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Black Isle, The

Welcome to The Black Isle

The Kessock Bridge leads north from Inverness, across the meeting place of the Beauly and Moray Firths, to the Black Isle. The name is deceptive; the Black Isle is neither an island nor is it black. In fact it is a peninsula, 20 miles long and 9 miles wide, connected at its western edge with the rest of the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, it is often said that it maintains an island feel due to its development in relative isolation from the surrounding areas, the Kessock Bridge only being completed in 1982. The Black Isle is also home to some of the most green and fertile land in Scotland. It has been suggested that the name owes its origins to the area’s past association with witchcraft and the black arts. The highest point on the Black Isle is Mount Eagle on the Mulbuie Ridge, but gentler terrain, sloping fields, extensive forests and quiet bays make the Black Isle a place of varied, and often subtle, charms.

The Black Isle has been inhabited for millennia. Accordingly it has a number of interesting archaeological sites, mainly dating from Neolithic times; the remains of henges, round houses, duns (or forts) and chambered cairns (at North Kilcoy, for example) etc, dot the landscape. The remains of a crannog have recently been excavated at Redcastle, on the Beauly firth, revealing evidence of Iron Age occupation. Crannogs were artificial islands, used as homes for extended families, which began to appear all over Scotland and Ireland from around 5000 BC.

Later archaeological sites on the Black Isle, from the Pictish era, are every bit as fascinating. The development of Pictish authority on the Black Isle occurred over the same centuries as the emergence of Christianity. It was in Rosemarkie that St Moluag founded a Christian community in the 6th century. A monastery founded on the site was taken over by St Boniface in 716. Accordingly, the area around Rosemarkie is well known for carved Pictish symbol stones, some of which date from the 8th century. Rosemarkie’s Groam House Museum has a remarkable collection of such stones.

In the 13th century the religious centre of Black Isle became Fortrose. It was at this time when the construction of Fortrose Cathedral got underway. Although progress was delayed by the Wars of Independence, over the following 200 years the magnificent red stone building was completed. However, after the 1560 reformation the cathedral fell into disuse until today what remains is a picturesque ruin.

It was near Fortrose that an infamous event was to occur concerning Odhar Coinneach, also known as the Brahan Seer. On the Isle of Lewis, where he was born some time in the mid or 17th century, Odhar gained a reputation for having ‘the second sight’, the ability to see into the future. As a young man he moved to the area of Loch Ussie where he took up work as a labourer for the Seaforth family on the Brahan estate. When Isabella, wife of the Earl of Seaforth and known as ‘the ugliest woman in Scotland’, sought Odhar’s assistance in finding out if her husband was having an affair, Odhar’s reluctance to respond to her queries prompted her to threaten to have him killed.

In a temper Odhar responded not only by telling her that her husband was with a more attractive woman but that the Seaforth line would soon come to an end when a deaf and dumb Earl inherited the estate. Isabella was so offended by what Odhar had said that she had him burned alive. A small monument along the Moray Firth from Fortrose, near the lighthouse, is said to mark the spot of his execution. It turned out that her husband was having an affair and that the house of Seaforth would end when the deaf and dumb Francis Humberstone Mackenzie died without an heir at the turn of the 19th century.

Today the Black Isle is an important area for forestry, fishing, farming and tourism. The largest settlement on the Black Isle is Cromarty, lying at the tip of the peninsula. The economy of the town partly based around North Sea Oil as the Cromarty Firth is one of the major locations for the construction of Oil Rigs. Cromarty came into being largely with an 18th century boom in fishing. It remains the best preserved 18th century fishing village in the Highland region. It is also home to an award winning museum: Cromarty Courthouse invites guests to dress in 18th century costume and participate in juries in mock trials which use state-of-the-art animation technology to bring the past back to life. Cromarty Courthouse is just another of the many surprises offered by the Black Isle.

Related topics:
A Brief History of Scotland

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