Pictish stones and sacred wells – the secrets of Scotland’s Black Isle

The Black Isle is neither an island nor black.  The peninsula lies 10 miles north of Inverness, with the waters of the Cromarty Firth to one side and the Moray Firth to the other.  For a small, sparsely populated place it is full of history.

Those seeking a base from which to explore the area would do worse than to choose the pretty village of Rosemarkie which sits in a wide bay.  Walk out to the far end of the beach, to the lighthouse at Chanonry Point, and your chances of seeing bottlenose dolphins will be high.  This remote place is one of the best in the whole of the UK to spot them and they particularly enjoy riding the waves created by the strong currents at the Point, caused as the sea narrows on its way towards Inverness.  They will stay and play for hours.

As well as a large population of dolphins, Rosemarkie is also home to one of Scotland’s most significant collections of Pictish stones.  The carvings were all found in and around the village’s churchyard and are now on display at the Groam House Museum.

A short drive, or even walk, from Rosemarkie is the small town of Fortrose where you can find more carved stone, this time in the grounds of the ruined 13th century cathedral.  The red sandstone with which the cathedral was built lends it a rusty air, adding to the sense of decay that hangs over the ruin.  The roof of the main building is gone, but that of the western chapel remains, and is an interesting vaulted structure, the red stone here creating the impression of the wooden hull of a ship.

Further along the road, towards the motorway that takes you south to Inverness or north to Wick and the ferry to Orkney, is another special place, Munlochy Clootie Well, which is looked after by the Forestry Commission Scotland.

Clootie wells are places of celtic pilgrimage.  Traditions vary but, in essence, someone who is unwell  visits the well with an item of clothing belonging to them.  The cloth or cloot is dipped in the sacred water and then tied to a tree.  Often the material is white to symbolise purity, although that is not strictly adhered to.  As time fades and wears the fabric so the ailment will be cured.  I was alone when I visited.  Woods always bring with them a certain feeling, a combination of ancestral fear at what might lurk there and a peace that comes from deep-rooted familiarity, but Munlochy has an atmosphere all of its own.  There is certainly something about the place.

A final recommendation for any trip to the Black Isle is to make a visit to the town of Cromarty.  This is the largest centre of population on the peninsula and there a number of accommodation options for those wanting to linger.

Historically a fishing port, with the fine architecture that comes from rich fish harvests, Cromarty is now home to galleries, bookshops and cafes as well as a dolphin watching centre that offers trips out on to the Firth.  Of particular note is The Emporium Bookshop, whose walls and ceiling are covered with the signatures of visitors.

For the previous post in the Scotland’s secrets series click here and stay tuned for the next insight coming soon.


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