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.Read More
The Black Isle
The Black Isle
Sandwiched between the Cromarty Firth to the north and, to the south, the Moray and Beauly firths which separate it from Inverness, the Black Isle is not an island at all, but a fertile peninsula whose rolling hills, prosperous farms and stands of deciduous woodland make it more reminiscent of Dorset or Sussex than the Highlands. It probably gained its name because of its mild climate: there’s rarely frost, which leaves the fields “black” all winter; another explanation is that the name derives from the Gaelic word for black, dubh – a possible corruption of St Duthus. On the south side of the Black Isle, near Fortrose, Chanonry Point juts into a narrow channel in the Moray Firth and is an excellent place to look for dolphins.
An ancient legend recalls that the twin headlands flanking the entrance to the Cromarty Firth, known as The Sutors (from the Gaelic word for shoemaker), were once a pair of giant cobblers who used to protect the Black Isle from pirates. Nowadays, however, the only giants in the area are the colossal oil rigs marooned in the estuary off Nigg and Invergordon like metal monsters marching out to sea. They form a surreal counterpoint to the web of tiny streets and charming workers’ cottages of CROMARTY. The Black Isle’s main settlement, Cromarty was an ancient ferry-crossing point on the pilgrimage trail to St Duthus’s shrine in Tain, but lost much of its trade during the nineteenth century to places served by the railway; a branch line to the town was begun but never completed. Cromarty became a prominent port in 1772 when an entrepreneurial local landlord, George Ross, founded a hemp mill here, fuelling a period of prosperity during which Cromarty acquired some of Scotland’s finest Georgian houses: these, together with the terraced fishers’ cottages of the nineteenth-century herring boom, have left the town with a wonderfully well-preserved concentration of Scottish domestic architecture.
The museum, housed in the old Courthouse on Church Street, tells the history of the town using audiovisuals and animated figures. Dolphin- and other wildlife-spotting trips are offered locally by EcoVentures, who travel out through the Sutors to the Moray Firth in a powerful RIB.
The Dornoch Firth and around
The Dornoch Firth and around
North of the Cromarty Firth, the hammer-shaped Fearn peninsula can still be approached from the south by the ancient ferry crossing from Cromarty to Nigg, though to the north the link is a causeway over the Dornoch Firth, the inlet that marks the northern boundary of the peninsula. On the southern edge of the Dornoch Firth the A9 bypasses the quiet town of TAIN, an attractive, old-fashioned small town of grand whisky-coloured sandstone buildings that was the birthplace of St Duthus, an eleventh-century missionary who inspired great devotion in the Middle Ages. Tain’s main attraction is the Glenmorangie whisky distillery where the highly rated malt is produced; it lies beside the A9 on the north side of town. Booking is recommended for the tours; there is also a shop.
DORNOCH, a genteel and appealing town eight miles north of Tain, lies on a flattish headland overlooking the Dornoch Firth. A middle-class holiday resort, with trees and flowers in profusion, solid Edwardian hotels, and miles of sandy beaches giving good views across the estuary to the Fearn peninsula, the town is renowned for its championship golf course, Scotland’s most northerly first-class course. Nearby Skibo Castle was where Madonna married Guy Ritchie; she also had her son baptized in Dornoch cathedral.
Ten miles north of Dornoch on the A9 lies the straggling red sandstone town of GOLSPIE, whose status as an administrative centre does little to relieve its dullness. It is, however, the jumping-off point for some brilliant mountain biking: the fabulous Highland Wildcat Trails are within the forested hills just half a mile to the west. The easy to severe (colour-coded) trails include a huge descent from the summit of Ben Bhraggie to sea level and a ride past the Sutherland monument, erected in memory of the landowner who oversaw the eviction of thousands of his tenants in a process known as the Clearances.
Immediately behind Golspie, you can’t miss the 100ft monument to the first Duke of Sutherland, which peers proprietorially down from the summit of the 1293ft Beinn a’Bhragaidh (Ben Bhraggie). An inscription cut into its base recalls that the statue was erected in 1834 by “a mourning and grateful tenantry [to] a judicious, kind and liberal landlord [who would] open his hands to the distress of the widow, the sick and the traveller”. Unsurprisingly, there’s no reference to the fact that the duke, widely regarded as Scotland’s own Josef Stalin, forcibly evicted 15,000 crofters from his million-acre estate. It’s worth the stiff climb to the top of the hill (round trip 1hr 30min) for the wonderful views south along the coast past Dornoch to the Moray Firth and west towards Lairg and Loch Shin. The path is steep and strenuous in places, however, and there’s no view until you’re out of the trees, about twenty minutes from the top.
Originally a Viking settlement named Vik (meaning “bay”), WICK has been a royal burgh since 1589. It’s actually two towns: Wick proper, and Pultneytown, south across the river, a messy, rather run-down community planned by Thomas Telford in 1806 to encourage evicted crofters to take up fishing. Wick’s heyday was in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was the busiest herring port in Europe, with a fleet of more than 1100 boats exporting tons of fish to Russia, Scandinavia and the West Indian slave plantations. Though redevelopment of the harbour is underway, the town still has a down-at-heel air. The area around the harbour in Pultneytown, lined with rows of fishermen’s cottages, is most worth a wander, with acres of largely derelict net-mending sheds, stores and cooperages around the harbour giving some idea of the former scale of the fishing trade. The town’s story is told in the Wick Heritage Centre in Bank Row, Pultneytown. The only other visitor attraction is the fairly simple Pulteney Distillery on nearby Huddart Street, a few blocks from the sea.
Towering high above the River Shin, twenty miles northwest of Tain, the daunting neo-Gothic profile of Carbisdale Castle overlooks the Kyle of Sutherland, as well as the battlefield where the gallant Marquess of Montrose was defeated in 1650, finally forcing Charles II to accede to the Scots’ demand for Presbyterianism. The castle was erected between 1906 and 1917 for the dowager Duchess of Sutherland, following a protracted family feud. Designed in three distinct styles (to give the impression that it was added to over a long period of time), Carbisdale was eventually acquired by a Norwegian shipping magnate in 1933, and finally gifted, along with its entire contents and estate, to the SYHA, which has turned it into what must be one of the most opulent hostels in the world. Bring a bike to take advantage of the several miles of mountain-biking trails in the nearby Balblair and Carbisdale woods.
Thirty dorms and some family rooms in this opulent castle hostel, full of white Italian-marble sculptures, huge gilt-framed portraits, sweeping staircases and magnificent drawing rooms alongside standard facilities such as self-catering kitchens, games and TV rooms. You can tuck into a hearty three-course dinner (£11.50) at the restaurant before wandering the supposedly haunted corridors in search of ghosts. The best way to get here by public transport is to take a train from Inverness to nearby Culrain station.