The whole of this corner of the Moray Firth and its coastal zones are important for wildlife: not just the famous dolphins but also for many thousands of migratory and over-wintering swans and geese. Close to Arabella are sites which have been designated under European and UK law.

NiggThe monks of Saint Columba of lona will have sailed in their currachs (hide boats) over from Cromarty to Nigg on their way to make a start on the conversion of the northern Picts. The continuing relationship between lona and Nigg is demonstrated by the give and take of cultural exchange discernible in the sculpture at Portmahomack and notably by the carving of the Nigg Pictish cross-slab, now housed in Nigg Old Church. The slab is acknowledged as the finest work of art of its period in Scotland. It and its related monuments at Shandwick, Hilton and Portmahomack are all made of the fine buff-coloured sandstone cut from bedrock on the shore just beyond Hilton. Sculptors at Nigg and on Iona both use the astonishingly intricate decorative motif of large stud-like bosses made up of snakes’ bodies. It has been suggested that it was the Picts who taught the bona craftsmen to carve in relief on their High Crosses these same sculptural marvels. The complicated spiral work on the Nigg slab is exactly paralleled in the pages of the great Gospel Book of Kells, produced on Iona in the second half of the eighth century, so the slab must date from around the same time. Many an Abbot of lona must have sailed over to Nigg from Cromarty. The most remarkable feature of the slab is a figurative scene set immediately above the cross. It illustrates in unique detail a story told by the fifth century ‘Father of the Church’, St Jerome, about the founders of monasticism, the Egyptian Saints Paul and Antony. Its central incident is the sharing of the heavenly bread sent daily to Saint Paul. Because of its monastic associations the story was a popular one, frequently depicted in contemporary English and Irish sculpture but only the version at Nigg presents the Saints as deacons jointly celebrating Holy Mass.

But Nigg Ferry also brought easy access to the south of Scotland, with all the opportunities that opened up there. In the later medieval period the ‘Kirk of Nigg’ was important because of its grain production. Its farm produced a surplus which formed part of the revenues of the Bishopric of Ross. Naturally enough, the place itself, with its ancient Christian origins, attracted the Bishop. He had a residence here with access to the Hill from Nigg Bay via what is still known as the Bishop’s Walk, a pathway which has been newly re-opened in 2008. The part of the Hill opposite the Old Church of Nigg is, in early maps, called The Bishop’s Forest, so no doubt the Bishop’s huntsmen will have been busy there in pursuit of wild boar and deer. The Bishop’s farm may well lie somewhere below the foundations of Nigg Mains, over the wall from Nigg Old Church.

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