The Cat’s Back, as it is affectionately known in these parts, is a long ridge that rises between Dingwall and Strathpeffer. The Iron Age fort on top of Knockfarrel – as well as its accessibility between these two busy settlements – makes it a popular spot for walking.
Despite having walked up here many times, for one reason or another I had never been to the highest point on the ridge, Cnoc Mor. That was my mission as I set off from the car park at Strathpeffer on a warm, clear afternoon.
Most walk descriptions suggest descending by the route I took to get up there, but I decided I would tackle the steep slope that seems to take a beeline from the forestry track to a point just below the summit.
Heading past a couple of houses along the forestry track from the car park, go past a gate and continue into the cleared forest. Ignore a sign to the Touchstone Maze on the left – that will make up part of the return route – and continue ahead on the track.
As it bends left, look out for a small path immediately after a turning point. It’s clear enough once you’re on it and easy to follow through the cleared area of forest. Looking back you can already see the tops of the Fannich mountains to the north-west. Keep to the left fork just after a rowan tree to head directly up the hill into the darkness of the pine trees, where the route gets steeper up to a couple of fallen trees across the hillside.
Follow the path left here as it rises more gently and eventually leads to a stile over a low fence. Cross the stile and turn right to climb steeply again to the obvious trig point.
It wasn’t very far to this point but I’d had to work hard up that slope, so I was delighted to be rewarded with great views. The forested area is open enough to allow views along the ridge and I headed back down to the stile as I started to make my way towards the more familiar Knockfarrel fort.
The well-used path is easy to follow as it sticks to the ridge beside a fence, the dense forest to the left and more open views across Loch Ussie to the Cromarty Firth over to the right.
It soon drops to a complex junction of paths and tracks, though thankfully the route is easy. Cross the stile and go straight ahead through the gate, following the sign to Knockbain and Dingwall. A stony path rises again to continue on the crest of the ridge through heather, still purple early in the autumn.
It’s here the view is truly spectacular.
You can see Ben Wyvis straight across on one side, the Fannichs rising behind the village of Strathpeffer further round and out to the Cromarty and Beauly firths – it’s hard to know where to look at times!
Further ahead there’s an interesting sculpture of three figures, though I admit to not knowing the significance of this. I’d be interested to know if anybody can enlighten me.
The track then forks but both ways lead down to a parking area just below the final rise to the fort. Climb to the fairly obvious remains of this Pictish vitrified fort and enjoy the fine views one last time before beginning the descent.
I headed back down to the parking area and forked right, taking a track that leads back to Blackmuir Wood.
After about 1km go through a gate then take a track down to the right, staying right further ahead on the clearest route. This leads to the Touchstone Maze, a fascinating series of different types of rock from around Scotland arranged in concentric circles to line up with the summer and winter solstices.
Such prehistoric labyrinth designs can still be seen at a few sites in England and Scandinavia, though this one was the result of a more modern project.
Continue round the maze to follow the path beside a fence, going straight on at a signpost then further on going right to follow the red route back, eventually meeting the forestry track beside the houses near the car park.