Madeira Mondays: Scotland’s best preserved 18th century town

I was hesitant to write this month’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ because the town I wanted to write about, Cromarty, is something of a ‘secret’. By this I mean: it’s an off-the-beaten path stop for international tourists. I (selfishly) didn’t want to share it! However, it’s an absolute GEM of a town: which manages to encapsulate Scotland’s past in numerous ways – ancient myths, Georgian prosperity, industrial decline, and a heck of a lot in between. Not to mention the beautiful natural environment, including breathtaking walks and dramatic sea views everywhere you turn.

The town was recommended to me by one of the staff, Isobel, at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s National Writing Centre, where I had been staying for their International Writers Residency during the month of March. My partner and a friend were coming to pick me up at the end of the residency and we wanted to go somewhere in the Highlands. I asked for a recommendation for a pretty small town, that had some history and opportunities for walking nearby. Cromarty fit the bill.

So, even though I’m reluctant to ‘share’ this special place with the wider world, this ‘Madeira Mondays’ blog series is all about celebrating history and especially 18th century history, so it would be kind of unfair of me not to! 🙂

Before going to Cromarty, I read this post from Secret Scotland, so I knew that we were in for a treat! They call it ‘one of the prettiest villages in Scotland’, as well as ‘the best preserved example of an 18th century town in Scotland’.

It’s situated on the Black Isle in the Highlands (which, curiously, isn’t an island and isn’t ‘black’ – it’s very lush and green and part of mainland Scotland). The town is right on the sea, on the Cromarty Fifth. Two big pieces of land flank the entry to the firth like guards. They are called the Sutors (from the Gaelic word for shoemaker) because of an ancient legend about the Black Isle being protected from pirates by a pair of giant cobblers aka shoemakers. (I read a version of this story in several guide books and still I have so many questions! Giant shoemakers? Tell me more!)

The Sutors jutting out into the sea

The town itself is full of pretty former fisherman cottages, as well as fancier Georgian homes. In the 1720s, an entrepreneurial local named George Ross founded a hemp mill here (turning Baltic hemp into rope and cloth) and the town prospered. Fishing was also a big industry here and it was a difficult life for those people and their families, full of hard manual labour. In the 19th century, the town wasn’t included into the railway, so it lost a lot of trade.

Cottages leading down to the sea

It was fun to wander around the streets and see evidence of all this history all around. From wee cottages on the water, to the larger homes. It’s simply a pretty place to walk! Full of cute local shops, from bakeries, to a few boutiques, to some very local cafes and pubs that don’t look like they’ve changed much in the last 50 years.

But the most striking feature of the landscape has to be the two MASSIVE oil rigs in the firth (aka the bay). I think they are active because they made a lot of noise. They form quite an awe-inspiring, but also sort of spooky, sight, in contrast to the wee historical town. Like big metal sea monsters! You can spot them here in the background.

And here, in this glorious photo my friend Margherita took at sunset.

They were really enormous, and reminded you that this was (and is) a place of industry and rich natural resources: be that fishing, hemp, or (in modern times), OIL.

We went right at the end of winter/start of spring so a lot of things we wanted to do were still closed, such as the Dolphin sighting boats, and the Hugh Miller Cottage (birthplace of a Scottish 19th century geologist, restored to show Cromarty in his time). I was especially sad to miss the cottage, which is run by the National Trust for Scotland, the organization I volunteer with.

But we did manage a wonderful walk up the South Sutor, with views overlooking the whole bay.

My friend Margherita snapped a photo of our ‘view from the top’
I stand proud at the top of the South Sutor!

We also attempted dolphin sighting at the nearby Fortrose, which is supposedly a good place to spot them. I didn’t manage to channel my inner David Attenborough though. I didn’t see any!

Me trying to spot the colony of bottlenose dolphins that frequently pass by Fortrose

If you go to Cromarty, I’d also highly recommend the newly opened Cromarty cinema (a BRILLIANT local cinema with very interesting and varied films!), as well as Slaughterhouse Coffee, right next door. Which, I’m assuming, used to be an old Slaughterhouse. The coffee was excellent.

This 18th century town is WELL worth a visit if you are in the Highlands and fancy something that is a little off the beaten path. We are already talking about going back and taking parents or friends when they come to visit. You would probably need a car to reach it (as mentioned, there’s no train station there) and be aware that it is a small town so it has ‘small town hours’ (many things close early etc.). But that applies to all smaller places like this.

You can spot the oil rigs here, as well as the town itself jutting out into the water

Thanks for sticking with me until the end of this rather long post. I’m so happy that I can get out there again and tour historical place like this. Quite honestly, THIS is what I imagined that the blog would be like, when I first started writing this series, but of course that was derailed during the lockdowns. Let me know if you enjoyed the post and if there are any historical sites, especially in Scotland, that you’d particularly want to hear about.

Also I wanted to let you know that I might go a bit ‘quiet’ on the blog for the next few weeks. I’ve got a lot on my plate in May and June: a big writing project that I’ll be announcing soon, some performances and workshops throughout Scotland, grading my masters’ students final papers, and also some personal projects too. So don’t worry about me or think the blog is going away if I’m quiet for a couple of weeks. I’ll be back soon with lots of news. In the meantime you can subscribe to my newsletter if you want to be the first to hear about my writing news.

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts about 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post on the first Monday of each month.

Recommended Reading:

A Visit to the Highland Folk Museum – my post about visiting one of my favorite museums in Scotland!

A Visit to Culloden Battlefield – Jacobites! Scottish Clans! A big battle! Outlander!

A Visit to a Georgian Parlor – step inside the 18th century historical home in Edinburgh where I volunteer with the National Trust for Scotland

Ben Dorain: A Conversation with a Mountain (Book Review) – a review of one of my favorite books from last year, a very unique adaptation of an 18th century poem, by author Garry MacKenzie

Secret Scotland’s post on Cromarty – a blog post I found helpful before our trip to Cromarty

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