Situated in the Scottish Highlands to the north-west of Inverness, Ross and Cromarty are two historical counties. Made up of a string of villages along the east coast, and dotted with lochs and inlets on the west coast, Ross and Cromarty also feature lonely moors and mountains which will satisfy anyone with a thirst for wide-ranging views and fresh air.
In addition, a host of fascinating historic sites punctuate the stunning landscape. Highlights include a ruined cathedral, the oldest intact castle in Britain and a Pictish symbol stone, as well as more recent sites such as 19th-century geologist Hugh Miller’s Birthplace.
There’s loads to see in Ross and Cromarty. Here’s our selection of 8 of the best historic sites that you can visit today.
1. Strome Castle
Located on the shore of Loch Carron outside the village of Lochcarron on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, Strome Castle is a ruined stone castle. It was originally built by the Macdonald Earls of Ross in the early to mid 1400s, it was later owned by the Clan MacDonald of Lochalsh. In 1539, King James V of Scotland granted the castle to Clan MacDonell of Glengarry and Hector Munro of Erribol. The castle was later besieged by Clan Mackenzie, and after the MacDonnells surrendered, it was demolished and blown up, reducing it to the ruins which are now visible today.
In 1939, Strome Castle was presented to the National Trust for Scotland. Today, the remains of the castle are comprised of a courtyard and a square tower, and make for a picturesque visit.
2. Stacks of Duncansby
Duncansby Head is best known for being close to its westerly neighbour, John o’ Groats. Duncansby Head is the name for the high cliffs that rise to the east of John o’ Groats and is home to a lighthouse built in 1924, then automated in 1997.
The Duncansby Stacks, just off Duncansby Head, are a geological marvel. The three huge sandstone pyramids reach out from the sea to heights over 60m, with the tallest, known as the Great Stack, actually reaching higher than the mainland. Along with the lighthouse, Duncansby Stacks make for a picturesque visit at one of the furthermost north-eastern parts of mainland Scotland.
3. Fyrish Monument
Built in 1782, the Fyrish Monument is located on Fyrish Hill. The monument was built on the orders of Sir Hector Munro, a lord in the area who had worked as a general in India. As the local population were being cleared off their land by the Lords of the Land, it is said that Sir Hector commissioned the build as a way of keeping the locals in labour. It is said that Sir Hector rolled stones from the top of the hill to the bottom, which in turn created more work for the workers and allowed them to be paid more.
The monument represents the Gate of Negapatam, a port in Madras, India, which Munro took for the British in 1781. The monument is highly visible from almost anywhere in the nearby parishes of Kiltearn and Alness, and Fyrish Hill itself provides a stunning view of the surrounding area.
4. Fortrose Cathedral
Standing in the heart of Fortrose is Fortrose Cathedral, which was once the episcopal seat of the medieval Scottish diocese of Ross. It is thought that the diocese of Ross has existed since about 700 AD. The oldest part of the ruins at Fortrose Cathedral date from the 1300s.
Its decline came after the lead from the roof was sold in 1572, meaning it began to fall apart in the later 16th and early 17th century. It was taken over by the town as a scheduled monument in 1851. Though only a small portion of ruins remain today, there are remains of outstanding stone vaulting and the remains of the window tracery, as well as a number of notable tombs.
5. Castle Leod
Castle Leod is the oldest intact castle in Britain, built on the site of an ancient Pictish fort in the 12th century. It was extensively remodelled in around 1606 by Sir Roderick Mackenzie, while further additions were made in the mid-19th century and early 20th. The Victorian and Edwardian sections of the castle are currently lived in by the Earl of Cromartie, his wife and family.
Category A listed Castle Leod is the inspiration for Castle Leoch, the seat of Clan Mackenzie in the popular book and television series Outlander. The castle boasts eight-feet thick walls, iron grilles, gun loops and arrow-slit windows. Today, the castle is occasionally open for the public. Private tours are often conducted by the Mackenzie Clan Chief, John Mackenzie, Earl of Cromartie.
6. Fearn Abbey
Located two miles away from the coastal village of Balintore, Fearn Abbey was founded by the Earl of Ross in 1225. In 1238, it was relocated 15 miles or so to its current location. The abbey church was rebuilt in the mid 1300s, and some time later a chapel was added to the south of the east end of the church. After the Reformation of 1560, the abbey church became a parish church. In 1742, the church was struck by lightning, causing the stone-flagged roof to collapse, killing as many as 50 people. The minister insisted that a new church be built just to the south, using the stone from the original church.
However, by 1771, the new church was in ruins, but was majorly rebuilt the year after. The church today is simple and owes much to alterations made as recently as 1971. The church is a popular attraction as a place of worship and because of its 800-year-old heritage.
7. Shandwick Stone
The Shandwick Stone is a Pictish symbol stone thought to date back to around 780. It first entered the written record a thousand years later, in 1776, at which point it stood intact on a terrace overlooking the sea. In 1846, it blew over and broke into three pieces, which have since been repaired.
In 1988, the stone was properly conserved and re-erected in a shelter in a magnificent location overlooking the sea at the southern end of Shandwick in Easter Ross.
8. Hugh Miller's Birthplace
A fossil hunter, folklorist, man of faith, stonemason, geologist, writer, editor and social justice campaigner, Hugh Miller was one of 19th century Scotland’s most famous figures. The humble thatched cottage where he was born in 1802 was built by his great grandfather, while the Georgian villa next door was built by his father.
Visitors today can enjoy an audio tour around the cottage, which features descriptions, many in Hugh’s own words, of his life there. Next door, the museum contains artefacts relating to his life such as fossil discoveries, manuscripts and his mallet. Behind the museum is Miller’s Yard: Garden of Wonders, which serves as an educational site about natural history.