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.
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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