studier and his tiny thatched childhood home sits almost next door to the old Court House (also a museum; also closed).  Ah well, another reason to come back; next time in summer.

Arts, crafts and dolphins

We rather fell for Cromarty – as have all sorts of artists and crafters, drawn to the quality of the light, the (formerly) cheap property prices and the sense of community.  Perhaps also to the opportunities for dolphin watching.  We didn’t see any – just oil and gas rigs – but “you should have been here this morning” when they’d been cavorting in the bay.  Ain’t it always the way?

Following the coast round to the north west, we crossed the Cromarty Firth via the rather odd Cromarty Bridge: it’s about three miles long and flat as a pancake.  Most bridges rise a bit in the middle; crossing this one feels more like driving over a causeway.  Obviously they’re not expecting any ships to pass underneath.

Reaching the other side, we did consider heading north to Wick and Thurso, but we had to be back for dinner…  Instead we turned the car towards Dingwall, Beauly and Loch Ness, hoping to visit Urquhart Castle.

Loch Ness

It was not our day for visitor attractions.  Rush hour in Beauly (five minutes) delayed us enough that we arrived as they were cashing up – though they kindly allowed us downstairs in the visitor centre to use the loos.  So all we saw was the view over the stone wall from the car park.

It’s a good view and you can see why the Urquharts built their castle where they did.  In a fine defensive position on a small promontory, it has commanding views of both the loch and the road along the edge of it.  Probably very windy and damp, mind you; great views have their drawbacks.

Returning towards Inverness, we passed the first section of the Caledonian Canal, one of Thomas Telford’s great engineering feats.  By connecting Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe through the Great Glen, he created a route for ships that avoided the long and dangerous passage through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath.

It took longer than expected to build and cost over twice its original budget (of course) but it’s saved incalculable time, money and lives, especially during the two World Wars.  Not only has it survived to become a scheduled ancient monument but it’s never stopped carrying working boats, unlike most British canals.  One of these days I’ll take a boat along it.

“Another time”, “another reason to come back”, “one of these days” – I definitely haven’t finished with Messrs. Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness.

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Murton Farm, Tearoom and Nature Reserve



Fun with a purpose

Murton signage says “Farm and Tearoom” and that’s accurate as far as it goes: there is indeed an excellent tearoom, it’s on the site of what was a farm and there are still animals to see and, by arrangement, pet.  (There’s also an excellent and growing play-park and a wind turbine.)  For many visitors, these facilities are what the place is all about.

Which is fine; but it ignores the largest part of Murton’s raison d’etre.  It’s a nature reserve, run by the charity Murton Trust for Education and the Environment.  The tearoom and farm, the only areas you have to pay to use, help draw in visitors and funds.

What Murton is really about

Murton was a perfectly ordinary farm once.  Then the diggers arrived.  The soil in this part of Angus contains large quantities of sand and gravel, and open-cast mining for them is a common sight.  For 12 years, Murton’s fields were scoured for aggregates.

The owners had already decided that the land would become a nature reserve when the diggers left.  They were also interested in education.  They combined the two to create a place where nature and people could flourish together.

So groups of 14-19 year-old students who find academic education challenging come here from local schools.  They learn skills they can use later in gardening, forestry, farming, environmental protection work and other employment.  Trust staff make sure what they learn refers to the curriculum whenever possible.

For example, people who struggle with maths learn how to calculate the quantities of fencing wire or timber they’ll need for a job.  When you have a reason to learn something, it often makes more sense.

Nature, with a bit of help

Students and staff have built nesting walls and boxes for the several hundred pairs of sand martins that return here every year to breed.  They (the students and staff, not the martins) manage grassland, and a whole field of orchids blooms on the reserve round about May. Elsewhere in the region, you’re lucky to see one or two specimen orchids.  Other management practices mean that otters now visit Murton from local lochs, one with cubs.

And there are hides and shelters all around the lochs where visitors can sit and watch the birds – all thanks to the students and staff.  You’ll also meet a life-size deer and boar on your travels, but quite safely: they’re made of wood!  You can buy smaller versions in the tearoom.

Murton boar
This little piggy won’t hurt

They’re currently building a new cabin, large enough to accommodate the Outdoor Tots toddler group in wet weather, the Murton Makers kids’ carpentry events, and courses in rural skills such as spoon-carving.  You can find full details of events and courses on their website and social media: see below.

Visiting Murton

The tearoom, farm and car park are open 10-4, every day from April to October and Wednesday to Sunday the rest of the year.  There’s a hide you can access directly from the car park, so if you’re short of time, mobility or energy you can still watch the birds in comfort.

The tea, coffee and cakes in the tearoom are excellent – some people come just for them!  Entry to the farm is £3.50 for adults and £2.00 for children (2017 prices), which is very reasonable considering you can stay all day and find plenty to occupy small people.

The main gate is shut every night and the place looks closed.  But the nature reserve is open 24/7: you can wander round any time the mood takes you.  The pedestrian access gates are down a side road, almost opposite the Foresterseat Caravan Park entrance.  Sadly (or luckily, depending on your viewpoint) not many people know about them and you’re quite likely to have the place to yourself outside normal opening hours.

Murton’s a great place for all ages and many interests.  Whether you’re a life-long birder or just need a good walk, want a place to meet a friend for tea and buns or have two energetic children to occupy, it’s here for you. Definitely worth a visit!

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Because it’s a nature reserve, dogs are not allowed (they can stay in the car, but there’s no shade).