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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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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The Silver Darlings

 

Nairn Fishwife with silver darlings
The Nairn Fishwife with her speldings

The east coast herring bonanza

In Nairn Harbour stands the statue of a Nairn Fishwife holding a handful of what look like kippers.  They’re Nairn speldings, one of the many ways the silver darlings (herring) were cured.

Unlike kippers, which are smoked, Nairn speldings were split open and dried in the sun.  The name comes from the Scots verb “speld”, meaning to spread out.  Most herrings weren’t turned into speldings, they were salt-cured and packed into barrels for transport to markets far from where they were caught.

Herring fishing  was a huge industry all down the east coast of Scotland, from the early 19th century until the First World War.  The west coast got in on the act later in the 19th century.  Their season was later too.  Boats from the east coast would make the difficult journey through the Pentland Firth to take part when their own season had ended.

At its height, the industry employed thousands of men at sea and women on land. The boats got bigger and the herrings dwindled.  By the 1970s, catching them was banned and stocks are only now recovering.

The fishwives

The women worked in teams of three, two gutting and one salting and packing.  They also kept house, looked after the children and the aged, found bait and attached it to the hooks and helped mend nets.

Around Arbroath, and possibly elsewhere, they also piggy-backed the men out to the boats so they wouldn’t have to spend the whole trip soaked.  I’m not sure how effective that would have been; my experience of small boats is that you get soaked anyway.

The women also sold fish locally, walking miles inland with their creels on their backs to hawk the fish from house to house. The word “fishwife” now has a rather derogatory feel to it, but these women played a very important part in the local economy.  The one in the statue stands tall and strong, sure of her worth.

The statue is interesting in another way.  The sculptor seems to have clothed his clay model in real clothes before casting it.  You can feel the texture of her cardigan and see the weave in her skirt.

The ice-house

Across the Moray Firth from Nairn, at Cromarty, we found an old turf-roofed ice-house built to supply the fishing industry.  Freezing the catch helped preserve it longer and extended the selling season, as well as providing unsalted fish for those who preferred it.

Cromarty ice house
Cromarty ice house

Half built into the bank, the building would have been filled with ice harvested from fresh-water lochs through the winter.  The semi-dungeon construction would have kept the ice cool enough to last until the herring season in May and June.

The Silver Darlings

If you want to get an idea of what the herring fishery meant to the north-east of Scotland, I strongly recommend Neil M Gunn’s book The Silver Darlings.  Published in 1941 and made into a film in 1947 by Clarence Elder, it gives an only-slightly-romanticised view of life in the early years of the industry.

The main characters were victims of the Clearances; fishing became a life-line for many such people, displaced in favour of sheep.  These were tough folk fighting a hard land and a capricious sea to make a living; they earned every penny the hard way.

Find out more

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn (ISBN: 9780571090419)

http://www.historyshelf.org/secf/silver/coull.php

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Cromarty’s Good Samaritan

James Thomson plaque, Cromarty
James Thomson’s blue plaque, Cromarty

James Thomson MD, hero of the Crimea

Embedded in the weathered sandstone wall of the antique shop at the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty is a blue plaque.  It says “Birthplace of James Thomson MD, 1823-1854.  A Good Samaritan to wounded enemy Russians at the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War”.  Who was this medic who died, aged just 31, saving wounded soldiers on a battlefield?

James Thomson was born and brought up in the house now occupied by the antique shop.  He must have been a bright child and either came from a well-off family or was supported by one, because he trained as a doctor and joined the Army Medical Department.

Malta

He must have joined up almost as soon as he qualified, as by February 1848 he was Assistant Surgeon to the 7th Dragoons.  In 1850 he moved to the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and was posted to Malta, where a cholera epidemic was raging.

Cholera, a vicious diarrheal killer, was common in places where people were crowded together with poor sanitation.  Military hospitals were no exception.  The epidemic wiped out all the other medics working there but Thomson survived.

The website Regimental Surgeons of the Malta Garrison quotes the Roll of Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army.  “The skill, fortitude, and humanity, displayed by him in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief”.

From Malta he went to Gibraltar for three years, then in April 1854 he left for Turkey on the way to the Crimea.

Crimea

The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were trying to prevent Russia gaining territory and influence in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  The allies wanted control of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol, in the Crimean region of the Ukraine.  Crimea has recently in the news again, of course: it’s still strategically important to Russia.

The Battle of Alma, the first major battle of the Crimean War, was a British and French victory.  When the allied armies left the battlefield, Thomson volunteered to stay behind.  With just his batman to help, he looked after 700 desperately wounded Russians.  Despite the dangers of marauding Cossack soldiers nearby and lack of food , within days he’d managed to save some 400 of them and ensure they embarked for Odessa and home.

He moved on to the military hospital at Balaclava, where Florence Nightingale also worked.  Either because of a lack of available doctors or becauseThomson was considered immune after his experiences in Malta, he was assigned to work on the cholera ward.

Sadly, he wasn’t immune.  After just 34 hours on the ward he caught the infection and nine hours later he died, 15 days after the Battle of Alma.  His batman buried him on the shores of the Black Sea.

Thomson was acclaimed in Parliament for his bravery and his work was celebrated by William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent, who also made Florence Nightingale’s reputation.

And back to Cromarty

The blue plaque is not Thomson’s only memorial.  In true philanthropic Victorian style, a bursary was set up in his name to help children educated and living in Cromarty.

And Thomson’s friend Sir James MacGrigor, Director General of the Army Medical Department, erected an obelisk to him at Forres.  He had wanted to erect it in Thomson’s birthplace but the local landowner didn’t approve the chosen site.  So he built it across the Moray Firth instead, where people can see it from Cromarty.

The obelisk makes no mention of the cholera, stating that Thomson died “from the effects of excessive hardship and privation” – which may indeed have contributed by lowering his resistance to infection.

It describes him as an officer “whose life was useful and whose death was glorious”.  That’s a good epitaph for a young man – or, indeed, anyone.

Find out more:

https://www.maltaramc.com/regsurg/t/thomsonj.html

http://www.forres-gazette.co.uk/News/Letters/Forres-fascinating-Crimea-connection-25032014.htm

http://www.cromartyhistory.scot/index.asp?pageid=511913

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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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