First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The Tarbat Peninsula juts out north-east into the North Sea in the throat of the Moray Firth. just north of Inverness. The Picts, those mysterious and tantalising Scots of the first millennium AD, were very active around this small tongue of land. They carved most beautiful and enigmatic figures and symbols to embellish the early Christian monastery on the outskirts of what is now the remote little fishing village of Portmahomack.
We lingered in Tarbat Old Church on the monastery site, admiring its exhibition of Pictish sculpture; and when we emerged, it was into the soft grey blanket of a proper Easter Ross haa or sea mist. Portmahomack’s crescent of sandy beach, its neat strip of fishermen’s cottages and stumpy pier, lay wreathed in cold vapour. Walking the grassy path northwards towards Tarbat Ness, we passed a trawler’s nets hung out to dry on tall poles, and entered a misty world of low gorsy cliffs, sea-sculpted sandstone rocks in whorls and sandwich layers, and a grey wrinkled sea whispering on a shore now pebbly, now sandy.
Young herring gulls in shabby brown plumage, not quite mature enough to fend for themselves, wheezed sulkily on the shore rocks like resentful teenagers in hoodies. Mum! Mum! Gimme something to eat! A great herd of bullocks came blowing and sighing out of the mist to inspect us. One word of admonition and they all plunged aside and went cantering off together.
The red-and-white striped lighthouse at the point of Tarbat Ness was hidden in the haa till we were almost upon it. Beyond the tower the uneasy sea seethed in out of the fog to burst against the rocks of the headland. It’s extraordinary to think that any plant community could survive in such an environment of salt spray, wind and exposure, but the maritime heath, the ragwort and fireweed, harebells and marsh orchids of Tarbat Ness seem to thrive in adversity.
Our homeward path down the east coast of the peninsula skirted a succession of bays under crumbling sandstone cliffs. There was something truly magical about this walk with the evening closing in, oystercatchers and curlew piping from the shoreline, and the lonely little bays emerging one after the other from the other-worldly driftings of the haa and the unseen pulsings of the tide.
Start: Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack, near Tain, IV20 1YA (OS ref NH 916845)
Getting there: Bus service 24 from Tain
Road: Portmahomack is at the end of B9165 (signed from A9 between Invergordon and Tain)
Walk (8½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer . NB: online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): North along west coast path for 1¾ miles. 200m beyond fishing bothy and anchors, right up gorsy bank (925870), through gate, on along cliffs. In 1½ miles, near lighthouse, where fence crosses path into sea, right through gate (942876). Up fence past plantation to wall; right to road (943872); left to lighthouse and Tarbat Ness. Return past lighthouse and car park; left to Wilkhaven Pier (945871). Right through gate (‘Rockfield 5 km’); follow shore path south. In half a mile, right up waymarked diversion (945864) over Tigh na Creige headland; back to shore. Continue along shore for 2½ miles to Rockfield (924832); right along road to Portmahomack.
Conditions: Frisky cattle may be about.
Refreshments: Oystercatcher restaurant/B&B, Portmahomack IV20 1YB (01862-871560, the-oystercatcher.co.uk): Wed-Sun, April-Oct. Book ahead!
Accommodation: Ross Villa, Knockbreck Road, Tain IV19 1BN (01862-894746, rossvilla.co.uk) – beautifully kept.
Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack: (01862-871351, tarbat-discovery.co.uk) – daily, April-Oct