A long haven for ships sheltered by the Black Isle
The Cromarty Firth, entered through a narrow gap between the North Sutor and the Sutors of Cromarty, is one of the largest natural harbours in Europe. To the Vikings it was Sykkersand, or ‘Safe Sand’, and the Tain peninsula north of the Firth has many Viking associations. To the south lies the Black Isle, actually a peninsula whose mild climate leaves its earth dark and bare when the surrounding country is white with snow.
Built around a fine deep-water anchorage which was used by the Home Fleet of Royal Navy in both World Wars, the small town of Invergordon has a long history as the landing point for a ferry to the Black Isle. A castle was built there in the 13th century, but the town’s main development came in the 18th century, when the castle and estate were bought by Sir William Gordon of Embo. He drew up plans for the town and changed its name from Inverbeakie. The ferry to the Black Isle has long stopped running, but fuel storage tanks remain as a reminder of the town’s days as a naval and seaplane base which ended in 1956.
Behind the town is an aluminium smelter, built in the hope of bringing jobs to the area but closed in 1981. Inland, quiet lanes lead through magnificent country, while the foreshore abounds in bird life, especially at the Sands of Nigg, which is a nature reserve. In winter great flocks of waterfowl make the sands a paradise for birdwatchers.
The village sits astride the River Averon, which flows into the Firth at Alness Point. A narrow lane through woodlands follows the river from the village to its mouth, where there are mud-flats and shingle.
For a while, it seemed as though Alness would develop as a dormitory for Invergordon, but expansion ceased with the closing of the aluminium smelter, and the village has regained much of its former quiet. The countryside inland is one of woods, glens and lochs.
By-passed by the new A9, Evanton is a small village of neat houses sheltering under massive hills. On the top of CnocFyrish is an unusual monument erected in 1782 by General Sir Hector Munro, who gained distinction at the Relief of Negapatam, in India, in 1781. The monument, a replica of an Indian gate, was built to provide work during a time of unemployment.
The most spectacular landmark in the area is the Black Rock Gorge, a chasm 200 ft deep and only 10 ft wide in places, with the River Glass thundering through it. The gorge can be reached by taking the lane signposted to Glen Glass at the northern end of the village, and following it for about a mile. A muddy track leads off to the left to a small wooden bridge that spans the gorge. This bridge is not for the faint-hearted; between the narrow slats the river can be seen foaming and tossing some 70 ft below. From the bridge the gorge extends -for 1 mile westwards.
A series of paths and lanes from Evanton lead down to the muddy foreshore, an excellent place to watch sea-birds and waders.
SECRETS OF THE SANDSTONE
Hugh Miller of Cromarty was a stonemason whose interest in geology began while he was working in quarries on Black Isle. He discovered many fossils which were new to science, and a winged fish found in Old Red Sandstone was given the name of Pterichthyodes milleri.
Houses of pink stone line the narrow streets of Dingwall, the administrative centre of Ross and Cromarty. The town has a long history, having been originally a Viking settlement, and is now a bustling market town, where cattle sales are frequently held. The Town House dates in part from the 18th century, and is attached to a much older tower; it contains a museum. Next to it is Dingwall’s oldest building, dating from 1650 and once used as the school house. The town is dominated by a tall tower on Mitchell Hill erected in memory of General Sir Hector MacDonald (1853-1903), the great Victorian soldier who began his career in the ranks of the Gordon Highlanders. From the top of the hill there are wide views of the Firth and of the hills around the Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer. Dingwall’s harbour is now derelict, but the muddy foreshore offers excellent birdwatching at the estuary of the Conon. There is also fishing for sea trout.
A few miles inland is the tiny village of Fodderty. Beside the gate of its former parish church lie two massive stones said to have been thrown there from the summit of Knockfarrel by Finn mac Cool, or Fionn mac Cumhaill, hero of ancient Celtic legends. Finn mac Cool’s men are said to lie in an entranced sleep in a cave at Munlochy, 6 miles south-west of Rosemarkie.
CONON BRIDGE AND MARYBURGH
Although at one time separate communities, the expansion of Maryburgh has blurred the boundary between these two villages at the head of the Cromarty Firth. The bridge from which Conon Bridge takes its name was built by Thomas Telford in 1809, but there is little left of his original structure. There are pleasant walks upstream along the river on its southern bank and, when there is no firing on the ranges, northwards around the point to Dingwall.
Nearby Brahan Castle, now a ruin, was the home of the Seaforth family, whose extinction was predicted by the Brahan Seer before his death at the hands of Lady Seaforth. He stated that the last earl would see all his sons die before him, and this indeed happened, many years later. The castle’s gardens, open on certain days in midsummer, include a beautiful shrubbery, while around it there are pleasant drives along quiet lanes through attractive countryside.
UDALE BAY AND BALBLAIR
At low tide sand-flats stretch across the western end of Udale Bay in an unbroken layer, dotted with flocks of waders and wildfowl of all kinds. The village of Balblair is a small cluster of cottages on Newhall Point, and was at one time the departure point for the ferry across the Firth to Invergordon, now superseded by the new bridge 8 miles upstream.
Near the shore is the roofless ruin of St Michael’s Chapel, where the tombs of many important families of the parish are to be found, the most ancient being those of the Holms of Ferryton which are 400 years old. There is a pleasant circular 2 mile walk along the lane from the chapel, northwards along the shore to Newhall Point, and then back through the village to the chapel.
Set at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth, in the lee of the massive bulk of the Sutors of Cromarty, the town of Cromarty is impressive by any standards. The vast natural harbour of Cromarty Firth was used during both World Wars as an anchorage for the Royal Navy, and the gun emplacements that guarded the narrow entrance between the Sutors can still be seen. The present settlement is the second on the site, the previous village having been swept into the sea. Most of the houses are small fishermen’s cottages, but here and there are buildings of considerable architectural merit.
One of Cromarty’s most famous sons is Hugh Miller, the 19th-century antiquarian folklorist and amateur geologist, whose work upon the fossils of the Old Red Sandstone was considered revolutionary at the time. The cottage in which he was born still stands in Church Street, and is in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland: it is the only thatched cottage in Cromarty. A monument on the hill above the town is dedicated to Miller’s memory.
Some of the fossil beds that Miller visited are still to be seen, those on the shore at Eathie being the most accessible. Take the A832 from Cromarty, and after about a mile take the lane signposted to Eathie. After another 1 1/2 miles this lane brings the visitor to Eathie Mains, where permission should be sought from the farmer to park in his yard rather than blocking field gates or passing places. A path runs across the field to the clifftop, where it descends steeply to the foreshore. The fossil beds lie south-east of the farm building.
A path north-eastwards along the coast leads after half a mile to the point where the river Eathie reaches the sea by a wild gorge, full of fallen trees and undergrowth, where Hugh Miller records that he saw fairies.
Another worthwhile walk from Cromarty leads along a road for about a mile up to the Sutors of Cromarty, from where there are spectacular views. The road leads past Cromarty House, which is approached by a curious tunnel – built, it is said, so that the owner need not be reminded of the existence of servants.
It is also possible to follow the foreshore from the eastern end of Cromarty round the base of the Sutors. Visitors should not attempt to climb the cliffs as the rocks are unstable.
Bounded on one side by the sea, and on the other by a great sandstone cliff, Rose-markie’s red sandstone houses shelter in delightful confusion. The red sand of the beach further helps to give the village an appearance of warmth, and the sheltered coves make it particularly attractive to children. Groam House is a small museum of local interest, with a fine Pictish stone outside it.
Inland is the Fairy Glen, a delightful valley which follows the burn as far as two impressive waterfalls; the visitor can walk behind them on a natural ledge. The footpath to the glen, made famous by local geologist Hugh Miller, starts on the road to Cromarty, by the bridge, a few hundred yards north of the village. There is a car park close by.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Ben Wyvis, 10 miles NW of Dingwall, east of A835. Views from 3,433 ft summit
Strathpetier. Spa town Highland Games on the Sat. before Aug, 12.