Footpaths of the Black Isle

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Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright January 2023, Julian Paren; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.
Images also under a similar Creative Commons Licence.

Footpaths of the Black Isle

Julian Paren

NH6049 : Unmapped footpath on Gallow Hill by Julian Paren
One of a number of footpaths that interconnect on Gallow Hill and which are not shown on OS maps. This path along a fence provides a very useful link to others.
by Julian Paren

The footpath network of the Black Isle

The Black Isle is blessed by its large number of off-road paths that take you away from the roads into quieter areas. Some have the status of Core Footpaths of the Highland Core Footpath Network and are usually signposted. Other paths are often unknown to all except those living close by because they do not appear on maps.

Guides to the paths of the Black Isle

There are a couple of books describing walks on The Black Isle, but they form part of wider surveys. Ten walks are described in Walks Easter Ross & The Black Isle, 30 walks, Hallewell Walking Guide priced £2.95, and five walks are described in Loch Ness, Inverness, Black Isle and Affric, 40 Favourite Walks. Pocket Mountains, priced £6.99. There is also information on the internet with the popular Walk Highlands website featuring ten Black Isle walks.

All these guides focus on the same set of paths, which are predominantly coastal walks. Fairy Glen at Rosemarkie is the furthest inland the guides penetrate. The North Coast 500 guides and Explore the Highlands website hardly acknowledge the walking potential of the Black Isle. The fact is that there is an enviable choice of where to walk once you can be confident you will not get lost - and paths are not just a feature of the coastline.

The Core Path Network

NH7763 : Open corner on the track to Eathie Fishing Station by Julian Paren
The Eathie Path is Highland Core Path RC11.01 which is 1.6 km long and is described as a constructed path (stone)

The Black Isle’s Core Paths provide an introduction to walks in the interior of the Black Isle, but the paths have their shortcomings. The paths are named and mapped by Highland Council and are available on their website as PDFs. LinkExternal link. For the Black Isle there are eight maps to show the 75 Core Paths, but with six exceptions they are paths that connect roads. Such paths start and finish on a road, so unless you retrace your steps, you must continue your walk on a road. The six exceptions include the fine paths that circuit Drumderfit Hill, Wood Hill and Spital Wood. For most people, I suspect a circular off-road walk is the more appealing.

Ordnance Survey Mapping

Ordnance Survey is the prime mapmaker for the UK and their 1:25,000 Explorer Map 432 of the Black Isle shows the land in exceptional detail. This detail though is based on what appeared on earlier maps and can be identified from modern aerial surveys. Ground truth is often lacking. Evidence of a path or track on an OS map can overstate what is there, and many unmapped tracks are valuable to local residents in their daily life. Nonetheless, carrying an OS map on a walk should open your eyes to much more than the ground beneath your feet.

The Black Isle Visitor Map

 Visitor map

The Visitor Map of the Black Isle created by Black Isle Tourism and Transition Black Isle is the most comprehensive footpath map of the Black Isle, with its paths tested in recent years with additional feedback from walkers using earlier editions of the map. The Visitor Map is more than a footpath map, as it also includes recommended on- and off-road cycle routes. Off-road cycle routes that double as walkers’ paths are particularly prone to difficulty in excessively wet conditions, or when frozen, or when summer vegetation becomes waist high. Some may see this unexpected variety when following any path as fun!

Often you will meet no-one else during a walk. You may then question whether you are the only person who walks the paths. But wait until there is snow on the ground and you find footprints of others who went before you, and evidence that paths are the natural runs of wild animals. You see so few other people because with such an extensive off-road area to choose from, it is seldom that your route will coincide with theirs.

Circular walks on the Black Isle

Exploring the Black Isle is to revel in its diversity. If a footpath is on a map, there is the incentive to walk it to find out what may make it special. Sure enough, over the years, one generates a list of favourites from the dozens walked, but there is barely one not worth repeating, especially at a different season of the year.

Over the years I have explored over forty circular walks on the Black Isle. I have favourites; the places you take your visitors when you want to wow them. Foremost for me are: Drummondreach Oak Wood, McFarquhar’s Bed, the coast of Rosemarkie Bay, Loch Lundie, Culbokie Woods, Munlochy Bay, Gallowhill Wood, Redcastle, Monadh Mòr, Spital Wood, Simon’s Loch, The South Sutor, Drumderfit Hill, Rosehaugh Estate, Feddanhill Wood, and Wood Hill and Ormond Castle.

Each of these paths is illustrated in the two pages of the appendix.

Winter walking on the Black Isle

NH5949 : Track in Gallowhill Wood, Redcastle Estate by Julian Paren
A good section of the path through Gallowhill Wood. This section can be incorporated into a 5km circular walk from Milton of Redcastle.
by Julian Paren

In winter, when the sun is shining, it is good to feel the sunshine, and then skillful use of a map can suggest a walk that will not be shaded by hillsides or tree cover. In the middle of winter, the sun is low in the sky and restricted to the SE to SW quadrant so the slopes of the Black Isle facing the Moray and Beauly firths have much to recommend for walks on a sunny day. The beaches by Rosemarkie are particularly favoured as the quality of the sand hardly varies through the year. The road along the shore of the Beauly Firth from North Kessock to Redcastle attracts many walkers as few cars use the road.

Icy winter days can be less appealing for walks, but if access roads have been gritted, there is usually unfrozen ground under a woodland canopy. The trees also buffer the strength of the wind and so within the winter woods at ground level all can be calm and even quiet. The forest roads used for extraction of timber may well be icy and deserve respect, but the true footpaths can be followed at ease. Many villages have woods close by that are just as popular in winter, for example: Culbokie Woods, the woodland of Cromarty House and the South Sutor, Feddanhill Wood above Fortrose, and Ord Hill for North Kessock.

In winter, the favoured climate of the Black Isle draws mountaineers and experienced hillwalkers who would otherwise wish to be on Munros, but where snow conditions and more often low cloud would make such excursions unrewarding. The Black Isle’s attractions are different and safer and can be enthusiastically enjoyed.

Longer walks

NH6548 : Descending to the car park on the side of Ord Hill by Julian Paren
The Kessock Bridge may just be seen through the trees. The path is yet to be found on OS mapping. It is a recommended route for walkers to access Ord Hill and is part of the John o' Groats Trail.
by Julian Paren

For longer linear walks there is Day 1 of the John o’ Groats Trail from Inverness to Culbokie - 14 miles, and the walk from Rosemarkie to Cromarty via Eathie Fishing Station (tide permitting) - 10 miles. For the purist there is the officially designated Heritage Path erroneously called a Military Road from Mount High to Wester Strath of Auchterflow - 6 miles, but this forest track is best cycled, as neither end of the walk is convenient for public transport and there is little variety along its length. The Black Isle’s other designated Heritage Path is the old road to Milton of Redcastle from Bishop Kinkell - 4 miles. This path sweeps through Spital Wood, but is a mixed road route and footpath route with the off-road sections poorly mapped.

Landscape Diversity

The Black Isle was once almost as famous for its stone as its agriculture, and footpaths pass the quarries where stone was cut for Fortrose Cathedral, the Caledonian Canal and the fine, red-stoned buildings in the vicinity.
NH6753 : Bay Inlet and quarry, Munlochy Bay by Julian Paren
A massive clearance of elm trees has opened up the area around the quarry on Munlochy Bay.
by Julian Paren

Footpaths pass by burial cairns and forts, and many archaeological features of the Black Isle landscape.
NH6557 : Burial Cairn, Auchterflow - Detail III by Julian Paren
Burial Cairn, Auchterflow, Black Isle
I was alerted to the existence of this cairn independently by two well-informed walkers, one of whom said he had found no record of it in any official archaeological catalogues. Sure enough I have failed too. It has never been on an OS Map, it is not mentioned on the Canmore website and not mentioned in the publication Antiquities of the Black Isle. The two local residents who have constructed staked paths through this area have attached a sign to a tree with the words Burial Cairn. I have taken a number of detailed pictures of the structure. I will update these descriptions when more is learned.
by Julian Paren

Footpaths take you to off-road viewpoints and provide an unhurried view of the farming activity of the Black Isle
NH7156 : Mount Pleasant Farm above the Moray Firth by Julian Paren
The fields surrounding Mount Pleasant Farm are viewed from a perimeter path of Feddanhill Wood.
by Julian Paren

Footpaths take you into Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and get you close to wildlife and inland lochs.
NH5853 : Unnamed loch in Monadh Mòr by Julian Paren
There is a path alongside the loch but you have to be used to such terrain to follow it.
by Julian Paren

Footpaths get you close to fungi and wildlife.
NH6355 : Fly Agaric, Bellton Wood by Julian Paren
The most identifiable of fungi.
by Julian Paren

Footpaths follow sections of the Black Isle Railway that ran from Muir of Ord to Fortrose and provide popular flat walking and cycling routes
NH7155 : Craig Wood and the disused Avoch to Fortrose railway line by Julian Paren
The bed of the railway is a Core Path of the Highland Core Path Network. This is RC07.01 - a 2.7km constructed path - Fortrose to Avoch old railway line.
by Julian Paren

Footpaths follow the coast, and the ultimate flat path is the coastal circuit of Chanonry Ness with the lighthouse at its Point.
NH7456 : Chanonry Ness and Fortrose Bay at dusk by Julian Paren
A footpath and electricity pylons follow the side of the golf links to Chanonry Point.
by Julian Paren

Accessible Paths

What the Black Isle lacks are paths leaving all the villages by safe off-road routes. Paths safe for parents with prams and buggies, safe for older people who drive mobility scooters and safe for our kids who are old enough to be independent, and safe for cyclists too. Multi-purpose paths leaving our villages are needed for the start of any further exploration of our countryside.

Seven Black Isle Walks

Seven walks using Black Isle footpaths have been published as Geo-Trips on the Geograph website. The Geo-Trips provide a route description, OS mapping of the route and images.

1 Circular walk around Loch Lundie 2.8 miles Link
2 Circular walk from Cromarty to South Sutor and McFarquhar's Bed 4.4 miles Link
3 Linear walk from Eathie to Rosemarkie along the coast 7.3 miles Link
4 Circular walk in the Millbuie Forest 7.6 miles Link
5 A walk in the quieter parts of Monadh Mòr bog forest SSSI 3.3 miles Link
6 A circuit of Drummondreach Oak Wood SSSI 1.5 miles Link
7 A walk to Gallachy Hill 2.9 miles Link

Enjoy your walks

There is much to explore. Take a map and perhaps some secateurs if you want the path to be even better for others. Photograph the walks and see how the same path changes over the year. If you come up with problems on a walk, please e-mail and maybe volunteers can improve the path and ensure the next edition of a Visitor Map has its footpaths fully up-to-date. Above all, enjoy the Rights to Responsible Access enshrined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, and get close to nature and sense that your well-being is enhanced.

The appendix illustrates my favourite walking routes on the Black Isle.


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