Cromarty to Storehouse of Foulis – Section 7 | Day 10

Today we would have seen the Cromarty club, with by far the largest club membership in the North and maybe the whole of Scotland, take over the baton and in company with other boats row up the Cromarty Firth finishing at the Storehouse of Foulis. The route will be reversed tomorrow, bringing the baton back down the Cromarty Firth.

Cromarty Community Rowing Club

In the early days of 2016, a group of people held a meeting to gauge support for a skiff in the town. There was enough enthusiasm for us to go ahead; Cromarty Community Rowing Club was formed and within a year we had raised the funds for a kit, built our beautiful boat and launched her. For our boat builders Robert Hogg, Thomas Macfarlane and Mike Hale, it was a labour of love, helped sporadically by other members of the community. We ran competition for a name and Cromba was chosen, the Gaelic name for Cromarty, the crooked bay.

Even in that first season, Cromarty went overboard for the rowing (not literally!) Red hoodies appeared everywhere and if you saw a huddle in the street you could be sure the conversation would centre around oars.

But it wasn’t just a phase, and in the space of a couple of years we had apparently become the biggest club in the Highlands. Someone recently dubbed us ‘the most skiffacious town in Scotland’ because a quarter of the population in the town now rows, or has rowed. The youngest club member is 12; the oldest 75+. Inclusion and community are our constant drivers.

We now have another skiff, whose kit-costs came from a kind family donation in memory of a good Cromarty man; we named her after his boat, Tess.

Most of us have lived by the sea all our lives but we’ve never really been on it. At the start many of us were fearful, but surprisingly quickly we came to trust the boat, trust our experienced coxes, and trust ourselves. Four years on, we feel like seasoned people of the sea! We relished learning this new skill, alongside a wealth of sea lore and legend from the experienced sailors and seafarers in the club. Who knew we would all become so obsessed with the wind direction, tide, timetables and knots of all varieties?! Some folk row for the buzz of the competitions – racing in the regattas, and training for them hits all their endorphin sweet-spots. You can recognise the training sessions from the echoing urgent yells from the cox, the testosterone hovering haar-like above them! But just as many members row simply for relaxation and a sense of belonging. Cromarty isn’t big and has always been a friendly and supportive place but it was surprising how many of us hadn’t really met each other. Across age, across all divides. A community getting to know each other in the hull of a beautiful boat.

Cromarty collaborated with our great rivals, Avoch, from down the Black Isle (our football nemesis since Biblical times) in holding a Youth Regatta, for the Year of Young People 2018. In the run up to it, the youth team, in a hitherto unlikely display of dedication, could be seen out on the water at the back of 6 practising for their races. We’ve had another regatta since the first, and the off and on-shore craic has been rare, we’ve also sent teams to other regattas, including the Worlds, and to our astonishment we won the Golspie and Ullapool regattas last year. It’s been great getting to know so many people from all over the Highlands – all over Scotland – and feeling part of a brilliant tribe of obsessed rowers.

With our two beaches when the wind is so fierce from one side it rules out rowing, we can still row out on the other.

We row around the rigs, or when conditions are fair, out to the Buss Bank marker buoy between the two Sutors. At this point you can feel the beginnings of the powerful tidal pull of the stronger Moray Firth and it’s thrilling. Or we row out over to the buoy that commemorates the tragedy of the sinking of the HMS Natal. On the 100th anniversary of the disaster, some of our youth team rowed out and dropped some flowers above its stricken wreck.

We’ve established a prize, for the person or persons who epitomise the spirit of the club, named the Goodie prize after another cherished local man whose family donated to the club. This year’s recipient was overwhelmingly won by Wanda Woman – a whirlwind of a woman who did, and does, much to get the club up and running, and who guides and runs the youth rowing.

The youth have been training through the winter indoors and we have a long list of new junior recruits ready to join – the future of our club.

One of our most memorable events took place during last summer’s solstice. We held a 24-hour rowing relay, with over 90 rowers taking part from 8pm on 20th to 8pm on the 21st June with one hour slots per crew. The weather couldn’t have been better, barely any wind, and only a couple of hours of darkness, for which we had lanterns and lights on the boat. Teams welcomed each other in and pushed each other out, all through the night and into the new day, ending up with an on-shore party. It was a magical experience for all of us, made even more memorable by the Slaughterhouse Coffee Shop opening up in the tiny hours for us to huddle in and warm up.

We have all found so much peace rowing out on the water, it’s hard to imagine Cromarty without it, and these weeks in the lockdown has been torture for us not able to row, when the sea has been sparkling at us. We row through personal grief or triumph, joy or heartache, everything is shared with our squad. Though we are only human, and there are some frequent heated squabbles about the shape and weight of the oars or the rights and wrongs of the snatch! Cromarty was made for rowing. It’s just a shame it took us so long to find it. It is without a doubt the most uniting, most mindful, most healthy thing our town has done in recent years, and it has certainly changed Cromarty – and changed lives.

Club Captain

Today, the RowAround leaves Cromarty. We start rowing up the Cromarty Firth we have to keep reasonably close to the shore as these waters have very active industrial life.

In the early 70’s and early 80’s, Cromarty and the construction yard and terminal across the water from Cromarty were a hub of activity building and constructing some of the early North Sea oil platforms, employing over 5,000 people. Today at Nigg and further up the Cromarty at Invergordon there is still a lot of oil rig refurbishment being carried in the Cromarty Firth along with offshore wind farm pre-assembly of legs and jackets to be later shipped out to their final destinations.

With its deep water access the Cromarty Firth, and now the Port of Invergordon, have become hosts to the occasional aircraft carrier and many a large cruise ship and the welcome tourist income spent around this area of the Highlands (although not this year).

The inner Cromarty firth has for centuries been a safe haven for the Navy. Some records show that even during the Napoleonic wars British Navy ships were stationed here. In both the World Wars, Invergordon had a strategic place for refuelling and supplies.

Between the wars there was even a naval mutiny:

Nearly all gone but not forgotten. Around the surrounding areas of Invergordon you can still see the remains of Army, Navy and Airforce activity of years gone by of old sea-plane hangars and slipways, air defence and secret oil storage tanks built into the side of the hills.

As we row past Invergordon, the Dalmore pier comes into view and looking beyond we can see the long outcrop of the Balconie Point pier at Deephaven Industrial Estate which serves the UK’s largest onshore pipe yard for the offshore oil and gas industry with the pier reaching out far into the inner Cromarty Firth.

In the distance we soon see the long but low outline of the Cromarty Bridge, built in 1979 at a cost of around £5m. The bridge became a lifeline for many, making a more direct link from the south rather than having to travel round through Beauly and Dingwall but still having to use the ferry at Kessock before the Kessock Bridge opened three years later in 1982.

We won’t be rowing under the bridge as we will soon be welcomed ashore after mammoth row as we head into the Storehouse of Foulis, the water home of the inland coastal rowing club, Strathpeffer & District Community Rowing Club. Hopefully the restaurant will be opened for a sugar fix of a small bit of meringue or cheesecake. Well worth a stop if you are heading north or south:

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