Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Lowlands of Ross

Rural landscape in the Tarbat peninsula:

I am going to take you on a journey around a dry and sunny land, full of historical interest, arable though with distant mountains... if I told you this area was north of Inverness you might scoff, but you can toddle over there after reading this and confirm it for yourselves.

East of the A9, we cycled past fields of yellow rape, the land at Arabella completely flat, streams ruler-straight drains. There was little traffic except for an occasional tractor. This area is fertile, more lowland than the Lowlands. The big attraction that drew us here - apart from the natural curiosity of seeing an area we'd never seen before - were the Pictish stones. The first stone was at Shandwick, and we entered a chill haar coming off the North Sea just before it.

The Shandwick Stone:

The Shandwick stone is heavily embossed - and heavily weathered - and so is protected today by a weatherproof glass case. We carried on to the beach, with the strange sight of people fog bathing.

This area is completely new to me, and so I wondered where the tourists for the string of villages along the eastern side of the Tarbat peninsula come from. Inverness? Further afield? In my ignorance Shandwick and Balintore felt like quiet and undiscovered gems, wreathed in benevolent obscurity.

We carried on to Balintore and ate lunch on the harbour wall, whilst others pottered around with their boats and a family and dog splashed in the shallows of the beach.

Balintore harbour:

The next big sight after the Shandwick stone is the Hilton of Cadboll stone. This is a whole order of magnitude more impressive, standing about 3m high and covered in intricate carvings. This particular stone is a replica, the original standing in the national museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. I looked at the picture of a hunting scene, a woman riding side saddle, and had the irresistible notion that this was once, back in the 7th century or so when it was made, garishly painted, the woman's flowing hair russet red and her cloak vivid green.

Hilton of Cadboll stone:

 As we pedalled back from Hilton we saw Fearn kirk in the distance, looking alpine, the bulk of Ben Wyvis behind it, still streaked with snow despite the heat. Tradition has it that the tenant of Ben Wyvis held the land on condition of being able to produce a snowball at midsummer to his feudal lord, but that is a story for another time...

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