Willie Shand spends a day in Cromarty
Willie Shand spends a fascinating day in the historic Highland town.
THE Cromarty Firth, which forms the northern shore of the Black Isle peninsula, is widely regarded as one of the finest natural harbours in the world.
It’s so big and deep that it could easily accommodate the whole fleet of the Royal Navy and provide to all ships within it a sheltered haven in the stormiest of weather.
Around 10,000 years ago, when the glaciers of the last Ice Age gouged the Firth, they also helped create its narrow entrance cutting through the harder, rocky headland that lies immediately east of Cromarty.
These harder, more stubborn rocks of the headland are believed to be more than 700 million years old and are known as the North and South Sutors.
“Souter” is a Scots word for a shoemaker. According to legend, two giant shoemakers lived one on either side of the mile-wide narrows and used to share tools by tossing them across to each other from one side to the other.
I’ve just parked the car down by the Braehead Ice House and, with the boots on, I’m about to take a walk round the coast to visit the South Sutor.
It’s an easy four-mile circular with lots to see along the way – even before we leave the town.
The town of Cromarty sits at the eastern tip of the Black Isle, a drive of some 20 miles from Inverness. At one time the peninsula was served by as many as eight ferries, and the ancient royal burgh of Cromarty was one of the most prosperous towns in the Highlands.
Although firmly connected to the mainland, the Black Isle does have a bit of an insular feel to it. The ferries are now all but gone. Let’s hope the wee Nigg Ferry can manage to hold on.
The old industries created by 18th and 19th century entrepreneurs William Forsyth and George Ross have all but gone, too.
Through the centuries, Cromarty has seen many ups and downs in its fortunes. The fishing, and in particular the herring, brought good times but then, like in so many other parts of the country, the shoals began to disappear.
Few times were more prosperous than the late 1700s, especially after George Ross bought the Cromarty Estate. He built upon the work of William Forsyth and soon had more industries established than could be manned by the local population.
To operate his hemp, rope and sailcloth factories, iron works producing nails and
spades, lace works and brewery, he had to attract families from the Highlands. As they only spoke Gaelic, it must have been difficult on both sides.
To make the Highlanders’ lives easier, at his own cost George built them the Gaelic Chapel – the ruins of which still stand above the town on Kirty Brae.
With so much trade taking place, one of his first priorities was the construction of a new pier. There are a few wee boats in and around the harbour this morning with nets spread out to dry on the pier.
With salt water lapping two of the town’s three sides, Cromarty isn’t going to forget its seafaring past. Certainly, the squawk of seagulls echoing around its streets serves as a ready reminder we’re at the seaside.
There’s quite a stiff, chilly breeze blowing in over the harbour, but heading into Church Street it’s much more sheltered. Opposite the start of Church Street is the grand house William Forsyth built for himself in 1772.
The red sandstone walls hide well their age, but its sheer presence and size still reflect the wealth of its builder. It’s maybe not as grand as the house George Ross built for himself, though, but we’ll pass it later.
Indeed, as we make our way along Church Street we find quite a few attractive mansions, once the homes of successful merchants.
The Old Courthouse, too, with its copper-covered cupola, speaks of affluent times. It was also built by George Ross and now houses an excellent museum.
In front of the Courthouse stands the town’s mercat cross. Dating from 1593, the cross could surely tell a few good stories.
A short detour takes us up a path between St Regulus Church and the Hugh Miller Institute to the Kirty Brae and the 40-feet-tall column and statue to Cromarty’s greatest son – Hugh Miller.
From below it’s an impressive statue, but the best views must surely be enjoyed by the seagulls perched on Hugh’s head. They’ll have a fine view of the Sutors, across the Firth to Nigg and far beyond.
My detour brings me back down to Church Street by the cobbled road known as the Paye. Standing close to the foot of the Paye is the only remaining thatched cottage in Cromarty.
It’s owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is the birthplace of the famous geologist, writer and folklorist, Hugh Miller.
Hugh was born here on October 10, 1802, son of a sea captain who tragically drowned when young Hugh was only five.
It was Hugh’s greatgrandfather, John Feddes, a pirate of the seas, who built the cottage some time around the end of the 1600s. According to legend, he paid for it with Spanish gold and silver.
Old John is maybe still there. Once, while playing as a child, Hugh claimed to have seen the ghost of his great-grandfather looking down at him from the top of the stairs.
This wasn’t the only apparition he saw, either. On another occasion he saw a severed hand reach out to him. This was on the very night his father perished at sea.
Hugh had a great fascination with ghost and witch stories, many told to him by his mother.
One of his teachers nicknamed him “sennachie”, which from the Gaelic translates as storyteller.
Despite leaving school at just fourteen, following an argument with a teacher over how a particular word should be spelled, his powers of observation and curiosity led him to become one of the country’s most respected public figures.
From the young lad whose curiosity was sparked by finding fossils on the Cromarty shore to becoming a stonemason and one of the world’s renowned geologists, his writings in and editorship of the Edinburgh-based newspaper “The Witness”, the key part he played in the formation of the Free Kirk to his untimely death by his
own hand on Christmas Eve, 1856, his fascinating life story is told in the cottage museum.
In the ground-floor parlour notice the Hanging Lum – a rare survivor of a fire that not only heated the house but which, with pine-cones, slow-burning wood chips or peat, could be used to smoke your own fish for dinner. What a good idea!
In the small garden to the rear of the cottage is a stone sundial carved by Hugh. Another part of the garden is cleverly themed on his works both as a stonemason and geologist.
At the eastern end of Church Street is, as you might expect, the East Church – the old parish church of Cromarty. It stands upon foundations laid more than 700 years ago.
With its flagstone floors, old wooden pews and remnants of painted armorial panels from 1702, it’s one of the best preserved Presbyterian churches in Scotland.
With so much to see in the town, it’s taken half the morning just to reach the start of the walk to the Sutor!
Swinging round past the Old Brewery, I’m eventually down by the shore with the town now some way behind me. It’s an easy-to-follow track starting along the shoreline but soon climbing steeply into the woods with ever-improving views across the narrows.
An old name for the Cromarty Firth was Siccarsund – “siccar”, safe and “sund”, sound. For those aboard the HMS Natal on the evening of December 30, 1915, the comfort of that safe haven was to be shattered when an explosion tore the ship apart, with 421 fatalities.
It could have been worse – a number of the crew were across in Cromarty for a game of football at the time. Some of the victims lie at rest in Cromarty Cemetery. Although never blamed on the enemy, the exact cause of the explosion was never fully discovered.
From the viewpoint on the 406-feet-high South Sutor, we look away to Ben Wyvis 20 miles to the west, to Golspie in the north and the Culbin Forest and Findhorn in the east.
Bring a pair of binoculars and you may well spot the Moray Firth dolphins from up here.
The return brings us back by pleasant inland single track roads, dropping down to the town by Cromarty House – the fine stately mansion George Ross built on the site of Old Cromarty Castle.
Unfortunately, he demolished the 13thcentury castle in the process. His new home was certainly in keeping with his status, described as the most elegant building in the north of Scotland.
Our road passes an unusual entrance to his house – a long, dark tunnel starting directly opposite the graveyard of St Regulus.
The tunnel wasn’t for George, though. He built it for his servants simply so they could go about their everyday duties without offending the view from the house with their coming and going.
It’s in the wee graveyard of St Regulus that you’ll find the last masonry work of Hugh Miller – the gravestone to his daughter, Elizabeth.
Here, too, I stop to say hello to Sandy Wood. His stone is easy to find. It’s the only one outside the graveyard fence.
Apparently, around 300 years ago, Sandy and a neighbour had fallen out over the line of a boundary. At that time, it was a local belief that Judgement Day would take place on nearby Navity Moor.
Sandy, wanting to be able to put his side of the argument forward first, decided that he would be buried outside the graveyard. That way he’d gain a head start on his neighbour who would first have to climb the fence! n
A pleasant road back to Cromarty. Cromarty Harbour.
The Town House.
Hugh Miller’s Cottage garden has a geological theme.
To the North Sutor across the Cromarty Firth.