Aberlemno Pictish Stones

Aberlemno Pictish cross slab

Battles, crosses and combs.

The first question I always want to ask about Pictish stones is “why?”, closely followed by “who?”.  What is the purpose of the carvings?  Were they done purely for art’s sake, to commemorate events for future generations, to boost a chieftain’s standing in the world, or for some other reason I haven’t yet fathomed?

It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t have the answers – it seems no-one does, really.  Not much is known about the Picts at all, in fact, not even how they got their name.  One theory is that it comes from the Latin “picti” meaning painted, because they dyed their skin blue with woad; another camp reckons the name is derived from Old English.

The Picts were a Celtic people who lived in northern Scotland from ancient times until about the 10th Century “when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels”, according to Wikipedia.  Quite how that’s achieved, it doesn’t say.  People aren’t like rivers.

Early Pictish stones

The earliest Pictish sculptures are of animals, suggesting that they may have been carved because they were familiar to the artist or possibly as an invocation to some deity to improve the hunting.  Those early carvings often also include random shapes which could mean anything or nothing.  There’s a stone of this type in a field by Westerton crossroads (see map; it’s on the road between Aberlemno and Letham).Map showing location of Pictish stones in Aberlemno, Letham and area

Outside Letham (at the point marked with an X on the map) is another typical early stone, with a cup design.  This stone doesn’t appear on any of the gazetteers but it’s sitting right by the road, in a lay-by, so it’s easy to visit.  Outside the chusrch at Dunnichen, west of Letham, there’s another fine stone, but this one’s a replica; the original is in the Meffan Museum, in Forfar, which is worth a visit.

Aberlemno’s kirkyard stone

It’s thought that Dunnichen Hill may be the site of the Battle of Nechtansmere (AD 685), where the Picts defeated the Northumbrians.  That battle is commemorated on the most important stone in Aberlemno, the one in the church-yard.  (Some people say, because the stone dates from well after that date, that the fight may have been between Picts and Vikings, not Northumbrians.  We’ll probably never know; the locals prefer the Northumbrian story.)  Aberlemno battle scene stone

Whoever they are, the stone shows both cavalry and infantry, one side wearing helmets and the other bare-headed, all engaged in a very spirited fight.  In the bottom corner, crows are dealing with the dead.  On the other side is a fine Celtic cross with masses of interlaced tracery and some anatomically-suspect animals that may be deer.Pictish stone cross in Aberlemno churchyard

The Aberlemno roadside stones

The other three Aberlemno Pictish stones are up the road, opposite the village hall.  In the hall car park there’s a modern copy of the battle scene, which remains uncovered all year round (the originals are boxed up over winter to protect them but there’s a picture of the stone on each cover, so you can still visit them in winter).  Another stone was found in a nearby field and can now be seen in the Meffan in Forfar, alongside the Dunnichen stone.

Aberlemno village hall also houses some of the artefacts from the defunct Pictavia museum, which can be seen by arrangement.  Through the summer, the loos at the hall are left open for public use.

Of the three roadside stones, one is not in very good condition but the other two are extraordinarily well-preserved and remarkably clear, considering they’ve withstood more than 1000 years of weather at the top of an Angus hill.

The Serpent stone has, as you might expect, a snake at the top. The other images on it are common Pictish symbols, though no-one is quite sure what they represent.  The middle one is of two circles with concentric rings, one at each end of a bar.  A zigzag broken arrow is laid across the bar.  Unsurprisingly, this  common symbol is known as a double disc with Z-rod.Aberlemno serpent stone

The bottom image shows an elegant hand mirror that wouldn’t look out of place on a modern dressing-table and a comb consisting of a central bar with teeth either side of it.  Again, this is a common symbol, probably representing a high-ranking woman; the stone was possibly carved as a memorial.

On the back there are cup markings, like the ones on the Letham stone, which pre-date the front carvings by several centuries, so the stone seems to have been re-used.  The stone itself is not dressed; it has rough, unshaped edges, and the whole thing leans at a jaunty angle.

The latest stone

The Cross stone is neatly dressed and even the edges are decorated (see photo at the top of this post).  It dates from somewhat later than the other Aberlemno Pictish stones, probably as late as the mid-9th century. It’s full of Christian symbolism – a Celtic cross with drooping (sorry, worshipping) angels either side and sheep at the bottom – and the decoration is of extremely high quality. Aberlemno Pictish cross slab reverse showing Pictish symbols

The reverse side has another double disc with Z-rod, a slightly different pattern from the one on the Serpent stone, and a very finely-carved crescent with V-rod, the crescent filled with three panels of delicate Celtic knot-work.  Below the symbols there’s a hunting scene.  Whoever carved this stone was a master of his craft.

Other stones

If you catch the Pictish stones bug, you can see other examples at the Meffan in Forfar; St Vigeans, just outside Arbroath, where the museum boasts no fewer than 34 examples; and Meigle Museum, between Forfar and Coupar Angus, which has another 30-plus.  Outdoors you can find stones at Brechin Cathedral (near the Brechin Mechanics Institute), Eassie Church, St. Orland’s Chapel at Cossans (near Glamis), and in the grounds of the old Manse at Glamis (now private property).

The stones cover a period of several centuries and it’s interesting to see the change from the purely symbolic early stones, via the hunting and fighting scenes to the complex Celtic patterns and crosses of the period after the Irish brought Christianity to Scotland.  We may not know much about the people who commissioned (if that’s the right word) the Pictish stones, but we can still marvel at the craftsmanship of those who carved them.

Find out more:

You can download the Angus Pictish Trail leaflet from http://aberlemno.org/the-stones.php.  It has a map and some historical background written by renowned Pictish scholar Norman Atkinson.  Be warned, though: it was published before Pictavia closed, and some of the owners of the properties where there are stones have changed and may not welcome you walking around in their gardens!

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Montreathmont Moor

Montreathmont moor forest

Historic moor and forest

I went for a bike ride the other day along the tracks through the forest behind my house, returning on the roads that encircle it.  Variously pronounced “Monrummond” (which is what appears on the oldest maps), “Montrimont” and “Montreathmont”, this lovely stretch of mixed woodland lies in the triangle between Brechin, Letham and Friockheim in central Angus.

It’s been woodland for a long time.  It’s mainly Forestry Commission spruce nowadays, what’s known as a PAWS (that’s a Plantation on an Ancient Woodland Site, I think).  But there are large areas of Scots pines, birches, oaks, beeches and other broadleaves to lighten the gloom.  Tracks through the wood are popular with walkers and, apparently, husky trainers – though I’ve never met any, and most of the tracks don’t connect to each other, making round trips tricky.

Two years ago, foresters were thinning the Scots pine along one section of track.  I was talking about it to one of my neighbours, who was at school back in the mid ‘30s in what’s now my house.  It turns out he’d helped plant those trees about 70 years earlier, just after World War II.  It must be very satisfying to watch them grow and see them harvested; not many people live that long.

Wildlife and other residents

All sorts of birds and other wildlife live in Montreathmont forest, from wood wasps to (according to Walk Scotland) red deer and even capercaillie.  Hmm.  It’s not exactly the Highlands…  I’ve seen plenty of roe deer but never their larger cousins, and I seriously doubt caper would survive the numbers of people and dogs that roam the woods.  I have seen red squirrels, though.  There are buzzards a-plenty, some owls and all the other woodland birds you’d expect to find, bats and, apparently, goshawks in one patch.  Even the spruce isn’t quite silent.

Montreathmont forest was a royal hunting ground centuries ago and probably saw hunting parties from the several castles that surround it (Guthrie, Gardyne, Melgund, Kinnaird and the now-demolished Aldbar and Balgavies).  I’m sure the wildlife feels safer now, though in a clearing a while back I did come across a fallen tree with a cleft stick stuck in the ground in front of it, looking very much as though someone had sat there quietly waiting to shoot deer.

Montreathmont History

Montreathmont Moor has remains of what may be Pictish cairn-burials or stone houses (they’re in too poor a state, and surrounded by too many trees, to be certain).  Several kist burials have been discovered in the woods down the years, including one practically outside my back door that contained a jet necklace.  The booty can be seen in the Meffan Museum in Forfar.  It’s thought some of the cairns may commemorate a Pictish battle on the Moor.  In fact, the whole area is riddled with Canmore sites.

More recently, the forest was used to tether and hide airships during the First World War.  During the Second World War and Cold War it concealed a listening station.  The white main building is still visible, though I don’t know what it’s used for now (if anything).  Some of the Nissen huts that housed personnel are still occupied, but are now privately owned; you can see them from the Forfar-Montrose road.

Who knew that a patch of dark, regimented forestry could hide so many secrets?  It’s amazing what you can stumble across on a bike ride …

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Catterline Harbour

Catterline harbour and pier

Safe haven on a rocky coast

I have to admit to a special fondness for Catterline Harbour, as this is where Montrose Sub Aqua Club have their boathouse and bothy.  I’ve been a member of the club for several years and have dived in the harbour, and around the island further out in the bay, on many occasions.

Seals breed (and sing) on the island and occasionally you’ll meet some of the bolder ones, very briefly, under water.  Mostly they’re too shy because for years they’ve been killed to protect the wild salmon fishing industry up and down this coast.  There’s a lot of kelp and other seaweed growing in the bay, so they have plenty of places to hide from clumsy divers.  They may look ungainly and sometimes very uncomfortable on land but underwater they’re sleek and surprisingly fast movers.  Their song is a weird keening, other-worldly and infinitely sad.  You can see how legends like those of the silkies and mermaids grew up around them.

The pier and harbour

Catterline Harbour got its first pier in 1730, according to a notice on the pier wall. However, according to the Undiscovered Scotland site, the pier wasn’t built until 1810; maybe that was a replacement.  Catterline Harbour Trust keeps it in working order, and there’s an honesty box for donations from anyone who’s enjoyed their visit.Notice on Catterline Pier

The surface is uneven, made up of whatever rock came to hand, regularly patched and infilled to repair weather damage – but a walk to the end is the precursor to any dive trip.  How far down can you see?  Is it worth going in?

The pier would have been a welcome structure, whenever it was built, as the rocks in the bay form reefs that can do serious damage to a boat – one of them rises up right in the middle of the harbour.  Boats are launched and retrieved between the natural and man-made walls: dinghies, canoes, the dive club’s inflatables, Catterline Coastal Rowing Club’s wooden boat.  There are also a couple of permanently-afloat boats belonging to local crab and lobster fishermen.  It’s quite a bustling scene on a sunny Sunday!

The harbour has been used by fishing boats for over a thousand years, apparently, mostly on legitimate business.  But smuggling often helped to boost the fishermen’s meagre income, and one of the houses on the cliff overlooking the harbour was built for Customs and Excise men to watch for illicit landings.

Catterline’s claims to fame

Catterline has two main claims to fame.  The first is that it’s where St Ninian landed when he began the long and troublesome task of converting the Picts to Christianity.  The local church isn’t named after him, however: it’s called St Philip’s, though its site may have been holy right back to Ninian’s day.

The village’s other claim to celebrity is the group of artists who came to Catterline for its wonderful views and quality of light.  They included Joan Eardley, Annette Soper, Angus Neil and Lil Neilson.  It’s a great place for photography, too, especially when the waves are crashing over the rocks.

Rocks and boulders

On a small promontory stands Catterline’s most unusual feature, a vertical mudstone-and-boulder stack about 40’ high.  You can climb to the top if you’re brave – and come back down if you’re even braver.  I’m not!

The foreshore is a great place for rock-pooling.  Some of the pools are big enough for really quite big critters to survive in ‘til the tide returns.  It’s always worth a poke around and there’s usually a family group or two doing just that.  At low spring tides the harbour can look as though someone’s pulled the plug out.  The water recedes half-way across the rocky bay, which makes retrieving boats very hard work.

Without its pier Catterline might well have gone the same way as its neighbour, Crawton, abandoned by 1910 as the boats moved to the safe harbour of Stonehaven, a few miles to the north.  Instead Catterline survived and thrives.  It’s worth a visit – just avoid sunny Sundays!

Find out more

Catterline is on the coast between Inverbervie and Stonehaven; the OS coordinates are 56.895271, -2.214943.

Montrose Sub Aqua Club (BSAC500) is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MontroseSAC

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Brechin Mechanics Institute

Brechin Mechanics institute

Home of learning and entertainment

Brechin (* see below for pronunciation) is a fascinating place.  The size of a large village, it is in fact one of Britain’s smallest cities.  It has a 13th century cathedral that’s now a parish church of the Church of Scotland.  Since it therefore has no Bishop, it isn’t technically a Cathedral any more.  (The Episcopalian Diocese of Brechin uses St Paul’s Church in Dundee as its Cathedral).  Because of this discrepancy, some people would say Brechin can no longer call itself a city.  Locals would not agree!

Brechin also boasts an 11th century Round Tower in the Irish style, one of only two in Scotland to survive.  It nearly didn’t make it through the 1960s, as local councillors considered it irrelevant and planned to demolish it.

The closure of the nearby US Air Force base some 20 years ago hit the city badly, but it’s finally getting back on its feet.  Many buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some have recently been restored to their full glory.  Others are still very run-down and just crying out to be tidied up and put back to use…

Brechin Mechanics Institute

And it has the Brechin Mechanics Institute, a fine building that faces you as you approach the town from the Forfar road.  Historic Environment Scotland describes it as “Tudor gothic”, a designation I hadn’t come across before.   As it dates from 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, I’d have though “Victorian gothic” would be more apt.  But I’m not an architectural historian.

John Henderson of Edinburgh designed the Mechanics Institute building.  He was the son of a gardener at Brechin Castle, just along the road.  The Earl of Dalhousie, owner of the Castle and, presumably, Henderson’s patron, gave it to the city.  Faced in fine ashlar stone, the building soars elegantly heavenwards, suggesting perhaps that the source of learning lies above.

The Mechanics Institutes movement dates from the Age of Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when philosophy, physics, chemistry and natural history, as we now know them, were born.  The first Mechanics Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 1823.  However, the idea goes back to George Birkbeck (for whom Birkbeck College is named) who started a group in Glasgow in the 1790s.  Another Mechanics Institute of the period is now better known as UMIST.

The Brechin Mechanics Institute occupies the site of an earlier school building.  It provided a night-school for “mechanics” (workers), and anyone else who wanted to improve their employability, on the upper floor.  The lower floor housed the High, Parochial and Burgh schools for youngsters.  It must have been a busy place in its heyday.

What happened next

The Institute didn’t just provide education: all sorts of groups met there.  The Guildry of Brechin used the building for meetings and still makes an annual donation towards its upkeep.  A Guildry was a group of Guilds of various trades;  Brechin’s dates from 1629.  Although it’s lost its original purpose, it’s still active in the civic and social life of the city.  Many of those civic and social events take place in the Mechanics Institute.

When the Managers and Patrons of the building felt unable to maintain it by themselves in 1950, ownership of the building was “vested in the City Council for the Common Good of the Burgh”.  It subsequently passed to the District Council who, in the 1970s, had the same difficulties and closed the building as an act of economy.

Events and artworks

Finally, after many years of negotiations, Brechin Mechanics Trust was founded to manage and maintain the building, though Angus Council still own it.  The Trust has refurbished and  updated the facilities.  There’s now provision for disabled access, for example, so the whole community can use the building.  The Institute once again hosts events of all kinds, from formal dinners, art shows and musical events to pop-up oriental rug and knitwear shops.

As a place of education, the Institute displayed paintings such as Phillip’s “Robert the Bruce on the Eve of Bannockburn”, to bring history to life.  There are several portraits of local citizens, to give students models to follow, including a QC, a Doctor of Divinity and the poet Alexander Laing.  There’s also the rather unpleasant-looking local landowner Lord Erskine, ancestor of the writer Violet Jacob.  They both lived at House of Dun, between Brechin and Montrose which is now a National Trust for Scotland property.  You can see the pictures, in the upper hall, whenever the Institute is open.

What else to see

When you’ve finished at the Brechin Mechanics Institute, there’s an excellent Town House Museum on the cobbled, steeply-sloping High Street.  The Cathedral and Round Tower should also definitely be on your itinerary.  Brechin still has lots of interesting shops, too, including one of the very few greengrocers to survive the onslaught of the supermarkets.  While you wander, keep your eyes open for the many architectural joys in this tiny gem of a city.  You never know what you might spot.

Find out more

* In case you’re wondering how to pronounce it, Brechin has a “ch” as in “loch” or the German “ach”, not as in “church”, and the “e” is long: “Breechhin” is the nearest I can get to writing it!

Brechin Mechanics Institute listing at Historic Environment Scotland: http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB22459

Round Tower: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/brechin-cathedral-round-tower/

Brechin Cathedral: https://brechincathedral.org.uk/about/

 

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Montrose sculptures

Montrose sculptures, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

Great men – and others

The town and port of Montrose, on Scotland’s north-east coast, has a fine collection of sculptures waiting to be discovered by the open-eyed visitor.  (The seagulls, inevitably, have already found them). Some are of local figures, others made by locals, and still others haven’t even a tenuous connection to the town.

Two of the Montrose sculptures stand very close together either side of the junction at Peel Place (the southern end of the High Street).  The first is the famous – some would say infamous – local man James Graham, 1st Marquis* of Montrose, who lived from 1612-1650.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

Born in the town in 1612, Montrose went on to become one of the greatest soldiers of the time of King Charles 1st.  Charles 1st wanted to impose the English brand of Protestantism on the Presbyterian Scots.  They weren’t keen on either the Bishops or the rites that Charles proposed.  The Presbyterians signed a Covenant upholding their right to worship in their own way and took arms in defence of their chosen religion.

At first Montrose supported the Covenanters but later he supported the King.  Many people therefore see him as a turncoat who followed whichever course would be most advantageous to him.  Others say that he turned against the 1st Marquis of Argyll, leader of the Covenanters, thinking he was trying to usurp the King’s power in Scotland.

Soldier-poet

No-one, however, disputes Montrose’s skill as a General; this complex man won many battles for whichever side he was supporting.  He was also a fine poet, probably best remembered for the poem he wrote to his wife.  The most famous lines from it are inscribed around the statue’s plinth:

“He either fears his fate too much,

Or his deserts are small,

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.”

Montrose did both win and lose it all.

His loyalty to the monarchy was his downfall.  After Cromwell had King Charles 1st beheaded during the British Civil War, Montrose pledged his support to the exiled Charles 2nd and tried to raise an army to restore the monarchy.

Montrose was defeated in 1650, and executed as a traitor in Edinburgh by being hanged and quartered.  Charles betrayed him, denying all knowledge of the plot.  A tragic end for a gallant man who fought for what he saw as right.

The statue marked the 350th anniversary of Montrose’s execution.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s stuck outside the Job Centre on a bend in a busy road.

Sir Robert Peel

The man on the plinth opposite him was very different, though also a doughty fighter in his way.  Some might see him, too, as a turncoat.  Montrose sculptures, Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel was not local.  He came from Lancashire and had nothing at all to do with the town.  So what did he do to earn this fine statue?

Peel has two main claims to fame – three if you’re a Catholic.  The first is that, as Home Secretary,  he founded the Metropolitan Police force in 1829.   (That’s why policemen are still called “bobbies”, Bob being short for Robert; they were also originally known as “peelers”.)

Police forces weren’t an entirely new idea.  Glasgow had had one since 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary was founded in 1822 (partly also thanks to Peel).  But this time the concept spread right across the country, which hadn’t happened with the earlier forces.

Women and children first

Peel was also responsible for passing the Mines Act, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours they could work.

He also got the Railway Regulation Act through Parliament.  This required railway companies to provide regular affordable trains, every day, with seats and roofed carriages even for third-class passengers.  At 1d a mile they still weren’t cheap but they did help people move around to find work.

Although originally so anti-Catholic that he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”, Peel came to see that the danger posed by riots against Catholics was worse than the danger of religious freedom.   His change of heart helped to win repeal of the Test Act and pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

But that’s not how he earned a statue in a staunchly Presbyterian town!

His greatest legacy was forced on him by the Irish potato famine.  Peel was not in favour of free trade and most of the landowners in his Tory party strongly opposed imports of cheap corn.  But, faced with a spreading famine, Peel did something almost unprecedented in British political history.

He got the Opposition to support him against his own party to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and relieve the hunger of millions of people.  It took five months of bitter struggle to get the repeal through Parliament.  The day it became law in 1846, Peel was defeated on another Bill and resigned.  He died in 1850 after a fall from a horse.

Erected in 1855 to mark Peel’s political achievements, his statue now sports a plaque which, ironically, misrepresents them.  It mentions only the police force, the Corn Laws and the first of his two terms as Prime Minister, ignoring the rest of his surprising career.

Montrose sculptures trail

Two men separated by two centuries and very different ideals stand within yards of each other at a busy road junction, where few passers-by give them a thought.  But they are by no means the only statues Montrose boasts.

A couple of hundred yards further up the High Street, for example, stands a Montrose man who knew Peel in Parliament and fought for many of the same things.  He’s Joseph Hume (apparently one of the worst speakers in Parliamentary history: the sight of him standing to speak could clear the Chamber within minutes).

Beyond these three, there’s a whole trail of Montrose sculptures; there’s a link below to download the guide.

They include a bust in the Library of Dr. Robert Brown, another Montrose native.  He’s the man who discovered Brownian Motion (you know, the thermal movement of molecules in liquid) and plant cell nuclei.

There are also several works by local sculptors David Annand and William Lamb.  You can visit Lamb’s studio in July and August on Tuesday-to-Saturday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement with the Curator of the Montrose Museum.

As well as statues of people, there are sculpted drinking fountains, swans and geese (Montrose’s tidal Basin is famous for its water fowl) and even a famous naval dog.

But I won’t spoil the surprises.  Download the guide, slip on your comfy shoes and go and find them for yourself.  They should keep you entertained for several hours.  You’ll also discover the lovely old town of Montrose, with its hugely wide High Street and tiny hidden wynds.  It’s worth a visit.

When you’re done, please let everyone know what you thought by leaving a comment!

Find out more:

You can download a map of the Montrose sculptures trail at www.montrosesociety.co.uk/Sculpture%20Trail%2005.pdf

For details of William Lamb’s studio: http://www.angus.gov.uk/directory_record/177/william_lamb_studio_montrose

* ‘Marquess’ or ‘Marquis’?  Either form is correct but ‘Marquess’ is the currently accepted spelling.  According to Chambers Dictionary ‘Marquis’ is “a variant spelling used esp. by holders of pre-Union titles”.  As James Graham lived between the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1701), I’ve used the old spelling, as does the statue plinth.

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The Lecht Mine

 

Lecht mine
The Lecht mine

Mining, whisky and religion

The Lecht is a steep road – this is, after all, one of Scotland’s main skiing areas.  The road seems to climb for ever to the summit, over 2,000 feet above sea level.  Imagine what it must have been like for the poor bull who helped drag the rollers for the Lecht Mine over it.

The Lecht mines

The mine was built in 1841 and closed just five years later – hopefully, the bull never knew that.  It separated manganese ore, used in the manufacture of household bleach, from the rock.  A slow process.  The rollers brought by the bull were operated by a water wheel.  They performed the first stage of extraction – crushing the rock – so they were heavy.

The workers barrowed the rock into the mine across a plank bridge high above the burn (stream) that fed the water wheel.  It must have been heavy work and, especially in rainy weather, slippery and dangerous.  Despite the risks, more than 60 people worked here at the height of production.  It will have been a big blow for the area when it closed.

There had been an iron-ore mine here in the 1730s, again for just five years. There was talk of opening the mine in the 1920s, again for iron, but it came to nothing.  It would only have been profitable if the iron could have been transported by rail from Tomintoul and nobody was investing the cash to build railways in the “hungry ’20s”.

So the empty shell of the restored Lecht mine building sits quietly at the head of its short glen, lonely and purposeless.

The Lecht Well

You reach the building from the Lecht Well car park, where I was lucky enough to see my first black grouse up close – well, fairly close, anyway.  We’d heard them calling as we walked and suddenly there he was, apparently unfazed by our proximity.

Black grouse at the Lecht
Black grouse at the Lecht

(I later saw two capercaillie and my travelling companion saw a red kite: a great day for us both!)

It’s roughly half a mile each way to the mine and back along a well-worn track, so it makes a good leg-stretcher on a long journey.  The route follows a burn so there’s plenty of water around if you’re travelling with a thirsty dog or puddle-splashing children.

Whisky smuggling

A sign half-way along the track points uphill to the left along an old whisky road.  Well, the sign calls it a road.  It’s hardly a path.  It doesn’t look as though even the sheep use it much nowadays; I certainly wouldn’t want to be carrying awkward contraband cargo along it.

It was quite busy once, though: this was one of the routes used by distillers of illicit whisky. The spirit was heavily taxed in the late 18th-early 19th centuries and local people brewed their own rather than pay the tax (they were made of sterner stuff than us).  These hills were sufficiently lonely and remote to avoid the eyes of the excise-men most of the time.

The whisky wasn’t just for home consumption – in fact some of today’s famous distilleries started illegally way back then – and the “whisky roads” were how it reached its market, smuggled through the heather at the dead of night.  Actually, night-time travel was probably mostly unnecessary: broad daylight would have been safe unless you were very unlucky.

… and religion

Also hiding in these hills was the Scalan Catholic seminary.  From 1717-1739, trainee priests of the then-illegal religion trained here to spread the word to their flock.  Large parts of the Highlands remained staunchly Catholic – some still are – and priests were needed.

But they could still, at that period, have been killed for their faith, so the seminary skulked in the hills, out of the eye of the Justices.  That’s not to say the Justices didn’t know about the seminary; there’s a good chance quite a few of them were themselves Catholics.  But the fact that it was hidden away allowed them to ignore its existence.

What with whisky smugglers and outlaw priests, these hills must have seen a lot of furtive movement.  The Lecht is not far from Culloden, and Jacobites escaping from the retribution after the battle probably “took to the heather” here too, as they did all over the remoter parts of Scotland.

It’s astonishing what you can find on a half-hour walk, even in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  There’s not a house to be seen, but people have worked here, legally and illegally, for centuries.  They still do, of course: employees at the ski resort, gamekeepers and hill farmers and, no doubt, many others.

The Lecht may look as though nothing ever happens there, but it’s just another case of appearances being deceptive.

Find out more:

The Lecht Well is on the A939, about halfway between Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, on the right and after the ski centre if you’re heading towards Tomintoul.  On the map we were using, the mine is marked as “Lecht Iron” – interesting, considering its history.

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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.

Cromarty

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.

Find out more at

http://www.black-isle.info/

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/urquhart-castle/

https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/canals/caledonian-canal/

 

 

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