Scotland #04 – Black Isle, Aigas, Beauly
Scotland July 2022 #04 - Black Isle and Aigas
This travel-blog is for a trip we took to Scotland in July of 2022. Other than a few days on our own in Edinburgh at the beginning this was on a formal tour of the Scottish Highlands operated by RS (Road Scholar, www.roadscholar.org).
This installment covers the Black Isle, the Aigas Field Center and some more history.
Entire Trip map
Detail of our route to Black Isle
Rich Farm Land
Today we visited the Black Isle. First of all it’s not an island at all but a peninsula and second it’s not black. The theory goes that it got its name from a quirk of topography and weather. In the winter when pretty much all of Scotland is covered in a white blanket of snow, the weather on the Black Isle is decidedly warmer than is found in the surrounding area and as such it is many times not covered in snow when all the visible area around it are. So, from a distance it is a dark patch of land in a white winter landscape, and thus was named the Black Isle.
Another theory of why it’s called the Black Isle stems from the rich dark color (or colour if you prefer) of the rich soil. This soil, along with a bit of a warmer climate than the surrounding area makes it ideal for the growing of crops. The main annual crops are wheat, oilseed rape, seed potatoes, malting barley and carrots along with Christmas trees.
Even though Scots Pine is native to most of Europe and Asia its common name comes from the forests in the Scottish Highlands. Although you may be more familiar with this tree as a standard Christmas tree in the US (it can be pruned to many different looks), it is mainly prized as timber for construction. It is fast growing, adaptable to many different growing conditions, the trunks tend to be straight and in natural forests only the top portion of the trees have branches.
Although most of the original Scots Pine forests have succumbed to centuries of logging for ship building, housing, and fuel one can still find patches of Scots Pine forests throughout the Highlands. A few of these are old growth patches but most are the result of a massive “re-wilding” project taking place which is trying to return the landscape to its pre “human impact” natural state.
Patch of Scots Pine on the Black Isle
North Sea Oil Rigs
One of the big economic booms for the UK in recent times has been petrochemical drilling in the North Sea making the east coast of Scotland the closest land base to support those operations. As it turns out the Cromarty Firth (bay) on the north east side of the Black Isle is the closest deep water, well sheltered, port for the support of the oil rigs. As we neared the town of Jemimaville we started seeing dozens of oil rig platforms out in the bay. Well, it seems that the boom days of North Sea oil have peaked and are in decline. This in turn has resulted in the decommissioning of many of the rigs. Once decommissioned, they are towed here to be dismantled.
Interestingly enough, between the time we visited in July and when I’m writing this (October), the Ukraine war has put an energy squeeze on gas and oil for Europe so maybe they’ll stop dismantling these rigs and start putting them back together.
Oil Rigs being dismantled near Cromarty
At the Northeast tip of the Black Isle is a little town of under 800 called Cromerty. To be honest, not much really distinguishes it from any other small Scottish seaside village. Of course there were a few people of note who either came from there or passed through the place – but none I’d ever heard of. And, there is the obligatory history of making a living from the sea and hosting nobles from time to time.
Over time though, the fishing industry has dwindled to practically non existence, support of the North Sea oil drilling is in sharp decline and support of the local farms can only go so far. So what is a small village to do in order to remain viable? Well, the answer is arts and tourism. Over the years this town has become a hub of creative activities including music events, an annual “”Crime and Thrillers” weekend, a “Harp” weekend, an annual film festival, and an annual exhibition of local art and crafts including stone letter carving and silver working. This seems to be keeping the little village prosperous, and life goes on.
Of course there are old churches, quaint cottages, and picturesque streets as well as odd little stories. But, no “have to see” sites.
Quaint street in Cromerty
“Walk-in” row of houses
And my favorite sign which sums up this little village
The rusty plaque underneath the green sign says “In 1862, however, James Mackay (aged 4) tragically died when he was struck by one of the iron gates that came away from the pillar”
Rosemarkie and Schooling
The next little town we ventured into was on the north side of the “island” is called Rosemarkie. Much like Cromerty, it is quite and charming in an historical way. Our main destination in Rosemarkie was the Groam House Museum. As you may recall, around the times when the Vikings were settling the western side of Scotland (around 600-800 AD), a lesser known group called the Picts were doing quite will in eastern side.
The Picts did a lot of large scale stone work, carving intricate designs on large slabs of stone as did many other cultures of the time. The Groam House Museum has a small but interesting collection of some of these carved monoliths. It’s not always entirely clear what these carved drawings and designs mean though they seem to tell stories of the power of kings, church and saints.
The upstairs of the museum talks to more recent history. One of the exhibits I found quite interesting talked about the schools in Rosemarkie. Today children must be in education from age 5 to 16 and the schools are free of charge. However prior to 1872, education was neither compulsory nor free. In 1844 Rosemarkie had two schools, both run by churches. The term “school” may be a bit misleading as each one was merely just a room in someone’s house. At that time kids could only attend if they were not required on the farm. The fees were for 3 month at a time and the cost for a full year was a full week’s wages for a typical farm worker. Classes were conducted in Gaelic or English depending on the time frame.
Starting in 1872, school attendance was compulsory up to the age of 13, but the fees were the same as in 1844. However they doubled when the child turned 10 year old. But wages gradually increased and the state did contribute to teacher salaries and new school buildings, so it did become more affordable over time. It wasn’t until 1890 that the fees were eliminated. In 1901 attendance was required till age 14.
Mosaic of traditional designs outside the Groam Museum
The Plough Inn and tavern
Rosemarkie Cemetery and Church
The last of our stops on the Black Isle was in the little town of Fortrose. This is sort of a twin to Rosemarkie and is another quiet little Scottish village. Actually other than a golf course shared with Rosemarkie and a point from which people try to see bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth, the only thing Fortrose seems to have going for it is a ruined 13th century cathedral.
Fortrose owes its origins to a decision by Bishop Robert in the 13th century to build a new “Cathedral of Ross”. This was to replace the Church of St Peter in nearby Rosemarkie. The cathedral was largely demolished in the mid-seventeenth century by Oliver Cromwell to provide building materials for a citadel at Inverness. The only parts that remain are the vaulted south aisle, with bell-tower, and a detached chapter house which was used as the tollbooth of Fortrose after the Reformation.
And, other than a 3 day visit by Mary Queen of Scots and her court in 1564, that’s all there is to Fortrose.
What’s left of the Fortrose Cathedral
And, that’s it for the Black Isle.
A bit of Scottish History part 4 – The Clearances
But, before we move on to our next day’s travels, let’s have a bit more Scottish History. So far we’ve talked about:
124 AD – Roman’s advance up to the border of the Highlands, but were never successful in getting much further and then they left the British Isles
800 AD - Vikings began migrating from Norway and Denmark to trade and settle in Western Scotland. Around the same time the Picts were doing well in Eastern Scotland.
1040-1057 AD – King Macbeth rules Scotland
1280’s – The unfortunate demise of King Alexander’s Royal family and the taking over of Scotland by King Edward of England which launched the first Scottish war of Independence.
1371 – 1714 – House of Stuart ruled Scotland (except for 1649-1660). They ruled England from 1603 to 1714 (except for 1649-1660)
1745-1746 – Jacobite Rebellion ending with the Battle of Culloden
As we are talking in this edition about the Black Isle, this would be a good time to get into the Highland Clearances as the Black Isle was one of the first places to be “cleared”. What we’re talking about is the removal of the “Gaels” from their land. Much like how we in the US removed the indigenous peoples we found here from their lands.
Of course such occurrences throughout history do not happen spontaneously in a vacuum. They are the result of powerful and well connected people working through the government to institute laws and policies aimed at furthering their interests. And so it was with the Gaels of the Highlands.
Up to this point, the highland Gaels eked out a living on small farms with poor soil. These tiny farms existed under the Clan system which had been in place for hundreds of years. Each “Clan” was ruled by one family one of whom was the clan chief. The kinsfolk and others who made up the clan lived together in agricultural townships that functioned like collectives or joint-tenancy farms. The land was controlled by the chief but leased from him by tenant farmers, who in turn employed cottars (we got the term “cottage” from their homes) to help cultivate it. Under this system there was an understood obligation of its members to take up arms at the command of the clan chief. Of course that was not all bad as those fighting men shared the plunder gained from raiding neighboring clans. In fact many of the surnames we find around the world today come from these clans such as Anderson, Campbell, MacDonald, MacLeod, Sinclair, Mackintosh, Mackinzie, Douglas, and MacLean to name a few.
Thousands of these Clan fighters were killed in the Battle of Culloden (1746) which we talked about last time, and in the subsequent months, some 1,000 Highlanders were hunted and killed by the English, wiping out whole Highland clans or forcing them to flee.
Shortly after Culloden, the British government imposed restrictions stripping power from the clan chiefs and the Gaelic culture it was based on. Among other things they banned clan tartans (plaid textile designs) as well as bagpipe music. The government also authorized outsiders to seize much of the land in the Highlands for almost no payment. The new landlords were set on replicating capitalist, and profitable, agriculture models employed in the Lowlands and this did not include small family farms.
The Highland Clearances came in two waves. The first wave (1810-1820) occurred when “they” decided that large sheep (or cattle) operations were better suited to the land than small single family farms. So, they “cleared” out the tenant farmers, burned down their houses, knocked down their stone walls and made large grazing tracts. The displaced farmers were sent to coastal crofts (small tenant farms), frequently on only marginally cultivable land. To make ends meet they were forced to subsist by collecting and smelting kelp (a source of potash and iodine) or by fishing which they had no idea how to do.
By the 1840’s a second wave occurred when the bottom had fallen out of the kelp and smelting businesses and there was a potato famine raging that included Scotland as well as Ireland. Seeing as how these crofter’s had no legal rights to the land and were considered lowlife and a burden on society anyway, it was short order to round them up and ship them off to factory jobs in the lowlands or out of the country altogether – spreading their clan names across the globe. Once all the damage had been done and they were rid of these people they set up a commission to investigate how this could have happened and later passed laws against it. Any of this sound familiar?
Aigas Field Center
The day after our Black Isle day we headed south from our base in Strathpeffer to the Aigas Field Center.
Map of our day to the Aigas Field Center and Beauly
Aigas in Scottish Gaelic means "Place of the Gap" and there is a small hamlet here on the bank of the River Beauly. We never actually made it to the town but rather spent the best part of the day at the Aigas Field Center a bit out of town.
The Aigas Field center is centered on the “House of Aigas” which was originally built as a tacksman's house sometime around 1760. In the 1870s it was sold to a wealthy family of Glaswegian shipping merchants, and used as a hunting lodge. During the Victorian era many additions were made to the house. And in the 1880’s a small arboretum was installed and trees such as Giant Sequoia, Nootka Cypress, and Western Red Cedar were planted in the gardens. The house was again sold in the 1950s, becoming a council-run old folks' home before being abandoned in 1971.
In 1976 Sir John Lister-Kaye bought the estate after finding it on the verge of being demolished. Sir John is a celebrated English author and conservationist and has lived in and run the estate since then, providing many much-needed renovations and expansions. Under his direction the Aigas Estate has become an important conservation centre known as the Aigas Field Centre (www.https://www.aigas.co.uk/). The centre runs environmental education services, nature-based holidays, and a Scottish wildcat breeding program. Aigas has also been home to a family of Eurasian beavers since 2006.
Sir John is a real character and story teller. He was born into an established family of landowners, politicians and merchants in the quarrying and mining industry. But he was sort of the family rebel and did not go along with the program of following in his dad’s footsteps.
From an early age he was fascinated with natural history which his family hoped was just a passing phase. But his family’s wishes didn’t pan out. In 1959, at the age of 13, his parents sent him to the Allhallows School, near Lyme Regis in Devon. This school happened to be situated within an 800-acre national nature reserve and near the wilderness of the Lyme Regis landslip. After five years boarding there he was fully committed to environmentalism.
Once out of school in 1964, his family more or less forced him into accepting a management trainee position in a steel mill but to no one’s great surprise he didn’t take to it. The defining moment came in 1967 when the supertanker Torrey Canyon sank near the Isles of Scilly causing an ecological disaster. At this point he decided to have nothing more to do with the industrial world bent on profit over environment and quite his job at the steel mill.
Shortly thereafter, in 1968, he gained an invitation from the well known naturalist Gavin Maxell to move up to the Scottish Highlands to help him work on a book about British wild mammals and to assist with a project to build a private zoo. But Maxell died that same year putting an end to the book and the zoo. But Sir John remained in Scotland and wrote his own book about his short time working with Maxwell. This book (The White Island) was a hit and has remained in print for over 30 years. The success of his book prompted him to form Highland Wildlife Enterprises, a natural history guiding service based, near Loch Ness. And, a couple of years later established a Field Center nearby.
To accommodate the need of more space for his field center as well as his growing family he persuaded the Inverness-shire County Council to sell him the remains of the Victorian sporting estate near Beauly called Aigas. And, in 1977, the Aigas Field Centre was opened. Over the years Sir John and his family have completely restored the original house, added several new sections, built cottages for guests, and established a botanical park style garden around the house. He has since gone on to write several other books.
Aigas Field Center main House
Sir Sir John Lister-Kaye
Main room in the house now used as the dining room for guests and program participants
A bit of Scottish History part 5 – The Glorias Revolution
When King Charles II, king of Scotland, England, and Ireland, died in 1685 the Crown passed to his younger brother King James II (known as King James VI in Scotland). This was at a time when relations between Catholics and Protestants were tense and there was considerable friction between the monarchy and the British Parliament. This posed a problem as James was Catholic and married to a Catholic.
James didn’t help this situation as he proceeded to appointed Catholic officers to the army, removed anti Catholic laws, established freedom of worship for Catholics, cozied up to Catholic France, and tried to dissolve parliament and form a new one full of members who supported him.
Over the years, James’ wife had many pregnancies but of those that didn’t miscarry, none survived more than a few days. So it was pretty unlikely that James would have a male heir in which case the crown would pass to his protestant daughter (from a previous marriage), Mary, and they’d not have to deal with those Catholics anymore. So they just let it slide.
But then to everyone’s astonishment, James’ wife had a son who, as a male, jumped ahead of Mary in the line of succession. But did he really have a new son? After all this son was preceded by a long list of previous miscarriages, still births, and short lived infants. So now the appearance of a robust healthy boy was somewhat suspect. A theory developed that that a live newborn from another mother had been smuggled into Mary’s bed in a warming pan to replace her own stillborn child and this surrogate was presented as the male heir to the throne.
Now they worried that a dynasty of Catholic kings and queens would be coming along and that could not be tolerated. In order help get rid of James (and his new heir) they enlisted the help of William III of Orange to mount an attack. William was the de facto ruler of Dutch Republic and was also the nephew of King James as well as the husband of his daughter Mary who had been the heir to the throne before this new son appeared. Not only was James betrayed by his family, many of his officers and trusted parliament members also turned against him as well and the icing on the cake was that his health was failing, But even though he tried to make amends, he was forced to flee to France where he eventually died.
A newly formed “free” parliament decided to a joint Monarchy with William as King and Mary as Queen putting the Catholic threat behind them. In the process parliament imposed further restrictions on the power of the Crown giving parliament the upper hand in the balance of power. Shortly thereafter William and Mary signed the Bill of Rights drafted by Parliament. This document established the right for regular Parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech in Parliament. Additionally, just to be sure, it forbade the monarch from ever being Catholic or being married to a Catholic and that is still in place today. Many historians believe the Bill of Rights was the first step toward a constitutional monarchy.
Legislation was also put in place that required a Sr. Member of Parliament (usually the Interior Minister) to be present in the room whenever there was a royal birth to assure that infants came from the mother and were not smuggled in. This practice remained in place until 1948 with the birth of Prince Charles (who just became the King) when then Princess Elizabeth refused to allow spectators as she gave birth.
On the way back from the Aigas Field center we passed through the town of Beauly and as we had a bit of time we stopped in Beauly. Beauly is yet another small village in the Highlands. About the only thing of note is that as a teen ager Mary (later Queen of Scots) liked to visit Beauly and stay there from time to time.
But, there is an old ruin of the Beauly Priory. As ruins of churches, cathedrals, Abbey’s and the like go, this one is not remarkable. It is modest in size and there is an ancient grave yard out front. The walls of the main building are intact and in good condition but the roof is long gone.
However, there was one interesting thing concerning a widow. Now a wife or widow can go by many names such as my better half, the wife, spouse or partner among others. But this plaque refers to the widow of Alexander Chisholm as his relic. Apparently this terminology comes from old French (relict) and means “(woman) left behind”. Never heard that before.
And he left behind Elizabeth Wilson, his relict
As we were being driven around in the bus we kept seeing these strange road signs telling you which way to turn for NC500. So, we asked about it. The NC500 (North Coast 500) is a marked loop route around northern portion of Scotland similar to Ireland’s “Ring of Kerry” or the “Ring Road” in Iceland. Its intention is to bring more tourist traffic to the area.
Well, it seems that governments are the same all over and Scotland is no different. In 2015 the NC500 (North Coast 500) was created by the Tourism Project Board of the North Highland Initiative (NHI) to attract more visitors and is for the most part thought to have been a good idea. However, the agency that put it together, got it funded, advertised it and put up all the road signs in order to attract more traffic to the route forgot that it would attract more traffic to the route.
The good news is that it worked and folks flocked to the route in all sorts of vehicles. The bad news is that there was no infrastructure improvements in the plan to accommodate all those new visitors. At places roads are too narrow to allow bi-directional traffic, there was little or no parking at popular (advertised) view spots causing people to park on the already too narrow roads, restroom facilities designed for a couple dozen visitors a day over flowed with the now hundreds of visitors a day, hotels and motels quickly sold out leaving people to sleep in their cars and restaurants were too few and too scattered to serve the number of hungry people looking for something to eat. So, all in all a great success, unless you lived along the route and couldn’t get out of your driveway. But, there is now a new project underway to upgrade the infrastructure needed to support the increased number of visitors – and hopefully the funding will not be taken away due to recent UK economic woes.
Weird Traffic Control
As Scotland is part of the UK, you drive on the left side of the road which is fine (unless you have to do it yourself). But I noticed these strange little slalom things as we traveled around in the bus. They seem to be for the purpose of slowing traffic down in residential zones but what a way to do it. As you’re driving along, these diverters force you through a one lane “narrows” and that same one lane is also used by traffic coming the other way. So you have traffic going in opposite directions at the same time on the same one lane patch of road. Brilliant!
Fortunately (unless the paint is worn off or covered in snow) one direction has a “yield” triangle painted on the pavement (but no sign) so at least you know who is to blame if two cars meet nose to nose.
Meeting on-coming traffic
I wonder how well this would work in, say, New York City or Boston? But I do suppose it would be fun to watch.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the Road Scholar Guides)
Keywords: aigas field center, black isle, blog, cromerty, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogscotland2022, fortrose, glorias revolution, nc500, north coast 500, rosemarkie, s sir john lister-kaye, scotland, scots pine, the clearances
Hi Dan, great photos and history lesson! You seem to be blessed with a lot of sunny weather on the Road Scholar trip. My neighbors were in Scotland this summer and reported a lot of rain. Keep up the traveling, and all the best to Ellen.
Thanks for the tour!
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