Wednesday, 29 February 2012


Does this scenario sound familiar? The Government of the day, in an attempt to deal with harsh economic conditions, imposes swingeing cuts in public spending. Public sector workers find themselves hit particularly hard, and even the military are not spared, with the Navy facing a 10% cut. But hold on a minute: this is not 2012 we are talking about, but 1931, during the Great Depression. When the news of the cuts reached the crew of the Atlantic Fleet as they arrived at Invergordon the result was the infamous "Invergordon mutiny", with the crew members going on strike for two days, one of few such events in British history. Twenty-four of the men were dismissed as a result of the disturbances.

Although there is no longer a naval base in Invergordon, the port still welcomes larger vessels such as cruise ships, whose passengers are taken off on tours of the region's castles, or down to Loch Ness. The town itself has a mural trail, with 17 paintings depicting past and present life in the Highlands. As well as cruise ships, the port services oilfield support vessels. The town's past as a naval port is recalled in the Naval Museum and Heritage Centre. Culture vultures can find displays by local artists at the Arts Centre, which also has a theatre. There are also a range of sporting activities, including an 18-hole golf course with views over the Cromarty Firth and go-karting at the Inverbreakie Raceway.

Map of the area.

© 2005 Simon Richardson, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 27 February 2012


Udale Bay, to the west of the delightfully named Jemimaville on the north coast of the Black Isle, is an RSPB reserve which serves as an important wintering destination for a variety of waders and wildfowl. Visitors who come just before or after high tide are rewarded with the sight of enormous flocks of birds flying. Ospreys can be observed in late summer, peregrines in winter, and in the autumn up to 5,000 wigeon come here to feed. Other birds frequenting the site include redshanks, lapwings, pink-footed geese and pintails. Out in the bay, leaping dolphins are a frequent sight. Earlier this month it was reported that a new purpose-built hide is to be built at Udale Bay with the aim of providing a more comfortable viewing experience than that afforded by the present hide.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Sylvia Duckworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 24 February 2012


Cromarty stands on a nose-shaped protuberance of land at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth. The town's buildings largely date from the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of them was the birthplace of an eminent geologist and writer called Hugh Miller. The house is now open to visitors, and there is also a memorial to Miller nearby. Another attraction in the town is the Cromarty Courthouse, built in 1773, which has been turned into a museum which, as well as local history exhibits, retains the prison cells and trial room dating from its time as a place of punishment. Cromarty East Church featured in the BBC Restoration series, being voted best runner up. The church is thought to be of medieval origin, due to the discovery of a 14th century grave found inside the church, but the building is mostly 18th century. As well as Miller, another famous figure associated with the town was the 17th century Sir Thomas Urquhart, who translated the works of Rabelais. He is reputed to have died as a result of a fit of laughter on learning of the restoration of Charles II to the throne.

It is possible to walk along the foreshore from Cromarty to the South Sutor headland, from where there are fine views of the Cromarty Firth and looking across to North Sutor across a narrow channel. Or you can walk along to the Links, where there is an Emigration Stone, erected in 2002 to commemorate the emigrant ships which left for the Colonies in the 19th century. The town's harbour offers dolphin watching trips, and there is also sea kayaking available.  The town's lighthouse was decommissioned in 2006, but performs an important role as the home of a bottlenose dolphin project run by the University of Aberdeen.

Map of the area.

© 2000 Bob Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


Anyone wanting to explore the world of the Picts should head to Rosemarkie. Not only was this ancient village settled by Picts, but their legacy lives on in the form of a number of carved stones dotted around the locality. Added to which the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie is the Pictish Centre for Ross and Cromarty, whose displays include 15 carved Pictish stones. Near the village is a cave called Caird's Cave which was excavated in 1912, revealing bone, stone and deer horn implements. One of the pieces was a bone pin inset with amber, and was dated as post-Roman. The village is also a popular resort thanks to its sandy beach. Rosemarkie's Parish Church makes an impressive sight, clearly visible from the sea, which is why it is used as a landmark by mariners. In earlier times, the first Cathedral of Ross was established on the site by King David I in 1125, although this was subsequently outgunned by the cathedral in neighbouring Fortrose.

For walkers, there is a treat of a walk leading inland from the village through an area known as the Fairy Glen Nature Reserve, which got its name from eyewitness accounts of fairies there - the whisky must be strong around these parts! The reserve is run by the RSPB and comprises a wooded area centred on the Rosemarkie Burn, featuring two waterfalls. Birdwatchers will enjoy this walk, as there are buzzards, dippers, willow warblers and grey wagtails to be found here. Map of the area.

Rosemarkie, from Chanonry Point

Monday, 20 February 2012


The piece of land we are now on is known as the Black Isle, although it is actually a peninsula surrounded by the Cromarty Firth, the Beauly Firth and the Moray Firth. It gets its name from the fact that snow does not tend to lie there, so it shows up as black compared to the surrounding land. Fortrose used to be called Chanonry, and this name continues to be used for the nearby peninsula known as Chanonry Point. The village was made a Royal Burgh in 1455 by James II and it once had a cathedral. Although this is now ruined, it remains an impressive sight, built of red sandstone, and with parts remaining from the 13th and 14th centuries, including the chapter house. Every year in August a medieval fair is held in the cathedral square called St Boniface's Fair, with the participants dressed in medieval clothing.

© 2008 Tom Richardson, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortrose used to be a fishing village, but the harbour is now used mainly by pleasure craft, and there is a yacht club. A walk out to Chanonry Point is rewarded by a lovely view across the Moray Firth to Fort George. Added to which, this is one of the best places along this coast for viewing the famous Moray Firth dolphins.  The day we were there, there were many people out by the whitewashed lighthouse with high-powered binoculars and camera equipment, but there were no dolphins in sight.  So we gave up and headed back to the waterside car park, to be greeted by the sight of a lone dolphin gently surfacing at intervals.  As well as the lighthouse, you will find the Brahan Seer Stone, a memorial to the 17th century seer called Kenneith MacKenzie who was condemned to death as a witch. The peninsula also houses the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club.

Lighthouse at Chanonry Point
Map of the area.

Saturday, 18 February 2012


Hooray! I've found another wonderful local website with fascinating old photographs. Those who have been following my blog for a while will gather by now that I am a big fan of such websites. The Avoch Heritage Association website has heaps of old photographs divided into different categories, as well as telling the history of the village, including the dark days of the 19th century when cholera spread to the village and when food riots broke out following the potato blight which hit the area.

Avoch is still a functioning fishing village, but incresingly makes its living from tourism. Boat trips leave the harbour in the summer months, taking visitors to see the famous Moray Firth dolphins and porpoises. There are also seals, ospreys and red kites to look out for. Walkers can make use of a disused railway line which forms part of a circular walk between Avoch and Fortrose. The Scottish explorer famous for his travels around Canada, Sir Alexander MacKenzie, is buried in the churchyard of Old Avoch Church. Avoch is very proud of its traditional character, so much so that when the actress Penelope Keith tried to open a cafe there in 2008 the plans were opposed by locals worried that it would be "not in keeping" with the area.

Map of the area.

© 2007 Keith Salvesen, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 16 February 2012


Inverness is the northernmost city in the United Kingdom, and is regarded as the capital of the Scottish Highlands. The 'ness' of the name refers to the River Ness, which flows into the Moray Firth at Inverness. However, there is a much more famous body of water nearby bearing the same name, Loch Ness, and it is this which draws huge numbers of visitors to the area, although that is not to say that Inverness does not have attractions of its own. The Caledonian Canal also empties into the Moray Firth at Inverness, meaning that there is a sizeable chunk of the city which is almost surrounded by water. The city has a 19th century castle on the east bank of the Ness, which is now used as the court house. The area outside the main castle building makes a good viewpoint for photographing the city.  On the west bank is the 19th century St Andrew's Cathedral, with its highly prized stain glass, while the Old High Church is much older, dating from the 14th century. A walk up Craig Phadrig is rewarded with fine views over the city and along the Great Glen, and it is topped with a Pictish fort. The site of the Battle of Culloden is only a few miles away, and there is a Visitor Centre there. The Eden Court Theatre stands on the banks of the river, and there are a number of ghosts associated with its environs, including a Green Lady who is believed to have been the wife of a bishop, and the ghost of Duncan I who haunts the river bank close to the theatre.

Continuing the spooky theme, on the outskirts of Inverness is a heavily wooded hill called Tomnahurich Hill, which is oozing with mystery and legend. Tales surrounding the Hill include that of a Gaelic king called Fionn with a clever dog called Bran who was trained to walk two of every species of animal - including a pair of whales - around the hill in a bid to escape the enchantments of an Irish king. A 13th century seer called Thomas the Rhymer is allegedly buried on the hill along with his men and horses, and he is set to rise up again to save Scotland in her hour of need. Added to which a Fairy Queen once held court on the hill and tricked a couple of wandering fiddlers into playing supposedly for one night, but when they left and headed back into town they were dismayed to find everything changed and unrecognisable: the Fairy Queen had kept them for 200 years. The mysterious atmosphere of the Hill is enhanced by the presence of gravestones dating from the time when there was a cemetery there.

Postscript: Since this piece was originally published in 2012, an exciting new driving route has been devised for tourists wishing to discover the northern tip of Scotland.  The route is called the North Coast 500, and it begins and ends at Inverness Castle, taking in some of Scotland's most beautiful coastline.  My husband and I recently did the drive and I heartily recommend it.  The only thing I slightly regret is that we did it clockwise, meaning the best bits, i.e. the west coast, were near the beginning of the trip.  You may want to consider doing it anti-clockwise, thus saving the best until last.

For a list of events in Inverness, see here

Webcam view of the castle.

Map of the area.

The river, looking east

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


On New Year's Eve 1997, the little-known town of Ardersier, the nearest settlement to Fort George, had its moment of Hollywood glamour when "National Treasure" Helen Mirren was married to American film director Taylor Hackford in the village's parish church. The reception was held in nearby Castle Stuart. The couple demonstrated an admirable lack of aloofness by inviting 40 local people to the wedding.

Ardersier is a former fishing village located on land which was originally owned by the Knights Templar. The settlement arose following the building of Fort George, which caused the displacement of the village of Blacktown, whose inhabitants were forced to move to what is now Ardersier. At first there were two disparate communities called Stewart-town and Campbell-town, but these were officially combined into Ardersier in the 1970s. Nowadays, it is mainly a commuter town for Inverness, but many tourists pass through due to the proximity of Fort George, which is linked to Ardersier via the Old Military Road, part of a network of roads built by the British Government in the 18th century.

Map of the area.

© 2009 Russel Wills, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 12 February 2012


The 18th century Fort George got its name from King George II, whose army was garrisoned there following its construction after the Battle of Culloden. The disappointment felt by Boswell and Johnson towards Nairn (see previous post) quickly evaporated when they reached Fort George, where the fort's commander Sir Eyre Coote invited them to a dinner "of two complete courses, variety of wines, and the regimental band of music playing in the square". *

The Fort was never attacked, which has left it in excellent condition to this day, and it still serves as a military base. Although it is sited on a promontory sticking out into the Moray Firth, most of its defences were concentrated on the landward side, which was where any attack was expected to come from. The present-day fort includes the regimental museum of the Highlanders (Seaforths and Camerons). The fort is open to visitors year-round, and there is a cafe on site.

* From "The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D." edited by Frank Morley,1930.

Map of the area.

Fort George from Chanonry Point

Friday, 10 February 2012


The 18th century travelling companions Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were not very impressed with Nairn when they reached it on their Scottish tour. According to Boswell: "Though a county town and a royal burgh, it is a miserable place." No doubt plenty of people today would disagree with this sentiment, particularly in view of Nairn's stunning sandy beaches. A century after Boswell and Johnson's visit, Nairn was dubbed "the Brighton of Scotland", not least due to its exceptionally high sunshine quota. Nairn started life as a herring port, and this part of its history is recalled by the narrow streets of the old fishing district known as Fishertown, next to the harbour. The coming of the railway sealed the town's fate as a major Scottish resort, and during the same period one Dr John Grigor worked tirelessly to promote the town as a health resort.

The sandy beaches stretch away from the harbour to both east and west. The West Beach is home to the Nairn Golf Club, one of two golf clubs in the town: the other one is the Nairn Dunbar Golf Club. As for the town, the main shopping area includes the site of Nairn Castle, built in the 1100s and demolished in 1585. The town is built around the mouth of the River Nairn, which was probably the site of a Norse settlement. The fascinating Nairn Museum contains both local relics and artefacts from around the world, brought back by local adventurers.

Each year in August Nairn hosts a Highland Games event. Highland Games are an enduring feature of Scotland. Held in a number of venues around the country, they are like a Scottish version of the Olympics, with such riveting events as the "tossing of the caber", during which a long pole made of pine is hoisted into the air, or the "hammer throw", which involves whirling a metal ball around the head and tossing it over the shoulder. The Games are preceded by the rousing sight of bagpipers parading through the streets. There are also displays of highland dancing. For a sample of the delights on offer, see this video.

Map of the area.

© 2006 Gary Rogers, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 8 February 2012


The area now occupied by Culbin Forest used to be farmland, with the village of Culbin at its centre. However, a succession of storms caused the village to be overwhelmed by sand, which also engulfed the farmlands. The Forestry Commission created a forest here in the 1920s, and over the years this has become a haven for some of Scotland's most iconic wildlife species: ospreys, wild cats and the largest game bird in Britain, the flamboyant capercaillie. Those visiting during the Spring months may be lucky enough to witness the capercaillie's entertaining mating ritual, which consists of a good deal of preening and showing off of feathers accompanied by a cacophany of popping and "drumming", sounding for all the world like some strange piece of modern percussion music.

As for the shoreline adjoining the forest, there are dunes and an RSPB Reserve called Culbin Sands where twitchers can clock up species such as shelduck, ringed plovers, velvet scoters, bar-tailed godwits, greylag geese and knots. Winter is a particularly good time to visit, when the sands provide a safe haven for waders and sea ducks and are visited by pale-bellied brent geese.

Map of the area.

© 2009 Shardalow, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 6 February 2012


Anyone feeling in need of a bit of spiritual awakening should head to Findhorn, where the Findhorn Foundation's eco village offers full board accommodation and "experience weeks" which promise to "unfold a new human consciousness". Activities on offer include meditation, nature outings and gardening. Reading about the origins of the gardens at Findhorn requires a suspension of disbelief: one of the founders of the Community reckons to have been able to "intuitively contact the overlighting spirits of plants", and these spirits provided guidance which led to the cultivation of monster cabbages and other oversized plants.

The village of Findhorn lies between Findhorn Bay and Burghead Bay. The present village is a successor to a previous village which was overwhelmed during a storm in the 1600s, and another one which succumbed to floods in 1701. The bay's mudflats, which are exposed at low tide, attract large numbers of birds. The village's fishing and shipbuilding activities of the past have been replaced by more leisurely activities, the focal point for which is the Royal Findhorn Yacht Club. Visitors interested in the history of the area should head to the Findhorn Heritage Centre and Icehouse.  The Icehouse was used to store ice for salmon to keep it fresh for shipping to London, and its underground chambers were built over 150 years ago.  To the south-east of the village is the site occupied by RAF Kinloss.

Map of the area.

© 2006 W. L. Tarbert, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 5 February 2012


Burghead is a bit behind the times. By that I don't mean it is old-fashioned, but that its New Year celebrations fall 11 days after most of the rest of Britain. On 11 January each year, which is New Year according to the Julian calendar, the village hosts an event called the Burning of the Clavie, a tradition which was once far more widespread, but disappeared from most places following attempts by 18th century churchmen to stamp it out, declaring it "an abominable, heathenish practice". The origins of the tradition are lost in the mists of time, with theories ranging from Celtic to Pictish to Roman. The "clavie" which is subjected to the burning is a half barrel filled with wood shavings and tar. It is nailed to a post, then taken to the Burghead Provost, who lights it with peat. Then a group of fishermen accompanied by an elected Clavie King carry it around the village in a clockwise direction, stopping at various houses to present smouldering embers which are used to light fires in the homes for luck. The clavie's meander around the village culminates in an ascent of Doorie Hill, part of the Burghead Promontory Fort, where there is an altar known as the "Clavie Stone". Once placed on the Stone, fuel is added, and the clavie erupts in flames. Needless to say, all this is accompanied by a great deal of merrymaking.

Burghead is a fishing village located on a promontory jutting out into the Moray Firth. The harbour used to be an important grain-shipping port, and there are stone-built granaries lining the harbour which serve as a reminder of that time. Nowadays the main activity is fishing and leisure boating. There is a sandy beach 5 miles long to the southwest of the village. There is a Visitor Centre at the Burghead Promontory Fort telling the story of the Fort, which is Pictish in origin, as is the Burghead Well, which was unearthed in the early 1800s.

Map of the area.

© 1991, Ann Burgess, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 2 February 2012


In 1955, in Primrose Bay, near Duffus, and just to the east of the quiet fishing village of Hopeman, the Second World War came back to haunt the locality ten years after it had ended when a boy was killed by a bomb he had found on the foreshore, and three other children were injured. The area had been used as a training ground during the war. This tragedy prompted a search which led to the discovery of 122 bombs, of which 20 were unexploded.

There are plenty of reminders of the past in and around the village of Duffus. The castle, which now stands as a ruin on a huge mound, or motte, surrounded by a wide, deep ditch, was originally built in 1150 as an earthwork and timber fortification by Freskin, a Flemish soldier. A later version was constructed from stone and lime. The castle was abandoned in 1705. The ruined Duffus parish church dates from the early 13th century, and functioned as the parish church for over 600 years. The remains, of which the existing structure is mainly 18th century, include a holy-water stoup and the remains of a spiral staircase. The village of Duffus has a mercat cross as its centrepiece, and has been the recipient of a Best Kept Village award. Duffus is a short distance inland, while Hopeman is built on a gentle slope overlooking the sea, with sandy beaches to the east and west of the harbour. Each year in August Duffus holds a gala which has as its climax the crowning of the Rose Queen, Rose Prince and Rosebud. In 2006, the gala was also the venue for the North of Scotland Ferret Racing Championships: the overall winner was a ferret called Holly. Three cheers for Holly!

of the area.

© 2002 Kouros, via Wikimedia Commons