September Scotland, the Highlands, Black Isle
The Cromarty Bridge from Dingwall to The Black Isle is actually nowhere near Cromarty. Once we'd taken at least triple the time we should have to drive from John O’ Groats (the very tip of Foreverland) by stopping at Castle Mey to see the Queen Mother’s martini bar and at Dunrobin Castle for the falconry show then through a million hectares of the Highlands, the sun was lowering towards night and I was hungry. Looking at the map and realizing we now had all of The Black Isle to traverse before I saw my dinner, I stared out at the golden light on fields of rye and timothy and yellow rape and wondered like all first time visitors where the Black Isle gets its name.
Once we came around the last bend to Cromarty I knew why. Night comes with a sudden thump on a Highland late summer's eve. One moment it's all sea and green trees and meadows and cows and the next blam, your headlights are on and you're hoping there is a fire lit at the hotel.
We checked into the Royal (who wouldn't?) which I understand has since gone upscale, lugged our bags to our tiny room with iron bedstead, ancient mattress and corner sink running only cold at the tap (think cozy). Dumping it all on what navigable room there was for items other than bed we ran down to a long, lazy candlelit meal on the porch where we could just make out the town pier and could definitely hear the collection of adolescents fishing off its long end.
Breakfasting at the Royal, we spent the morning exploring the island (which is really a peninsula) one of us by horse in Broomhill and the other chasing a white ball at the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club. We shared a noon sandwich gazing at Red Kite hawks soaring over fossil-rich Rosemarkie beach. A walk to the double waterfall at Fairy Glen (I made three wishes and added a lucky hanky to a very nice fairy bush) and the completion of a drive around the island saw us back to Cromarty in time for a drink by the pier to watch the sunset.
It was that night we encountered Hugh. Self-taught geologist, writer, editor, journalist, stone-mason- by- trade, Hugh Miller (1802-1856) and Cromarty folk hero gathered the kind of local lore that rivets the reader with the supernatural, superstition and real time horror. The confluence of what is now an annual writers' conference in Cromarty at the same time we were driving in to Cromarty meant that we coincided with an enthusiastic group of Hugh Millerites for a lively ghost tour hosted by two of the conference's storytellers.
Grabbing fleeces as the day waned, we joined a good-sized group of grownups and children greeting each other at Allen Square. Our guides soon quieted us with a song and a story straight from Miller himself which they built on as we followed them to Hugh Miller’s Birthplace, Hugh Miller’s Schoolhouse, Hugh Miller’s Cottage and to Hugh Miller’s Monument.
The night grew colder the stories eerier, and the button concertina’s songs wilder and faster. Miller’s father, a small vessel captain was drowned at sea when Miller was only five.We heard Miller’s terrifying adventure at age twelve when he and a friend were trapped by the rising tide in Doocot Cave as night came on:
We made desperate efforts to scale the precipices, and on two several occasions succeeded in
reaching midway shelves among the crags, where the falcon and the raven build; but though we had climbed well enough to render our return a matter of bare possibility, there was no possibility whatever of getting farther up. The cliffs had never been scaled, and they were not destined to be scaled now. And so, as the twilight deepened, and the precarious footing became every moment more doubtful and precarious, we had just to give up in despair. Tide Bound in the Sea-Caves, Hugh Miller
Climbing up away from the village, past the odd servants’ tunnel leading to grand Cromarty House, we settled ourselves on rocks and stones in St Regulus Cemetery –or what is locally known as the Pirate’s Graveyard.
The wind had picked up, rustling the great trees’ dry leaves. We shone our torches on weathered gravestones etched in skull and crossbones and were asked to extinguish our lights as we heard a final tale:
“.... Perhaps no personage of real life can be more properly regarded as a hermit of the churchyard than the itinerant sculptor, who wanders from one country burying-ground to another, recording on his tablets of stone the tears of the living and the worth of the dead .. .. How often have I suffered my mallet to rest on the unfinished epitaph , when listening to some friend of the buried
expatiating, with all the eloquence of grief, on the mysterious warning—and the sad deathbed—on the worth that had departed—and the sorrow that remained behind! How often, forgetting that I was merely an auditor, have I so identified myself with the mourner as to feel my heart swell, and my eyes becoming moist! . . . . I have grieved above the half-soiled shroud of her for whom the tears of bereavement had not yet been dried up, and sighed over the mouldering bones of him whose very name had long since perished from the earth." The stone-mason at work in Kirk-Michael churchyard, from Miller’s 'Scenes and Legends.'
We sat quietly in the dark until our guides rose and led us down the hill back to the village, the children running to stay ahead of night shadows, the adults walking as briskly as they could without looking like they were doing the same. We gathered as a softly speaking group by the square before peeling off in twos and fours as cottage doors opened to allow light to spill out and residents to enter in, then closed to the darkness.
We were alone by the time we reached Marine Parade and walked along the harbor to the Royal. The sea wind pulled and pushed us as we made our way past the empty pier. Taking the hotel stairs in one great leap, we threw ourselves down in the cushions of the couch by the great fire and stared into its flames until we were back in the present enough to find our dinner.
We left the next day, collecting slices of celebrated Dingwall black pudding for our freezer once we’d re-crossed the Firth on our way south. I stuck a small copy of Scenes and Legends in my suitcase to read on a bright sunny day, but as it was Scotland, one did not arise until I had lost track of where I had put it next.