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Hidden Horse & Mystery Holes

Lying hidden and largely unknown, un-noticed by walkers and visitors on the rocky foreshore of a beach near the village of Hilton-of-Cadboll, is a beautiful piece of ‘Pictish’ art in the form of a sinuous horse’s head.

Located just above the tide line at a beach, known locally as The Porscht (meaning a landing place for boats) about ½ a mile north of the village, the incised picture is missed by all but a few people who know of its whereabouts or the lucky few who leave the coastal path to Rockfield and decide to explore the foreshore.

The incised picture depicts the head and neck of a horse with delicate details such as the ear, forelock, nostril and mouth. Whilst the form of the horse was described by Professor George Henderson as typically Pictish in form, it has been impossible to actually give a date to the carving.

The stone certainly outdates local memory, there are no stories of it being carved, it just seems that it has ‘always been there’. The question ‘why is it there?’, is also relevant. Add to the fact that the ‘horse’s head’, being just ½ a mile north of the village of Hilton-of-Cadboll, is therefore close to the site of Our Lady’s Chapel and the site of the Hilton Stone. It’s locality therefore would seem to tie it to the local Pictish landscape.

It was thought that the rock used to carve the Hilton-of-Cadboll stone came from across the firth in Morayshire. However recent tests on the stone have been able to locate its origin much closer to home. Indeed it was quarried from the bedrock in the foreshore of The Porscht, alongside where the horse’s head was incised! This could be the answer to when the carving was made.

Imagine that you live about 800 CE, some 1,200 years ago and you are selecting stone for a monumental sculpture, would you not test the quality of the stone before you went to all the trouble of excavating the rock? And what simpler way of doing so than to try out its suitability by actually making a small incised picture on the visible surface of some rock next to where you planned to do the excavation?

So does this explain why the enigmatic horse’s head carving it on the rocks at ‘The Porscht’? It is easy to imagine that all of those hundreds of years ago a Pictish sculptor crouched over the rock and delicately tapped away with his hammer and chisel on the rock. Having done so he sat back, admired the horse’s head he had just carved and then gave the ‘thumbs up’ to his team of workers who then began the labour of taking out the block of rock that became the famous Hilton-of-Cadboll Stone.

So, what do you think? Why not visit and take a look for yourself?

On the lower seaward side of the rock on which the Horse’s Head is incised are a series of round holes.

They are all the same diameter and are obviously not naturally occurring features.

What are they? Why are they there? Could they be holes that were bored into the rock in the process of quarrying a slab of stone?

What do you think? Why not take a look for yourself?

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Mills of Easter Ross

For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years the power of flowing water was used to operate small local mills on the Fearn Peninsula. Often located at farms, these mills were very important features in the local economy. Being local meant that materials could be processed locally in an age where transport over any distance was difficult and expensive. Most of these mills disappeared in the past few generations and some did so even within living memory. Some were simply closed down and some were replaced by steam powered mills.

Some disappeared leaving little or no trace, some leave enigmatic remains visible only to those who know where to look and what to look for, but very occasionally some, like The Old Mill at Fodderty, pictured above, wear their heritage with pride. Whilst not on the peninsula, Golspie Mill is still working and produces organic flour which is sold in local shops.

With the use of old maps and speaking to local farmers Douglas Gordon has produced a guide to the ‘Mills of the Fearn Peninsula’ to record these important features and so that you can explore the Fearn Peninsula and take a look at what remains of our local mills. Just click on the following link to view or download Mills of Easter Ross Peninsula by Douglas Gordon.

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Concrete Torpedo

The Tarbat Discovery Centre at Portmahomack has the only dummy concrete torpedo from WW2 on display anywhere in the world! Here you can learn of its story and that of HMS Owl (Fearn Drome).

The whole of the Fearn Peninsula became an important military area during WW2 with a Fleet Air Arm aerodrome at Fearn (HMS Owl) and a Royal Airforce aerodrome (RAF Tain) on Morrich Moor near to Tain. There was also the evacuation of Inver, details of which can be found at the Tarbat Discovery Centre.

HMS Owl began life as a Royal Air Force base but was quickly taken over by The Fleet Air Arm as a base for training torpedo bombing crews. Rather than use expensive live torpedoes a special concrete dummy torpedo was developed that could be recovered (by by horse drawn sledges from Bayfield Farm) and used again. On this page you can follow the links to research by Douglas Gordon and documents unearthed by him.

Concrete Torpedo Information Booklet (PDF)

Plan of HMS Owl (JPEG)

Dummy Torpedo Technical Drawings (JPEG)

WW2 Aerial Photograph of HMS Owl

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Ship on the Rocks

HMS Fawn went aground on the rocks by Tarbatness lighthouse in 1907. She was later re floated a high tide.

This photograph was taken by Dan Mitchell uncle of Stan Mitchell who has the photo. He had the first camera in Rockfield and was taught to use it by D. J. Ross who had a grocers shop in the Port (Portmahomack).

To enable the vessel to re float it was decided to make it lighter by off loading the coal (used for the boilers – the ship was built in pre oil fired days). Local fishermen were tasked with going to the ship and taking coal on-board. This was then taken to local villages and off loaded. It was then distributed amongst the local households.

HMS Fawn was a Palmer three funnel, 30 knot destroyer ordered by the Royal Navy under the 1896 – 1897 Naval Estimates. She was the fourth ship to carry this name.

Fawn was laid down on 5 September 1896 at the Palmer shipyard at Jarrow-on-Tyne and launched on 13 April 1897. During her builder’s trials she made her contracted speed requirement. She was completed and accepted by the Royal Navy in December 1898.

Fawn was commissioned at Portsmouth 27 August 1901 by Lieutenant and Commander J. A. Ingles and assigned to the Channel Fleet.[5] She spent her early operational career in Home Waters operating with the Channel Fleet as part of the Portsmouth Flotilla. On 2 April 1902 she was commissioned to relieve the destroyer Hardy at the Mediterranean station,[6] under the command of Lieutenant Robert W. Myburgh.[7] She returned to Home Waters in 1906.

On 30 August 1912 the Admiralty directed all destroyer classes were to be designated by alpha characters starting with the letter ‘A’. Since her design speed was 30-knots and she had three funnels she was assigned to the C class. After 30 September 1913, she was known as a C-class destroyer and had the letter ‘C’ painted on the hull below the bridge area and on either the fore or aft funnel.

In July 1914 Fawn was deployed in the 6th Destroyer Flotilla based at Dover. In November 1916 she was transferred to the 7th Flotilla on the Humber River. During her deployment there she was involved in anti-submarine and counter-mining patrols. In 1919 Fawn was paid off and laid-up in reserve awaiting disposal. She was sold on 23 July 1919 to Thomas W. Ward of Sheffield for breaking at New Holland, Lincolnshire, on the Humber Estuary. She was awarded the Battle Honour Belgian Coast 1914 – 18 for her service.

Source: Wikipedia.

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The Legend of Eagle Rock

This tale is about the mysterious Roman Legion the 9th Hispana, which legend says disappeared in the Scottish Highlands, and our tale tells how this happened.

The Roman Empire once stretched from what we now call Asia in the east right up to its northern border in the south of Scotland, and this huge territory was kept in check by the mighty Roman army. Of course, there were not enough Romans to carry out this task, so the Roman Army was made up of Legions who were mercenaries. That is, soldiers from countries they had conquered, who fought for money and the right to become a Roman citizen.

Whilst the Romans had conquered most of Britannia, they never managed to conquer the Highlands of Scotland, for these lands were peopled by very fierce and warlike tribes who the Romans named the Picti, known today as the Picts. They called these Highland tribes the Picti, which means ‘painted people’ because of their habit of tattooing their bodies with brightly coloured designs.

The Picts were very troublesome to the Romans, which is why they never conquered the Highlands of Scotland, indeed the Roman Emperor Hadrian had a wall built right across the country to keep the Picts at bay! We know this today as Hadrian’s Wall.

So, how was it that the mighty Roman Army was unable to conquer the Picts? Well, in its day the Roman Army was invincible in pitched battle. The soldiers were organised into Centuries of about 100 men and Legions of about 3,000 to 5,000 men, they used the most up to date and disciplined tactics, with their shields used like a huge armoured shell. However, the Picts did not fight like this. For a Pict, a battle was a man to man fight. If a tribe of Picts fought another tribe of Picts then they fought as many single combat battles. Also, the terrain of the Highlands did not suit the use of huge armies and the Picts were able to disappear into the hills and mists at will swiftly and magically, whereas the Roman soldiers would quickly become lost and bogged down.

It is also important to note that each Roman Legion had its own military standard which had the letters SPQR on it standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Roman Senate and People), their legion’s name, their battle honours and at the top the Roman Eagle.

This standard was extremely important to the legion as it represented their very existence and honour. If a legion was defeated in battle but held onto its standard then it was honoured and reformed. However, even if it won the battle but lost its standard the legion was disgraced and disbanded.

So, back to our tale.

In about 250 CE there was a new Emperor in Rome, and like all new leaders he wanted to demonstrate how worthy he was, so he decided that he (or rather his army) would conquer the feared and elusive Picts, thereby extending the northern border of the Roman Empire. To do this he directed one of his most feared and battle hardened legions, the 9th Hispana (made up of Spanish mercenaries) to leave Gaul (modern day France) and march north to Hadrian’s Wall. So, 4,500 battle hardened, fighting Roman Soldiers landed by boat in the south of Britannia and then marched north to Hadrian’s Wall, where they encamped and were provisioned for their oncoming campaign to conquer the Picti.

The 9th Hispana had an uneventful march to one of the main garrison forts, where they rested for a couple of months whilst they re-provisioned and trained and maintained their weapons.

When the General in charge of the 9th Hispana decided they were ready, they assembled, the north gates were opened and the Legion marched north, never to be seen again!

The 9th Hispana reached the end of what is today known as the Tarbat Peninsula and made an overnight camp. They had been harried and attacked by the Picts all the way from Hadrian’s Wall, but every time they went to attack the Picts they vanished into the hills and mist.

Depleted and demoralised, the 9th Hispana arrived at Wilkhaven, where they made camp for the night. A roman camp consisted of a square ditch and bank that was dug by the troops, each carried their own digging tools, and this job would take an hour or so. Guards were set and the legion made ready for the night.

The local Pictish Chieftain, who rose to his position because he was the toughest and strongest of his tribe, turned up at the camp along with his daughter, who was about 13 years old. The Chieftain was a remarkable sight, tall and muscular and covered in brightly coloured tattoos, he had proven himself in fighting many times.

He openly walked up to the sentries, who were shocked and awed by the sight of this incredible warrior, so much so that they did not even try to stop him. He walked right past the sentries up to the tent where the General was staying. He stood there and challenged the Roman commander to a ‘duel’. There had been enough bloodshed, he said, and he and the general should sort this out man to man. He stated that if he, the Pict won then the Romans should leave. If the Roman won, then the Picts would leave the Romans alone and let them stay.

The Roman commander took up the challenge and appointed his toughest soldier to fight the Pict. The soldiers formed a circle and the Pict and the soldier entered the circle with their weapons, the Pict with his spear, the Roman with his sword. Very quickly the Pict overpowered the Roman and had him on the ground with his spear at his throat. The Pict being a man whose whole way of life was that of honour said that he had won and he would let the Roman live. He turned around and walked away, expecting the Romans to honour their pledge.

However, the Roman soldier got up, grabbed his sword, and cleaved the Pict through the head from behind, killing him instantly. On witnessing this, the Chieftain’s daughter grabbed her father’s spear and killed the soldier. The rest of the soldiers turned on her and subjected her to an horrific death.

As she lay dying, she called out to her gods of the Underworld and ordered them to curse the 9th Hispana for ever. At that moment, there was a clap of thunder and a rumble in the earth as the cliff opened and revealed a portal to the Underworld. A legion of daemons with whips of fire marched out from the ground and herded up the soldiers of the 9th Hispana. They marched them down into the Underworld and as the last one entered the portal there was another clap of thunder and a rumble in the earth as the gate to the Underworld closed behind them, trapping the 9th Hispana there for all eternity. The 9th Hispana was no more.

As the cliffs closed the rocks fell away to reveal the shape of an eagle in the cliffs (the eagle being the symbol of the Roman Army) to remind future generations what happened to the 9th Hispana for their treachery.

It is said today that if the sea is quiet you can put your ear against the breast of the eagle and you will hear the tramping of the feet of the soldiers and the cracks of the whips of fire as they are condemned to march through the fires of the Underworld for all eternity.

Looking up to Eagle Rock from Wilkhaven you can see a rock on the foreshore in which is the figure of a crouching beast, which is the symbol of the Pictish tribe whose chief was killed, keeping an eye on the portal to ensure that the soldiers do not escape from their torment.

Is this story true? Well there is some physical evidence. There are indeed the remains of a Roman marching camp just to the north of Wilkhaven, just look at an Ordnance Survey map for ‘Carn a Bhodaic’, the 9th Hispania’s overnight camp. There was also a Roman coin found at nearby Portmahomack in Victorian times. The rock itself is named Creag Rhuadh, which is Gaelic for Red Rock, representing the blood that was spilled there. As for the rock splitting open, well there is an explanation for that too. The Great Glen Fault, which formed Loch Ness runs all the way from the West Coast, up through Loch Ness and north to Shetland, passing Wilkhaven and Eagle Rock about 100 meters off shore. Even in modern times there are occasional tremors felt in the area and twice the light at Tarbat Ness lighthouse has been damaged by these tremors.

But of course the best evidence of all is eagle Rock itself, which is there for all to see!

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The Walking Postie

I was speaking to Betty Murray and I showed her this photo. She said that is my grandfather David Skinner who was the postman for this area and he walked to Fearn Station 9 miles away from Portmahomack for the mail then on the way back he started delivering the mail.

Betty said her father was a postman too and eventually got a bike to cycle to Fearn station for the mail.

I wonder how many miles her grandfather clocked up in a year walking for and delivering the mail and in all weathers too, snow, hail, rain gales etc and it must have been very hard in winter with snow drifts. I have heard that the walking postman seldom used a road and went direct line from house to house. In another area I had heard a postman did not turn up so they walked in a straight line to the next house till they found him and with snow drifts being so deep it was easier to walk across fields. I was told of how deep the snow was one time in another area the postman sat on top of the telegraph(Telephone) post for a rest so it must have been 5 metres deep.

The postman today does not know how lucky he or she is a lovely van to drive round in with a heater to keep him or her warm and dry!

Our postal address had Fearn in it at one time, now it is dropped as Tain is the main sorting office and we have a postcode.