Join us in this travel blog post where we enjoy the first stage of the North Coast 500, from Inverness to Dingwall, while making a spectacular diversion through the Black Isle.
Over the years, we have explored the sections of the NC500 route several times, although not necessarily the complete route in one single journey. Indeed, our travels in this area began even before it had been called the North Coast 500. Our travels have opened our eyes to the beauty of the route and has given us the opportunity to also find hidden gems off the beaten track.
Commonly known as “Scotland’s Route 66”, the North Coast 500 has quickly become an iconic, must-do tourist route, having only been formally marketed as such back in 2015. The NC500 is actually 516-miles long, starting and ending at Inverness Castle, running along a mainly coastal route through the traditional counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness. It has become so popular that has been described as "Scotland's Route 66".
The Inverness Castle, made of red sandstone, that can be seen today was constructed in 1836 by architect William Burn. It is a fitting starting point for the journey and has had quite a colourful history. The castle is built on the site of an 11th-century defensive structure which is said to have been built by Malcolm III. The castles here have seen many conflicts, but today it houses Inverness Sheriff Court and is not currently open to the public. In April 2017 however, the north tower of the castle was opened to the public as a viewpoint.
St. Andrews Cathedral
Before departing Inverness city centre, we recommend a quick stop at St. Andrews Cathedral, which is across the River Ness from the castle. It is a Scottish Episcopal Church and is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness. The cathedral is the northernmost cathedral in mainland Britain (Dornoch Cathedral is not actually a cathedral) and was the first new Protestant cathedral to be completed in Great Britain since the Reformation. The foundation stone was laid in 1866 and construction was complete by 1869. The Cathedral contains a ring of ten bells, which are noted as being the most northerly peal of change-ringing bells in the world.
When visiting Inverness, we always like to spend time along the beautiful River Ness. Perhaps surprisingly, for being such a famous river, it is only about 6 miles long and flows from the northern end of Loch Ness in Scotland, through Loch Dochfour, with a total fall in height of about 16 metres before discharging into the Beauly Firth. The river is the origin of the name of Inverness which is from the Scottish Gaelic: Inbhir Nis, meaning "Mouth of the Ness". It is also worth keeping your eyes open when walking along the river, because it was actually here and not at the loch, where the first reported sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was made! It was in AD 565, when Saint Columba is said to have banished a "water monster" back into the river after it tried to attack one of his disciples who was swimming across the river.
Caledonian Canal / Marina
Another picturesque area worth checking out while in Inverness is The Caledonian Canal and marina. The canal connects the Scottish east coast at Inverness with the west coast at Corpach near Fort William in Scotland. The canal was constructed in the early nineteenth century by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford and includes 29 locks, with five being visible from the Telford Street bridge and a further four at the start of the canal at the mouth of the Beauly Firth.
Driving out of Inverness, the route takes you along the southern shore of the Beauly Firth, before sweeping north into the town of Beauly and up to the Muir of Ord. At this point, it would be easy to carry on north to Dingwall, but we would strongly suggest taking a detour to the Black Isle, initially heading to Tore, then along to Fortrose. Despite the name, the Black Isle is actually a peninsula!
When we visited the small, quaint town of Fortrose, we were surprised to find that centuries ago it had been a very important religious centre of Scotland. The only evidence of this importance is the now ruined Fortrose Cathedral, which was the seat of the bishops of Ross. What is left of this beautiful red sandstone cathedral only hints at the size of this cathedral. A very handy visual aid in the cathedral grounds shows how big and imposing Fortrose Cathedral would have been when it was constructed around the 1300s.
A five-minute drive from Fortrose Cathedral, along a mile-long thin spit of land took us to Chanonry Point. From the picturesque lighthouse at the end of the point, there are superb coastal scenes, with views across the Moray Firth. The Moray Firth is home to around 200 dolphins, which can often be seen at very close quarters here as they fish and play in the turbulent waters off the point. The best time to see dolphins is from around one hour after low tide, although on the day we visited, there was only one solitary seal to be seen. A more obscure reason for visiting Chanonry Point is that around 1675 this was where the Brahan Seer, Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus, was executed, being burned to death in a barrel of tar!
Rosemarkie Beach stretches north from the tip of Chanonry Point and fronts on a wide, picturesque bay, with views of Fort George and the Moray coastline across the Moray Firth. The beach is excellent for family outings or for long scenic walks.
Continue driving north to the tip of the Black Isle to the quaint Georgian town of Cromarty. The town grew up around its port from which you could get a ferry across the Cromarty Firth. Later, the town grew prosperous through the export of locally-grown hemp fibre, then through the fishing of herring. By the time of the First World War, Cromarty had become an important British naval base. Considered an outstanding example of an 18th / 19th century burgh, Cromarty seems like it is a more sedate, peaceful town now, and a great little place to walk around.
Among Cromarty’s attractive narrow streets is the elegant Cromarty Courthouse building, which was built in 1773. The building now houses fascinating exhibitions about this historic town, and we could even dress up in period clothing when visiting the courtroom.
Hugh Millar Museum and Birthplace Cottage
Next door to the courthouse in Cromarty, we visited the Hugh Miller Museum and Birthplace Cottage, which is now a National Trust for Scotland museum. Hugh was a true Renaissance Man, being a fossil hunter, folklorist, man of faith, stonemason, geologist, editor, writer and social justice campaigner in the 19th century. We were surprised to find that there were actually two buildings, side by side. The thatched cottage where Hugh was born in 1802 was built by Hugh’s great grandfather – a pirate! Then next door, the handsome Georgian villa was built by Hugh’s father. We also enjoyed the gardens at the back of both properties.
Further along we found the Cromarty East Church, also sometimes known as the Old Church. It seems like a fairly ordinary Scottish T-plan church, but it is actually recognised as a nationally important illustration of the changes that swept across Scotland's churches after the Reformation of 1560. There's been a church on this site since medieval times, and James IV stayed in the parish priest's house in March 1499 while on pilgrimage to Tain.
On the way out of Cromarty, don’t miss the opportunity to swing in past the Cromarty Brewing shop in the hamlet of Davidston. The brewery has been producing award winning beers since 2011 when it first opened. The original Cromarty brewery, however, was established around 1790, but production apparently came to an end sometime in the mid-1850. Today, you can visit the shop at the brewery and pick from its range of beers which includes the delightfully named 'Brewed Awakening', 'Kowabunga', and 'Udder Madness'.
Either retrace your journey through the Black Isle or take the B1963 to drive along the scenic southern shore of the Cromarty Firth.
On reaching Dingwall, we then headed up the lower slopes of the looming Ben Wyvis, to the GlenWyvis Distillery. The distillery was established in 2015 and was the first distillery in Dingwall since the last one closed in 1926. What makes GlenWyvis unique is that it is the first ever 100% community-owned distillery, having launched a wildly popular open share offer in 2016. 3,000 like-minded whisky lovers now own this eco-friendly distillery. It will be a few years yet before a well-aged whisky will be available, however, if you can't wait that long, the distillery also produces a delightful gin called 'Goodwill' which currently available to purchase. The distillery has plans in place to open to the general public for tours, but in the meantime, we were lucky enough to get our own personal tour of the facility. We were very impressed with this modern, compact distillery and are sure that it will be a big hit with the tourists on the NC500 once it opens its doors to the public.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue along the North Coast 500.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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