297. Portmahomack to Shandwick

October 2016

After my previous walk along this part of the coast turned into something of a trial with my attempts to find my own route not very successful, I was hoping for better luck this time.

My last trip to the north east coast of Scotland had been in June. 4 months later and I was back though due to limited public transport I hadn’t done all the walks “in order” on this trip so today was actually the 4th day of this trip. (I’ll explain why, shortly).

For this trip I was staying in Inverness, at the Inverness East Premier Inn. In hindsight that was probably a mistake, as it was a bit far from the coast I was now walking, so it meant some long drives north out of Inverness. I should probably have booked a hotel in Tain but hotels north of Inverness are limited, which tends to mean higher prices and often poorer quality so I had stuck with the known quality (and cheaper prices) of the Premier Inn.

This walk required a bus that was at the time only running Monday – Friday. I had arrived for this trip on a Saturday which meant the earliest I could do this walk was on Monday. Except I didn’t. One advantage of staying in a city is better services. Just opposite my hotel was a large Tesco store that claimed to be “Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” (there being no restricted opening hours on a Sunday in Scotland) so I stopped there first to get lunch. This is why I ended up doing this walk out of order! Today is Tuesday. Yesterday was Monday. When I went to this “never closing” Tesco to get lunch yesterday, it was closed. Apparently (I learned from the notice in the window) Monday was a “local holiday” in Inverness so the store was closed.

A local holiday is a new concept to me, we don’t have this in England. Essentially, it’s a bank holiday but one that only applies in that one city (or area) and not all of Scotland. So yesterday was a “Local Holiday” in Inverness. This caused some confusion to me with transport. The walk I was doing today depended on a bus that only runs Monday – Friday (excluding public holidays). Since I was waling entirely outside of Inverness in the area I was walking, it was not a public holiday. However the bus I wanted to use started from Inverness, where it was a public holiday. Which therefore begged the question – would the bus be running to the “Sundays and Public Holiday” schedule (which meant no buses) or to the normal Monday schedule? (Given it was only a public holiday on part of the route)! I couldn’t find anything to help on the Stagecoach website, so instead I’d done a walk the previous day (Monday) that used a train instead (avoiding the need to worry about if the buses were running, as I was able to verify the train was running), so having arrived on Saturday today was the first day I could be certain of the bus I needed for this walk running!

After getting lunch I drove to Tain and parked up, to await the bus to Portmahomack (this time I’d hired a car from Inverness Airport rather than rely on the buses for all my transport needs, after my poor experiences on my last trip). The time the bus was due came and went, with no bus. Around 5 minutes after it was due another local came over to the bus stop to tell us she had seen it earlier going the other way so it was definitely running “unlike yesterday”. This confirmed I had made the right choice the previous day then! It did arrive, a little over 10 minutes late. It was not very busy on the bus and it took us a slightly meandering route via Inver before arriving at the harbour at Portmahomack.

I had never been to the town before but immediately liked it, as we descended past attractive houses to the harbour. It is a small harbour with a sandy beach alongside and was very peaceful. I had a quick look around the harbour area and beach and then set off on the walk.

Portmahomack harbour

Portmahomack beach

Portmahomack harbour

There is an ornate drinking fountain behind the beach on the grass.

Portmahomack

Initially I followed the road north out of the town but as this ended I was pleased to find a sign indicating a footpath out to Tarbat Ness lighthouse, as I had hoped and suspected from the map.

The coast north of Portmahomack

This ran just above the low rocky cliffs, in amongst areas of heather and gorse.

The coast north of Portmahomack

These were mixed in with interesting rock formations and coloured rocks. The path was rather Scottish in that at times it was over lose rocks and not very visible on the ground.

The coast north of Portmahomack

Further north near Port Uilleim the path headed down onto the beach. Though there was sand near the high tide line nearer the shoreline it was now mostly salt marsh.

The coast north of Portmahomack

Soon it was back to a path along the low cliffs past a rather attractive little rocky bay.

The coast north of Portmahomack

At one point I was not sure if I was meant to continue low alongside the shore or higher on the cliffs. I opted for the lower route. I was wrong. So I had to head back and up into the field above. Here I kept struggling to find the way until near the end of each field I spotted the gate or stile that took me into the next field.

The coast became increasingly rugged and rocky as I headed north soon with the lighthouse in sight.

Tarbat Ness lighthouse

I followed the rough path through a field of cows and on the top of the low cliffs to approach the lighthouse. Once again I was not sure if I was meant to go high or low. I again opted low and got it wrong as there was no way around other than climbing around very slippery cliffs covered by the water at high tide. I made my way up to the lighthouse but was a little surprised to find it is now a private house.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse

There was however a sign indicating a “ramblers route” through the grounds of the lighthouse, but I could not gate the gate to open and had to climb it. I was followed the route on the sign but it still felt like I was trespassing in a private garden. However once through this I was on a “proper” path with information signs and everything. This side of the lighthouse was more rugged too.

Near Tarbat Ness

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse

I headed out to the heather covered cliffs at the far end of Tarbat Ness. This is the most north easterly point of Easter Ross. I was looking out over the very wide Dornoch Firth to almost the north eastern point of Scotland. I enjoyed it here but did not want to linger too long.

I headed along the track back to the lighthouse and beyond it, really the road that serves the lighthouse. At the end of the drive to the lighthouse I came to a car park. I decided to turn left along it, and back to the cliff edge.

Tarbat Ness

I was not sure the best route to take onwards from here.

Port a'Chait near Tarbat Ness

In the end I found a rough and feint path around the coast on the outside of a wall. However soon I had a house below me and the path became narrow and steep. It was also quite wet with the long grass so I decided to head down the steep grassy bank to the track. I was not sure if I was on a private drive to the house but I decided to turn left and follow it down to the shore, but as I approached the door of the house opened as there was building work going on, but the owners were friendly and as I said hello I also spotted an onwards footpath sign. It also turned out there was a Bothy near here and this was the car park for it, so they were welcoming to walkers.

I was pleased to find an onwards footpath so I went through the gate. This is one of those raised beaches I think where there are now 3 levels, the current beach, a grassy flat area below the cliffs (the former beach I think) then the cliffs behind.

Port a'Chait near Tarbat Ness

The path went along this grassy area, now above the high water line but below the cliffs, it made for easy and flat walking. It was beautiful too passing a mixture of sandy and rocky beaches, with the lighthouse a constant but increasingly distant companion.

Port a'Chait near Tarbat Ness

Port a'Chait near Tarbat Ness

In places the path climbed near the top of the low cliffs and descended again.

The coast south of Tarbat Ness

The coast south of Tarbat Ness

The only downside is that under what looked like grass there were often pebbles or rocks, so it was a bit hard on the ankles and the long grass was still damp. The rock formations were interesting but I’m afraid I’m not a geologist, so I don’t know what I was looking at.

The coast near Rockfield

Soon I passed a lovely looking building marked as Ballone Castle (restored) on the map, it was a lovely looking house.

Ballone Castle near Rockfield

Ballone Castle near Rockfield

It felt like I was walking through the garden briefly here with neatly mown grass and a few old sheds in one corner below the house, but it was soon back to the rough grassy path and for a while along the edge of the beach.

Ballone Castle near Rockfield

The path soon became a wider track and then, rather abruptly became a road into the small village of Rockfield.

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In fact I went through the gate and had to basically walk along the drive of a house, but this is the footpath. I then followed the road through this small village and did the same walk along someones drive at the far end, to resume my route along the grassy path below the cliffs.

The coast south of Rockfield

It was an easy and interesting walk onwards, with a few sea birds to watch on the rocks. I passed what I think is Tarrel Bothie, but it did not look to be still used or open (or very welcoming).

The coast south of Rockfield

In places the path headed the inland side of a few rocks but the path was never steep.

The coast south of Rockfield

As I got nearer to Hilton of Cadboll the path got wider until there were two wide tyre tracks I could follow.

The coast south of Rockfield

The coast nort of Hilton of Cadboll

This was welcoming as at last I could see what I was putting my feet on (before it was often rocks or shingle under the long grass).

The coast nort of Hilton of Cadboll

The cliffs to my right became taller, now topped with pine trees. I passed another run down probably derelict house though the tyre tracks suggested someone did come out to it fairly often.

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It was an easy walk for the next couple of miles along this track with the villages ahead gradually getting closer.

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The coast nort of Hilton of Cadboll

 

I soon came across a rare thing, a Scottish footpath sign! I was now only 1km from Hilton (I’m not sure why the signs here are all shown in KM rather than the more usual miles).

Jessie Port near Hilton of Cadboll

As I neared the village there was another of the Pictish stones and an old hill fort to explore.

Jessie Port near Hilton of Cadboll

Pictish slab (replica) at Hilton of Cadboll

I had a look around these and continue past the first house of Hilton, which looked to be derelict.

Hilton of Cadboll

I was not really sure of the onward route and whether I would have to stick to the road, but a footpath seemed to continue around the coastal side of the houses, along walls at the bottom of peoples gardens. The villages of Hilton of Cadboll, Balintore and Shandwick seem to merge into one and it is difficult to know where one ends and the next start. In fact they seem to be generally referred to as “The Seaboard villages”, and even the bus lists that as it’s destination! I soon passed the “Seaboard Memorial Hall” – I was intrigued to see it did not try to claim which of the villages it was in! For some reason there is also a mermaid on the rocks here too (you can see it below).

Balintore

I briefly had to join the road here but there was soon a route onwards back along the coast through a pleasant little garden. Once this ended though I was briefly back along the road to pass the small harbour.

Balintore Harbour

Balintore Harbour

I expect this would have once been full of fishing boats but there were only a few leisure boats there now, and the harbour was very sandy. In fact when I finished my previous trip to Scotland at Shadwick Bay it was lovely and I had though there would be more sand to walk but in fact it was only at the end of this harbour that I came to the south end of this lovely beach.

Shandwick beach

Shandwick beach

Having been walking roads for a while I was keen to return to the beach so headed down onto the firm sand and walked along the beach.

Shandwick beach

I was now trying to remember the point I left the beach before and soon spotted it. I followed it back up to the bus stop I remembered before where I had ended my last trip to this part of Scotland a few months previously. It was much colder than yesterday and I had a little over 20 minutes to wait for the bus so I walked back down to the beach and sat at the back of the beach for a while. The path continued south and I remembered the frustrations I had had the previous time trying to walk from Nigg to here along the shore. I had had to abandon it and take to tracks furher inland in the end because it was impassible, but the path looked quite good ahead. I wondered how far you could get before it deteriorated. Though checking the map the track marked soon fizzled out, as I suspect, did the path.

Once it was time for my bus I headed back up to the road. The bus arrived on time and there was one other passenger on it. She soon got off it and after that I was the only passenger all the way to Tain! I must admit to being pleasantly surprised as to how frequent the bus is to these villages (and that they even had one).

This turned out to be an easier walk than expected with a footpath all the way even if it was a bit variable in standard! This meant I made good time. It was a lovely peaceful section of coast with the lighthouse at Tarbart Ness a particular highlight, as well as the long walk along the raised beach south of there. The coast is now beginning to feel quite remote!

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk. It is necessary to change buses in Tain.

Stagecoach Highlands route 24 : Tain – Lochslin – Inver – Portmahomack – Inver – Lochslin – Tain. 4 buses per day, Monday – Friday only. No service at weekends.

Stagecoach Highlands routes 30A / 30B / 30C : Tain – Arabells Crossroads – ShandwickBalintoreHinton – Hill of Feam – Tain. Route 30C runs in the opposite direction and between the 30A and 30C there is broadly an hourly service (but with some gaps), Monday – Saturday, no service on Sundays.

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

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4 Responses to 297. Portmahomack to Shandwick

  1. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, I also enjoyed this section of the coast, well the bit from Portmahomack to Shandwick anyway. When I arrived at that gate at Tarbet Ness Lighthouse I found the sign confusing. However, I proceeded through the gate onto an immaculate lawn, that was being cut by two of those automatic robots! It was a weird feeling.

    Off to Scotland on Friday for 3 days which should see me reach North Berwick, this will will leave me me with just a big 2 day hike down to the border and then thats Scotland finished. Have you got anything planned before the Autumn? Cheers Alan

    • jcombe says:

      Yes it’s a good section of coast this and glad to hear you enjoyed it too. Sounds like you had a good trip too, been reading your posts – you certainly cover some miles in a day! But it sounds like you’ve completed the coast of Scotland.

      I’m hoping to get back to Scotland at least once more this year, yes.

  2. Really lovely. I don’t know this part of the coast at all. Strange the rabbit holes blogposts take you down. I looked up the fountain because I thought it might have been made at the Saracen Foundry in Glasgow (it wasn’t). It seems to have had quite a makeover, looking at this post written a few years before your visit.
    https://memorialdrinkingfountains.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/harbour-street-fountain/
    A blog dedicated to memorial drinking fountains, who knew?

    • jcombe says:

      Yes it’s very easy to get side tracked on the Internet and start reading up on other things. It’s nice to see people that are passionate about unusual things put together blogs like that. Also good to see the fountain has had some love recently!

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