North to the Future

Karen ThorburnI walked through Edinburgh’s West End after yet another late night in the office. First one in and last one out again. On crossing Shandwick Place, I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with other pedestrians but allowed myself sideways glances into bustling restaurants, brightly lit with festive decorations and bursting with office workers enjoying Christmas parties. The city around me was alive and buzzing yet I no longer felt a part of it. My Christmas was effectively cancelled by the deadline looming before me at work and the pressure to deliver on schedule. Any free time I had was spent falling asleep in front of the TV, being too exhausted and demotivated to do anything else. My camera and walking boots gathered dust in a corner of my first-floor rented flat as my energy levels and creativity gradually seeped away.

Five years on and that long, dark winter in Edinburgh feels like a distant memory; another lifetime. Home is now a quiet rural hamlet on a scenic agricultural peninsula a short drive from the Highland capital of Inverness. My old farmhouse overlooks a garden of mature trees and a barley field to the south. The dark hue of the freshly ploughed earth in the winter months gives rise to the Black Isle’s enigmatic name. In spring, green shoots emerge from the soil; golden stalks of barley sway in warm summer breezes; and, in autumn, the stubble crunches underfoot while I meander through the field with a camera and binoculars in hand, admiring the distant hills and noticing old fence posts and trees which have marked these field margins for generations. To the north, beyond the shallow grey-blue waters of the Cromarty Firth, lies the rounded massif of Ben Wyvis, the nearest Munro, rising to 1,046m (3,432ft), currently blanketed in snow. There are no streetlights, pavements or party-goers in this neck of the woods; just tractors disturbing the pink-footed geese in the fields; some quiet yet friendly neighbours in scattered properties; and smoke rising from chimneys into dark starry skies occasionally illuminated by the northern lights.

My gut instinct always told me that I would settle here. Childhood memories were formed whilst caravanning throughout my native Scotland with my family in the days when kids still played in the streets and before technology monopolised our spare time. I felt a sense of belonging in all semi-wild places, from the mountains of Arran to the wind-swept beaches of the Western Isles, and the magnificent forests of Highland Perthshire. However, it was only in the humble environs of Inverness and the coastal communities to the north that I could envisage a long-term future. That ambition was finally fulfilled when my husband and I packed our bags after a decade of city-dwelling, rolled the dice and bought a property on the Black Isle. After a long drive up the M90 and A9, we crested the summit of the Drumossie Brae and began the steep descent towards Inverness, with the Black Isle – our future – beckoning from the north side of the Moray Firth. A feeling of sheer euphoria, unparalleled ever since, washed over me as we cruised downhill towards the Kessock Bridge.

This mainland peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides, is a relatively undiscovered gem. Many tourists only travel as far north as Loch Ness before embarking on their homeward journeys, and those exploring the northern Highlands on the internationally renowned North Coast 500 will note that the route skirts the westernmost fringe of the Black Isle, meaning that it is frequently overlooked. Often those visitors who do reach these shores only explore the southeast coastline. Indeed, there is much to discover: the Clootie Well at Munlochy where brightly-coloured rags hang from laden tree branches, left as tokens in exchange for alleged healing properties; the spectacular sight of breaching bottle-nose dolphins at Chanonry Point, the best location in the UK for witnessing such displays; the alluring Fairy Glen and its waterfalls behind the village of Rosemarkie; a series of caves in which the remarkably well-preserved remains of ‘Rosemarkie Man’ were recently unearthed, raising questions about a brutal murder during Pictish times; and, last but not least, the quaint historic village of Cromarty at the tip of the peninsula.

‘My’ patch is referred to locally as ‘the dark side of the Black Isle’; not for some shady, ominous reason, but simply as a reflection of the fact that relatively few people venture to the northern shore. It too has a lot to offer, from a tranquil lochan and remains of an ancient fort in Culbokie Woods; to the ruined sixteenth-century tower house of Castle Craig near St Martin’s; and the open expanse of Udale Bay nature reserve, home to thousands of wildfowl and wading birds in autumn and winter, overlooked by a beautifully appointed bird hide at Jemimaville. Another point of interest is a formerly derelict church near Balblair, recently tastefully restored by the Kirkmichael Trust, a group of local volunteers, to house a unique display of medieval gravestones from the adjacent cemetery and nearby Old Cullicudden.

I paint a picture of a charmed existence in a rural utopia but, of course, the reality can be somewhat different. Work must be done and deadlines met; depressing news blares from the TV; unexpected bills land on the doormat; and plans are shelved when unforeseen challenges get in the way. We can try to outrun our problems but, inevitably, they always catch up. Life seems to be as busy and as complicated as ever, but I find its trials and tribulations are easier to deal with in tranquil surroundings and with the simple pleasures of watching a pheasant stalking across the lawn, roe deer bounding through the fields, and water lapping on the shoreline. These everyday joys helped to heal my troubled mind in the weeks and months following my re-location to the Highlands and continue to provide comfort in times of need.

Occasionally my husband and I are reminded of our old life in Edinburgh in the most unexpected of places. Cromarty, with its narrow lanes, higgledy-piggledy old buildings and annual arts festivals, puts us in mind of Edinburgh’s Dean Village and Old Town and, whilst walking the line of the former Avoch to Fortrose railway this week, we both experienced a flashback to the Water of Leith. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that stress obscured my view of the capital for too long and some days I find myself longing to return for a visit, to walk south across the Pentland Hills or to catch a bus to Balerno and follow the Water of Leith to its confluence with the Forth. However, it doesn’t really matter whether we stretch our legs in the city or in the countryside; on the pathways of Edinburgh, the Black Isle or elsewhere. The key is to make time for ourselves, feel inspired and rejuvenated, and reap the physical and mental health benefits of fresh air and regular exercise in the great outdoors.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.