Sagas of the Highlands: The Black Isle to Inverness and Rosemarkie

Passing through the Northern Highlands, en route to the Cairngorms, I made a short stay in The Black Isle, lodging at a farm of one, Wynne, as she is known. Though only here two days and two nights as the full moon grow bulbous, I was asked to walk the land and suggest ideas for some future growing projects at her homestead in Blair. Closed in on both sides by farmland, the homestead and its yards and wood are haunts for pine martens taking gnarled terrestrial pathways below the undergrowth, buzzards glaring over sheep fields, kestrels hovering their next kill, flitting coal tits gorging on suet and seeds, ravens who side step the fields looking for grub, with some sighting of the elusive Scottish wildcat. To become a sanctuary in the grand picture, the land perfectly suited for the building of a bird hide, walking trails, native trees, and erection of a Mongolian yurt. Whether I shall be apart of this in the warmer months shall be seen when those bridges need to be walked. I was given the circular tour through part of the Black Isle as we shared discourse on the Celtic tradition, taking a drive around to four interesting landmarks, natural wilderness, and cultic sites, this is how it went…

Pursuing the single track farm roads out of Blair, we went a flatland route to the Clootie Rag Well, near the Black Isle Brewery. This is a pre-christian site where the Celts and Scots would come if they acquire sickness. Tying a piece of their clothing, which would be flax, or cotton mainly to the branches of the trees after submerging them in the well water, it was thought that the ‘cloot’ would be left on the tree until it would rot and fall away, and their sickness would be healed, but if someone were to take one of the cloots from the trees that was not theirs, they would get the other persons sickness. An intriguing tradition, as it probably held a lot of truth. The rags that hang off the trees now were rather unsightly unfortunately, and with the influx of synthetic clothing, the beauty of the well was stark in contrast to the ugly vicinity and brand names that were bedecked on the branches, but still interesting to see the well water surge out.

Anticipating the second of sites to be more aesthetically pleasing, trekking on to Inverness via the scenic route, we came to the Clava Cairns. A triple stone circle, and cairn bronze age spectacle. Cairn the first was piled some eight feet high roughly with a passage into the circular center. Gray obelisks of stones stood around the cairn. This one has once contained a single female body, an astounding realization upon walking inside it. It is now opened the the sky, and the ground is some 2 feet deeper than the original makeup, meaning the body would have had to have been dragged in on all fours. Several thousand boulders make up the cairn, a testament to strength of these Bronze age architects. Cairn the second did not have a passageway and was excavated to find ashes and the remains of a crematorium. Three raised rays of small piled stones jetting out from the central circle and commencing in the menhir that surround them arouse the curiosity, and bears a near resemblance to the ancient medicine wheel or sun disc. Cairn the third has a special function in that the passageway, when at midwinter, or even as late as now when I found myself into its inner recess, the setting sun casts a beam right through the narrow path and strikes the inside convex curve of the stones. If covered over with an impenetrable light barrier, leaving the shaft clear, the beam would illumine the small quartzite crystals in the wall. Inside of cairn the first and cairn the third, are the repeated cup and groove marks, or carved bowls that are all over the British Isles. These ones in particular are held to be constellation marks. Some of them are only evidenced by placing your hands within the crags and spaces of the stacked stones, which means they could have been much older than the others, if they were sourced for the building, as it would seem backward to carve and hide them away immediately under cover, or would they?

Looping back towards Inverness, we passed the battlefield of Culloden, with its grimly raised monument marking the bloodshed lines between rows of the red flags and the blue flags. England vs. Scotland. This battle ended quite disastrously as most of Highland culture was rendered obsolete as the Highlanders were defeated, and their customs destroyed. I didn’t get to set foot on the field, but am already planning a return in the future.

Watching the townships pass by as I listened to story of the Picts by my elder host, I was utterly fascinated of the history and tales of this small isle. Many of the place names have Viking origins such as Balmuir, the ‘Bal’ meaning the homestead, and Dingwall in Scottish deriving from ‘Thing-volle’ which was the law assembly point, the same as the Thing in Iceland. The Vikings and Picts both shared this land once, though in hostile manner. The Black Isle was also known to have the highest population of witches, and at low tide in the Moray Firth there is a stone called the Clach Malloch, Gaelic for the Curse Stone, where the witches were tied, and left until the high waters would drown them. Elsewhere they were burned or dismissed of in probably quite barbaric ways. Along this coast of the Moray, in the town of Rosemarkie, we cruised down a short spit of land towards the beach, where quite unbeknownst to me, the dolphins go through their nightly ritual of chasing salmon to the shores. They stay all year, and can be seen regularly in the post sunset hours of winter or long summer days. Alas, they did not come, so Wynne and I straggled along whilst pilfering for beach glass, and multi-colored seawater polished stones. Gazing across the firth to Fort George, she told me about the different regiments of the highlands, Pictish beasties, and the misconception on the origins of the kilt and bagpipes (a Victorian English invention). The moon drew full as I listened to an outpouring of lived history in word.

This is part of the reason I travel, never so much in the last two years have I spent a comely hour amongst the folk of their native country is admiration, intrigue and inspiration as I traveled the country and was accepted into their homesteads, listened, and collected their stories…

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