What do Faeroes, Fair Isle, Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Cromarty, Forth, Forties, Tyne & Dogger have in common with Sir Lowry's Pass to Plettenberg Bay? The former contains one of the best pubs in Britain and the latter some pretty decent wine ...
Weather forecast junkies and radio listeners will recognise another thread. Annie Proulx fans will understand why.
Rosemarkie and Cromarty
So, when Shan and I had settled down in our camp site with a panoramic sea view, had the obligatory first glass of wine (Harrison gin in my case) and ambled on the beach a bit, we contrived to plan the next day:
"There's a bus to Inverness," I ventured. Scotland is splendidly served by buses.
"I thought we'd agreed to keep clear of cities?" she responded, "It's so peaceful here."
"Well, the same bus goes to Cromarty in the opposite direction, I replied.
"What's at Cromarty?" my wife seemed vaguely interested.
"Vikings, North Out Sierra and South Out Sierra for starters ..."
Peeking out from the tranquil Cromarty Firth at Moray Firth and towards Utsira and Ferkingstad in Norway.
The bus picked us up in Rosemarkie and dropped us off at the waterfront in Cromarty. In the absence of a grand plan we strolled along the aptly named Shore Street (above). The street is actually pretty straight despite the pano distortion provided by my phone. It didn't take long before we were heading out of town but we were hungry and resolved to meander the short distance to parallel Church Street through some pretty lanes. It seemed to us that Church Street must be the hub of Cromarty. The pub had stopped serving food by the time we got there but we managed to find something to eat in Couper Creek, which had fab ice cream. Wondering while wandering how we were going to fill the time (the museum was closed at that hour) between lunch and our return bus, much to Shan's delight we stumbled upon the treasure trove that was Ingrid's House. My dear wife had been searching for accessories for her outfit for Kate's and Andrew's wedding the following month. She fell in love with a choker and a few other things, besides.
Laden with loot, we still had some time to kill before our rendezvous with the return charabanc. While hovering about at the bus stop, we thought we'd kill a bit of time wandering around aimlessly and strayed down Bank Street. We didn't get much further than the only shop dedicated to Dutch Cheese in the UK. Flippin heck, the Netherlanders are pretty famous for their cheese and it had never occurred to me that there was such a huge gap in our market.
There was more of interest further down the street but we had to rush out to catch our bus. Maybe we shouldn't have taken quite such a laissez faire approach to Cromarty.
The Scottish bus drivers we encountered seemed always helpful and we were allowed to leap off early for a beautiful nature walk on the Fairy Glen Trail back to Rosemarkie (below)
The Rosemarkie Camping and Caravanning Club Site has sweeping views along the golden sands of the Moray Firth and across the water to the 18th Century Fort George.
Fortrose and Avoch
Following our previous day's bus ride, we decided that a bit of Active Travel would be appropriate to stretch our legs a bit and head in the opposite direction from Cromarty. This turned out to be an excellent decision because serendipity tends to escalate by an order of magnitude when one is open to the elements and travelling at a relatively slow pace. People are eager to give you the time of day.
There is a wee conundrum (at least for this pedant) surrounding Fortrose. St David's in West Wales lays claim to being the UK's smallest city. The rationale for this claim is founded on it having a cathedral and having been given city status in the 12th century AD. Well! It seems Fortrose has had a cathedral since the 13th Century and has about 10 fewer people than St Davids. The evidence of the cathedral's continued existence is in the first picture below. Granted, it is not as splendid as St Davids' but it has a better pub. More of that later.
First we had to get to Avoch, complicated by finding the entrance to the disused railway track that now serves as a traffic free cycle route. It is there, we eventually found. It's a little steep and a tad daunting where the track clings to the side of the hill with not much between the cyclist and the Moray Firth. A couple of viewing benches are welcome compensation.
We always seem to arrive in places towards the end of lunch time. Avoch was no different and we had to content ourselves with a Co-op sarnie. The thing to do with sarnies is to find a comfortable place to eat them, preferably seated. The sea wall heading out of town was just such a spot and had the added advantage of a skip for responsible disposal of the wrapping that generally accompanies convenience store snacks.
We were enjoying sea view and sarnie when we became aware that we were being studied by a chap across the road working on his van. Hailing from England, we were concerned that we might have inadvertently transgressed and were about to be upbraided. But he seemed in no hurry to level any accusations while he inched around his vehicle moving ever closer.
Eventually he obviously decided that he was close enough to address us without startling the horses.
The bikes were the conversation opener. We could not wish for a friendlier person. Turns out he was a local firefighter for Avoch and Fortrose and had acquired a house with an extraordinary view over the Firth. He was in the final stages of renovation and described the area he and his partner had chosen for their new home.
All the while we'd been eyeing a mound in the distance.
"Where are you headed?" our new Avocular friend inquired.
"We'll probably just go down to the end of the seafront and turn around," we ventured.
"You could go up to Ormond Castle," he encouraged
"Is there a way up there?" I enquired, gesturing at our road(ish) bikes.
He gave us such detailed instructions it would have been churlish not to give it a go, especially as he was standing there all proud and expectant. We thanked him profusely and headed off up the road.
"Enjoy the view from up there," he shouted after us. "You can see all the way to Culloden."
Spurred on by that evocative name, we waved back to him. We couldn't very well turn around at the end of the road now.
And thankfully we didn't, as can be seen from the views from the summit below.
On the way back to Avoch, Shan started prattling on about a house she'd spotted earlier with a red corrugated iron roof. I can only think I must've been looking the other way on the outward journey! (see below). It first drew my attention when we stopped on the bridge. How could I have missed it?
"I want to go and have a closer look," Shan insisted. So we did.
You know those cringeworthy moments when, having done a bit of a recce and circled back to take a photo, a car draws up in front of the house containing either the owner or a local, concerned at a pair of cyclists loitering with intent.
Our fears only intensified when a substantial Scotsman clambered out of the car and started to stride towards us.
"Can I help ye?" he asked levelly. His Glaswegian accent was unmistakable.
At this point I stepped aside for my wife, who has more eloquent charm in these situations than I do.
"Is this your house?" she smiled sweetly. "I just love the juxtaposition of the ancient whitewashed walls and the bright red tin roof and we were hoping to take a photo of it."
It turns out he was delighted, especially when we showed an understanding of the arcane planning law that insists on any new bits of a listed house standing out like a dog's bollocks. This is so tourists don't confuse the early vernacular with the new added bits. As Shan had correctly divined, this was the oldest remaining dwelling in Avoch. The original thatch survives underneath the red roof.
"Would you like to have a look around inside," our newest friend offered, introducing himself as Darry MacKay and moving towards the front door. We glanced at his car where his wife remained in the passenger seat.
"Rosie was in the middle of a radio play and wants to hear the end of it. I will help her out of the car when she's finished listening," he explained intuitively, while unlocking the door.
"We've tried to decorate the interior in keeping with the house's origins. The bric-a-brac is not all to our taste but we have tried to keep it authentic." While he was telling us all this we were looking around appreciatively and as Darry described some of the items in more detail I could hear his voice but couldn't see him. It suddenly occurred to me that I was listening to Billy Connolly. It was like an out-of-body experience. Almost two years later and I can still hear The Big Yin extolling the virtues of Maji Cottage and the Black Isle.
I mentioned to Darry that I had a friend, Scott McKee, who lived in Buchlyvie and had been a bit of an inspiration for our Scottish tour. We were off again. Clans and history and possible links between McKee and MacKay were enthusiastically explored. Eventually we had to reluctantly tear ourselves away. Would that we'd had time to tarry for a few jars and jaws with Darry, Rosie, the fireman and his partner before we headed South.
We bid our farewells, determined to return to the Black Isle, and Darry went off to rescue Rosie from the car.
The red tin roof of Maji Cottage hides a cornucopia of historic features, possibly back to the 16th Century, that Darry hopes to have carbon dated one day. While not as extraordinary as Maji, there are many weathered buildings along the Avoch waterfront with tons of character.
We took the quicker (main road) route to Campy with the weather starting to look threatening. I was determined to have my pub pint while Shan demurred, preferring to soak up the ocean view (below) and a cosy glass of chardonnay or two on our last and northernmost evening of our road trip.
I was keen to visit at least one pub on the Black Isle and had done a bit of research. It didn't take long to settle on the Union Tavern in Fortrose. I'd determined on that one after reading a 1-star review. I often do that rather than wade through all the 5-star accolades. This one was particularly enticing and written by a holier-than-though Englishman whose precious wife was offended by a few of the local punters' swearing. It seemed particularly loathsome to this couple that the landlady had treated them politely but had taken no action to expel the oathsome locals.
With tears in my eyes ... this was Scotland FFS. Can you imagine the squeamishness of Mr and Mrs Twinset if they ever set foot in a fookin' Dublin establishment.
I was hoping my instinct had been on the button when it started to pour with rain 100 yards into a 1.1 mile walk. I was not to be disappointed.
The Union Tavern Fortrose
This is the local pub you'd always wish to find when you're away from home. Relax in congenial company, get the benefit of local knowledge and enjoy the beverages from nearby. The facts of my visit speak for themselves. No sooner had I walked in and Annie, the local legend serving behind the bar (above), greeted me warmly. Having placed my pint of Happy Chappy in front of me, she asked me about my day, showing a genuine interest in where I'd been and who I'd met. This is someone who was managing a busy bar and tending to thirsty customers all the while.
Another customer beckoned and I was able to reflect on my luck at finding such a special place. I'm not sure exactly where they came from but a bowl of hot chips suddenly appeared in front of me. I suspect they were requisitioned from a local customer who had popped out for a fish takeaway and was enjoying it several barstools away. The chips were accompanied by two local newspapers for me to catch up on the news. I thought that was that, as the bar was getting busy.
Oh no. Annie had established that I lived in Oxfordshire and enjoined the locals to chat to me, which they did. Aged from 20 to maybe older than me in my late 60s. Everyone was interested and interesting. Another Happy Chappy ensued and I placed my cash on the bar.
I asked Annie if there was any objection to my taking a picture of her bar. Of course there wasn't. She then asked if I would like one of myself. When I assumed my pose, I was told to get behind the bar and pull a pint. The evidence accompanies this review. Annie appears, probably unsuspectingly, reflected in the mirror behind me.
So now I'm feeling special and I return to my pint an even happier chappie. When I pointed to my proffered note half the bar told me that the pint was on the house. The owner, Jamie MacGregor, had bought a round for the whole pub.
My second pint down the hatch and I was steeling myself for the 25 minute walk back to Shan and Campy. I reasoned to myself that a wee dram would set me up to fend off the rain. I mentioned this to Annie and a Laphroaig was on its way (after my reassurances that I really did like peaty malts).
Once again I tried to pay. Nope, Mr MacGregor wasn't having it. Nor was I able to express my appreciation in any way other than a simple verbal thank you during which more interest was shown, by Jamie this time, in my journey.
Without a shadow of a doubt the most delightful bar I've been into in the UK in recent years. And there were some strong contenders during our 4-week Scottish tour.
Coming soon: Culloden and the slow journey South