The east coast of the Highlands, between Inverness and Wick, is nowhere near as spectacular as the west, with gently undulating moors, grassland and low cliffs where you might otherwise expect to find sea lochs and mountains. While many visitors speed up the main A9 road through this region in a headlong rush to the Orkneys’ prehistoric sites, those who choose to dally will find a wealth of brochs, cairns and standing stones, many in remarkable condition. The area around the Black Isle and the Tain was a Pictish heartland, and has yielded many important finds. Further north, from around the ninth century AD onwards the Norse influence was more keenly felt than in any other part of mainland Britain, and dozens of Scandinavian-sounding names recall the era when this was a Viking kingdom.
The fishing heritage is a recurring theme along this coast, though there are only a handful of working boats scattered around the harbours today; the area remains one of the country’s poorest, reliant on relatively thin pickings from sheep farming, fishing and tourism. The one stretch of the east coast that’s always been relatively rich, however, is the Black Isle just over the Kessock Bridge heading north out of Inverness, whose main village, Cromarty, is the region’s undisputed highlight. Beyond the golfing resort of Dornoch, the ersatz-Loire chateau Dunrobin Castle is the main tourist attraction, a monument as much to the iniquities of the Clearances as to the eccentricities of Victorian taste. Wick, the largest town in these parts, has an interesting past entwined with the fishing industry, but is otherwise uninspiring.