“There’s a little known saint with some strange royal connections…” mused Bernie, my wife.
“He has a pilgrimage centre near where we’re going today.” she said. “Want to see it?”
There was something in her tone – which is well tuned to what I really value – that suggested her words were precisely chosen. “And it’s on the same peninsula as Portmahomack… your favourite place in all the world.” she said, softly.
‘In all the world’ was a bit over the top… but not by much. ‘Royal’ had me both worried and enthused, but, sensing a triumph of hope over expectation, I pushed the button. “Yes… please… and thank you!”
And that’s how we came to be in Tain; a beautiful town at the point where the amazing Tarbat peninsula, home to some of the best Pictish artefacts in Scotland, joins the main geographic body of the Highlands between Inverness and John o’ Groats.
It wasn’t our first visit. To be honest, our first, two years ago, had been disappointing. None of the cafes we tried would allow our collie inside, so we ended up eating a cold pie and luke-warm take-away coffee in a small park whose main sign was ‘No dogs allowed’.
We were cold and hungry, Tain. I’m sorry…
It’s funny how fate will take you on very specific journeys; if you’re willing to let it lead you off into the unknown.
Two years (and two lockdowns) further on, we had returned to Tain. But only because Bernie had spotted the reference to the mysterious saint that neither of us had heard of.
“You said he was called Dufus?” I was, possibly, being picky.
“There are, apparently, many variants,” she said, reasonably. “Duthac is one of them.”
I nodded my head, looking at the strange and antique lettering on the information board before us…
Behind the sign, ‘Tain through time’ the exhibition was closed, as most things still are – doubly so if you have a dog.
But the dubious antique lettering drew me in, again, and I realised I had seen another faded and battered sign of the same format. But that one had only talked about a King’s ferry, not a route, not a road… not even a royal road.
So, to make sense of this journey, we need to go back to that moment…
Two years ago, when we first visited the Black Isle and various other points north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, we were standing one afternoon at the ferry point in Nigg, opposite Cromarty.
My attention was taken by a rusty notice board fixed to an industrial fence. Nigg became one of the main maintenance bases in the North Sea Oil boom of the 1970s onwards. There is little left of its former pastoral beauty. This sign was barely visible.
It had been a wonderful day of exploring, and I was busy photographing the late afternoon sun streaming through the darkening white clouds and illuminating the Cromarty Firth.
The last thing I wanted to look at was an old and rusting sign. But the presence of a small ferry here intrigued me. The information board promised some history – they often contain gems of local knowledge not easily found elsewhere, so I always photograph them for later reference in the blogs.
I studied it… Ferries have always been interesting. They are usually linked to the ancient folk-history of a place. Bernie, who is an historian by training, shares this love. When on holiday we’ll often take a local ferry just for the experience.
The notice board stated that the present ferry crossing (currently ten mins, two cars max) had been in place for well over a thousand years. King William (I) had used it to crush a local rebellion in 1179, establishing a castle on the shores of the loch in the process. The lands granted for the support of the castle had included the revenue from the ferry. It is likely that its name “The King’s Ferry” derived from this time.
The information board records that, three hundred years later, between 1488 and 1513, King James IV of Scotland used the ferry many times to visit and pay his devotions at the shrine of Saint Duthac at the nearby town of Tain, located at the neck of the Tarbat peninsula. His devotion to the saint was such that he switched the historic castle income from the ferry to pay for a chaplain in Tain.
It seems that at this point, the route across the Cromarty Firth and on into Ross became known as the ‘King’s Route’ I remember first reading this, and wondering if there might be a deeper meaning. Kings are certainly important, but there is an older and more spiritual meaning, exemplified in such phrases as the biblical ‘King of Kings’. Was this route simply a way taken by a particular king, or was this a reference to a path of devotion resulting in an ‘inner royal state’?
In the next post, we’ll return to the present moment in Tain and find that something linked to the mysterious St Duthac was open… two things, in fact, though one of them – despite being genuine – was an unmarked ruin…
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.