Wil­lie Shand spends a day in Cro­marty

Wil­lie Shand spends a fas­ci­nat­ing day in the his­toric High­land town.

The People's Friend - - News -

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.

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