Putting the Firth foot forward

Weekend walk: in the outreaches of Edinburgh, Hamish Scott follows the shoreline from the quayside of Cramond

With the Edinburgh Festival approaching, what better time to explore the city's outreaches? Edinburgh, as Robert Louis Stevenson observed, is a city that overlooks the countryside around it. And indeed, from the Castle Esplanade, the visitor can gaze up the Firth of Forth, where the towers of the city's famous bridges rise just beyond the suburbs. Here there is an inaccessible and unspoilt shoreline to explore, between Cramond and South Queensferry.

Cramond's old stone cottages and quayside lie within a short bus ride of Princes Street, and just across the river Almond, fields and woodland slope down to the water's edge. The five-mile "shore walk" to South Queensferry was a favourite outing of Robert Louis Stevenson, who brought his father here one afternoon in 1871 to break the shocking news that he wished to be a writer rather than a lighthouse builder.

To reach the path, the walker must first meet a challenge. The only way across the river mouth at Cramond is by ferry, and to attract the ferryman's attention may require determined effort. He cannot be tempted out on Fridays, during lunch, or if the weather is dodgy. A notice also states that he will refuse to carry you should you have a dog, a pram, a bicycle or a picnic concealed about your person. All being well, however, energetic waving and a lusty shout should bring him sculling an old whaler from the farther bank.

The shore walk starts off as a grassy path that winds beneath the trees above a beach of sand and silt. Cramond Island stands offshore and the hills of Fife rise beyond the sparkling waters of the Firth. This is, of course, a man-made landscape, the immaculately managed parkland of Dalmeny House, but it has a rough-edged beauty that appears entirely natural.

Half-a-mile along the way, Eagle Rock juts out above the sands. An eroded carving on its face supposedly depicts a Roman eagle, though its date and nature are still open to wilder interpretations. The figure, with raised wings or arms, could represent a prehistoric astronaut, or indeed a Pictish prohibition against picnickers. Beyond some denser woodland, the path runs past a row of rose-clad cottages and an impressive tree house before crossing what may well be Scotland's most exclusive golf- course. To play here you will need to be a close friend of the Earl of Rosebery, or work on his estate.

Dalmeny House itself overlooks the course, and is well worth a short diversion when open to the public. Built in 1817 in an uneasy blend of classical and Gothic styles, it's not a pretty house to modern eyes, but it does contain some splendid furniture and tapestries.

As you continue along the shore below Dalmeny House, a battlemented tower- house is visible ahead. Perched precariously on a rocky headland, and often shrouded in sea-mists, Barnbougle Castle would serve as an ideal location for a horror film. The castle was Dalmeny's original Big House, built in the 13th century by Sir Roger Mowbray and used by his descendants as a base for the family's profitable occupations of piracy and smuggling. The Roseberys, who took over the estate in 1662, continued living there until well into the 19th century despite the inconvenience of waves occasionally pouring through the windows of the dining-hall. Now well restored and watertight, the castle is not open to the public and the shore walk skirts past, along a metalled drive.

Forking off the drive along a rougher track, the path continues to Hound Point. If the afternoon is misty and you hear an eerie howling from the rocks, it is probably Sir Roger Mowbray's hound pining for its master to return from the Crusades (phantom hounds are, apparently, excluded from the ban on dogs). There is a pretty little beach here, and as the path continues through wild woods and rhododendron thickets, the gargantuan structure of the Forth rail bridge looms above the trees. This huge Victorian structure dominates the last mile of the walk.

South Queensferry, though busier than Cramond, is equally unspoilt. But many pubs along the waterfront seem rather too efficient at processing tourists, so an alternative is to return to Cramond on the bus for a visit to the cosy and delightful Cramond Inn. Here, red snappers with herb sauce should satisfy the heartiest of appetites.

Directions

Cross river Almond by ferry at Cramond Quay and bear right in front of cottage along shore walk.

After passing estate cottages, cross metalled drive and continue along signposted path.

Cross golf-course and join estate road around Barnbougle Castle.

Fork right off road at signpost to continue along shore walk to South Queensferry.

Cramond ferry, 9am-7pm: adults 50p, children 10p

Dalmeny House (0131-331 1788) open July & August, Sun, 1pm-5.30pm, Mon & Tues 12.30pm-5.30pm

Ordnance Survey Pathfinder map 406

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