People, Tales and Legends of the Pass of Inverfarigaig
The short length of minor road locally known as “The Pass” is one of the few routes which lead down from the upper lands of Stratherrick to the southern shores of Loch Ness by way of a dramatic rocky gorge almost three miles in length.
The Strath takes its name from the river Farigaig which empties into Loch Ness at Inverfarigaig, after following a parallel route to the east and on the other side of the prominent rocky outcrops of Dundeardil and Dun Garve. The streams which run alongside our road are the Allt na Goibhre joined by the Allt na Craobh Crithinn (the burn of the goat and the burn of the aspen, literally shaking tree due to its leaves almost always being in motion with the lightest wind.)
Within three miles the road drops from 205 metres down to the shores of Loch Ness just 18 metres above sea level. It has a northerly aspect and the enclosing rock walls on either side ensure that snow and ice will always lie there long after winter has receded from higher more open areas. However, that shelter also means that in times of drifting snow it can offer a safe but often slippery route between the milder Loch Ness side road and the wintry heights of Stratherrick.
In the Spring there is a noticeable difference of at least 2 weeks in the growing season for plants and trees between the loch side and the higher lands. The large body of non -freezing water makes its own maritime micro climate.
The gorge owes its distinctive features to relatively recent geological events. Within the last 100,000 years there have been three periods when the north of Scotland was overlaid with a huge burden of glacial ice. During that time the high land of Stratherrick and the Monadhliath mountains was comprehensively buried and Loch Ness was similarly choked up. When the most recent thaw came, just 10,000 years ago, water from the high ground took the shortest route down to Loch Ness and the Moray firth. The Pass of Inverfarigaig became a melt water channel under the receding ice, and water and ice both helped to gouge out a passageway to lower ground and the famous loch side.
The Pass then was able to offer a natural line of travel and communication for the first nomadic hunter gatherers who followed the receding ice and revegetation of the land, however it was not until the post Culloden military road building period that there is any record of formal road construction taking place.
Starting at Errogie with its famous phone box, the world’s smallest lending library and its own Facebook page the first settlement on the right-hand side is “Heathgate” a recent development of Heath cottage home of the late Mary Macallister originally a Mackay from Easter Drummond Whitebridge. Mrs. Macallister had worked as a prison wardress at Saughton prison in Edinburgh. She had the doubtful distinction of having sat up overnight to keep company with one of the last woman to be executed in Scotland.
Her Shetland pony “Bobby” was quite adept at removing wing mirrors from cars with its powerful jaws. Some 100 metres beyond Heathgate the route is cut by a new forestry track which provides a link west wards some three miles to Trinloist and the same distance eastward to Dirichurachan and the River Farigaig on the other side. Both are proving popular for walkers and cyclists.
Approximately a half mile in towards Trinloist there is an open area in the forest which used to provide the best peats for local residents. The moor of Errogie was almost completely taken over by the Forestry Commission in 1968 and much of it is now on its second crop of Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine, although the original birch and rowan trees are making a comeback in several places due to a more sympathetic attitude to native tree woodland.
Some 40 metres off the road, and below the new forest entrance it is possible to make out a small disused quarry reputed to be the geographical centre of the Highlands and from where stone was taken to make a memorial to those in the Highland regiments who fell at either the Crimean war or at Gallipoli in the first world war. The rocky slab and viewpoint above this place is known as Ben Uncle Jim after my great uncle who served with the locally recruited Lovat Scouts in the latter conflict.
About 200 metres below Rowan Cottage a very old and distinctive scots pine tree grows above a small crag. The story is that during a period of inter clan warfare it was used as a post to fasten a chief’s son who was then cruelly shot through with arrows and left pinned there. The tree grew up around him and his bones are now within the ancient and distinctive trunk. On the other side of the road some 30 metres from Rowan Cottage the slab of rock on the left which has a distinctive crack known locally as the “Fairy’s Door” and very occasionally on a still evening music may be heard from behind its lichen grey exterior.
Again, a little further on as you look to the pine tree it is possible to make out the corrugated ridge and furrow of agriculture known as lazy beds more commonly associated with the thinner soils of crofts in the western isles and northern isles.
This area at the top of the Pass with high banks on either side was completely levelled out and blocked for over a week with drifted snow in the famous blizzard of January 1978.
The next feature is the crofting settlement of Aultnagoire or Allt na Goibhre (Burn of the goats). Goats were a common item of livestock in Highland crofting communities and were easy to rear with their ability to thrive on relatively poor grazing. The four original crofts had 30 acres of in bye or better quality land between them and some 200 acres of common grazing which is now afforested. The original access road utilized a ford over the stream but that was piped, and the road straightened in 1974 and later put under tarmac.
Aultnagoire’s main claim to historic fame was as the site of a battle in 1654 known as the Day of Aultnagoire, famous for being a “battle” in which no blood was shed. A company of the Clan Fraser from Strichen in Aberdeenshire had arrived with the intention of creating mischief with their more westerly neighbours and Fraser relations but they were surprised and overpowered in the night and members of the party duly held for ransom before being returned to their own country with their tails between their legs. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact camp site, but this may have been on the highest part of Aultnagoire where there are the remains of an old house which like many in crofting communities would have done service as a small shop.
This was the location of an unfortunate practical joke which almost had disastrous consequences. The lady who lived there sold biscuits from a large barrel and one day was caught bending over into this container by a local worthy known as “The Piper”. He grasped her by the ankles and upended her into the barrel and left her there. If her muffled cries for help had not been heard there could have been a tragedy!
For a time during the 2nd. World War my mother and elder brother stayed in Rowan Cottage and went down for their milk to Mrs. Mackintosh at no. 1 Aultnagoire. She had married a widower who was over fifty years older than her, and they had at least five of a family . One of their grandsons served in the Royal Navy, where he received an MBE. On his retiral he was the writer of several TV series including” The Sandbaggers”, and disappeared in a light aircraft accident over the Gulf of Alaska . My mother also met Aleister Crowley (the Beast 666 of Boleskine) when he was walking up the Pass one day.
Some 200 metres below the turning to Aultnagoire, next to the bridge is the site of Mary Macdonald’s “Tot the Burn’s” croft house. She was a small lady of fairly generous proportions which would probably not have been remarkable by today’s standards. It was a neat, white washed low cottage built hard against the bank and next to the waterfall which served as its water supply. Lighting was by oil, tilley lamps and candles, as electricity only came to the area as late as 1972 for some of the houses on the Pass.
Tot was a participant in the Highland industry of taking in taking in orphans and homeless children from Glasgow and further afield as boarders. She was mother to as many as four girls at one time who stayed with her until they could become independent and move on in the world. These children very often remained in their Highland foster area sometimes inheriting the crofts in which they were brought up. Apparently, a large car would be dispatched from Glasgow to the Highlands dropping off children at intervals to their new homes. They would have been expected to work and contribute to the crofting life and although some were worked hard, many thrived and contributed to their new families and wider communities.
The stream that flows through Tot’s croft is the Allt na Craobh Crithinn which feeds into the Allt na Goibhre then meets the main River Farigaig just above the road bridge at Inverfarigaig. The combined flow of these streams was used to power a “Bobbin” Mill at Inverfarigaig originally set up to manufacture spools for the cotton spinning industry from the local birch woodland and latterly a general sawmill. There is very little trace of these premises now but there are two dams and sluice remnants on the Allt na Craobh Crithinn at Aultnagoire and closer to Loch an Ordain at the head of the stream.
The next feature is the road junction with Glen Liath or the Grey Glen at the Allt Circe (Hen bridge). Travelling down the Pass on foot or on a bicycle there is often a marked change in temperature at this junction as warmer or cooler air flows down the side glen into the sheltered north facing Pass. In the autumn spawning trout and char can be seen on the gravel shallows. The pass holds roadside snow drifts long after they have vanished from higher ground and each bridge over a burn can also remain icy well after the main road has become ice free. I always advise visitors to sound their horn on the blind corners and beware of the sand and gravel on the edge of the road and in the middle when you brake and pull over to one side.
From Tot’s croft downhill, the stream is lined with native birch, hazel, rowan, ash, willow and oak trees liberally festooned with moss, fungus and growths which have contributed to its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The trees struggle to get a root replacement in the rocks and thin soil and stretch up towards the light until they fall over under heavy snow or wind storms. The plentiful hazel trees provide a valuable food source for red squirrels and pine martens, badgers and of course the ever-present roe and sika deer can be seen from the roadside at any time.
The rocky stream bed used to be a useful local dumping ground for old cars which were simply pushed over the edge. In the 1980’s I managed to persuade a Highland Regional Council job creation team to winch them back to the roadside and thence to an official dump. Shortly afterwards a local crofter asked me to help him consign another old van to the traditional vehicle graveyard! I declined.
At the end of January 1978, the northerly storm of rain and sleet turned to heavier wet snow and ice which stuck to everything. As the wind increased this built up to bring down power lines, and after 48 hours of continuous snow fall a metre had accumulated on the level, and 50% of the roadside trees were broken or uprooted leaving the road blocked for the next 8 days.
The next feature is the roadside memorial stone to the geologist James Bryce who lost his life while scrambling on the rocks opposite this spot. He was in his seventies!
The prominent crag which overhangs Inverfarigaig is Dun Deardil or Deirdre’s fortress – a very early example of a vitrified fort where the protective stone ramparts have been fused together by extreme heat at some time in the past. Archaeologists are still unsure about how this might have happened.
Dun Deardil used to be grazed by wild goats who were tolerated as a safe way to remove grazing which might otherwise have attracted less surefooted sheep. The last goat on these crags was shot by Donald John Mackintosh and fell a long way!
Deirdre was an Irish Princess from Fingallian legend who ran away from an arranged marriage with her lover Naestie who may have given his name to Loch Ness. They came to Scotland and enjoyed seven blissful years in this place catching fish and hunting deer from their doorstep. Unfortunately, her vengeful brothers eventually tracked them down and dragged them home again to an unhappy fate. She was so adored and befriended by local flora and fauna that when she was forcefully removed the local primroses which are very profuse on the roadside blanched with shock and have remained a particular pale shade of yellow to this day!
The cottage next to the Forest visitor centre at Inverfarigaig used to go under the good local name of Fasnagruig but after it was enlarged and changed hands it was rechristened “The Foresters Lodge”.
In the 19th. century the popular artist and engraver William Daniels included the Pass of Inverfarigaig in his compendium of dramatic Scottish scenery. True to style he depicted it at night time under a fitful moon. A lone herder is escorting some shaggy highland cattle up the road while perched among the rocks are beweaponed and tartaned clansmen poised in ambush. Sometimes of an evening when the car fails to progress on the ice and snow gripped road this image comes to me when I continue home on foot!