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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The real Westeros – Scotland’s Secrets #12

Wester Ross is the informal name for that part of Scotland where the Highlands meet the west coast.  Its borders are not precisely defined, running from somewhere close to Skye to the vast expanse of rock and moorland north of Ullapool.  It is a wild and remote place; what it lacks in people it more than makes up for with mountains, lochs and white sand beaches.  A road trip along its length brings vistas to rival  California’s Pacific highways, bookended by Applecross in the south (more about which you can find here) and Achmelvich in the north.

Achmelvich campsite is without doubt one of the best located sites in Scotland (vying for top spot with Horgabost on the Isle of Harris).  It lies in dunes, a short walk from a spectacular bay which you can have all to yourself with some canny off-season travelling.  As the sun goes down and the shadows play on the sand, the sea turning quickly from blue to silver to gold to black, and the deafening sound of silence drifts on the breeze, it is hard to imagine anywhere more beautiful.

Many an hour can be passed on the beach, exploring its rocks and coves, fishing for your supper, taking a trip out on to the water in a boat or kayak or simply sitting and taking it all in.

When you want to stock up on supplies, or fancy a meal sat at a table under a roof, the small fishing village of Lochinver is just three miles away and happy to oblige on both counts.  Lochinver is also the starting point for those hiking to the foot of Suilven, one of Scotland’s most distinctive mountains, a sharp ridge that rises high above the treeless landscape, dominating the skyline.

More than one route leads to the base, each providing the walker with a different face of Sulivan.  From some angles it is a steep pyramid, from some a wind smoothed dome, from others it appears as the silhouette of a sleeping giant.  The terrain is rough and the way is long, particularly if you want to include an ascent of the mountain itself.  I was satisfied with the view from below.

For the previous post in the series click here and stay tuned for more of Scotland’s secrets.

 

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Surrounded by stones – Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

First, the facts.  At 104 metres in diameter the Ring of Brodgar is the third largest circle of its kind in Great Britain.  It is so large that it is hard to fit all of the 27 surviving stones in to one photograph; people on the other side of the circle are difficult to make out, particularly in the wet and misty weather that is prevalent on Orkney even in the summer.  Little is known about the ring, how it was made and what it was used for, the centre of the circle has never been fully excavated and stone is notoriously hard to date.  The best estimates put construction at between 2,500 and 2,000 BC making Brodgar one of the last Neolithic monuments to be built on the island.

Now to the feelings.  Even on a cold day, with the rain falling at just the right angle to penetrate the hood and cuffs of your waterproof, with puddles to avoid, low cloud masking the horizon and dull greyness flattening the light, the presence of the stones is undeniable.  They are not monumental in height, most a head or so taller than the average person, and, across the distance of the circle and through the gathering gloom, it is easy to mistake them for figures standing solemnly in the landscape, hunched against the weather, stoic protectors of this sacred place.

Access to the stones is unrestricted (though at the time of writing it is understood that the circle is fenced off whilst repairs to the footpaths are carried out).  You can walk amongst the stones, touch their time worn surfaces, feel the residual heat from sunny days and the deep cold of the wild winters.  This is a good and rare thing but it is a privilege that is sometimes abused.  Many of the stones have been marked by graffiti; visitors to the site attempting to make the stones’ immortality their own.  Reassuringly, much of the carving is old, dating from the nineteenth century when fascination with the past was at a high.  As I traced my figures over the inscriptions, the names of men long since gone, I found myself conflicted by the marks, now themselves objects of history, and wondering what the tipping point is, when does vandalism turn in to something worthy of protection itself?

Standing apart from the circle, a watchman staring out to sea, is the enigmatic ‘Comet Stone’.  If we anthropomorphise the stones of the circle, view them as a gathering of elders, of celebrants, of protectors, who is the Comet Stone?  Guard, reject, a worshiper on their way to or from the ring?  This mysterious place offers many possibilities and it is rather nice that so little is known of the truth.  Room to exercise our imagination is a valuable thing.

To read more about the ancient world of Orkney click here.

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Ancient Orkney – Skara Brae, Broch of Gurness and Maeshowe

Before construction of the pyramids began on the plains of Giza, before the first monolith was raised at Stonehenge, a small community of people were living in an interconnected series of stone walled buildings on a spit of land overlooking the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago.  This in itself does not sound like much of significance.  People were living in all sorts of places in all kinds of ways in 3,200BC.  But how many of their homes can you visit today, more than five thousand years later?  Five thousand years.  It is a period of time that is hard to comprehend and you can be forgiven for not quite appreciating the significance of what lies before you in this remote field on the northern fringes of Britain.  This is not reconstruction, this is not a film set, this is real and it is very, very old.

It is thanks to the skill of its builders, arranging stones without mortar, thanks to the decision to cover the walls with soil and debris to insulate against the cold Scottish winters, thanks to the wild weather of this place that blew millennia of sand from the beach to hide Skara Brae, that it has survived to be the most intact Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, a UNESCO world heritage site.  Storms helped protect the village and a storm also uncovered it in 1850.  The local laird took charge of an excavation, but it was an amateur effort and fairly quickly abandoned.  It was not until the 1920s, after the site was raided and artefacts removed, and another storm caused damage, that proper preservation work began.

Although access to the inside of the buildings is restricted to protect the archaeology, the pathways that have been constructed around the site provide clear views inside.  The layout of the houses is uniform, with two stone beds either side of a central hearth and stone shelves built in to the walls for storage.  Community living was still a new concept when Skara Brae was founded and although it is estimated that a maximum of 50 people lived here at any one time, this would have been a veritable city at a time when it was usual for small family units to spend much of the year in isolation.  For those wanting to experience what it was like within the dwellings when the roofs were intact a reconstructed home can be found just outside the visitors’ centre.

Not far from Skara Brae is the Broch of Gurness.  The Broch is a mere infant compared to its Neolithic neighbour, dating from 200 – 100 BC and perhaps as a result of this you are free to walk amongst the remains of the tower and the village that encircles it.   Broch are a peculiarly Scottish form of architecture and are found predominantly in the north and west (to read about another Broch, this time on the Isle of Lewis, click here).  The example at Gurness once stood 8 metres high and measures 20 metres in diameter.  It was clearly intended as a place of safety for the villagers and forms part of a defence system that includes three sets of ditches and ramparts.

The story of the Broch’s discovery is a romantic one.  In 1929 a local poet and antiquarian, Robert Rendall, was sitting on the mound that once covered it, sketching.  The leg of his stool sank deep in to a hole and, upon investigation and the removal of some stones, Rendall uncovered steps leading in to the ground, remnants of the staircase which would once have connected the tower’s floors.

Completing this trilogy of ancient sites is Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in north west Europe, inside which photography is sadly, though understandably, prohibited.

Like Skara Brae, Maeshowe dates from the Neolithic, having been built some time around 2,800BC.  It is a chambered tomb, accessed via a long, low tunnel which opens up in to a cavernous central space with three smaller chambers cut in to the walls.  Entrance to the tomb is by guided tour only, run by Historic Scotland from Tormiston Mill, Stenness which operates as a visitors’ centre and museum.  Places on the tours are limited so do book in advance to avoid disappointment.  We had to wait two days for the next space.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of crawling along the entrance passage, bowed in supplication to the deceased, before entering the unexpected space of the subterranean chamber.  That the structure has survived for more than 5,000 years is staggering.  Great efforts were obviously undertaken in its construction, and not just to ensure its stability.  Maeshowe has intentionally been built to align with the midwinter sun which, as it sets for a few days each year, shines directly through the entrance passage, illuminating the rear wall of the main chamber.  Maeshowe is also in alignment with the standing stones of Stenness which sit in a neighbouring field.  If you stand in the centre of the stone circle, the burial mound appears directly between two angled ‘dolmen’ stones, as if framed by a window.

Modern excavation of the mound began in 1861 but this was not the first time the tomb had been entered.  The walls of the chamber are covered with graffiti, runic Viking graffiti.  Some refer, flatteringly and otherwise, to women they have known, some to the treasure they had been seeking in the tomb, others simply mark their name.  The discovery of the carvings confirmed accounts in the Orkneyinga Saga, which narrate how various Norse groups entered a chambered tomb, known to them as Orkahaugr, an interesting example of physical evidence validating a literary source.

For more of the Viking presence on the island, read the previous post in the series here.  Stay tuned for one more ancient Orcadian treasure.

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St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney – Scotland’s Viking Church

Orkney is truly remote.  A flight from Edinburgh or Glasgow takes an hour, the ferry from Aberdeen six hours.  The shortest crossings are by ferry from Gills Bay or Scrabster on the far north coast of the mainland, an hour and an hour and a half respectively, although you’ll have to drive a long way to benefit from this brief time at sea.

Many inhabitants consider themselves Orcadian first and Scottish only second. In the run up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum Orkney, and its North Sea neighbour Shetland, began their own campaign for separation from Scotland.  A sense of otherness clearly lingers in the collective consciousness; the islands only became part of Scotland in 1472 following the marriage of the Scots King James III to Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark.  The Norse connection is very evident, not least in the Orcadian flag which has a decidedly Scandinavian feel.

 

 

Another reminder of the one-time Viking presence is St Magnus Cathedral which sits at the heart of Orkney’s main town, Kirkwall. An imposing building of red and yellow sandstone, it was founded in 1137, during the time of Norwegian rule, by Earl Rognvald Kollson to house the bones of his uncle, St Magnus.

The architecture is without ornamentation; the stone speaks for itself. The few stained glass windows that stud the upper walls are small; the winds of this wild place would quickly have destroyed anything too grand.  In places the building looks like a waved washed sandcastle, erosion pitting what was once flat and flattening what was once sharp.  With the sparse decoration and strong columns of the interior it is not hard to imagine that you are in the halls of Valhalla rather than a church.

Nods to the Norse abound, including a stained glass depiction of Harald Hardrada, considered by many as the last great Viking and whose invasion of England in 1066 was successfully defeated by Harold Godwinson (he of arrow in the eye fame) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge just weeks prior to the arrival of the Normans, Norsemen by another name, on the beaches of Hastings.

The cathedral also boasts some fine examples of stone carving from the Middle Ages.  Death was not a stranger to the craftsmen that made these monuments and there is no attempt to shy away from the macabre.

The weather on Orkney can be unremittingly awful; we were treated to a full week of camping in the rain during our visit in June.  Indoor attractions are relatively few and far between and so St Magnus was an interesting, and dry, place to while away an hour or so.  But, even if your time on the island is blessed with sunshine do add the cathedral to your itinerary, it offers an intriguing glimpse in to the history, and the psyche, of Orkney and its inhabitants.

For the previous post in the series, click here.  We’ll be staying on Orkney to explore more of its historic treasures in the next post, so if you’ve liked what you’ve read do stop by again.

 

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Scotland’s Secrets #8 – The underwater treasures of Caithness

Travel as far north and as far east as you can in Scotland and you will find yourself in the county of Caithness, famous for John O’Groats, the geographic opposite of Land’s End in Cornwall and home to the embarkation point for the Gills Bay ferry to Orkney.  Orkney is a diving mecca, thanks to the wrecks of 74 German First World War ships, scuttled by their own crews to avoid passing in to British hands.  Perhaps less well known are the dive sites on the mainland which dot the rugged coastline between the area’s two largest towns, Thurso and Wick.  A visit to these remote bays and harbours is highly recommended, even for those with an aversion to submersion; as well as underwater wonders they offer beautiful views, walking trails and wildlife spotting a plenty.

Staxigoe Harbour

Staxigoe is two miles north east of Wick, roughly five and a half hours drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Its name comes from Old Norse and means inlet of the stack, referring to the large rocky pinnacle that sits in the middle of the harbour.

Divers enter the water from the shore, following a slipway and, keeping the rocks on their right on the way out, and on their left on the way back, can while away a happy 40 minutes to an hour exploring the crevasses of the stack and the creatures that live there.

Scarfskerry

Scarfskerry is the most northerly settlement on mainland Scotland, on the coast between Thurso and the ferry terminal.  Its name is also Old Norse, meaning Cormorants’ Rock.  Another shore dive, access is easy, with divers simply stepping off the end of the slipway at high tide.  Here, if you can find it amongst the kelp, lies the wreck of the SS Linkmoor which went down in 1930, all lives saved.  The fishing industry is waning here and any boats you encounter are likely to be watching for wildlife; seals, dolphins, seabirds are all found here.  We were lucky enough to spot a basking shark from the shore during our time at the site in early June.

Portskerra Haven

The natural harbour of Portskerra is hiding a secret, a sea arch or tunnel that connects the calm inner bay to the sea beyond.  The entrance can be found in the right hand arm of horseshoe shaped bay near to the end of the reef.  Care should be taken when entering the tunnel as the current can be strong, particularly when the sea is rougher than the water in the harbour.  Lots of sea life makes the tunnel its home and during May and June Dogfish (also known as Catsharks and pictured below) come here to breed.

Papigoe

Of the sites we visited, Papigoe is the least attractive to non-divers.  It is accessed through a housing estate on the outskirts of Wick where the road ends abruptly at a steep cliff.  The scramble down is steep and quite difficult even without carrying diving equipment.   Multiple trips will be needed to and from your car will be needed, don’t be tempted to overload yourself.  It’s also advisable to stop and gather your breath before entering the water, otherwise you’ll have sucked your air supply dry in no time.

Papigoe is worth all the effort.  The series of gullies are full of life and some interesting rock formations, including some small caves and a narrow ‘window’ opening.  The dive is not particularly deep, meaning that there is lots of light for photography, although a good flash system always helps.

This post is an introduction to the sites only.  You should always research any new sites thoroughly in advance; if there is a local dive centre or club they will have valuable tips and may be able to provide services of a guide.  Always dive within your qualification and experience.  Never dive alone.  Having shore cover present is always preferable but if diving in a pair without it make sure someone knows where you are and check in with them before and after.  Always check the weather and the tide and don’t be afraid to cancel if the conditions are not right, or you feel unwell or uncertain.

For the previous post in the series click here.  Our next stop on this insider’s tour of Scotland will be the history packed island of Orkney.

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Scotland’s Secrets #7 – The Bealach na Ba

The Bealach na Ba, Gaelic for the Pass of the Cattle, is the steepest road in the United Kingdom.  It is only three miles long but the climb, from sea level to the summit, is a rise of 2053 feet or more than 600 metres of single track hairpin bends.  It is often impassable, due to snow and ice, in the winter and even in the summer months it is an intimidating prospect.  For reasons completely unfathomable to me, it is a magnet for cyclists.

Though the journey to the top is arduous, the views are breath-taking and, if you time it well, a spectacular sunrise or sunset framed by the mountains of Skye on the horizon can be yours to enjoy in glorious solitude.

The weather of course is not always favourable but low light and mist simply makes the Bealach na Ba more brooding and magnificent.  Here you are so high that when the clouds gather they form a milky sea below you, the peak of the pass a floating island in the sky, adrift on the currents of wind, cushioning the sound of rain falling on the valley beneath.

As is tradition in many high places, those that reach the summit, whether by foot, bike or car, add a stone to the ever-growing cairns that stubble the otherwise sparse moorland, miniature echoes of the hill itself.

Those that go up must come down and at the foot of the mountain a row of houses face out across a stretch of water called the Inner Sound to the Isles of Raasay and Skye.  This is the biggest settlement on the Applecross peninsula and is generally referred to in most tourist information as Applecross Village but is simply ‘the Street’ to the locals.  At the heart of the community is the Applecross Inn which manages to maintain that rare balance of pub atmosphere and exceptional food.  The menu is locally sourced, seafood heavy and highly recommended.  Although is doesn’t feature on the current menu, the langoustine salad I ate during my last visit is up there with the greatest dishes I have ever tasted.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of camping and for those seeking somewhere to pitch their tent Applecross campsite is a short walk up hill from the village.  As well as sleeping under canvas, the site also offers static caravans and wooden camping huts that resemble the hulls of upturned boats.  This is deer country and, although the site is fenced, we were woken in the early hours to the sound of antlered intruders sniffing at our provisions.  We were camping at the very end of the season, late October, and were the only tent in the field; I suspect the deer would not have been as bold had they been outnumbered.  If you don’t mind a bit of damp and cooler temperatures, off-season is a good time to explore Scotland.  Visitor numbers are lower, the midges are less vicious and although the weather is unpredictable chances of a clear dry day are not really that much different than in the summer.

Stay tuned for more of Scotland’s secrets.  For the previous post in the series, click here.

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