The Black Isle is a large peninsula immediately north of Inverness that spears into a watery trio of firths: The Cromarty Firth, the Beauly Firth, and the Moray Firth. It’s known as a pastoral place perfect for visitors seeking a quiet holiday and maybe some sightings of dolphins and whales off the coast. On previous trips to Scotland I had either sped across the Black Isle en route to more northerly destinations or had visited places like the Glen Ord Distillery or Bunchrew House on its periphery. But when Ian Rankin recommends the Black Isle you go to the Black Isle.
I like Inverness well enough, but I always find myself looking around the edges for a different place to stay. While planning my trip for last May, the Black Isle presented itself as the perfect alternative. I could easily drive south to Inverness, and I would get to set up shop in a new (for me) part of Scotland.
There’s a reason why the Black Isle fails to enter into the consciousness of many travelers. It doesn’t have the sexiness of Edinburgh, the cachet of Skye, the draw of Speyside or Islay for whisky hounds, or the historical nerd factor of Orkney. It’s an unobtrusive landscape with small towns living the slow life; hiding just beneath this veneer, however, is some of Scotland’s most interesting and mysterious history as it pertains to the Picts. To be fair, the Black Isle will not top the list of destinations for travelers who have a few days in Scotland – there’s little that’s particularly exciting about the place. But in our travel-saturated world, it’s this very void that becomes alluring. The Black Isle is a holiday spot for Scottish people; during my handful of days there I don’t recall seeing a single other tourist. In that respect, the Black Isle provides an excellent look at everyday Scottish life and a heaping portion of peace and quiet.
The Kessock Bridge leads from Inverness to the Black Isle, crossing the Beauly Firth, and the A9 continues north along the western edge of the peninsula through settlements like Beauly, Muir of Ord, and Conon Bridge. The Black Isle is just a hair over 100 square miles, but the vast majority of the peninsula’s 10,000 people live along the southern coast. This area has a string of straight-forward towns like Avoch (pronounced Ahk), Fortrose, and Rosemarkie. The opposite side of this coastline, across the Beauly Firth, lies sites on the mainland like Culloden, Castle Stuart, Inverness Airport, and Fort George. North of Rosemarkie the A832 runs to Cromarty with its small ferry to Easter Ross. The rest of the peninsula is almost entirely covered by forest and farm fields.
Sights & Activities
Despite the Black Isle’s low profile, there’s enough to keep you interested. Dolphin tours cruise out of both Avoch and Cromarty though you should be prepared with alternate plans if the winds are blowing as they won’t sail. The ruined, red sandstone cathedral in Fortrose was the episcopal seat of medieval Ross, and today makes for a beautiful stroll. Check out the incredible Pictish stones at The Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie – this area was once the heart of the northern Pictish kingdom. Be sure to visit the beach in Rosemarkie as well, and walk to the Chanonry Point lighthouse where you can spot dolphins in the sea. A golf course sits on Chanonry Ness, a narrow finger of sand that reaches for Fort George across the firth, and this was the sight of the spooky Brahan Seer’s death. Just outside Rosemarkie is the gorgeous, wooded Faery Glen nature walk. Go further afield toward Muir of Ord to find The Black Isle Brewery and Tore Art Gallery. If you’re lucky you might be able to find Redcastle – a beautiful ruin of a red sandstone castle (and apparently once the home of one of my MacKenzie ancestors).
Eating & Drinking
This is rural Scotland so the eating options are limited. You can expect standard pub fare and the requisite Indian restaurant but little else. The Station Hotel in Avoch is a safe bet and it became my local spot (plus they had free wifi). The Plough Inn in Rosemarkie seems to be in most guidebooks but it was a rough place in disrepair serving mediocre food. Instead, go to The Anderson in Fortrose which has been highly decorated for its cask ales and whisky selection. Gabi’s Tandoori in Avoch makes some decent curry – it’s a good takeaway option. Personally, if you’re looking for a memorable meal I’d either cook one up at home or head down to Inverness where the restaurant options are much more varied.
Notes from the Field
I spent the vast majority of my time on the Black Isle’s southern coastline, and I think it’s the ideal location. Inverness is less than half an hour from Avoch, and the string of Avoch, Fortrose, and Rosemarkie is a very pretty stretch reminiscent of Fife’s East Neuk. Staying at the Rosehaugh Estate was perfect. The Black Isle is actually a pretty nice location not only for getting to Inverness, but also to the northwest coast (e.g., Ullapool) and further north (e.g., Tain, Dunrobin, Brora).