LANDSCAPE OF THE CROMARTY FIRTH
The coastal landscapes of the Cromarty Firth are an important resource, affecting the perception by both resident and visitor of the area's quality and attractiveness and contributing to the overall enjoyment of the area. The richness of the resource arises from a combination of its distinctive natural features and their interaction with human activity and settlement.
The overall character of any particular stretch of the Firth is dominated by its relative openness, the degree to which it is enclosed by surrounding slopes and the views afforded of Ben Wyvis and the mountains to the west. The variety and contrast in the nature and juxtaposition of key features is the basis of the landscape resource of the Firth.
In Nigg Bay, for instance, the scale of the bay, the extent of the mud flats and salt marsh and the flat farmland to the north-east combine to create an experience of great spaciousness, open horizons and dynamism of light which is amplified by the shifting tide and the bird activity for which the bay is so important. Views to Ben Wyvis and the western mountains appear distant. Conversely, in Udale Bay the slopes of the Black Isle, the vertical frontage of Invergordon and the rising land to the north give a sense of relative enclosure and intimacy which is in striking contrast with the dominating presence of Ben Wyvis.
Change in the landscapes of the Firth in recent decades has stemmed from a number of sources. The most striking has been the introduction in the 1970s of oil-related industrial development to its northern shores. The reclamation of land at Nigg and the development of the Highland Fabricators yard had a dramatic impact on the landscape of the mouth of the Firth and the setting of Cromarty. The sheer scale of the yard's buildings and the loss of the adjacent dunes intrinsically disrupted the character of the previous landscape, made exceptional by the close juxtaposition of a unique historic townscape at the narrow mouth of the Firth with the distinctive cliffs guarding the sudden entrance into the Moray Firth, a rich mosaic of vegetation, including the only dune system in the Firth and mature policy woodlands, and the expanse and richness of the intertidal area of Nigg Bay.
On the other hand, the landscapes of Alness Bay and around Invergordon have been able to absorb much of the impact of industrial development without significant change to their contribution to the overall character of the Firth. The land surrounding Alness Bay was formerly subject to considerable M.O.D. activity and recent development has helped to counteract the dereliction that old airfields and associated buildings have suffered.
Industrial development at Invergordon has built on a long tradition of port and naval activities on its waterfront while the aluminium smelter is set well back from the coastal edge and does not occupy a prominent position. The Smelter Pier and Conveyor with its associated cladding does, however, dominate Saltburn and the adjacent coast. Similarly, the Highland Deephaven causeway is a dominant visual feature from within Alness Bay.
Much of the additional land allocated for industrial development around the Firth is either on land previously used by the military or on flat agricultural land set well back from the coastal edge. The major exception to this is the designation for industry at Nigg on land rising to the east towards the North Sutor which might be expected to impact further on the entrance to the Firth and the setting of Cromarty. The proposed major reclamation of intertidal and subtidal areas of the Firth for industry would have striking implications for the landscape of at least parts of the Firth. In addition, changes in technology, including wind turbines for renewable energy and telecommunications installations, bring their own particular implications for its setting.
There continues to be pressure for residential development both on the edges of the area's coastal settlements and for single housing and small isolated groups. Where these are either close to the shore or in elevated positions, such as the steeper northern slopes of the Black Isle, they have the potential to impact on the coastal landscape.
A large proportion of the Firth's shoreline is bordered by roads. The roads skirting Cromarty Bay and much of the north shore afford fine waterside views. At the same time, they are the focus of a continuing need for coastal defences and road maintenance works and other activities which can erode the quality of the coastal edge. Indeed, these roads and adjacent land currently offer opportunities for local landscape improvements. The provision of Firth-side car-parking and the maintenance of such areas is increasingly an issue in relation to the interest in tourism and recreation in the area and needs to be particularly sensitive. The Easter Ross Local Plan includes a Coastal Conservation policy entailing the protection from development of land which intervenes between stretches of public road and adjacent shoreline in Alness Bay, between Dalmore distillery and Rosskeen and Saltburn and Barbaraville.
Agricultural and forestry land-use provides the pattern of texture and seasonal colour which forms the backdrop to the Firth. Change in the pattern may arise as a result of changing trends in rural land-use, including the expansion of forestry onto lower ground. The central northern slopes of the Black Isle are particularly prominent and are characterised by sweeping arable fields and geometric field patterns. Increasing the proportion of set-aside or plantation could for instance have a marked effect on their overall character.
As noted above, the Firth's built heritage plays a very important role in its landscapes. Certain historical buildings and structures are suffering from long-term neglect and dilapidation and could eventually be lost to the detriment of both the area's landscapes and heritage.
The potential for stimulating the involvement of communities in managing and improving their local landscapes has been recently explored in the Seaboard Local Landscape Study carried out by SNH and local community education and development workers. The approach used is seen as an important tool in raising local environmental awareness, involvement and understanding.