Small World: The Black Isle
Saturday 22 November 2003
Years ago, we haunted this place. When we lived near Inverness, it became our stamping-ground. A landscape both bracing and charming, with gentle coastal walks and vistas north and west towards Ben Wyvis and Dingwall, across the peaks of the proper Highlands.
Since moving to Ireland, we keep coming back. We come for the birdlife, for the skies and beaches, the pub grub, the spaciousness, the friendliness of strangers. We come in hope of catching sight of the dolphins that swim and canoodle near Rosemarkie. Now, conversely, the Black Isle haunts us.
Despite its name, the Black Isle isn't an island. Nor is it black. It is a peninsula hedging its bets, stretching away towards the easternmost tip of Easter Ross, towards the little pip of population known as Cromarty. Visitors heading for the Highlands, even those chasing Nessie, and staying over in Inverness are prone to miss it.
Local buses are so infrequent, you'll need a car to ensure a day, or even two, of duly rewarding exploration. A good Ordnance Survey map bought in Inverness will spill the landscape's secrets, its sprinkling of duns and chambered cairns.
Last month we returned to walk favourite tracks. By foot, you can easily follow the beach from Rosemarkie eastwards, towards the base of the fossil-filled cliffs where, in his youth, the writer-geologist Hugh Miller, a pre-Darwinian evolutionist, made countless finds. But we'd been there so often, we opted instead for the Fairy Glen, parking our car near Rosemarkie's old Plough Inn. This two-mile stroll through deciduous woodland leads to a thunder rush of waterfalls and birdsong. We drank the cold water, then walked briskly back, intent on making it to Cromarty, the jewel of the peninsula.
Miller is celebrated in triplicate here. In his honour stands the imposing Hugh Miller Institute, plus a column bearing his figure; that, and the cottage in which he was raised.
The town has a higgledy-piggledy charm, an end-of-the-world feel, although it's just 40 minutes from Inverness.
You can avail yourself of an audio-guided walk around the town, or simply amble, hoofing it up the grassy slope to Hugh Miller's column, a magnet for madcap seagulls. Sometimes, late in the afternoon, you can take a dolphin tour of the coast from Cromarty harbour. Don't expect to see any dolphins. You may be lucky. But in any case, the seaborne views of the town and the Black Isle coast are worth forking out for. Miller once wrote that his native place was "worth an Englishman's while coming all the way from London to see". He was right.
We rambled the graveyard of the East Church, then went inside where someone had written in the visitors' book: "Felt the presence of a spectre in the Poor Loft." My wife tugged my sleeve.
After a feast in the Royal Hotel, we walked off the calories at Eathie, one of Miller's favourite walks (his other favourite tracks the headland past Cromarty's foreshore). All it took was a sharp left turn at the Eathie signpost south of the town and parking at Mains Farm. From there, we walked seaward down a mud path through a zigzag of gorse, and stood agog at the cliffs, as maybe 50 dolphins scrawled their wakes down the Moray Firth towards Inverness.
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