Scotland Itinerary Ideas: Black Isle and Easter Ross

by Keith Savage · 24 comments

Chanonry Point, Black Isle

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.”

Dave AllenNo Gravatar November 3, 2016 at 10:27 AM

I enjoyed a wonderful beer from the Black Isle Brewery last year when I visited Inverness. Made visits to Glenmoragie and The Dalmore the next day. Had no idea at the time that my ancestors may be from Croy and Dalcross area. Look forward to visiting again soon! Thanks for the tips and places to look for on our next trip,

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 3, 2016 at 12:31 PM

Hey Dave. Black Isle makes some really good beers. How did you like your distillery visits? I thought Dalmore provided an impressive visitor experience.

June De LottoNo Gravatar August 20, 2016 at 1:21 PM

Hi, Keith!
I just read your article and am thrilled by what’s in it because in February I booked a self-catering home in Fortrose for my family of 3 for September. Thank you for giving me even more insider info on things to do in that area. We were planning on visiting The Anderson, the Black Isle Brewery and taking a boat on Loch Ness, so it seems you and I are of a kindred spirit! I also want to surprise my son and visit the indoor go-cart hall and possibly ride some horses.
I can see reading below that your next article will be on Edinburgh Castle. We are also staying a few days in Edinburgh (and visiting Falkirk to see the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel and maybe go on a lock boat on the way to visit Glasgow.) I saw an advert for the fun/scary tour of Edinburgh Castle and thought that might be interesting. Is it worth it?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 21, 2016 at 5:13 PM

Hi June,

I wrote this post several years ago so I’ve long since written about Edinburgh Castle. It is always worth a visit, and I imagine a fun/scary tour would be a great time for your family.

rosetta nelsonNo Gravatar August 17, 2016 at 6:11 PM

Keith comingback on holiday in oct. I would like to come to this area,but will not be driving.Is their anyone that does tours of the area

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 17, 2016 at 7:56 PM

Hi Rosetta. I’m sure there are tour operators in the area. However, I choose independent travel and so very rarely engage in packaged tours. Sorry!

lynn cookNo Gravatar May 7, 2015 at 1:09 PM

Why no mention of Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack, especially with regard to the pictish trail ? Recent collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, and a long connection with the University of York gives an up to date commentary on the finds so far in this Monastic community, the only Pictish one found so far . Also many iron age finds on the Fearn peninsula.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 7, 2015 at 2:43 PM

I loved the Tarbat Discovery Center:

This post is linked above.

DarlaNo Gravatar June 24, 2014 at 4:00 PM

You are truly gifted, Keith … throughout this site, each post is a fabulous blend of words, pictures, passion, and knowledge, all graciously shared. The more I read, the more I realize that I will have to *focus* during my trip … focus on primarily those aspects of Scotland that both beckon to me *and* are things I could not find here in the US, e.g., Neolithic standing stones and Pictish stones. Thank you!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 25, 2014 at 9:19 AM

Cheers Darla. Focusing is a good idea – treat your trip to Scotland as though it isn’t your last.

MaaryNo Gravatar March 21, 2014 at 4:33 AM

Great Tip.

VickiNo Gravatar March 20, 2014 at 9:13 PM

I’m loving your itinerary pieces but you’re making it very difficult to narrow down mine! Could this area be explored in a long summer’s day, enroute from Ullapool to Inverness ? It is difficult to determine how much can be done in 12-16 hours of a daylight.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 20, 2014 at 9:42 PM

Where there’s a will there’s a way 🙂 You just have to pick your spots. You could realistically spin through a bit of the Fearn Peninsula, stop at Dalmore, and wind down around the coast of Black Isle before ending in Inverness.

Shiv SharmaNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 4:36 AM

Very helpful travel itinerary guide list to Scotland. I like the beautiful walking to Black Isle’s Fairy Glen. Very nice pictures you shared here. It inspires me a lot. Best post for travellers who plan their trip.

RachelNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 2:15 AM

This itinerary is pretty nice.. my attention though was caught by this mossy engraved stone which I wasn’t able to recognize what that was until I goolged its alt text., and all of your photos are pretty awesome, especially your shot of the fortrose cathedral.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 17, 2014 at 10:43 AM

Thanks Rachel!

Morayma rossNo Gravatar March 12, 2014 at 10:13 PM

Thank you , it is a great article….i would like to know this amazing part of the great Scotland

Claire @foodiequineNo Gravatar March 12, 2014 at 5:41 PM

This is my home turf. I’m a Black Isle girl now living in Aberdeen. Its a beautiful part of the country. I holidayed there for a week last October as part of a #highlandfoodieroadtrip

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 12, 2014 at 7:54 PM

That food trip looked great! That’s the kind of thing I’d love to do.

Tracy L VallierNo Gravatar March 12, 2014 at 1:38 PM

Thank you. Just added lots more to my Scotland wish list. Great article.

TracyNo Gravatar March 12, 2014 at 1:27 PM

LOVE the Black Isle! Saw most of the things you’ve noted here. I loved the trek to the fairy glen. My family is from the area and I loved staying there. The Anderson makes a pretty good meal, as well. Groam House and the Discovery Centre in Portmahomack are very worth the visit. Oh, you make me want to go today!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 12, 2014 at 7:53 PM

I really enjoyed the Tarbat Discovery Centre, but I’m also a Pict nerd 🙂

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