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Pictish stonesWhere there is glorious isolation in nearby West Coast, there is apparent and eerie emptiness in most of the East Coast, one of the poorest areas in the country that’s largely ignored for the more obviously spectacular Orkney sites or the other coastlines of the Highlands.  It was the area that was severely affected by the Highland Clearances in the nineteenth century, with many of its settlers forced to move to New Zealand, Australia and Canada, to be replaced by grazing land and sheep. Many who remained took up fishing for their livelihood, which accounts for the strong fishing heritage in the region.

While the region may not be as overwhelmingly beautiful as its neighbouring coasts, it still has its highlights, and is another facet of the Highlands that makes it a unique and interesting part of Scotland.  The areas surrounding the old royal burgh of Tain and the Black Isle offer many archaeological digs that date from its Pictish origin, while the northern area has a strong Viking influence.  While some areas are not so inspiring, the East Coast is a large contrast to its neighbours, with its flatlands and moors, that it’s just another proof how fascinating this part of the country is.


Wick RiverThe aftermath of the herring industry collapse can still be felt here in Wick, a former Viking settlement and one of the biggest ports in the world, exporting herring to different countries.  It gets its name from the Viking term for ‘bay’ which is Vik, and is composed of two formerly separate towns: the Wick town proper and Pultneytown, which was attached to the royal burgh in early 20th century.  Wick saw its glory days a century before that, and then lost its importance quickly after World War II.

Nowadays, the harbours of Pultneytown are an interesting way to see Wick’s heritage, however ruined.  The harbour is lined with fishermen’s cottages, and gives a proper glimpse into the harbour’s former glory.  

The history of the town is also told in the fascinating Wick Heritage Centre (18-27 Bank Row, +44 1955 605393, £2), which is loved and maintained by the community.  It also showcases local art.

Celtic Stone Sites

On the A9 around Caithness, you will find several Celtic stone sites waiting to be discovered.  Between the Loch Rangag and Loch Stemster, you will find the Achavanich Standing Stones, which are small standing stones arranged in a horseshoe shape.  These stones, believed to date back from the Bronze Age, may have been much taller before, but were severely affected by weathering.

The Grey Cairns of Camster,  beyond Lybster, are burial mounds that date from 4000 BC right in the middle of an isolated moor.  North of Camster, small stones, about a foot-high each, are collected in the Hill o’ Many Stanes, scattered over grassy moorland.  The stones are arranged in what seems to be deliberately parallel rows.  Nearest to Wick is the Cairn O’ Get, another round tombstone, which leads to a lovely harbour for a few more miles.

Helmsdale, another former herring port on the A9, was another settlement for the poorly evicted settlers of Strath Kildonan, located just behind the village, where there was a gold rush in the 1860s.  You can get the story on the gold rush hunters in the gorgeously renovated Timespan Heritage Centre (Dunrobin Street, +44 (0) 1431 821327, £4), which has, aside from the gold rush story, a display on romance novelist Barbara Cartland, as well as an art gallery for local work and a café.

Dunrobin CastleDunrobin Castle (Golspie, +44 1408 633177, £9).  Still on the A9 road is the town of Golspie, which is otherwise uninspiring, save for the grandiose Dunrobin Castle, situated north of the town.  The castle is the largest inhabited house in this part of the Highlands, owned by the infamous Sutherland clan, who were largely responsible for the Highland Clearances.   

The house, designed by the same man behind the Westminster Palace, is a massive French chateau-style castle with turrets and surrounded by formal gardens.  While admiring the 189-room castle (only a few of which are available for viewing), keep in mind the thousands of displaced settlers in the Highlands, who were in a way sacrificed for the extravagance of the clan.  The castle is open only during April to the fifteenth of October, and along with a tour of the house, you can catch daily falconry displays in the grounds.



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Culgower House (Loth, +44 1431 821268, £35-38) lies on the main road, which makes it easy to find.  The Victorian farmhouse is surrounded by hills, which guarantees great views.  The rooms are spacious and decorated in modern furnishings, with touches of Highland tradition.

Helmsdale Hostel (Stafford Street, +44 1431 821636, £15/person-dorm).  The hostel used to be a down-and-out kind of hostel until it was refurbished in 2006.  The result is a spacious and relaxing hostel perfect for budget travellers and backpackers, and even families.  The beds are comfortable for their price range, and are single beds (in dorms), not bunks.



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Situated north of the Dornoch Firth, the town of Dornoch is popular among Inverness residents looking to get away on the weekend, and relatively recently, has drawn crowds for being Madonna’s chosen venue for both her wedding with Guy Ritchie and for her son’s baptism.  This resort town has great views, sandy beaches, and fine hotels, as well as one of the best golf courses in the Highlands.  Behind all the tranquil and relaxed beauty of this resort town, it has a grim history of being the last town in Scotland to burn a woman who was allegedly a witch.

Dornoch Cathedral (High Street), dating back from the thirteenth century, is a fine piece of Gothic architecture, solid yet quiet, not quite imposing, but its interiors, with its revealed stonework (the plasterwork dating from the medieval times were removed for the very purpose), its vaulted ceiling, and majestic stained glass windows, lend it character.  Gargoyles guard the eaves, while the churchyard is just within reach of the ruins of the Dornoch Castle.

Once the county jail of Sutherland, now the Old Town Jail (Castle Street, +44 1862 810500) is home to Jail Dornoch, a recent renovation done to house 5000 square feet of retail.  It has product lines, from arts and crafts, to toiletries and clothing.  The renovation gave much respect to the original architecture, but also gave it a more modern and light-hearted feel.

Behind the Castle Hotel which was a former Bishop’s palace, the Historylinks Museum (The Meadows, +44 1862 811275, £2), which is all about Dornoch—so expect something about Madonna in there as well, as she was responsible for putting it on the map.



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Surrounded by a garden, with sweeping views of the kyle and Tain, Kyleview House (Evelix Road, +44 1862 810999, from £70) is a cozy B&B that looks like an impeccably kept home, and feels like one, with a warm hostess, great food, and luxurious facilities.

Dornoch Castle Hotel (Castle Street, +44 1862 810216, from £94).  If you’re looking for somewhere decadent and luxurious to stay in, the former palace of the Bishop, turned into a great hotel, is the hotel for you.  It is quite a splurge, but the views, the four-poster beds, and the great food, are quite worth it.



Whisky barrelsEasily ignored by travellers speeding on the A9, Tain stands mighty proud, beckoning quietly but not shouting for attention.  On the southern part of the Dornoch Firth, Tain is a town that rewards those who decide to slow down and see it up close.  The oldest royal burgh in Scotland, granted royal charter in 1066, has a great collection of sandstone buildings lining its streets.

The royal burgh became a popular pilgrimage site upon the burial of the town’s son, St. Duthus, who was born here and died in Ireland, but whose remains were taken back to his hometown.  His remains attracted legions of pilgrims to the St. Duthac’s Chapel, and then later transferred to the church in the town centre.  Now the church and its church grounds house Tain through Time (Tower Street, +44 1862 894089, £3.50), an interesting heritage exhibition with displays on St. Duthac, parts of Scottish history that affect the town, among other things.

On the northern edge of the burgh, the Glenmorangie Distillery (Ross-shire, +44 1862 892477, £2.50) operates, producing the most popular single malt whiskey in the country.  Located just off the A9, the distiller itself started operating in the 1700s, but the structure housing it nowadays dates back from 1843.  What sets it apart from other distilleries is its distilling process, which you can see for yourself by booking a tour.


Cromarty FirthThe chief settlement in the Black Isle, a peninsula surrounded by the Moray Firth and the Cromarty Firth, and guarded by the legendary Sutors of Cromarty, Cromarty is a pretty town tainted by the oil rigs of Nigg and Invergordon.  It used to be on the trail of pilgrims heading to Tain, as a ferry crossing point, but the establishment of railways rendered it obsolete.  It was revived to prominence when a hemp mill was established in town, coinciding with the herring industry boom, which resulted in the beautiful Georgian townhouses and equally attractive fishermen’s cottages that line the streets of Cromarty today.

On Church Street, there is an unusual and quite out of place house, with a thatched roof—it was the house (Church Street, +44 8444 932158, £5.50) of Cromarty’s most famous son, Hugh Miller, famous for his work in geology, evangelical Christianity, and folklore.  It has been restored to look as it would have looked when he lived here in 1802.

On the same street, you will find the converted eighteenth century Cromarty Courthouse (Church Street, +44 1381 600418, £2) housing the local museum, which details the town’s history, in audiovisual presentations and animations.



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If you’re looking to make Cromarty your base for your exploration of the West Coast, the best place to stay in is the Sydney House (High Street, +44 1381 600451, £30/person).  This Georgian house had a history of being a hotel, and then a farmhouse, before being converted to what it is today.  It has two bedrooms (one double and one king-size), both ensuite (though the bathrooms are quite small).







Fort GeorgeFort George (Ardersier, near Inverness, +44 1667 460232, £6.70).  After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Fort George was conceived for King George II’s army should the Highlanders attack yet again.  Finished in 1769, the fort, one of the most magnificent military fortifications of its kind in the continent, was never used for its original purpose, but served as a military barracks ever since.

Fort George sits on a sandy pit stretching out into the Moray Firth, a fortification with symmetrically arranged buildings and a mighty imposing look.  The ramparts offer a great view of the firth, and if you’re lucky you just might see the dolphins visiting nearby.  Another highlight of Fort George is the Highlander’s Museum (+44 1313 108701), the largest of its kind in the country outside Edinburgh, with over twenty thousand artifacts that range from military coins and uniforms to gory war trophies.



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