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Chanonry Ness

The following brief history of Chanonry Point has been written by Elizabeth Sutherland, an eminent local author and historian. Please do not copy or use any or all of this text without the written permission of the author.

There are links within the text to other sites containing more information on those specific subjects and these are shown in bold blue underlined text.

Chanonry Ness stretches like a protective arm for about a mile into the Moray Firth, sheltering within its oxters the two ancient towns of Fortrose and Rosemarkie. Its history, likewise, stretches back beyond the Dark Ages, beyond the realms of fairyland back to the age when glaciers left behind their murrain of pebbles. Over the years, Picts and Vikings, saints and pilgrims, bishops and businessmen, sportsmen and soldiers, tourists and natives alike have walked to the Point, scented the golden gorse and admired the amazing views.

The Geology

Though the Black Isle is mostly made of Old Red Sandstone (Devonian and 350-400 million years old), the Ness, including Rosemarkie Beach and the Sutors of Cromarty, are outcrops of older flaggy, milled down and re-crystallised.Moine schists. Pebbly, in other words, as anyone who has ever tried to make a garden here, will tell you.

The Legend

In the olden days, so it is said, the wizard, Michael Scot, having raised the fairies found them difficult to get rid of. ‘Give us work,’ they clamoured in his ear, so, for the sake of peace, he commanded then, ‘Go build a bridge across the Moray Firth.’ Off they sped with their little spades and pony carts, some to Ardersier and some to the Black Isle and how they worked!. The bridge was about a mile long both sides of the Firth when a local Rosemarkie man, spying them at work, cried out, ‘That’s a grand job you’re doing. God bless ye, little men!’ Immediately they downed tools and fled. At the mention of God’s name the spell was broken and they disappeared forever from the Point. Some say they are still hiding in Rosemarkie’s Fairy Glen.

The First Evangelists

St Moluag of Lismore, a contemporary of St Columba is said to have brought Christianity to Rosemarkie in the 6th century while St Boniface-Curadan founded a monastery there in AD 716, where he was buried. Those early saints probably rowed their coracles across the narrows that link Moray to the Black Isle at Chanonry Point and walked the mile up the Ness, for this was the usual travel route north in the days when roads were rough and dangerous..

The Pilgrim Way

When King David 1 created the Diocese of Ross c.1130 AD, the old stone church in Rosemarkie became its first cathedral. Successive bishops complained that it was too small, so in 1235 the Pope granted permission to Bishop Robert to build a splendid new cathedral in Fortrose. Up until the Reformation of 1560, the Shrine of St Duthac of Tain became, according to ancient sources, ‘the most celebrated national place of pilgrimage’ in Scotland. Pilgrims in their hundreds were rowed or sailed across the Firth, disembarked at Chanonry Point, walked the Ness, stopped to pray at the Cathedral and the Shrine of St Boniface-Curadan, crossed the Black Isle, caught the Cromarty Ferry and from there walked to Tain.

Why Black Isle?

The Black Isle may well have got its name from these long ago pilgrims as they crossed the Firth. Through mispronunciation of the Gaelic, Eilean Dubhaich, meaning Duthac’s Isle, over the years became Eilean Dubh – Black Isle. From the pilgrims’ point of view, the Black Isle, once known as Ardmeanach, meaning ‘height between’, looked very like an island.

Why Chanonry?

The new cathedral at Fortrose was served by secular canons (not monks) who built their wooden manses in a square around the Cathedral Green. Thus the new town became known as the Chanonry, (a’ Chananaich) which translates as the ‘place of canons’. It did not become officially known as Fortrose (Gaelic for ‘under the promontory’) until 1455.

The Cross of the Ness

A stump of a standing stone may still be seen on the Ness on a small escarpment on the 17th fairway of the golf course. It is thought to have been one of a ring of three stone crosses where pilgrims would catch their first glimpse of Chanonry Cathedral and pause to offer prayer. Other stones, long gone, are believed to have been sited at the Corselet (Cross-slope), a farm outside Rosemarkie, and Crosshill at Avoch.

After the Reformation the stone became associated with the burning of witches. The last witch to be burned in Fortrose was allegedly Epach from Drunderfit. She was said to have terrorised the parish of Munlochy by sailing across the Bay in a ‘lippie measure’ (a basin holding a quarter of a peck)

The Royal Pilgrim

James 1V, one of Scotland’s most diligent and charismatic of kings, was perhaps the most famous pilgrim to be rowed across the Firth to the Point. Much of his life was spent on pilgrimages in expiation for his father’s death for which he blamed himself. He first visited the Shrine of St Duthac in Tain in 1493 at the age of 21. His usual route was across the ferries at Ardersier and Cromarty with pious halts at Chanonry Cathedral and the Shrine of St Boniface-Curadan in Rosemarkie. Sometimes extra boats were needed for his servants, horses and gear and on two occasions his baggage included a portable organ for use at Tain. On one occasion in 1510, he brought his queen, Margaret Tudor, but mostly he travelled light and alone. Once he rode from Stirling through Perth and Aberdeen to Elgin (130 miles) in one day, slept on a table in his riding clothes, rose at dawn then rode and sailed the further 40 miles to reach Tain in time to hear Mass. On the last of his eighteen visits, he walked barefoot and in sackcloth along what became known as the King’s Causeway in Tain. This was in August 1513 not long before he was killed at Flodden.

The Brahan Seer

Another well-known, but legendary figure, whose memorial stone stands at Chanonry Point was Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche, (Brown Kenneth, the One who Knows) better known today as the Brahan Seer.

Coinneach was allegedly born in the 17th century in Lewis where he received his divining stone but he spent most of his life at Brahan Castle near Strathpeffer as a labourer for Kenneth Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Seaforth. His astonishing gift for ‘second sight’ was quickly recognised and he became a favourite of the 3rd Earl. His predictions ranged over the whole of Highland history including the Clearances, the disastrous Battle of Culloden and the downfall of many of the Highland clans. Unfortunately his knowledge of women did not match his knowledge of the future. When the Earl was sent to Paris by Charles 11 and stayed away too long, the Countess Isabella demanded that the Seer tell her why.

‘Your lord,’ he replied, ‘is far too agreeably occupied to think of coming home. I see him on his knees to a French lady. His arm is around her waist, his lips pressed to her hand.‘

Isabella, humiliated and furious, had him arrested for witchcraft, taken to the Chanonry for trial where he was condemned to be burned on the Ness in a spiked barrel of tar.

It was then that he made his most famous prediction which accurately foresaw in astonishing detail the downfall of Clan Mackenzie. He was dragged down to the Ness and duly burned. The Earl arrived home that very day but too late to save his favourite.You can find out more about him in Groam House Museum. A stone plaque was erected by the Town Council in the 20th century to commemorate the alleged atrocity.

Bishop Forbes’ Visit

In the 18th century, Robert Forbes, Episcopalian Bishop of Ross who had travelled north from Leith by chaise - it took him three days - set out from Inverness in his chaise to visit his diocese beginning at Fortrose, the site of what would once have been his cathedral, but was now a ruin. He wrote in his Journal:

Monday 19 July 1762

About four miles from Inverness you come to the Kirk of Pettie, near to which is a large old castle belonging the Earl of Murray called Castle Stewart, uninhabited and going to ruin…[Restored and splendid these days!]. Then we came in view of the Church of Ardersier thatched with heath, nigh to which and close upon the Firth is the village of New Campbelltown, so called from Campbell of Cawdor. This village being in the neighbourhood of the great new Fort of Ardersier called Fort George, which is much upon the increase and may come yet to rival Inverness. This Fort and its environs is no less than five miles in circumference, for the Point of Ardersier stretches far into the Firth and makes a pretty bay from which Point you sail a ferry of a mile and a half (two miles) to a still much prettier Point of land being one continued carpet of grass for a full mile up to the town of Fortrose…where we arrived at 5 o’clock having been long detained at the Ferry for the boat could not take over the passengers that appeared, the horses and the chaise all at once; therefore the driver and the chaise waited for the second ferrying over…

Eight years later the Bishop returned to Fortrose this time bringing his wife, Rachel, and a couple of friends. The crossing, as busy as before, was not so straightforward.

Friday 22 June 1770

This day set out from Inverness 7 minutes before 11. Mrs Shaw desired my Rachel to go in and view Fort George. “No,” said she, “I never chuse to go where I cannot say God Speed.” [Rachel and Bishop Forbes were ardent Jacobites.] At 12 minutes to 1 we dined in New Campbelltown at Grants the best inn. Left at 10 minutes before 4 having a pretty drive of about a mile to the boat at Fort George. The ferry is two miles in breadth, over which we had a bad passage, the ebb and westerly wind being against us, which occasioned severe tugging and rowing to the sailors. The Rev’d Mr Allan Cameron received us on the beach and conducted us to Fortrose where we arrived by 6 o’clock and put up in the house of one Williamson, a joiner, who keeps a tavern of very good accommodation…

Bishop Forbes writes extensively and with great enthusiasm about his two visits to Fortrose and the rest of his diocese. He names his various hosts and those members of the churches he confirmed.

The Golf Course

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No one knows when golf was first played on the Ness but if it was played in St Andrews as early as the 14th century, there is every reason to suppose that it was played on Chanonry Ness around the same time. The Canons practised archery and walked their little dogs and exercised their horses on the Ness. Why not golf? Fortrose was a prosperous cathedral town in those early years, similar in many ways to St Andrews.

The first documented evidence comes in a letter dated 1702 from a provost of Fortrose to his lawyer in Edinburgh in which he thanks him for sending a club and golf balls. The Statistical Account of 1791-99 confirmed that the Ness is ‘fine ground for the golf which is often played here by the gentlemen of town and country’.

It was not, however, until 1888 that the game was put on an official basis with the formation of the first Golf Club under the patronage of James Douglas Fletcher of Rosehaugh and a committee that consisted of three generals, three clergymen, a provost, two baillies, a town-clerk and an MP. The membership was around fifty and the subscription was five shillings! The grand opening of the original six hole course took place on the 8th June 1889 which was extended to twelve holes in June 1900.

The Club’s initial concern was with clearing the course of whin and the payment of rent to the various farmers and landowners who laid claim to it. The first clubhouse was opened in July 1895 at a cost of £35. During the First World War, golfing activities virtually ceased. The Highland Cyclist Battalion occupied the clubhouse which suffered considerable damage as a result. By 1924 the course had been extended to 18 holes but it took a further ten years to raise enough money for a new clubhouse. In 1934 the new course was laid out by James Braid and the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club had gained a new status in the golfing world.

The Second World War saw the new clubhouse requisitioned and the course taken over for military training purposes. It was here that the D Day landings were practised and several piers protruded out into the Firth on the west shore of the Ness. All that remains of them now are concrete bollards to be seen on the 3rd and the 4th fairways. A great deal of damage was done to the course for which the government paid £4000 in compensation. It was not until 1947 that the full eighteen holes were returned to an acceptable standard.

The membership, meanwhile, was increasing rapidly and a larger clubhouse planned. To the delighted surprise of members the whole was paid for by Miss Isa Ross who owned a drapery business in Fortrose. She stipulated however that no alcohol was to be sold on the premises. This difficulty was overcome by siting the bar in an extension to the new building. Miss Ross also made provision for a house to be built for the green-keeper. Sunday golf was another huge bone of contention and it was not until 1965 that it was voted permission.

By the mid 1970s the new clubhouse was once again proving too small and another new clubhouse opened by Dai Rees in 1977.

Of the various visitors to the course over the years, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was one of the most distinguished. He sent a personal letter to thank the Club Secretary for being given the ‘courtesy of the green’.

The original wooden bungalow close to the sixth tee was built as a summer picnic house by the patron, J.D.Fletcher of Rosehaugh. Among his many guests to be entertained there was the millionaire philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who would sail down from Skibo Castle, anchor off the Point and join Mr Fletcher in a few holes.

King Haakon of Norway with the then Crown Prince Olaf visited the course during the Second World War. Some of his troops were stationed in Fortrose.

Although women were playing golf from the early 1890s, and supporting the club in practical ways, it was not until 1922 that they were allowed to become involved in the affairs of the Club and a Ladies Committee formed. Miss Ann McKeddie, whose father was the green-keeper, was one of several outstanding women players of the 1930s who reached the 4th Round of the Scottish Ladies Golf Championship and beat the former champion. During the Second World War the ladies membership declined and it was not until 1959 that Ann McKeddie appealed successfully to become affiliated to the Ladies Golf Union. They had to wait until 1977 to be allowed vote in the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Club.

Today the course is beautiful, well maintained and popular. Current membership is around 800 members.

The Black Isle Combination Poor-house

Only yards away from the Golf Course where the great and the good of the community relaxed and enjoyed themselves, stands a large stone building which was once the Poor-house, custom-built to care ‘for the old, the demented and the destitute’. Ironically Mr James Douglas Fletcher was a patron to both.

Prior to the Poor Law of 1845, responsibility for paupers lay strictly within the parish. The poor were maintained in their own homes, supported by charitable endowments, church collections and various bequests. In England the Poor Law introduced the notorious Work-houses of Dickensian fame. Ten years later Scotland established similar institutions to be known as Poor-houses.

The Black Isle Combination Poor-house was opened for custom in 1861. It was run by a governor and a matron who were usually husband and wife. The last couple to hold this joint position, Mr and Mrs Mackay, left in 1939 and the last few ‘inmates’ removed to Easter Ross to make way for the military during the Second World War.

The term ‘Combination’ meant that the Poor-house combined in its complex a hospital and an asylum, though it was probably never used as an asylum for the records show frequent referrals to Inverness.

The Poor Law required that a proper register be kept and an administrative board be set up with a paid employee to be known as Inspector of the Poor. His was a truly unenviable job. If he extended the rate of relief, he was reprimanded by the Board. If he was thought to be too mean, he was abused by the poor. Fortrose was exceptionally well served by its inspectors, Three generations of Gillanders held the post successively from 1845 until the law was changed.

The regime was harsh, as the list of fifteen rules, printed and exhibited in the Poor-house for all to see, suggests. Families were separated into male and female wards and not allowed to meet without permission. Conversation was prohibited in the dining hall. Alcohol, extra food and tobacco were permitted only on special occasions. None could leave the premises without a ticket of permission. Rudeness to the staff was only one of the many offences punishable by solitary confinement on a bread and water diet.

Such was the disgrace of committal to the Poor-house that new entrants would be brought in by horse and cart, hidden in straw.

An account of the New Year celebrations in 1897 records that the ‘inmates received their annual dinner from the Poor-house committee. The minister said grace after which Mr J.D. Fletcher ‘with his usual generosity’ sent a donation of two shillings to each adult and a shilling to every child, besides a quantity of sweets, tobacco and snuff. Mr and Mrs Lumsden, the governor and matron, ‘were untiring in their attention to the comfort of the party’. Today, turned into flats, renovated and known as Ness House, the building presents a dignified and more cheerful aspect.

The Chanonry Lighthouse

This beautiful graceful white tower that stands near the tip the Point was built in 1846 by Alan Stevenson, one of the Stevenson family, famous for their lighthouses. Alan was Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle. The tower stands 13 m high and there are 48 steps to the top. The light has a range of 15 nautical miles and flashes white every six seconds.

Originally manned by two keepers, it later became a one-man station until automated in 1984 and thereafter monitored from the Edinburgh headquarters. The keeper was also responsible for checking and doing the necessary repairs to the lights on the buoys visible in the Firth from the lighthouse.

In 1984 the original lamp was loaned to Groam House Museum where its elaborate glass lenses raised a lot of interest. After the museum branched out into a Pictish centre, the great light was given a home in Fortrose Academy. It may now be seen in the Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh.

Today the Lighthouse and its grounds are not open to the public. The dwelling house is a private residence.

Salmon Fishing

The Statistical Account of Rosemarkie parish in the 1790s tells us that there was ‘salmon fishing at the Point of Chanonry Ness where the salmon are caught fresh from the sea in their highest perfection’ .The annual rent at that time was 100 merks Scotch and profits came to £70 sterling.

At the turn of the 19th century, salmon cost 3d a pound and local farm workers declined to be fed on it more than twice a week. The fishermen and ferrymen lived in a cluster of cottages at the Point and an ancient ice house used for preserving the fish may still be seen from the road on private land near the Point

The Chanonry Ferry

In the First World War, the ferry was kept particularly busy transporting the soldiers’ dirty washing from Fort George to the laundry at the Mill House in Rosemarkie. A wagon, owned by one of the local innkeepers, would ply the road to the Ferry several times a day to transport the linen. It was said, no doubt apochryphally, that although the sheets were washed, the blankets were merely shaken and spread out on the green behind the laundry in the fresh air!

The ferry which had plied the treacherous waters of the narrows for so many years carrying goods, passengers, soldiers from Fort George attending dances in Fortrose, tourists and travellers, terminated for good in 1939 when the last of the ferrymen was sadly drowned stepping between the pier and his boat.

Dolphin Watching

There are some 200 bottle-nosed dolphins that live in the Moray Firth. The Point is one of the best places, if not the very best, to see them close to the shore. Seals, otters, porpoises and even whales have been spotted here too, especially Minke whales, but these are wild creatures.You can wait for hours and see nothing, and people do, because the sightings of these gentle sociable mammals are rare and joyful.

The best time of day to spot them is on a rising tide. An hour after low tide, the tide turns and the dolphins start to chase the fish in. If you are lucky, you can see them leaping up out of the water, cavorting in the current, sometimes with their calves. The best place to stand is on the shingle beach beyond and below the Lighthouse.

Chanonry Point Today

The Point is probably as busy and popular today as ever it was. Walkers, golfers, dolphin watchers, picnickers and holidaymakers all flock here to enjoy the wild life and the spectacular views. Be warned though. The road is narrow and there are no facilities such as toilets or a café at the Point. The best way to enjoy your visit is to walk from Fortrose, or better still, from the Beach Café in Rosemarkie where you can learn about the history and the wild life, and enjoy a hot or cool drink and a snack..

Elizabeth Sutherland.

You can purchase the following books by visiting the web site of Constable & Robinson and searching under the authors name.
The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer by Alexander Mackenzie. ed. Elizabeth Sutherland. Constable Publishers 2001: ISBN 0-09-478460-4
The Seer of Kintail by Elizabeth Sutherland. Constable Publishers, London 1996: ISBN 0-09-476030-6