With the Kessock Bridge undergoing major repairs at the moment and the Cromarty to Nigg ferry due to open next week, Dr David Worthington, head of the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History, gives an insight into how people used to cross the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.
A ‘passage exceeding hazardous’? The ferries of the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths before 1900
“…a pleasant prospect: the rich banks of the firth, crowded with farms, and animated with all the appearances of industry; small vessels sailing up and down; people busy for preparing and unloading them; fishermen attending their nets; the ferry boats ready at a call; the extensive prospects of the rich-lands in Ross-shire and a good inn seen among trees on the opposite shore.”
Banff-born minister, Charles Cordiner, recorded these fond memories of being aboard a ferry heading southwards across the Kyle of Sutherland in 1776. He was not alone in being so positive about northern Highland ferries. In the 1790s, the Minister of Cromarty concluded that the ‘safety of this ferry [Cromarty to Invergordon] may be judged of’ since ‘no accident has been known to have happened upon it’, a point made also about the Ardersier to Chanonry route by his counterpart in Rosemarkie and by claims, in the 1830s, that, despite the absence of a steamship, there remained ‘no ferry in Scotland better attended to’ than the Inverness to North Kessock service.
A postcard marked 1906, sent to a Mrs Muirhead, possibly of a Cromarty ferry of the time. [Cromarty Archive Image Library No: 276]
These pre-20th century vessels may have served local passengers well enough on the whole. However, sea crossings in northern Europe are scarcely ever placid and external commentators usually conveyed an impression that the ferries were dangerous, at worst, and uncomfortable and expensive at best. In the 1650s, English visitor, Richard Franck, described the Inverness to North Kessock route as ‘exceeding hazardous’ and ‘rugged’, believing he would be capsized not just due to the ‘luxuriant tides, and aggravating winds, that violently contract the surff of the sea’, but because of the ‘porposses’ [porpoises or dolphins] that he thought were in danger of leaping into the boat. In the early 19th century, James Loch, estate commissioner for the first duke of Sutherland, remarked that the vessels were ‘without every accommodation which could make them either comfortable or convenient, the passenger being left exposed to all the inclemency of a variable and boisterous climate’, so that ‘the risk of crossing these narrow friths, hemmed in between mountains, was considerable’. The Minister of Kincardine near Ardgay was justified in being perturbed about the Meikle Ferry crossing across the Dornoch Firth which ‘is considered one of the most dangerous and inconvenient in the north; and many lives have been lost in crossing it’. Tragically, the ferry capsized there during a 1809 crossing causing up to 100 people to be drowned. Shortly after, Bristol-born poet and traveller, Robert Southey, met a son of one of those who died who ‘could never bear to set foot in a ferry boat after that catastrophe, and was thus cut off from communication with the south till this bridge [Bonar Bridge, 1812] was built’.
Possible loss of life aside, travellers complained, even on calm days, of delays, discomfort and cold. In the 1760s, Bishop Robert Forbes was ‘long detained’ at Ardersier since ‘the Boat could not take over the Pasengers that appeared, the Horses and the Chaise all at once’. James Loch said his horse and carriage were only ‘slowly and unskillfully put into the wretched boats’ and Southey claimed that passengers on the Invergordon to Cromarty service had been ‘sometimes obliged to mount their horses nearly a quarter of a mile from the shore, and ride mid-leg deep in the water’. Despite calling the Kessock ferry the ‘best in Scotland’, Bishop Robert Forbes also noted that ‘they have no good means of getting carriages on board, and there was considerable difficulty with one of the horses’.
Ferries in the firthlands could also be expensive. Moray minister, the Reverend James Allan, remarked in 1690 that ‘tho I kindled no smoak, they forced me to pay a shilling sterling’ on the Ardersier to Chanonry crossing. For Elgin man, Issac Forsyth, the ‘very considerable revenue exacted’ by the various ferry proprietors may have been ‘requisite for the support and navigation of the boats’, but still ‘few are satisfied with the provision made either for their accommodation or their safety in the passage of the ferries’.
Thankfully, times have changed. Better piers have been built and the Nigg to Cromarty ferry, a service with origins dating back to the 12th century, has, in modern times, become a safe and pleasurable experience for tourists and locals alike. Now that rail and road have taken over though and the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths have all been bridged, it is perhaps only through taking to the waters in this way or from the air that we can be reminded of the basics of geography and of the networks that operated to link Ardersier with Little Ferry in eastern Sutherland and many points between along this roughly indented stretch of coastline.
 Charles Cordiner, Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant (s.n., 1780), pp.65-6.
 The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799, 20 vols., (Wakefield, 1973-83.), XI, XII; The New Statistical Account of Scotland [hereafter NSA], 15 vols., (Edinburgh, 1845), XIV.
 Richard Franck, Northern memoirs, calculated for the meridian of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1821), pp.205-6.
 James Loch, An Account of the Improvements on the Estates of the Marquess of Stafford, (London, 1820), pp.17-19.
 NSA, XVI, p. 422.
 C.H. Herford (ed.), Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, (London, 1929), p. 129.
 J.B. Craven (ed.), Journals of the episcopal visitations of the Right Rev. Robert Forbes (London, 1923), p.151.
 Loch, An Account, pp.17-19.
 Herford (ed.), Robert Southey, p.121.
 Craven (ed.), Journals, p.167.
 Isaac Forsyth, A Survey of the Province of Moray: Historical, Geographical, and Political(Aberdeen, 1798), pp.338-9.