The Black Isle is evocatively named, a small finger of land jutting out into the far North Sea in the north-east of the UK. It's one of Britain's underrated and unknown quarters and is so named, I'm told, because it rarely snows here, even though it lies north of Inverness. An alternative explanation comes from the fertile soil that represents something of a farmer's bounty.
You will probably have heard of the town at the end of the Black Isle peninsula. Positioned on the tip of the firth of the same name, where the waters merge with the vast Moray Firth, Cromarty does not disappoint those who make the effort to get this far.
Yet while Cromarty is known for The Shipping Forecast, the word arguably has not spread so widely about its beauty. Its origins date back 700 years, but the handsome appearance that greets me is based on its remarkably well preserved 18th-century town; there is a touch of Lilliput about it, huddled low out of necessity against the combative elements of the far north. It also retains an architectural charm and a smattering of inviting and curious shops – among them a Dutch cheesemaker – as well as cafés and some good museums.
I set out along the shoreline. Upturned boats are beached in narrow grassy alleyways between whitewashed sandstone houses. The waterside path is dominated by the converging headlands ahead. These outsized, grassy, gorse-splattered lumps are known as The Sutors, from the Scots word for shoemaker (after a legend involving two giants who used the headlands as workbenches).
The other significant eye-catching structures are man-made. The Cromarty Firth is an important resting home for oil rigs in need of repair, refit, or simply to be parked until the oil industry finds a use for them. From sea level, and looking back towards Cromarty, they rise up like vast chimneys, creating an unlikely industrial setting that could pass for a work by L S Lowry.
This is, I decide, an uncommon landscape. Around me are bold, great black-backed gulls smashing crabs on the paved lanes of Cromarty – close up, they appear scarily big, with a dash of Hitchcock about them.
The shore is encrusted with rock pools that brim with life, and cormorants, razorbills, and guillemots navigate along invisible lanes just above the water surface. Bottlenose dolphins are a safe bet hereabouts too. Marine biologists from Aberdeen University track them along the firth, and have given them names such as Jigsaw and Rhubarb.
I'm unprepared for the far-reaching beauty as the path rises up through beech woods, suddenly depositing me on a crest of a hill with views right across, up and down the mighty Moray Firth.
A few paces later and I can take in the Cromarty Firth too. From here, a simple geometry to the oil rigs emerges, as they appear to have been neatly stacked up in a line, rather than haphazardly stationed offshore. Even after a few hours of shifting my gaze from the oil rigs to the national nature reserve in their shadow, I remain undecided as to whether they are a textbook eyesore. Or, I wonder, if in some weird way they actually add something to the landscape?
Beyond the rigs, the north-east coastline of Britain starts its tapering dash to Duncansby Head, indented with the delectable Firth of Dornoch and mountains that also look as though they've been yanked upwards and away to the north. It's the sort of place where you get a sense of the curvature of the earth. It's high summer, but some of the peaks are still smothered in snow.
My route loops back to Cromarty along quiet lanes. The gorse is in full bloom and injects a vibrant yellow dash against the backdrop of the metallic watery grey of Cromarty Firth.
There's a steepish section, where I pick up pace and career towards the sea. I walk too fast for my own good and almost miss the grave of Sandy Wood, which merits hunting out.
Wood died in 1690 after a quarrel with a neighbour. Superstition in Cromarty held that the Last Judgement would take place on high ground above the town, so Wood had asked to be buried by the wayside of this route. He reasoned that, when the dead were raised, he would have a head start on his neighbour and be able to put his case first.
Returning to town, I find that, despite the efforts of Sandy Wood, the Enlightenment did not pass Cromarty by. I make a brief detour to Hugh Miller's cottage, dedicated to a local boy made good. Miller was a naturalist, geologist, writer, folklorist, stone mason even. The museum housed here is an engaging and worthy tribute to him, and it too deserves its place in the compendium of the world's great unsung little museums.
Nearby stands East Church. Now in the care of the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust, its oldest grave dates to 1680, making it a contemporary of the late Mr Wood. Down by sea level, its occupants perhaps felt more confident about their chances, should they ever meet their maker.
Distance: Four miles
Time: Two hours
OS MAP: Explorer 432 Black Isle
Walking directions: bit.ly/WalkCromarty
Mark Rowe travelled to Inverness on the Caledonian Sleeper (0330 060 0500; sleeper.scot). The cist of a bed starts at £66.30 from London to Inverness. He returned on daytime services with the Highland Chieftain (03457 225 333; virgintrainseastcoast.com) and Cross Country Trains (0844 811 0124; crosscountrytrains.co.uk).
Mark stayed at the Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness (01463 237166; kingsmillshotel.com) which has double rooms, including breakfast, from £110.
- More about: