SOME three months ago – I have really been inexcusably tardy about writing this up – I breakfasted in Tain (Baile Dhubhthaich) within the walls of Mansfield Castle Hotel, which was not really a true castle but a mansion house with a tower and battlements tacked on for aesthetic effect…
Mansfield Castle Hotel
Regardless of how the hotel’s restless spirits may have felt, my own spirits were high as I set off upon the day’s journey, a 22-mile trek to Dingwall.
The Cunning Plan
My route as planned was stretching quite hard to be described as ‘coastal’ but I didn’t especially care. A purist coaster would heave headed east for Tarbat Ness then south via Balintore and Nigg, where their purism might be tested by the option of taking the seasonal Nigg Ferry, if it were operating yet. I would do none of that.
I was heading southwest, on a route that would take me through Lamington and Scotsburn Woods, which are parts of the broader Morangie Forest. I always love a walk in leafy woodland and having seen this opportunity proclaim itself upon my map, I felt no urge to resist its verdant temptations. If that meant I was temporarily abandoning the coast then so be it!
John o’ Groats Trail
As it turned out, the route I had planned was also, for the most part, the John o’ Groats Trail (JOGT), which had had the same plan at least as far as Alness. I didn’t realise that when I plotted out my own route – I assumed it would be sticking with the coastline – and so was quite surprised and amused when I started to spot its waymarks flanking various paths.
The evening before, I had formulated some choice opinions when the very last part of that day’s trek had seen me climb a hill most of the way back out from the centre of Tain. Now, however, that proved to have been a blessing in disguise.
I would, to begin with, be aiming for the village of Scotsburn and the street over which Mansfield Castle Hotel’s tower loomed was called Scotsburn Road. This was more than a chance omen. While streets within a town might be named for anything and anyone – monarchs, local landowners, topological features, whatever name a developer thinks will sell properties etc. – old roads leading out tend to be named for where they are going next. Thus, I was already on the very road I needed to leave Tain on. And better still, I was also already most of the way up its initial hill.
I quickly completed the ascent.
Mere moments later, I discovered that Scotsburn Road was actually going nowhere, terminating at a T-junction with two other roads that could take me left or right but not straight-on on account of the wall in the way. It was only a low wall, and over it I could see the A9 running parallel to the two other roads. This was the Tain Bypass, built circa 1979 to avoid funnelling through traffic right through the centre of Tain. Its construction had severed Scotsburn Road plus several others, it not being deemed wise to have cross traffic darting across the A-road between its speeding vehicles.
I, being a mere pedestrian, was able to nip around the end of the wall to find Scotsburn Road continuing away from a junction on its far side – apparently vehicles turning off or onto the A-road is fine, but only on the northbound side. All I had to do was reach it. This involved, of course, my darting across the A-road between its speeding vehicles just like cars in Scotsburn Road were now forbidden to do.
Scotsburn Road Regained
As Scotsburn Road stretched away from Tain, the houses flanking its sides became more scattered, giving way to fields beyond which lurked the trees of Morangie Forest. I soon passed the turnoff to Rosehill Farm, which told me that my own turn-off would be the next right-hand exit ahead. This would be a branch off Scotsburn Road that my Ordnance Survey map showed as a track but Google Maps would have you believe to be an actual road until you tried it.
The OS was quite right – the track was unpaved, muddy and overgrown in places, at least until it met up with an equally unpaved but broad forestry track that was clearly in regular use, where it got a whole lot easier to follow.
I may have got a bit too excited about this whole ‘walking in the woods’ thing but that was okay because Scotland’s weather had just the thing to dampen my ardour, namely rain. Except that it failed. My hair was dampened, for sure, and my clothes. And I had to keep wiping my glasses if I wanted to see where I was going, but my enthusiasm was only whetted with an ‘h’.
This was apparently not the result the rain had been after at all. In consequence, it got dispirited, and drifted off to patter down upon someone else’s parade.
I had about four miles of woodland walking to do, which suited me just fine. For almost all of it, I would see no one else, the exceptions being a family of three out cycling near the start and two forestry workers right near the end.
In the meantime, I had a merry old time, ambling down the forestry track, finding my way across various junctions. It was at these that I found the unexpected JOGT waymarks, directing anyone following the trail – I saw none – along the exact same route that I’d chosen. This should perhaps have been reassuring but it wasn’t; I’d seen before what the JOGT thinks comprises a reasonable route.
A couple of miles in, approaching a hill called Beàrn a’ Chlaidheimh (‘breach of the sword’), I crossed over a five-way junction and found that my track had diminished a little. It was still dead easy to follow but vegetation sprouting down its centre line pointed to it seeing much less use.
Beàrn a’ Chlaidheimh
As the path began to traverse the hill’s lower flanks, it became lined by gorse, the yellow flowers of which filled the damp air with their heady aroma of coconut.
The path curved away to the south before ever reaching the peak of Beàrn a’ Chlaidheimh, heading downhill to meet up with other paths at a junction. From there, I struck west and before long came to a point where the track narrowed again.
Gorse still cropped up by the trackside in clumps but now the trees closed back in again, clinging to the hillside as it rose on my right and fell away to the left. Somewhere down at the bottom of that hill was Scotsburn itself. Taking the quick way down was not an option, however, between the gorse, the undergrowth and often squelchy ground conditions…
Just before the track was about to come to an end and probably throw me out of the wood into a field, a footpath branched off at right angles down the hill. This was marked on my OS map and I was considering making use of it but a JOGT waymark pointing down it clinched the deal.
The footpath was much narrower and boggier than the track had been and was blocked at one point by a fallen tree, which I clambered over. I little further on, I encountered the two forestry workers previously mentioned, who were sawing a second fallen tree apart. They paused work to allow me to pass, stepping over the tree’s branches; they were going to take at least half an hour to shift it, if not more.
‘You’re clear all the way down from here,’ one said, ‘’cause we’ve done those ones already.’
They had indeed.
I passed several other fallen trees, removed as obstructions from the path. This made it fairly easy going until I got right to the bottom, where it turned into a muddy morass leading squelchily into the yard of Scotsburn Farm. There I paused for a rest and some water.
It is not that surprising that the old threshing mill still has its wheel, even if there’s not water enough to make it turn. The property of the Durham family since 1967, Scotsburn Farm was the home of Jane Durham MBE (1924-1997), a prominent figure in local conservation and commissioner on the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. Her zeal for conservation of Scotland’s heritage was fired by a personal loss of family history when her childhood home, Ord Farm, was buried beneath an aluminium smelter site in 1967. I guess that would do it.
Scotsburn Road (Again)
From Scotsburn Farm, I followed its driveway until it met up with a narrow country road. This was Scotsburn Road again (the same one) and would continue to be so as I headed west on it, over the Strathrory River and past the farmstead of Torran. I was past Scotsburn now but the road still stubbornly clung to its name except that now, of course, it had had a change of perspective – it was no longer to road to Scotsburn from Tain; it was now the road to there from Alness.
To Highland Council, but pretty much no one else, Scotsburn Road was also designated the C1012.
I felt surprisingly fatigued as I plodded along the road and I realise with hindsight that it was only partly because I’d done a lot of walking while out of practice. A bigger contributor was the fact that my hiking shoes were on their last legs and as they fell slowly apart, they affected my gait. Thus, every step along the road now came with a throb in my calves.
Badachonacher & Newmore
While it wasn’t quite up there with leafy woodland in my book, I rather enjoyed my amble along this quiet country road. The bright sunshine helped, as did the fields of calves and lambs off to my right. On my left, the trees and bushes of Badachonachar Moss screened the road. There was next to no motor traffic, which helped, though the occasional cyclist – it was National Cycle Network route 1 – whizzed past but that was hardly a problem.
I passed the turn-off to Tullich and Barbaraville and forked left at a junction about half a mile later.
At the hamlet of Badachonacher, I emerged past the trees – well, some of them at least – and got my first glimpse of Cromarty Firth.
The single-track Scotsburn Road continued much the same for the next mile or so, as the scattered cottages of Badachonacher gave way to those of Newmore. Cromarty Firth remained at arm’s length, a tantalising presence in the wings.
The Quiet Approach
Scotsburn Road remained a quiet single-track road right up until its end, directly north of Alness (Alanais), some six miles since I’d re-joined it at Scotsburn Farm.
It terminated in a T-junction with the Ardross Road, which was scarcely larger but rather busier and this, in turn, led me south into Alness.
Almost before I knew it, I found myself on Alness High Street. This was also the B817 and used to be the A9 before the Alness Bypass was built in the early 1980s. It was just a tad busier than Scotsburn Road had been.
In addition to being busy with motor traffic, Alness High Street was bustling with pedestrians on account of all the shops. I availed myself of a couple of these to grab an ice cream and something more lunch-like (though the ice cream was the more important purchase). I then repaired to a nearby handy bench to consume my comestibles.
Duly refreshed and rested, I jumped up and marched off down the street…
A few minutes later, I was back again, having listened to my uneasy instincts. I set off again from the bench, this time going the right way…
Heading westwards, as intended, instead of erroneously east, required me to cross the River Averon and this, in turn, required me to risk life and limb though I had no idea that was what I was doing. And that is because neither I nor anyone else realised at that point that the piers of the metal-framed footbridge by which I crossed the water were almost completely rusted through.
I crossed Averon Footbridge on 04 May. In the last week of that month someone finally noticed and let the council know that the bridge needed urgent attention. They duly sent someone out to take a look and, following inspection, Highland Council announced that its integrity was ‘completely compromised’ and unable to support any loading whatsoever! They immediately closed it to public use and set up traffic lights on the road bridge, reducing that to a single lane for cars, there not being enough room for both motor vehicles and pedestrians. This, of course, was why the footbridge had been added alongside it in the first place.
Overnight work to add a temporary prop took place last night and the footbridge re-opened today (as I write this). A more permanent repair is hoped for, sometime in 2023.
If it seems remiss of the builder of the road bridge to allow so little room that a footbridge had to be added, we should perhaps acknowledge that speeding motor cars were hardly a consideration when Thomas Telford (1757-1834) had it constructed circa 1816. It has to be said that his bridge has lasted rather better than the footbridge has (although even that has lasted surprisingly well – I can’t find a precise date but its makers were Tubewrights Ltd of Newport, a company that existed from 1939 to 1981).
In addition to emergency pedestrians, Averon Bridge conveys what is now the B817 but used to be the A9. The A9 meanwhile is partly on a bypass and partly on the old line of the B817, the two roads having basically swapped places.
Visible from the Footbridge of Imminent Corrosive Collapse, on the far side of Telford’s enduring effort, was the work of one of Telford’s apprentices, Joseph Mitchell (1803-1883) in his capacity as engineer to the Inverness and Ross-shire Railway (I&RR). This was Averon Viaduct, opened in 1863, by which time the I&RR had already ceased to exist, having amalgamated with the Inverness and Aberdeen Junction Railway (I&AJR).
On the far side of the bridge, the High Street had turned into Novar Road which was initially characterised by stone cottages on one side and the railway line on the other. After a while, though, a cycle and footpath branched off to the right, using an older road alignment to bypass a roundabout on the B-road.
On the edge of Alness, the old and new alignments merged and I found myself walking beside the B-road as it passed Alness Bay. To my surprise and grateful joy, the cycle and footpath persisted, sparing me the ordeal of dodging traffic all the way.
Actually, there was traffic. Not a huge amount, granted – most of it was probably on the A9 – but enough to make me glad I wasn’t sharing road space with it.
Up ahead, the B817 formed a staggered junction with the B9176, also known as Struie Road. This dropped down from dark, looming hills with dark, louring clouds overhead. The return of the rain was a definite possibility…
The Struie Road used to be part of the A836 but got downgraded when the A9 was rerouted. It is named for Struie, a hill about nine miles north of Alness and about seven-and-a-half west of Tain.
In addition to long being a route up to the Dornoch Firth, the Struie Road served as the path of retreat for defeated pro-government forces in the 1715 Skirmish of Alness.
Skirmish of Alness
A minor battle of the Jacobite Rising of 1715, the skirmish did not involve regular government forces but was rather a clash of clans affiliated to each side. Jacobite MacKenzies and MacDonalds, led by ‘Black William’ – William Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Seaforth – clashed with pro-government Munros, Rosses and MacKays under John Gordon, 16th Earl of Sutherland.
The Jacobites carried the day and Sutherland retreated over Struie to Bonar Bridge.
The arms of the two commanders. Seaforth’s were simply the Mackenzie stag’s head, while Sutherland’s quartered an ancestral Gordon sub-quartering with the three Sutherland mullets (stars). Four years later, he would change his surname from Gordon to Sutherland and swap the order of the quarters to give the latter priority. He was also permitted to add a Scottish royal tressure to the Sutherland quarter as a mark of favour.
I had no wish to follow in Sutherland’s footsteps as that would have been a significant retreat for me too, taking me back to well before the start of my day’s walk. Instead, I continued along the B817 (which used to be the A9). Except that I didn’t, exactly, as I was still enjoying the benefit of the foot and cycle path, and that didn’t always stick to the roadside as if glued:
The cycle path brought me to the edge of Evanton (Baile Eòghainn), a 19th-century planned village close to the former site of Balconie Castle, once a seat of the Mormaers and Earls of Ross.
Evanton was named for Evan Baillie Fraser (1800-1891), who was a mere boy of six when the town was founded by his father, Grenadian planter Alexander Fraser (1759-1837).
Young Evan was, in turn, named for Evan Baillie (1741-1835), a prominent slaver, merchant and Caribbean landowner, to whose niece Alexander was married and who lent Alexander the £4,500 he needed to buy the Inchoulter Estate (on which land Evanton was built). A Whig politician, Baillie was MP for Bristol at the time of the loan and saw land acquisition as a means by which he and his allies might mitigate losses when the abolitionist Slave Trade Bill became law (which it did in 1807).
Three of Evanton’s streets are named for the Grenadian plantations with which Alexander was involved – Camden, Livera and Hermitage.
Balconie Castle (Bailcnidh) stood about half a mile from Evanton, in what is now an empty field. The original castle dated from Mediaeval times and was originally held by the Earls of Ross before passing to a cadet branch of Clan Munro. It was rebuilt in the 19th century and passed through several owners but became empty after WW2. Dry rot consumed it and led to its condemnation as unsafe and subsequent demolition in 1968.
The arms of the Earls of Ross displayed three silver lions rampant upon a red field, two above one. The Munros of Coul, who later came into possession of Balconie Castle, bore the arms of Munro (a red eagle’s head upon a gold field) differenced by a wavy red bordure.
I bought another ice cream while in Evanton and ate it while snatching a rest on the bench by the war memorial. As I did so, I considered my route onwards.
Looking ahead, the B817 (now Balconie Street) curved away to the left to meet up with the A9. That did not sound like a bunch of fun at all. Alternatively, the turn-off immediately past the war memorial (Drummond Road) would take me onto a higher, unclassified alignment that formed the old road between Evanton and Dingwall. Yes, I would do that.
Of course, when I say that it was unclassified, I mean that it was neither an A or B-road and therefore unnumbered on most maps. But not all. Because, for the purposes of road maintenance and so on, the Highland Council had, in fact, quietly classified it. To them, almost secretly, it was designated the C1023.
Drummond road began, as one might expect, as a narrow two-lane road flanked by houses (and, at one point, a primary school). It soon opened out into fields, however, first to my left and then also to my right. Across the latter, distant peaks were patched with snow.
In the photo above, we are looking northwest across a field and the River Sgitheach, beyond which is Druim Mòr (the great ridge). Beyond that, on the left, is the end of Swordale Hill, while on the right we see the tip of Druim nan Damh (‘stag ridge’) and, beyond them, in the distance, the snow patched peaks of Ben Wyvis.
John o’ Groats Trail (Continued)
As I made my way along the road, it narrowed, losing its centre line and becoming one of those roads where two cars can pass if they’re careful and not rushing and so is technically not single-track. At a junction to an even narrower road that would have led me towards Foulis Castle had I let it, I was surprised and amused to spot a JOGT waymark pointing the way I planned to go. There was just no getting away from it, it seemed. The damned thing was practically stalking me!
Resigning myself to our our inevitable coincidence, I continued on my way…
Up to this point, the back road had been a little too far inland to grant me views on my left of anything other than fields and trees. Now though, as the road veered closer to the shore (though not so close as the A9, which was on it) views of Cromarty Firth became increasingly available.
Almost opposite the access track to the farm of Balachladdich, I passed a pair of old stone gateposts, their opening blocked by overgrowth and a well-placed rock. Beyond them, fields showed no sign of the driveway that such gatepost might suggest. Its likely destination could be glimpsed, however, from several vantage points along the road.
Foulis Castle is the seat of Clan Munro and has been for centuries. The original Tower of Foulis is said to have been constructed in 1154 and it is mentioned in a charter of 1350.
As indicated by their presence on the losing side of the Skirmish of Alness, the Munros supported the government during the Jacobite Risings. While that of 1715 saw them withdrawing to Bonar Bridge, the Rising of 1745 brought even worse fortunes, when the Jacobites not only slew the clan chief – Sir Robert Munro (1684-1746) – at Falkirk but also sacked and burnt Foulis Castle.
Of course, the government was ultimately victorious, crushing Jacobite dreams at the Battle of Culloden. Sir Robert’s heir, Sir Harry Munro (1720-1781), rebuilt the castle as a classical mansion between 1754 and 1792, incorporating what was left of the tower. The new design largely abandoned the old defensive principles that had governed its predecessor as Culloden had spelt not only the death knell of Jacobitism but also that of the whole Highland clan system. The threat of inter-clan conflict no longer mandated the design.
The ‘castle’ remains the seat of the Munros, being home to its current chief – Hector William Munro of Foulis (b. 1950).
As the head of Clan Munro, the arms of Munro of Foulis are the simple, undifferenced version of the Munro arms. They have just one single charge: a red eagle’s head shown erased (with a ragged edge as if torn off as opposed to with a clean line, which would be couped). The background field is gold.
Burn of Foulis
The narrow road narrowed further still to become properly single-track as it crossed a stone bridge spanning the Burn of Foulis.
Foulis Bridge’s builder, stonemason N Forsyth, included a mason’s panel to tell us his name and when he built it (1791), confirming that here was an old road and bridge that actually predated Thomas Telford’s many works. The panel also named the patron who paid for its construction. This, quite unsurprisingly, was Sir Hugh Munro (1763-1848), the then-current chief of Clan Munro and inhabitant of Foulis Castle.
After Foulis Bridge, the road continued as single-track with passing places.
Just a little further down the road from the Foulis Bridge, an altogether larger and later bridge became visible, this time spanning Cromarty Firth from Ardullie Point to what had been Findon Pier, allowing the A9 to cut a corner and thus avoid Dingwall and the head of the firth.
Cromarty Bridge is about a mile and a half long and was built in 1979, replacing ferries over the firth from both Dingwall and Invergordon. Curiously, it didn’t officially become part of the A9 until 1982 meaning that, for its first few years, it was technically unclassified and the A-road still went via Dingwall.
Before long, I came to the hamlet of Ardullie (Àird Ilidh), comprising a farmstead and some old farm labourers’ cottages. Here, a road branched off to the left, leading down to the 17th-century Ardullie Lodge (built as a dower house) and Ardullie Point. The JOGT, which wanted to cross Cromarty Bridge, stopped shadowing my every move and slunk off along this left-hand route. I kept to the right, sticking with the C1023.
Beware of Slow
If my legs had been feeling the strain way back at Scotsburn, they were definitely doing so now. My pace had dropped down to a creeping plod and I now seemed to be taking an age to get anywhere at all.
While it amused me at the time, in hindsight, this sign has me slightly perplexed. It says ‘slow’ but it’s neither a circular mandatory sign nor, as one would expect, a default rectangular one (like the common ‘reduce speed now’ signs). It is a warning triangle. Technically, the sign is telling us that we need to beware of ‘slow’. In which case it had an actual point because, as I’ve said, if I’d gotten any slower, I’d have actually stopped. And I didn’t want that.
Well, okay, at that point I really did want to stop and sit down. But a random bend in the middle of nowhere was not the best place to end my walk.
Taking all due care in case of sudden and dangerous slow, I made my way around the bend and past the gates of Lemlair House. This is a mansion built into its present form in 1876, replacing a previous structure. It features a Rennie Mackintosh tiled fireplace and various internal fittings with a Munro eagle motif (a member of that family owned it at the time).
Lemlair was established as a separate Scottish barony in 1643 for Colonel John Munro, who had commanded a division of the Covenanter army in the War of the Three Kingdoms (the broader conflict involving Scotland and Ireland that arose from the English Civil War). John was a grandson of Robert Mòr Munro, 15th Baron of Foulis, the chief of Clan Munro at the time.
Moving slowly on, I eventually crawled my way past the hamlet of Mountgerald (An Claon, ‘the slope’) and the Highland Farm Café, which I might not have resisted had it not looked so very closed.
I was on the home stretch now and the head of the firth was in sight.
Drochaid na Laitch
As I approached Dingwall, it was screened from sight by a line of trees, which followed the banks of a stream called the Allt na Laitch. This made for a sudden and marvellous transition. One moment, I was following a country road surrounded by fields. The next, I was passing over a small bridge (the Drochaid na Laitch) into streets flanked by houses and a pedestrian pavement.
Old Evanton Road
The particular street whose pavement I now plodded was named Old Evanton Road, which seemed fair enough. What seemed less fair was that it seemed to go on forever. I suspect this was just a function of pain and fatigue, rather than it improbably possessing infinite length.
I followed it grudgingly down a hill, aware that my hotel was somewhere back up at the top of it but that I had yet to connect with a street to get me there.
Tulloch Castle Drive
After what felt to me like a walk through Dingwall’s housing of equal duration to the whole trek to Dingwall from Tain, I eventually connected with the bottom end of Tulloch Castle Drive. This was just what I needed, seeing as how I was thematically sticking with castellated accommodation theme by staying in Tulloch Castle Hotel.
I laboriously dragged myself all the way back up the hill.
Tulloch Castle Hotel
I checked into the hotel and got clean and changed before searching out dinner. The dining room was, I was told apologetically, being refurbished so dinner would be in the hall instead.
I was, for some reason, the sole person eating in there, which made it a solitary splendour. The food, I am pleased to say, was very good and made a massive difference to my frame of mind. I had enjoyed the day’s walk immensely but the toll my worn-out hiking shoes were taking needed to be addressed at the first opportunity. They definitely had to be replaced.
But that was a problem for tomorrow…
This time: 22 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,113 miles