The Findhorn River and beach

In mid-November we visited friends in Inverness whom we had not seen for a while. One day they took us for a trip around some of the sites on the River Findhorn in Moray. It is one of the longest rivers in Scotland at 100km. We began at Dulsie Bridge which was erected in 1755 by Major William Caulfield as part of General Wade’s military road strategy designed to assist in suppressing the local population. It survived the Muckle Spate flood of 1829 which swept away mills, farmhouses and several other bridges.

Further downstream, Randolph’s Leap is the narrowest part of the gorge.

In the 14th century Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray lived on one side of the river at Darnaway. Sir Alexander Cummings and his six sons lived on the opposite side. Problems arose when the Cummings who had held the lucrative post of ranger of the Forest of Darnaway fell out of favour with Randolph and King Robert the Bruce and were told to keep away from Darnaway. The eldest Cummings son, Alistair, gathered a thousand men to attack Randolph but they were ambushed and retreated back to the river where Alastair and three others jumped over to the other side so it really should have been called Alastair’s Leap. There are several walks around the river and forest here of varying lengths. We did one of the shorter ones as it was quite wet.

Continuing down the riverside we came to Logie Steading which has been converted into a visitors’ centre with a café, art gallery, a bookshop and several small businesses including Logie Whisky and Wine. The road continues through Forres and on to Findhorn on the Moray coast at the mouth of the river.

We had passed through earlier in the year as part of the Round Britain drive but I have always loved the Moray coast since working in Inverness so was very happy to return. The Findhorn Foundation eco-village has been here since 1962 but is a separate entity to the rest of the village. We walked along the beach and dunes at the edge of the forest

and round to the harbour

before returning to Inverness. Wild camping is allowed on the beach for a small fee so I suspect we will be back.

Exploring Magilligan Point

Last month while visiting relatives in Northern Ireland we had the chance to explore a part of the coast that I was not familiar with. Magilligan Point sits at the mouth of the Foyle Estuary. In summer the Lough Foyle ferry crosses over to Greencastle on the Inishowen Peninsula. There is a Martello Tower which was constructed between 1812 and 1817. By the time it was completed, Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena. It is apparently open at times but closed when we visited and the opening hours information has disappeared from the visit Northern Ireland website.

There are seven miles of beach divided into three: Magilligan Beach, Benone Strand and Downhill Beach below the cliff. The entire foreland is 20 miles long, described as ‘Ireland’s Largest Coastal Accumulation’ with some of the best-preserved dunes in the country. Part of it is a National Nature Reserve with resident wildlife and winter visits by migrating birds including further north. Since the Martello Tower was constructed there has been some form of military use over the years. There is an army training camp here with a firing range and the red flag was flying when we visited so part of the shore was not accessible. There is also a large prison on the peninsula near the cadet training centre on the point road.

From the strand you can see Mussenden Temple at the top of the cliffs at Downhill. It is in the care of the National Trust.

Only one brave soul was in the cold water on the day we visited.

It began to get darker and wetter, so we began to head back. In summer you could enjoy the bar and restaurant at the ferry and other cafes and hostelries in Castle Rock and Bellarena. We will probably revisit in a different season as when we have completed our circuit of the mainland coast of Britain, we will de driving around Ireland.

Madagascar: Mikea to Ilakaka

On the way out of Mikea we stopped at the sand dunes which had views back over the village and the sea.

Continuing down the coast, the road passed through several small villages. Many only had one zebu rather than a herd. Larger communities had herds of both goats and zebus. It was Sunday so many people were going to church in their Sunday best. A larger rural commune had a post office and police station and just outside the village, a large open-air church service was underway.

Not long afterwards we were back on asphalt and RN9. The villages we passed through looked considerably better off than those of the previous few days; better quality housing than the wood, bamboo and straw thatched ones we had been among. We arrived at a bay with a mangrove swamp and boardwalk which was an opportunity to stretch our legs. There are eight species of mangrove in Madagascar, three of which were at this location.

Pools further along the road were coloured green, pink and orange presumably due to algae. After crossing the dry Fiherenana River, we arrived in Toliara, a port city where we had lunch. There was a delay in leaving as the garage was waiting for a fuel delivery so that the cars could fill up. We had a walk around town

where the vegetable and meat markets were closed because it was Sunday but this shop was open – you can have a chair only in purple!

Outside the lycée, the results of the recent Baccalauréat were posted on the walls.

Leaving town, we headed inland with hills ahead and passing some tombs.

 

There were stalls along the road with what looked like plastic bottles of water for sale but were told that it was sugar cane rum. Our destination was Ilakaka but we passed through a number of towns containing gem stores. It was one of the first few places to have discovered sapphires. Many of the mines now are illegal and even located in nature reserves. Trees are uprooted, streams diverted and many workers hope to get out of poverty this way; often juggling jobs in agriculture with illegal mining. Other demands are for crystals such as quartz, amethyst and others due to beliefs that crystals conduct healing energy described in the New York Times in 2017 as ‘the great crystal boom’. Mining can be dangerous due to landslides and the fine dust can lead to silicosis. Child labour is also a problem and mining is threatening the small amount of rainforest that is left. We found it a bit of a shock to be in a busy hotel with a large queue at breakfast for coffee but it was located next to the most visited national park in Madagascar.

Madagascar:Belo sur Mer to Morombe and Mikea

There was time for a short beach walk in Belo sur Mer before we left. The fishing boats had already departed and Pied Crows were scouring the beach for something to eat. Travelling back over the dunes and the salt flats was reminiscent of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This was followed by a slow ascent through desert-like landscape before reaching the greener highlands again. We crossed the River Lampaolo which was dry and passed through several villages with crops and irrigation channels. Some people were walking back from the market carrying bags of rice on their heads. Madagascar is the largest consumer of rice per head of population in the world. They grow a lot and rice fields are present in most of the fertile valleys we have passed through but they also have to import it. In Western and Northern Madagascar many women paint their faces with a mask derived from grinding a branch of the masonjoany tree. It is said to act as a sunblock, a moisturiser and to remove blemishes. It is removed at night. Just before we reached our last and biggest river crossing, we saw bushes with white seeds and were told that this was wild cotton.

I also noticed that several termite mounds had had their top removed and learnt that the locals used the termites to feed their hens. The following morning, we were on R9 by 7am amongst a rock-strewn landscape. Further on baobabs and red soil appeared.

Our first stop was at a local school that the local tour company supports. Gifts were presented and we met some of the staff and pupils.

On the blackboard was an anatomy lesson.

R9 descends down to rivers and fields of crops but cacti and more desert appeared before we crossed a tributary and then arrived at theRiver. It is the biggest river in Madagascar. The ferry’s engine was broken so the boat was being pulled across the river which was shallow due to it being the dry season. This would not have been possible in the rainy season.

The other side of the river was sandy. A tributary had been dammed upstream and on the riverbank was another dam with a road on top. Other work suggested that a bridge across the river was under construction by a Chinese company.

We were now on the N35 and passed a line of baobabs longer than the Allée.

After a cactus forest we arrived at Morombe on the coast, our destination for the night. I had a wander along the beach spotting a phone-charging sign on a village hut. It looked incongruous but mobile signals are very good in Madagascar.

There was plenty of time to watch the sun go down over the sea.

The following morning was bright and sunny. Down at the sea, was the same boat with a patchwork sail.

Back on the dirt road we passed through the Spiny Forest where the Octopus Tree Didierea madagascariensis grows to 12-15 feet high with branches always pointing south. It grows on coastal red sands north and south of Tulear. The locals use it for firewood.

The road then ran alongside a mangrove swamp between it and the sea. Further on were date palms, a few villages and several taxi-brousses. Our next stop was at one of the largest baobabs, said to be around 1000 years old.

Lunch was at a small town Andavadoaka at the Olo Bé Lodge. It had only recently opened and was owned by a man born in Mauritius and brought up in Australia. He was a mining engineer and had come to Madagascar to prospect for minerals while running the hotel as a hobby. There were sea views from the restaurant.

The remainder of the journey to Mikea was on deeply rutted sandy tracks. The next day we had time to wander along the beach while some people went snorkelling off the reef. Crabs scuttled down holes as we approached and a few seabirds were feeding by the water but flew off too quickly for photographs.

In the afternoon we visited the nearby forest through cacti, succulents and mini baobabs. We met a man and two of his children from a hunter-gatherer tribe who have little contact with the modern world. His wife and other children were away collecting water. He showed us how he made fire. They spend only a few days in each area before moving on.

We walked the short distance back to our hotel to get ready for the next day’s departure.

Round Britain: John O’Groats to Dunnet Bay


After dinner at the Seaview Hotel which has an extensive menu and was very busy, I wandered around the now quiet seafront. There was no-one standing next to the milepost (there had been several coaches earlier).

Many people think that it is the northernmost point of the mainland. It is the furthest from Lands End on the road network but Dunnet Head is the most northerly point. There is a sculpture nearby entitled ‘The Nomadic Boulders’. Two Scottish environmental artists Dalziel & Scullion created it when it was discovered that huge boulders are moved long distances along the seabed when it was being surveyed for use by turbines. This is a small part of the sculpture which was made with three boulders that appeared on a local beach:

I then watched the sun go down.

In the morning I had a quick walk along the shingle beach looking for the cowries called Groatie buckies and are said to be found here. I did not find any. We left, heading west past the vehicle ferry harbour at Gills Bay which crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney. On a day with high winds we passed a house called Windy Ha. After the Castle of Mey we took the coastal route via Scarfskerry. The old telephone box here is now a book exchange. At Ham there is a disused mill

a rocky beach and old harbour constructed from slabs of the striated rocks.


At Brough, where the most northerly café on the British mainland was closed, we turned on the road to Dunnet Head. There are several lochs on the headland.

There is a lighthouse with foghorn.

A viewpoint on the summit and overlooks to the cliffs. It is an RSPB reserve but the high winds made it difficult to spend more than a couple of minutes looking at the cliffs.

In World War Two a large encampment and wireless station was built on the head and a few concrete buildings remain.

We carried on to Dunnet Bay and had a good walk on the beach before settling in at the campsite before rain arrived. The bay had a Viking settlement and farm which had been buried by the blown sand dunes. When the current road was built, sheep on the slope rubbed themselves against it and exposed traces of a wall and a rubbish heap. In 1995 archaeologists found more evidence of the Viking farm.

Some of the objects I saw on the beach might be turned into an abstract painting. I had hoped on this west-facing beach to see the sunset and the full moon rise in the east but clouds came in and destroyed my hopes. Tomorrow we have 500 miles to drive home. On this leg of the journey we have travelled 237 miles; taking our journey at a much slower pace than some of the people doing the North Coast 500. Our total so far, from the start in South Queensferry; is 3072 miles. This is more than Route 66 but not quite as far as the Lincoln Highway.

Round Britain: Fortrose and Rosemarkie


The Ward Lock & Company guidebook to Northern Scotland published sometime after 1948 begins the chapter on the Black Isle by pointing out that ‘The Black Isle is neither black nor an island’. The peninsula is around 23 miles long and 8.5 miles wide. Re-connecting with our coastal tour we crossed the Beauly Firth by the Kessock Bridge. I have a memory that when the bridge was being constructed (it began in 1976 and opened in 1982), building started from each shore but the two sides did not match up or connect properly initially.

It is around 20 years since we were last here. Across the bridge we took a B road to Munlochy and then continued through Avoch and on to the campsite by the beach which stretches between Rosemarkie and Fortrose. It looks over to Fort George on the other side of the Moray Firth which we visited in June.

Rosemarkie is the older of the two towns: a monastery having been founded there in the seventh century. They were united by royal charter in the 15th century. The following morning we walked into Fortrose, stopping by the cathedral ruins. Work on the cathedral began in the 13th century. In 1572 after the Reformation, William Lord Ruthven was given the lead from the roof and it is said that Oliver Cromwell’s army removed stone and timber in order to build a fortress in Inverness in 1653. The cathedral bell clock still rings.

The nearby chapter house became a court with a prison below.

After coffee we walked down the west side of Chanonry Point to the lighthouse.There is a whole network of foot/cycle paths around the Black Isle.

Fortrose Bay is sheltered by the point and was very still.

The Black Isle is home to the only resident population of bottle-nosed dolphins in the North Sea and the point is said to be the best place to spot them but we did not see any that morning. Walking back along the east side on the beach to the campsite, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon before heading back to the point later in the sunshine. It was very busy as a shuttle bus runs from the town centre. Numerous seabirds were feeding offshore but still no sign of any dolphins. The footpath back towards Rosemarkie was lined with wildflowers gone to seed.

However, this harebell was among the few still flowering.

We walked 7.1 miles today and tomorrow it will be time to move on.

Round Britain: Spey Bay to Nairn


In order to cross the River Spey, the coastal trail runs south alongside the river down to Fochabers. It passes a small community with the evocative name of Bogmoor. We continued into Elgin for supplies. Lossiemouth is the next town along the road, for many years the home of RAF Lossiemouth. The east beach is reached by a footbridge across the River Lossie.

There was some street art by the harbour which was a little worn.

While having a coffee in one of the esplanade hotels, we got into conversation with a family at the next table. The older woman had been a nursing assistant at the hospital in Elgin which is struggling to recruit doctors and some services may be closed and relocated. Even though they are closer to Inverness here, they are still in the NHS Grampian area which means they often have to travel to Aberdeen for appointments and procedures. There were a few ice-cream parlours run by Italian families as there are in many towns in Scotland. Many of their families had come over to Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. West of town on the coast near the RAF base is Covesea Lighthouse which can be visited and the old keepers’ cottages can be rented for holidays.

Further west is the private Gordonstoun School. Just before Hopeman, the road was closed because of an accident. A cyclist had been hit by a car and the air ambulance was on the road. Our next stop was Burghead

where the ramparts of an old fort can be seen under the vegetation and there are two ancient wells. The town has a large maltings and there is another on the road to Kinloss. The ruins of an old Cistercian Abbey founded in 1150 by monks from Melrose Abbey in the Borders. It functioned for 400 years until the Reformation in 1560. In 1650 Alexander Brodie of Lethan reduced it to a ruin and sold some of the stone to Oliver Cromwell for the construction of Inverness Citadel.

Findhorn lies at the mouth of the River Findhorn. The Findhorn Foundation here began in 1962. An eco-village which functions in a sustainable and spiritual manner was opened in the 1980s and in 1997 is became a NGO. There is a on old hotel now used for workshops and meetings etc and they have retreats on Iona and Erraid. We had a walk on the beach.

JA Steers in my New Naturalist Sea Coast book states that the coast between Nairn and Burghhead has ‘the finest mass of sand dunes in Great Britain’. Culbin was an old estate which was working agricultural land. In 1694 it was overtaken and buried by the sand, re-appearing once around the end of the 18th century. Much of the land is now forest but there is a nature reserve. We stopped in Nairn and had a walk on the East Beach.


Our campsite was away from the sand and in Denlies Wood which lies to the west of Nairn. Before the rain caught up with us, we had a walk in the woods which was a pleasant change from beaches.

Although the woodland is mixed, there is lot of Scots Pine and other conifers, so we have seen red squirrels and back at the campsite hooded crows probing the ground around the pitches. We are hoping for a drier day tomorrow.