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.