296. Cromarty to Shandwick

June 2016

This was the last day of a 5 day walking trip to the Highlands. I packed up all my stuff and left my Hotel, having to carry 5 days worth of clothes with me for this walk. I walked to the bus stop and took the bus into the centre of Inverness. Here I stopped at the Co-Op to buy lunch.

The previous day I had some problems with a bus that was listed in the timetable, on the Stagecoach website, on Traveline and on the bus station departure board as departing from the bus station. However it turned out that despite this it does not in fact depart from the bus station, it departs from outside Farm Foods, as I found to my cost the previous day. So today I was trying to catch the same bus. This time I had found Farm Foods, so let’s see what happens. Well the good news is that this time the bus actually came and it was a double decker so I got good views. The bad news is that it only went as far as Fortrose. The good news was that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (only) there was an onwards connecting bus to Cromarty, which is where I wanted to go and today is Wednesday so it should be running. (Why it only runs on some days of the week I have no idea).

So on reaching Fortrose, I changed and hoped that the next bus would come. A few minutes after it was due, as I was beginning to give up hope that it was going to come. However then an empty Stageocach bus tried to turn right round the corner. It was a tight turn and after messing up the first attempt at making the turn, it reversed back and tried again this time just making it (but only by mounting the kerb). The front display on the bus showed “000 Not in Service” so I didn’t bother to flag it down (assuming, not unreasonably, this meant it wasn’t in service), but despite this, it did stop. It turns out this was my bus and the driver stopped because he saw me waiting (why he hadn’t thought to set the display to something useful, I didn’t like to ask). More un-professionalism from Stagecoach Highlands, sadly.

The driver asked me where I wanted to be dropped of as we approached Cromarty (I was and had been the only passenger throughout) and I told him the ferry. He advised me that the bus didn’t terminate directly at the ferry, so to get off at the end of the route and walk over the grass to the other end. I did as instructed, watched closely by the bus driver the whole way (I guess he didn’t have a lot to do until it was time for the return service).

This green in Cromarty seems to double as an unofficial campsite, as wild camping is permitted in Scotland, but Dutch campervans seemed to be the most common. I could see the ferry already heading out so knew I had just missed one and would have to wait for the next ferry, at 10:00am instead. Still Cromarty looked to be a pleasant enough village.

Cromarty

Cromarty

Cromarty

I sat on the beach beside the slipway and waited and soon it made it’s way back.

Cromarty

Cromarty

Cromarty

I was the only passenger, though it also took a van, the only vehicle that was waiting, but it did not look like there was room for anything else on it anyway!

Aboard the Cromarty ferry

(As an aside, is Arnold Clark the richest man in Scotland? I’ve certainly noticed that about 2/3 of cars in Scotland have an Arnold Clark dealership sticker on the back window…)

In fact I’d heard this is the smallest car ferry in Britain, which I could well believe. As a not very interesting fact I actually travelled on the vessel that formerly operated this route when I travelled from Weston-super-Mare to Flat Holm island when the former Cromarty ferry (Cromarty Rose) had been sailed down to the Bristol Channel and renamed Westward Ho, to operate the service over to Flat Holm island from Weston-super-Mare (though that too has also closed down since).

The crossing cost £4.50 (one way for a foot passenger) which I thought a bit expensive (it’s less than a mile), but given there was no other public transport to Nigg I was happy to pay it.

Now the ferry had arrived  I travelled over on the deck, I think you can also go inside. It was not a fast crossing, but it was nice to enjoy the views. The only other passenger was the driver of the hired van. She was a bit nervous about getting the van off, as it is a tight squeeze and you must reverse off, and she was not used to driving a van. She made it fine though, with the ferryman waving her up the narrow slipway.

Now I had arrived at Nigg, the Cromarty Firth was beautiful. It was a calm day and the sea looked more like a pond.

The beach at Nigg

Nigg was an odd place. There was some industry about, but it was totally silent and once the van and ferry had gone, there was no one else about at all. I had had some trouble planning this walk because of no obvious footpath beyond. There was a path up the cliffs to Castlecraig, but after that only a few farm tracks heading inland. The coast also had a few waterfalls and streams, which were likely to be a problem crossing and areas of woodlands with lakes in. All in all, it looked tricky. So having found the official coast path on the Black Isle yesterday actually followed the rough beach most of the way I decided to try that here too. It looked like there was a rocky beach at low tide as far as North Sutor and a bit east of there it looked to become a bigger shingle beach which should be easier. So if I could get around the cliffs at Noth Sutor I should be OK. I think the tide was going out too.

I initially followed a path behind houses (the pub marked on the map here is closed and looks to have been converted to … something). This headed out into an area of grassed over sandy dunes. So I set off east along the paths, but soon headed down onto the beach itself, which was now sandy.

The beach at Nigg

The beach at Nigg

It’s a beautiful beach too, backed by low dunes. It was a clear sunny day and it was deserted, it reminded me a little of arriving on the Isles of Scilly.

I followed it to the eastern end where the beach turned to shingle, then pebbles and finally rocks. The going was now hard as I picked my way over the large rocks and avoided the gully’s between them. There were now quite high cliffs above me and the going was tough making progress slow. I got a couple of hundred metres but was then faced with this.

The beach at Nigg

The coast at Nigg

It might be possible to get around if the tide was lower. I think it was going out but I would likely have to wait a couple of hours for that to happen, which I didn’t have. So I reluctantly headed back conscious I had wasted about 40 minutes so far and got nowhere. Returning to the dunes, I followed the road heading up the cliffs. This is a private road signed as belonging to a petroleum company, but in Scotland this does not apply for walkers, so I followed it. It was a steep climb and hard work with my heavy pack. Near the top I spotted that rare thing in Scotland, a footpath sign!

Nigg

It showed the path to the right was “Castlecraig Circular Path”. I was hoping for coast path but it would make a good start, but without an obvious circular route on the map, I had to guess where it might go. Initially there was a good path over the short grass near the coastal edge of a field, but set a bit back from the coast. Stiles were provided at each field crossing, though I had to avoid the cows.

From the top I had fine views back to Nigg and the Cromarty Firth, and it’s many old oil rigs.

The Cromarty Firth at Nigg

The Cromarty Firth at Nigg

As I approached a line of trees, I passed on the coastal side of them and passed various old World War II concrete buildings, now in a state of dereliction. There was probably quite an encampment here!

Old World War II buildings near Nigg

The cows had run ahead of me to the end of the field so I was glad to be able to climb over the gate to be rid of them. Ahead was a valley and I seemed to have run out footpath signs. But just as I got the fence I spotted a stile and was able to cross it heading down to the small valley where I could just step over the stream and head back up the field. From here I was in another field of cows!

These two ran along the path near me keeping to the coastal side of a plantation. There was another old World War II building at the end and I climbed over the gate to get away from the cows.

Old World War II buildings near Nigg

I now had a good path along the edge of the field ahead but assumed that the circular walk had now headed inland. Ahead was another valley which I was again able to cross by stepping over it. Ahead was another field which I crossed and led to another valley.

The coast north of Nigg

Ahead now were areas of gorse and broom so I headed inland over the field to keep the landward side above them, my path now largely disappeared. I could see ahead the next stream had cut quite a valley so I would have to head inland to get around it anyway. I managed to pick my way around the gorse and near the top of the valley were – yet more – cows. The area was very boggy and I had to climb over the gate to the area where the cows were. I eventually managed to find a dry enough route over the bogs to cross and then could resume my route over the fields. I headed back to the coast and was surprised at the end of the next field to find a stile (though no footpath sign).

The coast north of Nigg

The coast north of Nigg

Sadly the land beyond was overgrown and the left of the stile was just another fence. So I used the stile to help me over the fence and along the south edge of the next field. So far, I had been all alone but as I neared the next field edge I could see a van parked a little further up the field where I think the man was working on the fence. I had hoped not to be seen as I climbed over the fence and I was forced to do that I would no doubt incur the wrath of the farmer who would tell me that is how the last fence got damaged! Thankfully I was far enough down I don’t think he noticed me and in any case a gap had been left at the bottom of the field I think for a gate, so no climbing required.

I followed the path along the coastal edge of the next, large, field. Things were going well until I reached an area of woodland between me and the next valley. Here the field ended and there were two gates. More excitingly, there was even a footpath sign – signing me straight ahead into the thick bracken, heather and trees.

It was really impassable, but having come so far I managed to pick my way steeply down hill over the heather and bracken into the woodland. Here I ducked under the trees and made my way down keeping trying to convince myself I could see a bit of a path. At the bottom of the steep valley, I came to a stream. There was no bridge, but I could cross it by stepping on some of the rocks, as it was shallow.

I did here consider trying to follow the river down to the beach, but it was very wet (rivers usually are….) and a steep sided valley so I decided against it. It was a real scramble up the other side through woodland and then to more thick bracken. I could not see what was ahead or how much bracken there was so I just crashed through it as best I could. The ground was very uneven and full of roots, making it really hard work. So I was relieved that it was only a fairly small area and I soon burst out into a field, sweating, and with a fine view back.

The coast south of Shandwick

To my left now was a lot of bracken and gorse, but ahead was grass. I continued over the grass until ahead I had a wall of gorse and bracken. I could see no way through. I tried a few paths which soon fizzled out. I couldn’t face going back down that valley, so I decided again to try and push through the gorse. It was so hard work with no path and thick gorse, over my head in places. It scratched my arms, tore at my clothes (and claimed my camera lens cap). After a while there was even a fence on my right, but it was totally within the gorse. Who had built it and why?! It was torture but I pressed on for about 10 minutes. The gorse was still thick, I could not see a way out ahead, I was not sure if there would be a path and I was now thoroughly demoralised and with my arms all scratched from the gorse.

I stopped to check the map and spotted a track near the top of the field on the map. Rather than try to continue forward, I would try to head back and make for that. Going back was even worse, I fell over several times and really just wanted to collapse and sit down for a while. However today I did not have the luxury of time. I was booked on a flight home from Inverness Airport that evening and in order not to miss that I had to get a bus at 3pm from Shandwick.

I could not afford to waste any more time, I had to forgo lunch and I had to find that track. If I could not get to the road in time I would call a taxi when I could reach the road.

So I crashed back through the gorse, getting more cuts in the process and getting thoroughly annoyed both with the terrain and my own stubbornness. Why hadn’t I turned back or headed inland earlier? This was a stupid decision. It took what seemed like an hour to get out of that gorse, each step was such an effort and I often tripped. I was also a bit worried if I was even going the right way and I would be stuck in this gorse. So it was such a relief to eventually emerge from it, sweating and scratched. I had to stop for a drink I was so hot.

(Frustratingly when I later downloaded my route from my GPS and put it onto Google Earth I could see I had got about 90% of the way through the gorse when I turned back…).

This done I was pleased to spot the track up out of the gorse, it was steep but at least it was clear. Ahead I approached a farm fence and was not so pleased to see the farmer around the gates I needed to climb over. I asked him if this track headed to the road and if he minded if I followed it. He seemed surprised to see anyone but said it was OK to climb the gates and follow the track to the road. I am sure a better route, closer to the coast and off this track could be found. But I had had enough of going “off piste” and could not afford to waste any more time. So I followed the track that twisted and turned back down past some barns and eventually the road came into view.

The track emerged at the road just west of the house at Wester Rarichie. I was so glad to see the tarmac (not often I say that!) and back to civilisation.

Wester Rarichie

I hate road walking, but at least the road was quiet, wide and I knew where it went! I checked the time and concluded I had enough time to make it Shandwick if I walked quickly. So I did. A few minutes later a bus passed me (going the other way to the way I wanted to go). I was not sure of the route so was glad to see that the bus did follow this road, as if I did not make it to Shandwick in time there was a good chance I could flag it down as I went. I followed this road passed only by about half a dozen cars and a cyclist to reach the turning for Shandwick and a sign welcoming me to the “Seaboard villages”. (The villages of Shandwick, Ballintore and Hilton of Cadoll form an almost linear settlement along the coast here and seem to be collectively known as the “Seaboard Villages” but given they are far from the only villages on the east coast of Scotland I am not sure why these villages specifically seem to get this distinction).

Shandwick

I followed this down and came across a surprising sight. An old standing stone, perhaps like Stonehenge just off to my left. There were no signs but some information boards which had been removed with the promise of “new signs coming soon”. I approached it and found it covered in the most intricate carvings. It had been enclosed in a glass building, presumably to protect it from the weather (and possibly vandals).

Pictish stone near Shandwick

It was quite beautiful but I was a bit disappointed to not know what it was I was looking at. I later found it was one of a number of Pictish Stones probably over 1000 years old. Quite amazing. (It is marked on the map as Shandwick Stone, Cross Slab).

I followed the road down soon descending into the village.

My thoughts turned immediately to the bus, I had 20 minutes before it was due thanks to my fast walking along the road, but I didn’t want to take any chances so I stuck to the road until I found the bus stop. I checked the timetable, it matched the printed one I had (always a bonus and not always the case!). So now I knew I had a few minutes to spare, I took the path to the beach. And what a beautiful beach it was, a lovely sandy beach backed by dunes.

Shandwick

Cromarty

I had originally considered walking today all the way from Portmahomack to Nigg (for the ferry to Cromarty. But I couldn’t make the transport links work without a very early start so decided to make this a shorter walk. In the end I only just made it, so I was very glad I had made that decision, but looking out to sea I knew this was a place I would be happy, and could look forward to, returning to in future for my next walk.

I returned to the bus stop and got chatting to a local lady who had grown up here and lived in the village her whole life. She told me about all the wildlife they saw (and still do see) and how lovely it is here. I could see exactly what she meant! This passed away the time until the bus came (and I was glad it came on time) and I was surprised to see the bus was a double decker again and took me into Tain.

The lady was keen to direct me to the bus onwards to Inverness but I explained I planned to take one of the (rare) trains, so she instead directed me to the station. This is because of all the issues I had had with Stagecoach buses on this walk, I knew from my phone that the train was running and on time and considered it a less of a risk than the bus, which might not be.

In the end I returned to the High Street to take a few photos first, since I turns out Tain is a beautiful town and I had 20 minutes, so had time to explore a little.

Tain

Tain

Tain

Tain

Once done I followed her directions down to the station. The station building had an odd sign “Platform 1864” under the entrance but I went in and found out it was converted to a restaurant (with the odd name presumably being when the station opened)!

Tain station

I asked (rather optimistically) if I could buy a train ticket here but was told it was not the station any longer but I could buy a ticket on the train as there was also no ticket machine at the station.

If I was hoping that information about the trains would be simpler and less likely to be wrong than the bus, I was to be disappointed, since the electronic information display at the station was not too helpful.

Tain station

Instead I consulted the sign to tell me which of the two platforms to go to. That wasn’t much easier to understand either, with it’s list of various exceptions!

Tain station

Having found the right platform I waited for the train.

Tain station

The train did turn up when expected and it was a beautiful (but pricey) journey back to Inverness.

I had time to have dinner in the Whetherspoon pub and when I left the weather had taken a turn for the worst and it was now pouring with rain. I made my way as quickly as possible to the bus station. My flight left from Inverness airport at 20:55. I could take the bus at 18:20 (arriving 18:50) or 19:20 (arriving 19:50). That last one was a bit tight I thought so planned for the 18:20. As it was raining really hard I waited in the waiting room inside at the bus station. At 18:15 I was turfed out of the bus station building by a rather rude lady coming over to me and announcing “we close at 18:15, you’ll have to leave”. My impression of Stagecoach Highlands was not improving!

Now I had to stand in the rain because all the shelters were full. Well I half sheltered under the building but it did not provide much shelter.

18:20 came and went. So did 18:25. So did 18:30. At 18:35 the bus finally arrived. I was glad to see it, and at least it was a coach. The driver drove rather aggressively and was obviously trying to make up time. In fact, dangerous would be more appropriate. He wooshed through puddles of water at the side of the road, spraying pedestrians. When we reached the A96, he simply didn’t wait at roundabouts if vehicles on the roundabout would be able to stop in time if he pulled out, so he’d do just that, to be met with the blaring of horns from the drivers that had right of way but had been forced to stop anyway (and he did this at most of the roundabouts).

I was very glad to reach the airport after the dangerous drive here. I checked in and found my flight was 35 minutes late. This gave me time to reflect. On previous trips to north east Scotland I had hired a car. This time I hadn’t bothered deciding that after consulting the timetables and maps, using entirely public transport would be sufficient for this trip. After all the problems I had had on this trip with buses however, I decided not to do that again. Next time I’d hire a car and only use the bus to get back to the car, rather than to get to both the start and end of my walks. Stagecoach had let me down so many times on this trip (and the final, dangerous drive was the last straw) and I felt I couldn’t trust them and didn’t want to use them any more than needed in future. (A later Google search confirmed my hunch – with a news article from late the previous year indicating Stagecoach had been fined £20,000 and had their operating license restricted due to a known defective bus being put into service which then caught fire with school children on board and another bus crashing into a bridge whilst the driver was on his phone. Despite this seemingly they hadn’t learnt anything from that because this news article, around 6 months later and just a few days before I did this walk stated Stagecoach had been fined a further £10,000 after a wheel came off one of their buses).

Having decided this, the delay to my flight grew to 45 minutes by the time we left (having used this specific flight several times subsequently I found out that this is not at all unusual and this flight is almost always late). We landed at Luton at 11pm but then had to wait to get off the plane because there were no buses. After 10 minutes or so a bus arrived, we could begin to get off. But soon, and before I could get off the plane, we were told the bus was now full so they had to stop people getting off the plane until another bus came. We were told the disruption was because Stansted Airport had been closed for an hour or so earlier in the day and some planes had diverted to Luton, causing a shortage of buses. A second bus located we eventually got to the terminal. I was through there quickly and got the bus to the long stay car park and my car (once I had found it, because I forgot to note down the area I parked in). I eventually got home just before 1am. I went more or less straight to bed, as I had to be at work the next day. It had been a long and tiring day!

This had turned out to be a rather frustrating walk. My attempts to keep as close to the coast as I could had been fairly disastrous, leading me to dead ends on the beach and later trying to plough through gorse which was almost head-high in places! It was exhausting, time consuming and not a sensible solution – I’d have to be a bit more pragmatic with choosing routes in future! Despite these difficulties and frustrations, the scenery had been lovely and the beach and Pictish stone at Shandwick had made for a lovely end to the walk and somewhere I could look forward to coming back to.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk. Unfortunately at the time of writing (August 2020) the Cromarty to Nigg ferry is not operating at all during 2020 and there is no bus to Nigg. However the ferry is expected to resume in 2021. Without the ferry this walk is not possible without using a taxi etc. However the details below show the buses that could be used if the ferry was operating and you would seemingly need to take bus 30A, 30B or 30C from Shandwick to Tain, bus 25X from Tain to Inverness and bus 26/26A from Inverness to Cromarty (and the ferry to Nigg if it was running).

Stagecoach Highlands route 30A, 30B  and 30C : Tain – Arabella Crossroads – Shandwick – Balintore – Hilton – Hill of Fearn – Tain. 30A and 30C between them run a loop in opposite direction and services the villages in the opposite order. Between them the service runs approximately hourly Monday – Saturday (no service on Sundays).

Stagecoach Highlands route 25X : Inverness – Evanton – Alness – Invergordon – Saltburn – Barbaraville – Milton Village – Tain. Broadly hourly, Monday – Saturday. No service on Sundays.

Stagecoach Highlands route 26 and 26A : Inverness – Munlochy – Avoch – Fortrose – Rosemarkie – Cromarty. Broadly hourly Monday – Saturday with some additional services running between Inverness and Fortrose only.

Highland Ferries Cromarty to Nigg Ferry (suspended in 2020): Cromary – Nigg. Every 30 minutes, summer only typically from 1st June to 15th September but not in 2020.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link

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10 Responses to 296. Cromarty to Shandwick

  1. patriz2012 says:

    Goodness me – that was a walk and a half! And the bus experience sounds more like places in Africa rather than Scotland. Glad there were high points – the few times I’ve been to Scotland I’vdd Ed always been amazed by the long sandy beaches – completely deserted.

    • jcombe says:

      Yes there are a lot of absolutely stunning beaches in Scotland and as you say very often completely deserted. As to the walk yes it was very tough, I should been less dogmatic about sticking right to the coast when there isn’t a path. The buses too I do agree, they seem very chaotic once into the highlands.

  2. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, I think we were both “done” by the tide and gorse. When I walked the opposite route from Shandwick the options for walking along diminished as the tide came in, I tried to bail out up the clif-face but the gorse was impenetrable. I had to retrace my steps almost back to Shandwick and manoeuvre around the gorse which ultimately lead me down onto the road. Yoour right, pragmatism, is the best option in times like these.
    Off to Scotland on Friday for three days, which should see most of Fife completed. I will then have just 5 walking days left in Scotland to do.

    • jcombe says:

      Ah so it wasn’t just me that tried to find a more coastal route and got stuck in the gorse. I must re-read your report.

      I hope you enjoy Fife. It’s a bit more built up than much of Scotland but I found the towns and villages along there (with one or two exceptions) to be really beautiful and interesting and I’m sure you’ll appreciate having a proper coast path to follow through Fife, I look forward to reading about it when you get back.

  3. This one sounded like (another) challenge! Arnold Clark died a few years ago, though his empire lives on. I used one of his dealerships over 25 years ago and wasn’t impressed with the service, but I bought my current car from Arnold Clark Renault and I have to say they have very much improved (or I was unlucky before). I feel a bit guilty about abandoning my local garage though …

    • jcombe says:

      Yes this was a hard walk and I should have picked an easier route, but hindsight and all that. Sad to hear about Arnold Clark perhaps he *was* the richest man in Scotland than as his dealerships seem to have a large market share in Scotland, but at least it sounds like you had a better service from them recently.

      • I looked it up! Last year Lady Philomena Clark (presumably his widow) and family were number 10 in the wealthiest in Scotland list. Poor souls were down £47m on the previous year. Perhaps I need to go back to giving my money to the local garage!

        • jcombe says:

          Wow so I wasn’t far off with my comment about the richest man in Scotland. They were “only” number 10 rather than number 1! Thanks for looking it up.

  4. JAS Balintore says:

    Really interesting to read your account of the walk from Nigg Ferry to the Seaboard Villages. I live in Balintore and I am still in the process of ‘discovering’ the footpath along the coastline south of the villages. There are footpath markers and styles in places but sadly the path has been neglected and is tricky to follow. When found it is enormously rewarding. In early spring when growth is minimal, it is easier to follow. Sometimes it takes surprising twists and turns – and can seem illogical. There is a Neolithic hill fort, a Druid’s pathway and Port, plus the Well of Health, to be discovered, and often dolphins can be observed along this stretch of coastline so perseverance, several visits and more time are recommended.

    • jcombe says:

      Yes sounds like I found a few of the footpath markers. It was a bit frustrating though, but it sounds like I picked about the worst time of year for paths being overgrown. Lovely area to live, though!

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