Thursday 29 May 2008

Visiting Cromarty

Following on from the previous post about the little roads of the northwest, the east coast of the North Highlands is home to a number of villages and little towns. I have passed through many of them, but stopped at few.

Recently, I paid a quick visit to two of these villages. Dingwall was one - but, despite the bustle and local services, there seemed to be little of note to detain a tourist. This is surprising, given it was the county town for Ross and Cromarty.

Road in the Black Isle:

The second village, Cromarty, is a different prospect entirely. Approached through the lush fields of the Black Isle - a low, fertile peninsula, very different to the stereotype of rugged Highland glens - Cromarty is sleepier than Dingwall or nearby Fortrose, but its few streets are full of 18th century character. A stiff northeasterly breeze was blowing in off the Sutors of Cromarty, but the narrow streets and vennels leading off the shore created little sheltered suntraps of microclimate, sparrows and tits chirruping away.

The Cromarty Firth is a vast basin - perhaps one of the largest harbours in the world - and the towns on the shore opposite Cromarty service the fabrication and maintenance yards for the North Sea oil industry. Cromarty itself, however, feels neatly tucked away, the fishing industry largely gone, and is backed by a short, steep hill that leads to the fields inland and the exposed coast round the corner at the seacliffs of the Sutors of Cromarty.

No one could visit Cromarty and not become aware that it was the birthplace of Hugh Miller, the stonemason, geologist, and evangelical Christian. He was instrumental in the setup of the Free Church of Scotland but, outside Scotland, he is better known for his geological and fossil writings and discoveries - and, shold the visitor be interested, many fossil fish are still to be discovered on the coast in the Old Red Sandstone around Cromarty.

Cromarty roofline:

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Gairloch and Area

Last weekend, I headed for the north of Torridon around Loch Maree for some walking. On a whim, I decided to visit Gairloch, as I'd never been and was curious to see what it is like. I was taken aback at the quality of the scenery.

Gairloch beach:

These days I've gone off bleak, empty glens, and prefer better proportioned scenery. Gairloch is surrounded by trees, which create a better environment for wildlife than the denuded glens of much of the rest of the Highlands. But more than that, were the beautiful beaches, and incredible views to Skye and Torridon. There is no doubt I will be back.

Seana Camus, Melvich:

I took a side road to Melvich to spend the evening camping, and managed to get up to the Marilyn of An Cuaidh a few hours after dawn. It is the best panoramic viewpoint I have seen in the UK, bar one - Meall an Fheadain above Achiltibuie.

Towards Torridon from An Cuaidh, Melvich:

The Assynt Foreland from An Cuaidh:

Looking at the map, there are a number of little dead-end coastal roads in the northwest. Thanks to my hillwalking focus, I've been to very few of them - but, given the quality of the Melvaig road to Rubha Reidh, about which I knew nothing, I now really want to investigate them all!

Beinn Ghobhlach from An Cuaidh:

Monday 26 May 2008

Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?

Back in the mid 1990s, at my hillwalking peak, I picked up lots of hitchhikers in the Highlands - and hitched myself when I didn't have access to a car. Most hitchers were other young walkers, or foreign students backpacking on a budget, and the A82 - and west coast in general - was always easier to cadge a lift up than the A9 or A93. (At the time I assumed it was because people on the west coast were friendlier.)

I only once picked up a fellow who wasn't perfectly pleasant, a grumpy middle aged man in combat gear, and only once accepted a lift from someone odd - a Free Church minister; although friends have stories of crazily dangerous drivers, or being invited into a stranger's home to 'take a shower'. Most people I've met hitchhiking were pretty interesting, and there have been some real characters, like a Buddhist monk whose acceptance of fate as to whether or not he would get a lift inspired me, or the Skye-based author Alastair Scott.

But I have to tell you that I haven't seen a hitchhiker for years now. Where did they all go? Do young people visiting the Highlands have enough money to get the bus, or are they afraid of hitchhiking? Or am I just heading north at the wrong times? I would really like to know whether or not hitchhiking is a lost art.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Summer Holidays

Been booking my holidays today - two weeks on the bike round Eilean Siar and the west coast. Can't wait - it seems like ages since I've been to the West Highlands. A strange thing for someone who likes the hills and the outdoors so much? Not when you're selling and moving house, training for half marathons, and all the other things that prevent one from heading away for several days on the hills.

Can't wait.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Solway Tide

There is something not quite right about the Solway coast. Something about it disturbs me.

Outwardly there is nothing remarkable. An area of great yet subtle beauty, with low seacliffs and treeclad slopes, rough shorelines, pastoral grazings and quiet, self-sufficient, rural villages, cut off from the rest of Scotland. Galloway and the Solway coast are integral to Scotland, yet Scotland seems a place entirely unnecessary to the Solway.

The tales of the Solway are different. They are tales of religious persecution, of smugglers and sailors, heroic sea rescues and self-sufficiency - but not stern self-sufficiency. It was hard to imagine a sea rescue - the place seemed so benign.

The weather last weekend was unScottish for May. Warm - no, hot - with a lushness unseen in Edinburgh: the trees and flowers are a good couple of weeks more advanced than on the east coast. Lambs grow fat on the long grass, birds sing everywhere and bees buzz busily about. I had a flashback to the last time I was here in my youth - it was hot then too, and the girls my age were everywhere and suddenly fascinating. The Wicker Man was filmed in this area.

Solway mudflats:

We walked a little way out from shore to look at the seabirds inhabiting the edge. The tide goes far out, several kilometres, and we were aware of the dangers of the onrushing floodtide. I lifted my binoculars and enjoyed the feeling of the water running over my bare feet. When I looked down, the water had travelled further than expected. It was shallow, but we were suddenly surprisingly far from land. We turned, with no great haste, back to shore. The tide was rising faster. We sped up. It was curling around a previously unnoticed dip, a channel that was being filled, cutting us off. I decided to ford the channel - it wouldn't be deep. I went in up to my waist. My breathing quickened. Not wanting to run - but wanting to get out of there - we hurried, and walked round the head of the channel to safer ground. People relaxed on the shore. The placid Solway had spooked us, on a day of serene beauty. Back on shore, we walked a coastal route to Rockcliffe, the mudflats we had been walking on so recently now a shimmering mirror of sea.

An adder coiled as we walked past, disturbed from its basking on the little-travelled path.