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The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower


Postby BlackPanther » Tue Oct 23, 2012 3:03 pm

Date walked: 07/10/2012

Time taken: 2.5 hours

Distance: 8.1 km

Ascent: 198m

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One evening when studying "The castles of Scotland", I came across the name Fairburn Tower. A quick look at the map and I found out that it was situated only a 15 min drive from Beauly. The description was interesting enough, but I was discouraged by the last sentence: "The tower is currently being restored." Ouch, I thought, good news for the tower, but bad news for me, if it's under renovation, it's probably scaffolded, fenced off and impossible to see. I made a note in my diary to check on Fairburn in a few years time, to see the results of the restoration, then I completely forgot about it.
But two weeks ago, on Sunday, we were looking for a good low level walk and Kevin suggested visiting Orrin Falls. I remembered that Fairburn Tower is only a short walk away from River Orrin and decided to have a look at it. A quick Google search revealed that the supposed restoration has never happened, there were plans to do it but the funds were never found. Well, that meant the building was still ruinous and maybe available for lurking? It's worth checking, said Kevin, who also has a soft spot for ruins (for him an old building means a lot of pictures :lol: ).
But before we get to the tower, I'd like to present you, fellow Walkhighlanders, a charming stroll to Orrin Falls. It's a lovely, lovely short walk along the humming river, with good views to the surrounding small hills. The tower is just the "piece de resistance" and the whole walk looks like this:

our_route.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts


We drove to Aultgowrie, where there is a signposted visitor's car park just off the main road. We started the walk by walking west along a forest track - most of this stroll is on good paths/tracks (apart from one pathless section further along, but we'll get there later). The first stage has good views, too:
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The little craggy top called Cul Beag (388m):
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The grassy track looked lovely in autumn colours:
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River Orrin:
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It is worth taking some more time to investigate the waterfalls...
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Is that it? No, no, I'm just teasing you :lol: :lol: Here are the proper falls:
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The bare rock around the falls is slippery but we couldn't resist getting close to the boiling void...
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A weir has been built at Falls of Orrin to permit a very small hydro power system to be installed - most likely for use of the Fairburn Estate. I can't say whether this is still operational, but we certainly had fun lurking and exploring!
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This small canal leads to the weir:
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I haven't got a clue how to operate this machinery :lol: Just as well we didn't touch anything:
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The upper part of the fall from above:
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River Orrin above the waterfall:
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We left the fall behind eventually and continued west along the river - a good path:
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The path soon joined a wider forest track, leading through the peaceful forest. We passed an old ruined house... No, it's not Fairburn Tower, be patient! :lol: :lol: :lol:
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A large chunk of forest has recently been cut down and during the week we would probably encounter lorries being loaded, just as well it was Sunday:
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The track forks eventually and we turned right (north) towards the bridge:
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Clouds coming... Wouldn't be a great day for climbing, but good enough for low level explorations!
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The bridge:
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River Orrin from the bridge. It would be an interesting walk to do in winter, when the river is frozen. If we get the right weather this year...
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Past the houses in Strathan, we turned right again to return to the starting point along the river. Here, the track is just as good - and some old, interesting trees to admire!
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Some of these huge trees have little plates with numbers and the names of the species. They were obviously planted, as some species are definitely not native for Scotland. It must have been a part of an old garden, as this stretch of the forest is close to Fairburn House. It's all overgrown these days, mostly by rhododendrons:
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Wish I could do some more forest lurking...
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One of the old trees:
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The river is always only a few steps away and there are many good viewpoints along the way:
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Mushrooms can be found about, too, like the sulphur tuft:
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Soon we were back by the Falls of Orrin, on the other side of the river! Here, we spent another 10 minutes investigating :lol: :lol:
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Not a day for swimming, definitely :wink: ...
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...but a great day for a movie :lol: Not exactly SKYFALL but Orrin Falls will do :D
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What I was looking at:
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The falls from below:
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A fascinating place it is - we'll return here in frosty weather to catch the falls frozen!
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The obvious route would be to continue along the track by the river all the way to the road bridge in Aultgowrie, but we intended to visit Fairburn Tower, which requires a small detour through the forest - the path starts just next to the waterfalls and it is a bit wet in places:
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Lunch??? Eeee...not exactly :lol: :lol:
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On the map, the path goes through dense woodland all the way to the edge of the estate, but we were surprised to find out that another large portion of forest was now gone, with open views all the way to the east:
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Beauly Firth and Inverness can be seen:
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These two little hills are not included in any classifications but they are worth climbing just for the views down to Moray Firth. We had visited the one to the left, Cnoc Croit na Maoile (the walk features on Walkhighlands :D ), the one to the right is called Cnoc Udais and waiting to be explored in the near future:
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To visit Fairburn Tower we found a gate in the fence, leading to Fairburn Estate - it is a private ground but we assumed we wouldn't do any harm to anybody if we quietly walked along the estate path, past a couple of modern houses, to the tower. It's a very tall building indeed and with weather getting a bit more moody, it looked spooky:
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Sadly, the tower is in the state of disrepair :( and it is fenced off, so we couldn't explore it from the inside. Shame, but the interior would most likely be dangerous anyway, so the external investigation must do in this case:
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The tower was visited by MacGibbon and Ross and it features in their book "THE CASTELLATED AND DOMESTIC ARCHITECTURE OF SCOTLAND FROM THE TWELFTH TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY", described as follows:
"A lofty tower standing on the summit of a flat-topped hill, above the River Orrin, about four miles south from Strathpeffer, and the same distance west from Muir of Ord Station. This tower was one of the strongholds of the Mackenzies. It is a simple oblong keep, but is carried to a great height, and being conspicuous, owing to its lofty site, from all sides, probably served as a watch and signal station. The original entrance door was on the first floor, and was defended by a sliding bar. The hall, which occupied this floor, is 16 feet square, and has several wall-chambers in the walls, which are 5 feet 6 inches thick. One of these conducts to the straight stair down to the basement. This was the only means of entrance to the ground floor, which had no door to the exterior. This floor is vaulted, and contains three shot- holes in each side, all deeply splayed, both internally and externally. The rounded recess adjoining the entrance door on the first floor evidently contained the original staircase to the upper floors, on each of which there was one room of the same size as the hall, and with similar arrangements. The top floor has an angle turret on the north-east and south-west angles only."
Without having seen the inside of the tower, it is hard to say if the internal features still survive - this sketch will make it easier to imagine how it would look like inside:
fairburn pic2.jpg

Though the tower is roofless, the upper levels, including the turrets are still in good condition:
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The original building was of a simple square plan, but in 17th century, a stair tower was added to the front and it now masks the original first floor entrance. This part of the building is obviously the most unstable, with a big vertical crack clearly visible:
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A few more words from MacGibbon and Ross:
"This tower is very similar in character to those of Hallbar and Coxton, and probably dates, like them, from about the beginning of the seventeenth century. At a later time a square projecting tower has been added on the south side, containing a staircase, which gave access from the ground to the hall and the upper floors. Good stone being scarce in this locality, one of the windows is lintelled with oak; but the builders took care to give it a good water table to defend the timber from the weather."
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Fairburn Tower features in Buildings at Risk register - more details about its history and the latest developments in restoration plans can be found here: http://www.buildingsatrisk.org.uk/details/898596
The wooden "extension", attached to the eastern side (and spoiling the view to be honest :( ) was added much later, when the tower was used as a farm building.
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For a comparison, how it looked before the ugly structure was added - a drawing from MacGibbon and Ross:
fairburn pic1.jpg

Every old ruin has to have a ghost story or a spooky legend, and so has this one. Here it comes...
The famous Highland seer, Kenneth Mackenzie, known as 'The Brahan Seer', prophesied about the Mackenzies of Fairburn and the tower: "The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions; their castle will become uninhabited and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower."
In 1851, when the tower was used to store hay, a cow calved in the garret. It is believed that the animal, following a trail of hay, entered the tower, climbed to the top, and got stuck. The prophecy was so well known that people came by train to Strathpeffer or Muir of Ord and then by coach to see the animal in the tower! Both the cow and calf were taken down five days later - and the tower never returned to its former glory...
Here, an old postcard showing Fairburn in late 19th century: http://www.ambaile.org/en/education/photograph_zoom.jsp?item_id=4671&zoom=2
And a few more photos of the current state...
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We spent a while admiring the tower but it was getting late, dinner time was coming and we had to go. One last look at this beautiful though forgotten gem, and we were on our way...
The obvious route to come back is simply to retrace one's steps to Orrin Falls. We were a bit more adventurous and continued in northern direction along the edge of the forest. IMPOTRANT: The path leading due west through the woods, marked on 1-25k map doesn't exist any more as this part of the forest was cut down.
We noticed a few more mushrooms...
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...and eventually came to the corner of the woods - the path disappears here. To return to the tarmac road, we cut across the forest. The ground is a bit overgrown and wet as well, so not a recommended route if you prefer easy walking, but passable nevertheless :lol:
We emerged on the road and walked back to the car park, all happy and smiling, talking about Fairburn Tower and how fantastic it would be if we won the lottery and could buy the building to restore it :lol: Ahhh, wishful thinking :lol: :lol:
We crossed Rover Orrin by the road bridge:
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Summing up, we had lots of fun exploring this corner of Scotland - not really an area popular with tourists but this walk is well worth doing - any chance it could be added to WH walks some day, Mr Webster? :D :D
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BlackPanther
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby ChrisW » Tue Oct 23, 2012 3:36 pm

Another fine report BP, interesting tales too. The cow and calf in the tower is a particularly good tale :lol: Looks like another forgotten piece of heritage that will soon be gone :( You're doing a good job of recording all these places for when they have gone :clap:
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby BlackPanther » Tue Oct 23, 2012 5:13 pm

ChrisW wrote:Another fine report BP, interesting tales too. The cow and calf in the tower is a particularly good tale :lol: Looks like another forgotten piece of heritage that will soon be gone :( You're doing a good job of recording all these places for when they have gone :clap:


Thanks, Chris :D I agree the cow-story is a good tale - something different to the usual white lady ghosts... I'm doing my best to find and photograph different old buildings during my trips, it's a great fun, too! I can hardly believe that this tower was basically on my doorstep and I didn't know about it... The walls of the main structure still look pretty sound so it is not going to collapse tomorrow. Hopefully the current owner will take good care of it - it would be a real shame to loose Fairburn Tower.
And I have two more forgotten ruins up my sleeve (visited last Sunday) :D :D
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby Bod » Tue Oct 23, 2012 9:44 pm

A stunning river gorge there BP, love it!
What a fantastic and interesting walk to find so closeby on your door step :D :D :clap:
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby kraze » Sun May 13, 2018 12:27 pm

I know this report is from loooooong ago but I thought you might be interested to know (if you don't already) that Landmark Trust are hoping to restore the tower. Looks like I don't post enough to share a URL but I guess you can google it. :)
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby BlackPanther » Sun May 13, 2018 5:23 pm

kraze wrote:I know this report is from loooooong ago but I thought you might be interested to know (if you don't already) that Landmark Trust are hoping to restore the tower. Looks like I don't post enough to share a URL but I guess you can google it. :)


Yes I did hear about it, it was on BBC Local News last week, link here for those interested:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-44052833
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby PeteC26 » Thu Sep 24, 2020 8:30 pm

Thanks for the walk description which was very useful for our walk yesterday. Despite being on our doorstep it’s an area we had never explored. The tower is now covered in scaffolding pending renovation by the Landmark Trust so its a bit hard to see. However the views from around there are just great.
I thought it worthy of note that the car park at Aultgowrie originally mentioned has now been blocked off with large tree trunks. There was enough room to park one car next to them still being just off the road leaving plenty of room for even lorries that might pass by. However on our return we found a notice left on my car saying “No Parking and Private Road”. There were no signs to that effect anywhere. I suspect that this is not the estate but someone living locally who doesn’t want any walkers in their neighbourhood. Still a great walk off you can find somewhere to park!
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Re: The Falls of Orrin and the Mystic Tower

Postby Huff_n_Puff » Fri Sep 25, 2020 5:41 pm

For anyone who's interested the Highland Archaeology Festival has an online talk on the Fairburn Tower on Wednesday 30 Sept. It's possible to book places (free) at

https://www.highlandarchaeologyfestival.org/calendar.asp?intent=details&eventID=351961
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