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Issue 61 - Ancient and Mysterious Black Isle

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012

 

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Ancient and Mysterious Black Isle

Our exploration of Scotland's coastline continues along the Moray Firth to Inverness, then deeper into the Black Isle

Nairn
When the Inverness and Nairn railway line opened in 1855, it opened up the Scottish Highlands to the world. The little seaside town of Nairn, with its pretty harbour, sunny climate and miles of flat, flat sand, rapidly became the place to be seen for Victorian holidaymakers.

Grand mansions and elegant tree-lined avenues went up alongside the old fisherman’s cottages, and a bandstand and promenade transformed the seafront into a pleasant place for a stroll-along, while the brass band played tiddly-om-pom-pom.

But of course, the settlement of Nairn is older than that, dating back to around 1000 AD. In the medieval period Nairn was the commercial centre in a region which marked the boundary between Gaelic speaking fisherman to the west and English-speaking farmers to the east. James VI (1566-1625) is said to have remarked that here was a town in his kingdom so large that the people at one end of the High Street spoke a different language to those at the other.

Today it’s still a popular holiday destination, with that kind of ghostly Victoriana that clings to so many of Britain’s seaside towns. Its unique micro-climate ensures that Nairn has more hours of sunshine and less rainfall than towns just 15 miles away.

Fort George
On an isolated spit of land west of Nairn lies Fort George, an enormous grass topped artillery defence jutting defiantly into the Moray Firth. Conceived in the aftermath of the 1745 uprising, Fort George was intended to be a once and for all solution to the threat posed by the Highlands. Ironically, because Culloden put an end to the Jacobite attempt to claim the throne, and because it took more than 20 years to complete, Fort George was never called upon to fire a single shot.

Nevertheless, what emerged was perhaps the strongest fortification ever built in the UK.

It has remained virtually unaltered since it was completed in 1769, and serves as an important military base to this day.

The garrison buildings, artillery defences, and superb collection of arms – including bayoneted muskets, pikes, swords and ammunition pouches – provide a fascinating insight into 18th century military life, and is well worth a visit.

Inverness
Today, this busy city is the capital of the Highlands – it is also one of Scotland’s oldest settlements. During the Middle Ages it thrived as a fishing port and was ruled by a succession of Pictish kings.

There has been a castle at Inverness since 1057, though this would originally have been made of earth and timber. In the early 14th century during the Wars of Independence, English troops under King Edward I occupied the castle, which was taken and destroyed by King Robert the Bruce in 1310. It was rebuilt in stone many times, never enjoying peace for very long.

In 1562 Mary, Queen of Scots paid a visit to Inverness castle, but was refused entry by the governor, a Gordon whose family held a dispute with the Queen.

A historian at the time wrote: “As soon as they heard of their Sovereign’s danger, a great number of the ancient Scots poured in around her, especially the Frasers and Munros, which were esteemed the most valiant families inhabiting those countries.” The clans then took the castle for the Queen, and the governor was hanged for his insolence.

The castle visible you can see today was built during the 19th century, after the previous castle was levelled by Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Uprisings of 1746 which centred around the city.

Five miles south east of Inverness, the Culloden battlefield offers an outstanding visitor centre and tours of the site, now mostly cleared of its forest and looking exactly as it would during the battle, the last to be fought in mainland Great Britain and the swan song of Highland clan culture as it was.

Clava Cairns
The first traces of humanity to be found on this part of the coast date back much further than this, however. The magnificent Clava Cairns, situated near Inverness, are an exceptionally well preserved group of prehistoric burial cairns built about 4,000 years ago. The Bronze Age cemetery complex comprises of passage graves, ring cairns, kerb cairn, standing stones in a beautiful setting and the remains of a chapel of unknown date. They provide invaluable insights into the lives of Scotland’s early people, whose religion revered the changing seasons and the elements. Two of the tombs contain passages aligned to the mid-winter sun and all are ringed by stone circles. They are believed to have been built for members of the region’s Neolithic elite, possibly members of a ruling caste, or priesthood.

The Black Isle
All too often, visitors to the Highlands catch only a passing glimpse of Inverness as they stop off at Culloden, then race over the Kessock Bridge to the Black Isle.

The area received its mysterious name because the low-lying, tree-covered peninsula would appear black in winter, when the surrounding snow-capped hills are covered in white. This is the most likely explanation, though of course there are theories that the Black Isle was named instead because of its association with witchcraft and black magic during the middle ages. Local folklore is full of tales to support this. It was here, for example, that the Brahan Seer was executed for his Nostradamus-like predictions during the 17th century. The Seer was born Coinneach Odhar and employed as a labourer by the Earl of Seaforth at Brahan Castle near Strathpeffer. Odhar made his predictions after peering into a special black and blue stone with a small hole in it.

Among other things, it is said that he foresaw the invention of the television, the North Sea oil industry, the building of Caledonian canal and the battle of Culloden: “Oh! Drumossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I will not see the day, for it will be a fearful period; heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy shall be shown or quarter given on either side.” At the height of his fame and powers, Odhar made his last prediction. Isabella, wife of the third Earl of Seaforth, asked Odhar to look into his stone when she became suspicious of her husband’s delay in returning from Paris. Odhar’s prediction did not please her. He said that her husband was enjoying the company of another, much fairer, woman and went on to predict doom for her entire family line.

“The line of Seaforth will come to an end in sorrow. I see the last head of his house both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn, and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished forever, that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule at Brahan or in Kintail.” So enraged was Isabella that she accused Odhar of witchcraft. He was tried in Fortrose, found guilty and burned in a spiked tar-barrel on Fortrose Ness.

His predictions about the Seaforth lineage came true, regardless.

A Celtic stone stands in Strathpeffer is a reminder of the Seer’s power. Ominously, he said that if the stone should fall three times, nearby Loch Ussie will overflow its banks. The stone has fallen twice. Fearing a third collapse, cautious townsfolk have cemented the stone in place.

The Clootie Well
If you find yourself driving along the A832 near Munlochy, and you notice a lot of dirty washing hanging in the trees, be assured that this is not the flotsam from a landfill site – but is in fact a site of significant spiritual importance. The Clootie Well is a remnant of an ancient tradition once commonly found in Celtic parts of the UK.

The tradition dates far back into pre-Christian times, and since then visitors have been making a pilgrimage to the Clootie Well in search of healing.

It was said that if a diseased part of the body is washed with a rag and that rag is then hung at the well, over time the rag disintegrates and so does the disease. In Scots, a ‘clootie’ or ‘cloot’ is a strip of cloth or rag.

Whether you find it emotive and spiritual, or an ugly blot on the landscape, it’s an undeniably eerie site that adds to the mystery of this corner of Scotland.