Easter Ross Peninsula

by Robin McKelvie

Hands up if you’ve been guilty of just flying by the Easter Ross Peninsula on the A9. Keep your hands up if you’re not exactly even sure where it is. Those were the twin impediments facing this seriously underrated and unexplored corner of Scotland, issues that the new ERP (Easter Ross Peninsula) initiative has taken giant community-focussed strides at addressing since it was set up in spring 2022.

Where is the Easter Ross Peninsula?

First things first, the Easter Ross Peninsula roughly lies between the Cromarty Firth in the south and the Dornoch Firth to the north, its eastern flank washed by the natural boundary of the Moray Firth as it meets the North Sea, its western boundary manmade – the A9 road artery. To be precise, it’s the area that used to be delineated by the more prosaic-sounding Highland Ward 7.

“Lots of people just miss us here. This all came about after community consultations from 2018 onwards – local people and businesses wanted to see the area put on the map in a sustainable and positive way,” says volunteer and former board member Carrie Afrin. “The Tain and District Development Trust have worked really hard with the community and local businesses to bring together the idea of the Easter Ross Peninsula as a single destination. We’re already seeing the results with an increased number of visitors and local businesses reporting more footfall.”

It is easy to see why you would want to visit the Easter Ross Peninsula. I’ve been lucky enough to have made it off the A9 to head to it many times, most dramatically when we rocked up at the small Cromarty-Nigg ferry with a campervan to be met by a crewman who made it his personal mission to make sure we somehow squeezed aboard. It was an instant sign of how friendly this part of Scotland is. Today motorhome owners can use the chemical disposal point at the Seaboard Centre and have a warm shower here too.

Slow Down and Wander Off the Beaten Track

The Easter Ross Peninsula’s attractions are manifest. I’ve enjoyed whisky tastings at Glenmorangie Distillery, home of one of Scotland’s most renowned single malt whiskies. I’ve also tucked into the delights of Highland Fine Cheeses (Strathdon Blue, Highland Brie, and, yes, Minger) at Glenmorangie House, hiked the craggy coastline, strolled along the lovely local beaches and explored the area’s rich history at the Tain & District Museum. Another highlight was meeting Barry Grove, the man responsible for carving a replica of the giant 8th-Century Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Stone, who not only showed me how to carve stone, but helped with a piece that now sits proudly outside my garden office as I type.

Tain and District Development Trust’s umbrella visitor destination brand pulls together the Burgh of Tain, Hill of Fearn, Portmahomack, Inver, Kilmuir, Logie Easter, Milton, and the Seaboard villages of Balintore, Hilton and Shandwick, promoting them jointly as a unique tourist destination.

Board member Fiona Scott explains: “We want people to see our area as a place to slow down and wander off the beaten track. We encourage our business network to welcome visitors as ‘temporary locals’ and ask them to promote our community events so that they can join in. Having the Easter Ross Peninsula brand means that for the first time, all people, places, services and businesses can be promoted in one place. It showcases our mix of culture, history and amazing scenery. We’ve got Pictish Stones, amazing beaches, Maitland Architecture, so much history and golf courses, plus whisky and gin distilleries. Then there are walks in the hills, forests and coastal walks.”

Scott has her own holiday let and, through it likes to showcase another local strength – the vibrant food and drink scene: “We welcome guests with a hamper holiday with local rape seed oil, chocolates, charcuterie and seaweed crisps, plus, of course, a wee local dram. We’ve got wonderful food and drink here, from cheese and whisky, through to the van that Highland Larder brings around. You’ll get great produce at our markets too.”

Agritourism Alive

With Agritourism look out for The Mill at Fearn Farm, Balnagown Estate, CastleCraig Farm Clifftops at Nigg and Bogrow Farm charcuterie. The Fearn Free Food Garden (Fearn) is a community garden that welcomes visitors to participate in workshops or community garden experiences. They also have a food stall, where self-catering visitors can leave behind their unused food to stop food waste. The Seaboard Community Polytunnel Group Community Interest Company (Balintore) meanwhile sells vegetables to visitors and locals.

The markets are bringing people into the area, as is the burgeoning cultural scene. The St Duthac Book & Arts Festival celebrates its third birthday this autumn, while galleries and small craft outlets are on the rise. Part of the scene are artist Sheena Harrison in Nigg, artist Gemma Petrie in Portmahomack, Studio Smith gallery and the hand-carved wooden jewellery designed by Geoff King of Woodland Treasures. The ERP are fully behind new initiatives too, with exciting projects like bringing the Old Picture House in Tain back to life. The John Ross Centre is a brilliant oasis too, shining light on the area’s links with Korea and the history of the Seaboard villages at the Seaboard Centre.

The Benefits of Community Tourism

The success of the ERP rebrand can be felt today with local businesses catering for visitors who know more about the area and are looking to spread the range of what they do locally. One business now rents kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for example. Scott sees further benefits: “We have also looked at ways that ERP can positively impact youth employment, plus social and environmental growth. Most of our young people move away for education. We aim to reduce this number with increased opportunities right here, working with the local schools, showing young people what opportunities are out there.”

Rachel Cunningham, who has worked on marketing the ERP, is positive too: “There is so much here that is special and unique. The Royal Burgh of Tain, the birthplace of St Duthac, is one of the oldest market towns in Scotland and an ancient place of sanctuary. Fearn Abbey is known as ‘The Lamp of the North’ and our Mermaid of the North statue in the sea is another highlight. We have so many historic buildings, including a 14th-century church, where we often hold community events. So many amazing stories too, including the Gizzen Brigg Fairies. The Parish of Tain was also considered a place of sanctuary from the 11th century. Today, you can find refuge all around the Peninsula in our arts, culture and remarkable scenery. There is golf too, with the Tom Morris designed Tain Golf Club and Portmahomack Golf Club.”

“We are keen to welcome people as ‘temporary locals’ and also to show people living here side of the ERP we didn’t know about,” continues Cunningham. “I’ve had people tell me they found new things to do on our Instagram feed. Our markets have been wildly popular and work on so many levels with young people volunteering as part of their Saltire Awards.”

Embrace Community Tourism

I learn, chatting to the enthusiastic, passionate team on the Easter Ross Peninsula that the Cromarty-Nigg ferry once carried kings on pilgrimages. I suggest you consider eking off the A9, slowly right down and embracing the community-focused, community-propelled charm of this remarkable part of eastern Scotland. It may be ideal as a base for exploring all points north, south and west, but it’s a brilliant community destination in its own right, ideal for ‘temporary locals’ looking to enjoy holidays that feed money directly back into local communities.

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