Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 87 - From Coast to Coast (Regional Focus: Ross and Cromarty)

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016


This article is 2 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

From Coast to Coast (Regional Focus: Ross and Cromarty)

Charles Douglas sets out to explore Cromarty, The Black Isle, Easter and Wester Ross

It becomes complicated when you set out to definitively define the region of focus for this edition of Scotland Magazine, as territories and regional boundaries have shifted over time. For example, up until the 1970s some political definitions show the Isle of Lewis as part of Ross and Cromarty and, somewhat confusingly, today’s lieutenancy area also includes the Isle of Skye.

The name of Ross is thought to have originated from a Gaelic word meaning ‘headland,’ no doubt a reference to the Black Isle. During the reign of David I, the North of Scotland was ruled by Mormaers (or Earls) and the territory north of the Moray Firth – hitherto considered to be part of the ancient earldom of Moray – was, it seems, appropriated by a Celt named Malcolm MacHeth. The southern march was then the River Beauly, and the northern was probably the Kyle of Sutherland.

In a charter of 1124, the western territory is described as: ‘the lands of Locharkaig and Glengarry and Glenelg, then by the march of Glenelg to the sea towards the west, and by the sea to the bounds of North Argyll, which belongs to the Earl of Ross: and so by those marches to the marches of Ross and by the marches of Ross to the water of Forne [Beauly] and thence to the sea.’ For most contemporary purposes, however, the region is limited to the mainland and has its southernmost point at Glen Shiel. Continuing up to its north-west corner at Enard Bay, the border then travels south-east, following the Kyle of Sutherland, to the Dornoch Firth and then down the east coast to the northern shores of the Beauly Firth.

The Black Isle is so called because old statistical accounts reveal that the area was once covered by black, uncultivated moor. It was also anciently known as Ardmeanach, meaning ‘the height in between.’ Today's covering of forest often gives it a dark appearance and yet another reason for its name is that when the Norseman Thorfinn conquered Ross in 1033, he apportioned Ardmeanach for his bloodthirsty followers. Thereafter it became known locally as ‘the land of the Black Danes.’ The Black Isle, twenty miles long and eight miles wide, survives on farming, fishing, forestry and tourism. The earth is rich in historic sites and, in 120AD, the Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy reported that it was inhabited by the Dekantai tribe. Rosemarkie was an important centre for Druid culture and this would explain why so many Christian churches were built here to counteract the influence. Fortrose was hardly large enough a settlement to warrant a cathedral, but one was built here in 1240 by Bishop Duthac of Tain and dedicated to St Boniface and St Peter. Dropping back into ancient traditions, the Fairy Glen at Rosemarkie is a delightful diversion (see page 65).

Cromarty, on the north-east corner of the Black Isle, is a classic Georgian town and unspoiled by time. It is, in fact, the third Cromarty; the original is said to have been founded by Greek sailors washed ashore in a storm. What calamityA overtook this first encampment is unknown, but some of the ruins can still be seen at low tide. The third town, however, owes its form to George Ross who, at his own expense, built the sandstone pier, opened flax and hemp factories, and built a brewery.

By the 19th Century, Cromarty had become a significant fishing centre, and certainly worth a visit is Hugh Miller's cottage, where the town's most famous son, the celebrated genealogist, author and stonemason, was born in 1802. Nowadays it houses a charming museum run by the National Trust for Scotland.

In the 17th Century, Kenneth Mackenzie, best known throughout the Highlands as the Brahan Seer, prophesied that the coastline of the eastern seaboard would one day be joined by bridges. His prophesy has now been fulfilled, along with others relating to the discovery of North Sea Oil and the fate of the Mackenzie of Seaforth family, who in his lifetime ruled this territory. If you have the gift of second sight it obviously pays to keep your predictions to yourself. When he informed the Countess of Seaforth that he had had a vision of her husband dallying with some ladies in France, she had him boiled in a barrel of tar on Chanonry Point. A monument marks the spot in remembrance of this legend.

Across the Cromarty Bridge the A9 travels into Easter Ross, generally considered to be the stretch of land encompassing the iconic Ben Wyvis, which in Gaelic language translates as ‘hill of terror.’ From its summit on a clear day it is possible to see half of the Highlands, coast to coast from the North Sea to the Atlantic. Sheltered by its encircling hills, the climate is soft and the landscape green.

Three rivers drain the high land into the Cromarty Firth: the River Conon, which marks the southern border of Easter Ross, and the rivers Glass and Averon. The scenery flanking the River Conon is often breathtaking, with rich forestation on the slopes of the valleys replacing the ancient Caledonian wood felled long ago by Norse invaders. At Loch Luichart is the first hydroelectric scheme to be trialled in Scotland.

Clan Munro emerged in the 12th Century holding the lands of Ferindonald that stretched from the Alness Water to Dingwall, dependant upon their ‘furnishing a snowball if required to do so, at Midsummer’ to the earldom of Ross. Since the north-west corries of Ben Wyvis are rarely free from snow, this was considered to be a not unreasonable demand.

As was the case with most Highland clans, the Munros, from their stronghold at Foulis Castle, constantly battled with their neighbours, notably with the Mackintoshes and Macdonalds. The Munro clan crest depicts an eagle and, at Strathpeffer, there is a Pictish stone depicting an eagle, which was allegedly moved there by the clan to commemorate a great military victory.

The name of the market town of Dingwall is derived from the Norse ‘thing vollr,’ meaning ‘place of the parliament,’ and it was from here that the Vikings ruled the North in the 11th Century. Dingwall Castle was once the largest fortification north of Stirling. From the 16th Century, Tulloch Castle, on the town's outskirts, became the ancestral home of the Bain family and later, Clan Davidson. One famous son of Dingwall was the Victorian General Sir Hector MacDonald, otherwise known as ‘Fighting Mac.’ There is a monument to him here known as the Mitchell Tower.

In 1814, the River Conon and River Beauly were bridged south of Dingwall. The railway arrived in 1862. A visit to the Dingwall Museum located in the tollbooth of the High Street is a worthwhile diversion.

The Victorian Spa town of Strathpeffer was built below Ben Wyvis. and is where the Earl of Cromartie, Chief of Clan Mackenzie, has his headquarters at Castle Leod in close proximity to several ancient battlefields. At Blar Nan Ceann is the ‘Battlefield of the Heads’ where the Mackenzies of Seaforth defeated the MacDonells of Glengarry; around 1486, the Battle of Blar Na Pairce (Battlefield of the Park) saw the defeat of a large invading force of MacDonalds, and in 1497, Clan Mackenzie and Clan Munro defeated the invading Clan MacDonald of Lochalsh at the Battle of Drumchatt. The well-known annual Strathpeffer Highland Gathering takes place in the grounds of Castle Leod every August.

Strathpeffer gained its Victorian spa status from the discovery of ‘health invigorating’ sulphurous springs. A pump room in the middle of the village dates from 1819 and soon after that a hospital and a hotel arrived. The Strathpeffer Pavilion dates from 1880, and was built to provide a venue for entertainment. The picturesque railway station has been refurbished as a visitor centre.

Evanton is a large village founded in the early 19th Century by Alexander Fraser of Balconie and named for his son Evan. Historic sites here include the 1782 Fyrish Monument, which at the time provided much needed employment for the local community. The Fyrish Monument represents the Gate of Negapatam, a port in Madras, which its patron, General Sir Hector Munro of Novar, took for the British in 1781. At the edge of Evanton Wood is the Black Rock Gorge, a narrow cleft of old red sandstone. It is said that the Lady of Balconie was lured into its depths by the Devil and, allegedly, her cries can still be heard. In 2005, it was used as a location for a scene in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

At Invergordon in 1931, industrial action was taken over a pay cut by 1,000 sailors of the British Atlantic Fleet. However, Invergordon today is best known as a repair yard for oil rigs lining up in the Cromarty Firth on which the town is situated. For several years in the 20th Century this was also the site of an aluminium smelter that closed in 1981. However, there is still a major grain whisky distillery operated by Whyte & Mackay and which boasts the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band.

Close to Kildary is the pink-harled Balnagowan Castle, long ago seat of the powerful Chiefs of Clan Ross and today owned by Mohamed Al Fayed, the former owner of Harrods Department Store in London.

Strung along the Tarbat Peninsula is a string of seaboard villages: Balintore, Hilton of Cadboll and Shandwick. Portmahomack, ‘haven of Saint Colmac’ is situated on the Dornoch Firth with a sandy bay and a harbour designed by Thomas Telford.

The battle of Tarbat Ness (circa 1035) was fought here between Thorfinn, Jarl of Caithness, and the King of Scots; the Battle of Tarbat, between Clan Mackay and Clan Ross, also took place here around 1480. West of the village are the remains of an Iron Age broch, and nearby is the privately owned 16th Century Ballone Castle, which has been recently restored by Lachlan and Annie Stewart, who own the design and fabrics company Anta of Scotland.

Inland is Tain, Scotland's oldest Royal Burgh, which was commemorated by a Rose Garden being opened in 1966 by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. In 1066, Tain was confirmed as a sanctuary by Malcolm III, allowing resident merchants and traders exemption from paying certain taxes.

A chapel, now a ruin, is said to have been built on the spot of the birthplace of Saint Duthac, an early Christian figure who became Chief Confessor of Scotland and Ireland. It therefore became a place of pilgrimage during the middle ages. During the first War of Scottish Independence, Robert the Bruce sent his wife and daughter here for their safety; however, the sanctuary was violated by soldiers loyal to his adversary John Balliol and the women taken to England, where they remained prisoners for several years. Just north of Tain is the well known Glenmorangie Distillery. Returning once more to Strathpeffer, across the Conon Bridge at the west end of the Cromarty Firth, and setting off to travel on the A835 into Wester Ross along Loch Broom, visitors will find that the scenery becomes increasingly dramatic. This is the North West Highlands of Scotland at its very best.

The North Atlantic Drift passes Ullapool on the shores of Loch Broom and brings a moderate temperature. Ullapool was founded as a herring port in 1788 and from the harbour a ferry service sails to Stornoway on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis. An Talla Solais in the Caledonian Hotel is a community arts centre, with workshops and changing exhibitions. An annual Ullapool Book Festival takes place every May, and the Macphail Centre incorporates a theatre.

Just north of Kinlochewe is Anancaun, where the inhabitants were slaughtered by Black Murdo of Kintail in the late 14th Century. Ownership of the territory at Gairloch was fiercely contested between various clan groupings before the Mackenzies gained control in the 17th Century.

The A832 leaves the loch shore at Slattadale and follows the wooded gorge of the River Kerry down to the sea at Gairloch, the name of which means ‘short loch.’ The Mackenzie baronetcy established its main seat of administration here when it built Flowerdale House in 1738. The Torridon peaks of Wester Ross are by any standards impressive – Suilven, Stac Polly, Liathach and Beinn Aligin and An Teallach, above Dundonnel Moor.

From Gairloch, the road cuts across the neck of the Rubha Reidh peninsula to Poolewe, which is the river outlet of Loch Maree at the head of Loch Ewe. In the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, two ships anchored here for wo days awaiting news of the fate of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. In 1809, a haddock boat was holed and sunk by a whale and during the Second World War, Loch Ewe served as an assembly point for the great Russian and North Atlantic Convoys of merchant vessels.

Loch Maree, framed to the west by the peaks of Beinn Eighe and to the east by Slioch, is named after Saint Maelrubha, a Celtic missionary who is said to have lived on one of the loch's islands. In September 1887, Queen Victoria spent several days here at the Loch Maree Hotel. On a visit to one of the islands, she recorded in her diary that it was the custom for visitors to hammer a copper coin into a tree in the Saint's memory. However, there is no record to suggest that she did so.

From Achnasheen (The Field of Storms), the A832 climbs past Loch a'Chroisg and down through Glen Docherty to Kinlochewe. The name seems odd being at the head of Loch Maree, but possibly suggests that at one time Loch Maree and Loch Ewe were thought of as being one and the same.

Loch Ewe's most famous beauty spot is the garden at Inverewe, created by the horticulturalist and botanist Osgood Mackenzie between 1864 and 1922. Inland and to the southeast for a distance of over 20 miles lies the Great Wilderness, a loch punctuated landscape incorporating some of the most ragged and spectacularly remote mountains in the United Kingdom. Only a few bothies remain here for the use of determined walkers and fishermen.

Much of Torridon is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and includes Liathach and Beinn Alligin. There is a small visitor centre with distant views over to the Isle of Skye. Queen Victoria much enjoyed a picnic here, describing it as being not unlike ‘the end of the world.’ Coigach is the name given to the section of Wester Ross between Loch Broom and the Sutherland border. Achiltibuie (The Field of the Yellow-Haired Boy), was until not so long ago the home to the really quite remarkable Hydroponicum; a facility for growing fresh fruit and vegetables indoors year-round using hydroponics, it was built in the 1980s by Robert Irvine, owner of the Summer Isles Hotel.

The Hydroponicum grew exotic fruit such as bananas all year round and attracted up to 10,000 visitors a year until it was sold in 2007 to a company based in the Isle of Man. Sadly the business failed, but some of the former Hydroponicum staff run The Achiltibuie Garden, situated nearby. The Roman epic film The Eagle (2011), based on the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, was filmed on location in Achiltibuie with the main location of Fox Point at Old Dornie.

At the end of a steep descent to Ardnair, the eye is drawn to the offshore Summer Isles. Tanera Mo`r is the largest. It was formerly home to an Atlantic salmon fish farm but has been uninhabited since 2014. However, its post office, when operational, printed its own stamps and a new set is planned for 2016. Boats still sail to Tanera Mo`r from Achiltibuie and Ullapool.

Wester Ross Coastal Tour

Following the road from Ullapool to Inverewe Gardens and Gairloch.

Distance: 60 miles

Approximate time by car without stops or delays: 90 minutes

Ullapool (A835) Largely laid out by the British Fisheries Society as a herring port in the 18th Century, the North Atlantic Drift passes nearby creating moderate temperatures. The harbour was created by the engineer Thomas Telford and fishing remains important to the economy. On the shores of Loch Broom, it is also the terminal for Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. There is a small museum, An Talla Solais, housed in Telford's church. The Macphail Centre hosts music, dance and theatre performances.

Corrieshalloch Gorge (A835) Although the Gaelic name translates as ‘Ugly Hollow’ this deep, wooded chasm is a genuine beauty spot left over from the Ice Age. The River Droma spills through the gorge and drops 100 metres through a series of waterfalls. Under ownership of the National Trust for Scotland, there is viewpoint and a Victorian suspension bridge over the 45m Falls of Measach that was built by Sir John Fowler, who was also involved in building the Forth Bridge.

Dundonnell (A832) Situated at the head of Little Loch Broom, Dundonnell is a starting point for hill walkers and climbers intending to visit the peaks and ridges of An Teallach, which translates from the Gaelic as ‘The Forge.’ The Ardessie Falls tumble into the loch nearby. In 1998, the 33,000 acre Dundonnell estate was purchased by the composer Sir Tim Rice, who co- wrote the musicals Evita and The Lion King.

Gruinard Bay (A832) With the island of the same name just offshore, the road between Dundonnel and Poolewe was once know as The Destitution Road, having been built during the famine years of the 1850s to provide employment for the men of the area. In the corner where the coast turns north is Laide. Further up the road are the villages of Achgarve, Mellon Udrigle (where there is an ancient Pictish hut circle) and Opinan, a small crofting hamlet.

Laide (A832) After Laide village, a peninsula is crossed to reach Loch Ewe where there was once a deep anchorage naval base. Nearby there are fine sandy beaches. Laide Wood is a recreational facility owned and managed by the local community.

Inverewe Gardens (A832) Inverewe Gardens (open April to October) is a mecca for lovers of tropical gardens and is today owned by the National Trust for Scotland. This remote estate was a gift to Osgood Mackenzie, the son of the Laird of Gairloch, from his mother in the 1860s. He transformed this bare headland without a single tree into a glorious 49 acres of tropical garden by harnessing the warmth of the nearby Gulf Stream. An amazing range of trees, plants and shrubs were introduced from all over the world and have flourished ever since.

Poolewe (A832) Situated at the sheltered head of Loch Ewe where the fast flowing River Ewe runs from Loch Maree. This was once a significant harbour for cattle being brought to the mainland from the Isles of Lewis and Harris, after which they would set off on the drove road along the River Ewe to Kinlochewe and Achnasheen to the south.

Gairloch (A832) The name translates from the Gaelic as ‘Short Loch.’ The village has a popular golf course, a small museum, a leisure centre and is in close proximity to lovely sand beaches. The surrounding territory was owned by the Mackenzies of Gairloch from the 15th Century and during the Highland Clearance of the early 19th Century refused to evict a single tenant, despite their estate losing money. A Pictish stone with the distinctive carving of a salmon was found here in 1880 and can be seen in the Gairloch Heritage Museum. The site of a plane crash at the Fairy Lochs in 1945, when several USAAF servicemen lost their lives, is a designated war grave.

Big Sand (B8021) Four miles from Gairloch is the appropriately named Big Sand, a magnificent sweep of beach looking west to Longa Island and beyond to Trotternish on Skye. Ten miles from here is the Category B listed Rua Reidh, a former lighthouse that was built by David Stevenson, a cousin of the writer Robert Louise Stevenson; it is now a guesthouse. Another diversion south of Gairloch leads to Red Pit, where there is a magical coastal walk to Diabaig and Torridon passing the Craig Bothy, once one of the most remotely located youth hostels in Scotland, but now sadly closed. However, it is still maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue