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King James route to St. Duthac

The King's Route

Retracing the route of King James IV's many pilgrimages to St. Duthac's shrine in Tain introduces
modern travelers to natural wonders, historic attractions and noteworthy diversions.


Sleuth on a bicycle, I'm searching for grains of truth along a trail that's hundreds of years old. The King's Route, they call it around here, and it's the king's tale I seek. Gleanings are sparse, but each one gleams like the golden barley fields either side of my journey through the Black Isle (the name is misleading – this is not an island but a peninsula, bound by the two firths of Cromarty in the north and Moray to the south, and linked to the rest of Scotland by a fertile hunchback of land, a few miles north of Inverness).

The story began in 1488 with a murder. A repentant 15-year-old boy shackled an iron chain about his waist, where it remained for the rest of his life as a reminder of his role in the events that killed his father. Barely two weeks later, that teenager was crowned King James IV of Scotland. The chain, increasing by one link each year, was not his only self-imposed penance. He also became a devoted pilgrim, which is why I am here.

From the spine of the "isle," with its chequerboard of fields and woodlands, huge skies and endless views, I can pick out my chosen line of inquiry. It roughly follows the northernmost stretch of an ancient pilgrim road that once linked the shrine of St. Ninian – far to the south at Whithorn in Galloway – to that of St. Duthac in Tain at the edge of the Dornoch Firth. King James came at least 18 times to Tain, his last visit just a few weeks before his death in the slaughter of Flodden Field in 1513.

This cycle trip is my personal exploration of the traces left by James and his fellow pilgrims. I shall be a tourist, just as the pilgrims were tourists in their day. From Cromarty, at the very tip of the Black Isle, I intend to board the King's Ferry and cross the narrow channel to the Fearn peninsula. I'll pedal round the head of Nigg Bay to Balnagown Castle, one-time seat of the powerful Earls of Ross, then over the King's Bridge and along the arrow-straight King's Causeway to Tain and St. Duthac's shrine itself. On the way, I hope to hear stories and theories, fact and embellishment. The delightful thing about grains of truth is their invitation to elaborate – a harmless exercise, so long as you don't pass it off as firm evidence. Like the king and his followers, I shall be royally entertained.

I imagine the creak and jangle of harness, the colourful crowd, the laughter and banter. On a sunny day like this, the king's Italian musicians – easily daunted by the Scottish climate – might strike up a tune as they clattered down the Paye – a steep, cobbled remnant of the old road into Cromarty. I follow them and emerge into a beautifully preserved mix of narrow lanes, fisherfolk cottages and elegant merchants' houses from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2011 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Terry Williams