Mirror-bright waters in the bays between two firths
Forests of birch among dramatic hills provide a back-drop for the ancient settlements which owe their existence to the Vikings who settled on this coast. Inland there are drives along wild glens amid spectacular Highland scenery. Large tracts of almost totally uninhabited land are the result of the Highland Clearances in the 19th century. The sea cliffs and inland glens and forests are the hpmes of a wide variety of birds and plants.
Built almost entirely of mellow local stone, the town of Dornoch is centred around its cathedral and the last remaining tower of a castle, built by the Bishops of Caithness, which is now a hotel.
The cathedral was begun in 1224, but except for the central tower it was destroyed by fire in 1570. It was partially restored in the 17th century, and largely rebuilt in the 19th century. The interior stonework, plastered over during restoration, has since been revealed once more.
The streets in the town centre, wide and well planted with trees, have an atmosphere of quiet elegance. At the western side of the cathedral stand the weather-worn remains of the Mercat Cross. There are two golf courses, one to the north and one to the south of the town. A stone on the southern edge of the town marks the spot where in 1722 one of the last witches in Scotland was burned, for having turned her daughter into a pony and taken her to the Devil to be shod.
The hamlet of Spinningdale lies at the head of a shallow bay below impressive hills. By the shore stand the ruins of the old mill that gave the village its name. In 1790 a local philanthropist built a cotton mill in the valley, hoping to bring prosperity to the area. However, fire gutted the mill 18 years later, and all that now remains is its gaunt shell. Bathing is unsafe off Spinningdale because of currents.
The road westwards to Bonar Bridge runs beside Dornoch Firth through groves of oak and birch, past the steeply mounded hill of Dun Creich, which is capped by the remains of an ancient fort. To the east the road turns slightly inland, the hills giving way to more gentle scenery. The tall Ospis Stone beside the road is, like the nearby village of Ospisdale, named after a Norse chieftain.
Skibo Castle, just off the main road 1 mile further east, was built by the millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1898. It is not open to the public.
The neat houses and cottages of Bonar Bridge form a focal point for the scattered farming and crofting community between the mountains and Dornoch Firth. The bridge that gives the village its name was built to Thomas Telford’s design in 1812, and spans the strait where the Kyle of Sutherland and Dornoch Firth meet. The bridge was damaged by floods in 1892, but soon restored.
The main road to the north-west leads after 1 mile to a car park at the starting point of walks in Balblair Forest. Five miles further on is the start of the Falls of Shin Forest Walk, deep in the Achany Glen.
As Dornoch Firth narrows it becomes more like an inland loch, its calm waters reflecting the hills around it. Sheltered beneath the hills at the head of the firth is the village of Ardgay, on a shore thick with birches and larches. The Eitag Stone in the village marks the site of an annual cattle market held there throughout the 19th century.
From Ardgay, a narrow lane leads inland for some 4 miles, through magnificent scenery, to Culrain in the Kyle of Sutherland. A number of forest walks are clearly signposted. The modern Carbisdale Castle, built for the Duchess of Sutherland, is now a youth hostel.
The village of Edderton clusters on the narrow shelf between the mountains and the Dornoch Firth. North of the church a 10 ft Pictish stone, its carving weatherbeaten, commemorates a bloody battle fought near by against the Vikings. Bronze Age burial chambers and other relics of the district’s early inhabitants dot the slopes inland.
A car park 2 miles east of Edderton is the starting point for walks in the Redburn Forest. These lead the visitor through miles of Forestry Commission plantations, the haunt of a variety of creatures, including the elusive wildcat.
The long, low, windswept promontory sweeping towards Tarbat Ness, its highest point no more than 150 ft above sea level, guards the entry to Dornoch Firth. It is dominated by its tall white lighthouse, which keeps shipping clear of a dangerous sand-bar called the Gizzen Briggs, a name derived from the Norse.
From the lighthouse a coastal footpath leads south-west for 3 miles, along low cliffs haunted by sea-birds, to Rockfield. This hamlet comprises little more than a jetty and some score of sturdy cottages tucked well under the cliffs; it can also be reached by a lane from Portmahomack which drops steeply down to the coast.
On the cliffs just north of Rockfield are the gaunt ruins of Ballone Castle, built for the Earl of Ross, later owned by the Mackenzies, but abandoned in the 19th century.
The cottages of the former fishing community of Balintore are centred on its small harbour and along the rocky foreshore to the north. The massive north wall of the harbour protects the village from the fury of winter gales, while to the south a sandy beach stretches into Shandwick Bay. From the sand, the coastline rises towards the high cliffs which stretch towards North Sutor.
Fearn Abbey, 2 miles inland, was founded in the 12th century. The roof of this greystone building collapsed in 1742 during a service, killing 42 people – a disaster foretold by the Brahan Seer, a 16th-century Highlands prophet whose powers were said to have come from a magic stone left for him by fairies. Although the roof of the nave has been restored, the north and south chapels remain open to the skies.
Hilton of Cadboll, 1 mile to the north-east, is an attractive former fishing village, with the remains of an ancient chapel. Near by are the ruins of Cadboll Castle. Cadboll Mount, 11/2 miles further north, is said to have been built by the Laird of Cadboll so that he could look down on his neighbour, MacLeod of Geanies, with whom he was having a feud.
Sheltered by the red-sandstone cliffs of North Sutor, the tiny village of Nigg Ferry at the narrow mouth of Cromarty Firth is dominated by the giant cranes of a construction yard for North Sea oilfield platforms. Oil tankers pass the deserted quay which was once the starting point of the ferry to Cromarty, used in the Middle Ages by countless pilgrims making for the shrine of St Duthus in Tain.
From Nigg Ferry an attractive walk leads for about half a mile along the sandy beach to the base of North Sutor. A steep lane leads to the summit, from which there are fine views of Cromarty Firth.
High on North Sutor stand the remains of Dunskeath Castle – ‘Fort of Dread’ in Gaelic – built in the 12th century to protect the passage into the firth. The wide Sands of Nigg form a nature reserve, noted for a wide range of ducks, geese and wading birds.
The tower of the 17th-century Tolbooth stands high above the skyline of the peaceful town of Tain, and is a stark reminder of the days when the town acted as an administrative centre for the Highland Clearances. It is set on high ground above the River Tain, and its history goes back to Viking times; Tain is a corruption of the Viking word thing, meaning ‘council’.
Throughout the Middle Ages Tain was a major place of pilgrimage through its association with St Duthus, who was born there in about AD 1000 and established a chapel, now a ruin, just outside the town. In 1065 Duthus died in Ireland and his remains were brought back to Tain, where the magnificent new St Duthus Church was built in 1360. James IV often made the pilgrimage – the road west of the A9 is still known as the King’s Causeway – and it was from the sanctuary there that Robert Bruce’s wife was dragged into captivity in England. A small museum houses an interesting local history collection.
Tain’s varied architectural styles range from the Tolbooth to the Victorian Gothic of the Town Hall. Outside the Tolbooth is a restored Market Cross, while halfway along the High Street is a rose garden.
The peaceful lobster-fishing village of Port-mahomack lies in a semi-circle on a low hill facing a quiet harbour overlooking Dornoch Firth. The harbour is used by inshore fishermen, whose gaily painted boats add to the beauty of the setting as they shelter in the lee of the single breakwater. Pleasure craft also use the harbour.
The curious Reformation church, behind the village, has a unique and intact domed tower. South of the harbour is a sandy beach sheltered from North Sea winds and ideal for children. Above the beach is a Victorian