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PICTURES: Cromarty sea kayaking fun exploring caves, waves and wartime ruins

By John Davidson

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Paddling past the World War II lookout towers at the South Sutor - later to be our lunch stop.
Paddling past the World War II lookout towers at the South Sutor - later to be our lunch stop.

Sitting in our little green kayak, it’s easy to feel small and insignificant is this vast expanse of water.

'If you head that way then turn right, you end up in Norway,' I tell Clara, my eldest daughter, who is sitting in front of me in the tandem vessel.

She’s unsure if I’m being serious or not. In reality, the mile-long crossing of the entrance to the Cromarty Firth is enough of a journey on this little outing, especially as I’m largely powering the pair of us into a headwind.

Clara has only been in a kayak once before, but already she seems like a natural. She’s in her element out there and isn’t even put off when a wave drenches her as we launch back out from a fascinating lunch spot at the South Sutor.

Our trip began at Cromarty beach, where we met our guide for the day, Donald Macpherson. Donald runs Explore Highland, taking people out on all manner of paddling trips from family-friendly adventures to bespoke multiday sea kayaking expeditions.

Today, Clara and I are joined by a couple from Grantown, and we are first out onto the water. The Cromarty Firth is a hive of activity, with huge oil rigs dominating the view into the sheltered waters, while across at Nigg we see turbine parts standing upright like shiny white matchsticks on end.

It won’t be long before they are anchored in the Outer Moray Firth as part of the Moray East wind farm, which will see a further 100 massive turbines added to the 84 already operating at Beatrice.

There is very little wind today, and at first the sea is mirror calm, perfect conditions for a leisurely paddle. As we are joined by Donald and the others, we amble along the coast, practising technique and just admiring the spectacular scenery.

Heading out from Cromarty, we paddled along the coast in calm water to begin with.
Heading out from Cromarty, we paddled along the coast in calm water to begin with.

Donald tells us to look out for otters among the rocks here, but unfortunately they remain elusive today. So too the dolphins that we keep a watchful look out for during the day.

However, there is plenty of bird life and the rock formations we pass are impressive, not least one of the sea stacks that hosts a World War II lookout tower at the South Sutor. We paddle past a pair of these towers, through sparkling water, and decide to head a little further before returning to this spot for lunch.

I’m keen to see McFarquhar’s Cave, a further mile or so down the coast towards Eathie, where geologist Hugh Miller spent many a day collecting fossils. There are still ammonite and belemnite fossils to be found in the area to this day, but enthusiasts are asked not to hammer into the fixed rock, simply to collect those washed up on the tide. The stretch of coastline between Cromarty and Rosemarkie is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), largely for its fascinating geological past.

We paddle alongside these rocks, with yellow gorse lit brightly by the sun on the slopes above, and before we know it Donald points to a small dark entrance – McFarquhar’s Cave.

The tide is still quite low, so he recces the narrow entrance and is happy for us to take our longer boats in for a look. Reversing in is the best option, as the turn inside would be tight, so Clara and I paddle backwards, being careful not to scrape the boat on the rocks.

Inside we can hear the waves throw up rocks onto the beach hidden in the darkness behind us. It’s an exciting trip into this cavern, but we now head back out into the daylight and, as we do, Donald suggests a little gap between some rocks for us to manoeuvre through – easier said than done in a tandem kayak!

Making a swift move through a tight gap on the exit from the cave.
Making a swift move through a tight gap on the exit from the cave.

It’s a great feeling when we manage to work together to get through the space, and Clara is beaming after it. This is my favourite part of sea kayaking, ducking in between rocky outcrops and using the paddle to control the boat in a tight space, and Clara seems to enjoy it too.

Back at the South Sutor, we land between the two lookout towers to stretch our legs and get a bite to eat, and Donald also tells me there’s a short scramble up to one of the towers, if I am happy to let Clara give it a try.

Looking at the narrow ridge up the rock stack, there are the remains of a wooden ladder up the first segment, then a fixed rope attached to metal pegs offers some support up the steep, loose rock and grass higher up.

Donald heads up first, then Clara, and I follow behind to make sure she’s safe. It’s an exposed route but it can be safely climbed with care, and once we open the rusty doors and go inside, we are welcomed to a phenomenal view out across the Moray Firth.

It’s no wonder these towers were a vital part of the war defences, as the safe haven of the Cromarty Firth would have been an important port. Yet it’s hard to imagine the reality of that time, as we enjoy a peaceful view across miles of ocean on such a perfect day.

Back at the beach, we watch a huge boat come in to visit the Nigg port as we eat our lunch and chat about plans for the rest of the trip. A crossing of the firth is in order, and the wind has picked up a little bit, but it’s still a relatively calm sea.

Donald crossing the entrance to the Moray Firth, with oil rigs and turbine parts as a backdrop.
Donald crossing the entrance to the Moray Firth, with oil rigs and turbine parts as a backdrop.

We decide to launch from the beach through a low natural arch in the rock. Again, Clara and I head out first and, with a little push from Donald, we are away – then a bigger wave washes up and right over the boat, soaking Clara in the process.

After the initial shock, she takes it in good spirits and is already excitedly repeating the experience to me. We paddle further out and wait for the others to join us, then Donald tells us where to aim on the far side to take into account the wind and tides.

Heading out into the headwind, it’s fun yet hard work to take on the crossing, and it’s a relief when we eventually reach the more sheltered water at the North Sutor. A short paddle up the coast brings us to a couple more lookout towers, positioned on slightly lower rocks and with the somewhat dilapidated remnants of a swing bridge still linking the two.

We explore a little further, looking at the bird life and the cliffs before it’s time to turn around and head back for shore. We meander through a few more rocks on the way back then aim across the firth, with the wind at our backs, for an easy ride back to Cromarty.

Some surfing on the return journey adds to the excitement as we end our day on a high, eager to spend more time on the water in future.

Route details

Cromarty sea kayak

Distance 7 miles / 12km

Terrain Sea!

Start/finish Cromarty beach

Map OS Landranger 21 or 27; OS Explorer 432

Sea kayak excursion around the North and South Sutors from Cromarty with Explore Highland

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