Travelling from the city of Inverness to Duncansby Head, one of the most northerly parts of mainland Britain, this stretch of coastline borders the eastern side of the northern Scottish Highlands. With three inlets – the Moray Firth, Cromarty Firth and Dornoch Firth – towards the south of this stretch, the coast borders the North Sea for the remainder. It travels along the picture-postcard Scottish landscape, passing sandy beaches, cliffs, forests and the occasional seaside town, while being in the shadow of some rather incredible mountain scenery.
The Black Isle Coast and Cromarty Firth
Between Craigton Point, which sits directly opposite the city of Inverness, and the port town of Cromarty, the shoreline borders two large water bodies: Moray Firth to the south and Cromarty Firth to the north. A peninsula-type landform named Black Isle borders both firths. The Moray Firth side is bordered by steep and forested hills, from which great views can be seen of the Cairngorm mountains far away to the south-west, the Scottish Highlands to the north and west, and of the Moray itself to the east. For example, Ord Hill is regarded by locals as the best viewport of Inverness – located directly above Craigton Point, great views can be seen of the city, as well as of Kessock Bridge. The remains of an Iron Age fort also exist on top of Ord Hill .
The historic town of Fortrose sits on the shoreline, huddled between the hillside and the Moray Firth. Although many of the buildings are of an ornate Victorian-era architectural style, some of the buildings are much older, including the ruins of Fortrose Cathedral which date back to 1250 AD. As well as the traditional and idyllic seaside villages of Avoch and Rosemarkie, the fishing village of Cromarty sits at the northern extent of the Black Isle peninsula, just to the west of the towering Sutors of Cromarty peninsula that marks the mouth of the Cromarty Firth . The shoreline bordering the Cromarty Firth mainly consists of more gentle slopes that are used for farming activities. However, some pockets of industry exist along the northern side of coast, including the Dalmore malt whisky distillery, and a harbour and an oil terminal at Invergordon and Balnabruaich respectively.
Balintore, Tarbat Ness and Dornoch Firth
North of the Firth of Cromarty, another ridge of coastal hills and cliffs carries on northwards, bordering the Moray Firth almost continuously to Tarbat Ness, a large headland promontory. The rugged coastline is mainly rocky – however, a small stretch of sand makes up the shoreline around Shandwick Bay, which is bordered by the coastal village of Balintore. A Pictish symbol stone pillar named Shandwick Stone (or Clach a’ Charridh) is located just to the west of the bay – dating back to 780 AD, this is preserved in a glass shelter .
The coastline moves in a generally westwards direction from Tarbat Ness, now forming the southern edge of the Dornoch Firth. Stretching inland for around 31 km (19 miles) – this vast inlet forms part of a beautiful landscape, with a wide tidal inlet that is surrounded by large hills and mountains flanked with forests. Villages and hamlets are dotted intermittently along the inner section of the firth, with the outer part being made up with extensive tidal flats, as well as marshland on the southern side. The scenic town of Tain sits on the southern side of Dornoch Firth; containing a museum, a parish church and an old town hall, this town is well-worth a visit . The northern side of the Firth forms a wide bay before it reaches the North Sea – this is also beautiful, and is bordered by tranquil sandy beaches with intermittent rocky crags, lengthy sand dunes, forests, and small traditional towns including Dornoch and Golspie. However, another impressive feature is Dunrobin Castle – with its earliest parts dating back to around 1275 AD, this incredibly vast stately home (with more recent sections built to resemble a French chateau) overlooks Dornoch Firth. With the conifer forests flanking either side, the rugged hills behind and the beautiful garden in front, Dunrobin Castle looks like it has landed straight out from a fairy-tale story .
Brora to Duncansby Head
The outer reaches of the Dornoch Firth meet the North Sea at Brora. Between here and Duncansby Head, the coastline retains its rather rugged landscape, with rocky cliffs and steep coastal hills being interspersed by deep river valleys. Although this coastline remains rather scenic, it is not entirely remote – several fishing villages are dotted along the coast. A few pockets of sandy beaches make up the shoreline, including at Brora, where dolphins, minke whales and seals are regularly spotted just off the coastline . Moving northwards, the rugged Jurassic rocks increase in size and prevalence, and north of the seaside village of Helmsdale, large cliffs tower over the North Sea, themselves backed by steep hills often more than 300 metres (1,000 feet) in height. Great views of the sea landscape can be seen from the car parks and viewpoints which are dotted along the A9 road which runs above the cliffs. The eery stony remains of the abandoned village of Badbea also lie on top of the clifftops here .
The cliffs are intercepted by a beautiful wooded valley at Berriedale, where two rivers carrying water from the northern Scottish Highlands meet before flowing into the North Sea. Northwards, the cliffs return, wriggling their way around headlands and coves for around 40 km (25 miles) up towards the small town of Wick. On its way, the coastline passes Dunbeath Castle – a beautiful stately home built precariously close to the cliff edge, Leac Gallain, a headland with a great viewpoint, and the man-made Whaligoe Steps, which descend down the steep cliff face into a harbour.
The small port town of Wick huddles around the rocky bay of the same name. It is important to note that this section of Scotland is north of the Highlands – the land in the far north of Scotland is surprisingly plain-like in its terrain. This is reflected in the coastal landscape – the cliffs tend to be lower here than they are just to the south. Passing the town, and the wide sandy Sinclair’s Bay, the coastline travels northwards for one last time, around a section of rugged cliffs and bays until it finally stops – at Duncansby Head. Forming the most north-easterly extent of both the Scottish and British mainland, Duncansby Head contains a viewpoint, from which people can look out over the Pentland Firth sea to the north. A white solitary lighthouse sits atop the headland, warning passing boats of the dangerous rocky shoreline below.