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...

Saturday 14 July 2012

The Driest Town in Scotland

With the month of rain like we have just had, thoughts naturally turn to the driest town in Scotland. OK, they don't, they turn somewhere more reliably sunny. But this blog's frame of reference is deliberately narrow, so we are just going to have to work with what we've got.

Town & beach:

And what we've got is Portmahomack, driest place in Scotland. Portmawheremack? You probably thought that the driest place is somewhere like North Berwick (and it may well be - despite knowing for years that the rainfall in Portmahomack is only 550mm/yr, I can't find a reference to this on the internet), so it can come as a surprise to discover the driest place is somewhere firmly in the Highlands. But Portmahomack is on the east coast, sticking out into the sea on a low peninsula, and in the rain shadow of the West Highland hills - which are ironically the wettest place in the country. Dry, coastal, yet near the hills? Portmahomack may well be the outdoor lover's ideal home.

Whitewashed old warehouse:

We arrived in Portmahomack on our bikes, hot and thirsty, the sun beating down from a blue sky, white houses gleaming, a bunch of impromptu musicians with fiddle and guitar jamming outside the Castle Hotel. A cool pint beckoned, and we enjoying the music outside, then headed for the harbour. Like Hunstanton in Norfolk, it is the 'east coast resort that faces west'. Unlike Hunstanton (whose beach is bigger and better) the view is not of the Wash, but over the dolphin-filled waters of the Dornoch Firth to the blue hills of Sutherland.

Sutherland hills:

Portmahomack is a small town that does not necessarily detain you long. But there is one place every first time visitor should go, the museum of 6th-9th century Pictish stone art in the former parish church. Like the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, it is a modest building with an outstanding collection of local ancient art. Unlike Groam House, it was shut when we arrived, and we only saw the outside.

Pictish museum:

The area surrounding Portmahomack is unusual for the Highlands, which we will discover in another post...

Sunday 8 July 2012


A video of a river running down the M77, the A720 closed for flooding.

Flooding in Haddington. Flooding on the Whiteadder. Flooding on the Tweed near Peebles. Flooding in Waverley station. Stranded motorists in Penicuik. Several roads in Edinburgh shut. Standing water in our garden.

Revellers at the station heading off to T in the Park in wellies, short shorts, and the most inadequate tent - floral in design - I have seen.

Sports leagues unable to complete their season, many events called off.

At the entrance to Tesco, piles of disposable barbeques, half price.

My windscreen wipers just stopped working.

Apparently, another month of this to come. Reminds me of my poem Hydrology.

Friday 6 July 2012

Marwick Head

In a previous post we looked at Orkney's west coast south of Skaill Bay, but what about that to the north?

To the north of Skaill, a rocky shore platform supports a line of low cliffs leading round the nose of Vestra Fiold, views south to the ever-present hills of Hoy. A dumpy seastack, homely compared to the intimidating fin of Galton Castle, sits just offshore, bonny sea thrift in the foreground.

Sea thrift:

Coming round the corner we came across a surprise at a narrow inlet: old fishing huts, with dug out hollows to take boats, and two winches. Investigation later revealed that these huts weren't as old as we guessed: they are just over 100 years old, used by fishermen who had previously used an improbably small gap in the rocks just to the north as their landing ground. The boat handling skills of old Orcadian fishermen was implicit in the exposed and narrow layout of their harbours.


I was looking forward to seeing the tidal pool in Marwick Bay, but the tide was too high and the bay completely filled in, only a difference in the pattern of the waves indicating a disruption on the seabed. We were surrounded by gulls and noisy oystercatchers, fertile brown earth freshly ploughed in one field, lambs gambolling behind a stone wall in another field. The green bowl of fields behind Marwick Bay swept up inland in lines of fencing, dotted with occasional crofts. To our left, the pebbly storm beach has been butressed by a head-height wall and we walked underneath this unusual construction to start up to Marwick Head itself, hoping to see some guillemots, razorbills and even puffins up closer.

Looking back on Marwick Bay:

Marwick Head is less immediately dramatic from the road than Yesnaby, but all this means is that coming upon the vertiginous cliffs is more of a surprise.

Marwick Head ledges:

With the tower on the cliff edge I was reminded of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, but only superficially: no tourists here hanging precariously on the edges, and more seabirds. A standing stone planted on the edge forms a superb vantage point for the cacaphony of birds on the cliff ledges. We lingered a long time, the sense of vertigo never quite going away, watching razorbills and puffins returning from fishing trips as the sun set across the ocean.

Marwick Head:

Marwick Head's monument is to a June 1916 shipwreck. HMS Hampshire was carrying Field Marshall Kitchener (who had served Britain in Omdurman, South Africa, and Ireland's Easter Uprising) from Scapa Flow to Archangel and a meeting with the Russian Tzar. With a storm brewing from the east and Kitchener a nervous seaman, the captain took the unusual step of sailing west out of Scapa Flow instead of east. The storm then swung round to blow from the west. This route wasn't used much, and HMS Hampshire hit a mine laid by a German U-boat. Most of those who survived the explosion were dashed against the cliffs of Marwick. There were very few survivors. The locals had been restrained by the army from going out to help, and they raised the monument a decade later from public subscription. Today the sea was benign. Hard to imagine this place on such a stormy summer day.

Head at sunset:

We lingered on, until it was going to be dark getting back. But it never quite gets dark in Orkney on a fine day like this in summer, and the temptation is to tarry all night, lulled by the gentle onshore breeze, splash of waves, and cries of the seabirds.

Orkney's west coast gloaming: