The land north of Inverness often falls off the radar of visitors to Scotland. Black Isle and Easter Ross, then Sutherland and Caithness are often just names on signs people pass on the way north to catch the ferry to Orkney, but as is true everywhere in Scotland there is much to be discovered if you would only give it some time. Today’s installment in the Scotland Itinerary Ideas series focuses on Black Isle and Easter Ross, a couple of areas within striking distance from Inverness that make excellent stops on the route northward.
I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, but now I’m providing you with information at a higher level to help in your Scotland trip-planning, idea-generation phase. These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles collect many of my previous posts on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, shoot your questions my way!
Black Isle and Easter Ross
Easter Ross and especially Black Isle are no secret to Scots – many vacationing families head beyond Inverness into the quiet and beautifully pastoral reaches of these sandy, hooked peninsulas. A series of firths thrust into the eastern shore of Scotland’s far northern highlands: Beauly, Cromarty, Dornoch – each name sounding more ancient the farther north you go. Ian Rankin famously described Black Isle to me as neither black nor an isle, and his words rang true when I looked upon its rolling green hills, russet beaches, and glittering blue coastline. Pretty towns cling to Black Isle’s coastline while the interior is largely left to agriculture. Easter Ross has a different, wilder vibe, though the terrain is fairly similar. Perhaps here more than anywhere else has the fingerprint of the Picts lasted longest as forlorn stones stand sentinel against the passing ages upon hilltops and deep within glades. Black Isle and Easter Ross present yet another of Scotland’s fascinating facets, one that must be considered by travelers wishing to commune with Scotland’s essence.
Things You Can’t Miss
The Pictish Trail. The Pictish Trail in this part of Scotland stretches from Inverness north to Dunrobin Castle, a vast swath of land riddled with incredible carved stones well over a thousand years old. From Rosemarkie to Strathpeffer and Nigg to Portmahomack, this trail is unmissable if you have any interest in local history, and it is the perfect way to organize your exploration of this region. The mystery and wonder of the Pictish culture will infect you even if you aren’t a history buff.
Dalmore distillery. Black Isle and Easter Ross are home to several distilleries (Glenmorangie, Balblair, and Glen Ord, to name a few), but my favorite of the bunch is Dalmore. Dalmore has positioned itself as a luxury brand and they’ve coupled this marketing with a great visitor experience involving some of the best sensory exploration of whisky I’ve encountered anywhere. Of course it doesn’t hurt that their acclaimed, Sherried drams are so damn good.
Black Isle’s beautiful towns. Black Isle is home to four exceedingly pretty towns in Avoch, Rosemarkie, Fortrose, and Cromarty, with the first three only three miles apart. Avoch, Fortrose, and Rosemarkie are calm places of old stones and a slow pace of life that look over the Beauly Firth to Fort George while Cromarty faces the Fearn Peninsula to the north. Each town provides you with a chance to slow down and catch your breath, maybe enjoy a pint at a local pub while you watch for dolphins in the firths.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
The Groam House Museum. Rosemarkie’s Groam House Museum is a focal point of the Pictish Trail and home to some of the most amazing Pictish finds in the region. The curators of Groam House have done an excellent job presenting the history of the Picts with interesting displays and engaging multimedia presentations. This is one of my favorite Scottish museums!
Black Isle Brewery. Tucked into the fertile farmland of Black Isle’s interior, Black Isle Brewery brews delicious beer with fresh, local, organic ingredients. Pop by for a visit and see how they brew their small batches, and pick up some pints for your future travels. It’s important to support the good ones, especially when their products are as eco-friendly and delicious and Black Isle Brewery’s.
A dolphin tour. Dolphins are a frequent site in this part of Scotland, and tours cruise out of both Avoch and Cromarty though you should be prepared with alternate plans if the winds are blowing. I find it’s always a good idea to get out on the water for a different perspective back toward the land. This type of activity really rounds out the experience of a place, and if you happen to spot some dolphins or whales then that’s just gravy.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Explore the Fearn Peninsula. Easter Ross’s Fearn Peninsula extends east from the A9 and is loaded with tiny villages, ancient standing stones, windswept coastline, and interesting ruins. This part of Scotland feels severely under-appreciated – get out and explore Portmahomack, the Shandwick Stone, Nigg Bay and Nigg Church, Fearn Abbey, and Balintore.
Find the Fairy Glen. On the way north out of Rosemarkie hides a secret walk to Black Isle’s Fairy Glen. This beautiful walk takes you through heavily forested woodland, past many little ponds, and ultimately to the Fairy Glen with its miniature waterfall. Wrap this into a visit to Chanonry Point and the Groam House Museum and then finish up your outing at a local pub for a good day out.
Climb Ben Wyvis. Ben Wyvis, northwest of Dingwall, dominates the countryside as Easter Ross’s highest summit. Don’t be put off by the Gaelic meaning – “Hill of Terror” – for the ascent is a fairly simple walk in the summer and provides panoramic views of the region. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare and wondrous cloudberries that are known to grow upon Ben Wyvis’s heath and bogland.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. Both Black Isle and the Fearn Peninsula make great, quiet bases for a stay in the region, and the fact is I’d rather stay here than in Inverness itself if my itinerary requires me to make a stop in the area. I’ve stayed outside Avoch on Black Isle and at Wemyss House in the hinterlands of the Fearn Peninsula, and I would return to both. I can envision staying in Rosemarkie or Fortrose to be highly enjoyable, and possible even Tain in Easter Ross, but I really enjoy staying in B&Bs and self-catering out in the countryside. Suffice to say it’s hard to go wrong when choosing a base in this region, though I would recommend avoiding towns along the A9 as you drive north by the western edge of the Cromarty Firth as they have a more industrial feel.
Transportation. This part of Scotland demands that you have your own vehicle. Since the area is not popular on the tourist trail, there are fewer public transportation options and parts of Black Isle and Easter Ross are downright devoid of civilization. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but my recommendation stands. Rent a car – you’ll want it to explore the Pictish Trail if for nothing else.
Food & Drink. 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 Anderson in Fortrose is a worthy pub and The Station Hotel in Avoch fits the bill of good pub-style food. Sutor Creek Cafe in Cromarty and The Oystercatcher Restaurant in Portmahomack are good bets as well. Sometimes your best meal will come at your B&B, like the four-course dinner I enjoyed at Wemyss House by the capable hands of my host, Christine. Consider stocking up on the great local produce and enjoying a homemade meal at your self-catering with a couple of bottles of Black Isle Brewery’s brew.
Black Isle and Easter Ross – two under-appreciated and under-visited areas of Scotland by foreigners. These aren’t the sexiest destinations in Scotland, but they have their own charm and I guarantee you I will return to them. When you’re planning your next trip to Scotland, consider going “north of the water.”