Let’s go to...Nairn
THE Moray Firth town of Nairn has much to offer visitors, not least sea, sand and a touch of Hollywood glamour. There’s even a good chance you’ll see the sun in this comparatively dry corner of Scotland, which sits serenely on the beautiful Moray Firth.
The town, which lies 16 miles east of Inverness, has been attracting tourists since the nineteenth century – it was once called the “Brighton of Scotland” – and it remains a popular summer destination thanks largely to the beach.
There’s plenty to enjoy year-round, however, including walks by the river, top-notch restaurants, a thriving arts
scene and quirky independent shops. And you may bump into the bona fide film star who lives here.
Settled before 1000AD, Nairn historically straddled the Gaelicspeaking fishing folk of the north and farmers to the south. James VI is said to have been surprised to have a town in his kingdom so diverse that people at one end of the high street spoke a different language to those at the other.
The railways arrived in 1855, bringing wealth – see the grand mansions and leafy avenues of the West End – and tourists keen to “take the waters”.
Nairn’s beach was used as a training ground for the Normandy landings during World War Two. Later in the conflict, two German spies who had been dropped by U-boat in the Moray Firth were arrested at Nairn railway station trying to board a train to Inverness.
What to do
The aforementioned beach is magnificent, offering endless sandcastles, walks, kite-flying, paddling (and swimming if you’re willing to brave the cold waters of the firth) as well as magical sunrises and sunsets. Gazing across to the Black Isle on a clear day is a pleasure regardless of the season.
The Moray Firth is home to pods of bottlenose dolphins which can sometimes be spotted from the shore. But if you want to get up close and personal, take a trip on Phoenix’s 10m pleasure cruiser (dolphin-trips-nairn. co.uk), which leaves from the harbour. As well as the dolphins, you may also get a glimpse of seals, porpoises and even minke whales, alongside gannets, herons, osprey and red kite.
Those looking to get more of an insight into the history of the town and its people will want to visit the childfriendly Nairn Museum on Viewfield Drive (nairnmuseum.co.uk), which has exhibits covering fishing, military connections to the area and the Highland way of life.
There’s a lively cultural scene in this town of 10,000, which includes the Nairn Book and Arts Festival in September (recent guests have included Chris Packham, Kirsty Wark, AL Kennedy and Carol Anne Duffy). The excellent community and arts centre on King Street, meanwhile, shows films old and new, while the Little Theatre puts on year-round performances.
In May, the Bandstand Beer and Music Festival brings together a vast array of indie ales and ciders, as well as whiskies, pop-up food stalls and live music.
Golf fans will already know that the town has a world-class course looked after by Nairn Golf Club, which was founded in 1887 (nairngolfclub.co.uk). With its spectacular setting along the links of the Moray Firth, it was recently placed at number 11 in Golf World magazine’s list of Scotland’s top 100 courses.
Near the town sits historic Cawdor Castle and Gardens (cawdorcastle.com), seat of the Thanes of Cawdor – made famous by Shakespeare’s Macbeth – which dates back to the 14th century. There’s much to see in this fairytale castle both inside and out – don’t miss the ancient thorn tree – and the café serves some of the best scones for miles.
Where to shop
Crafty Wee Birdie, on the High Street, stocks a lovely array of Scottishmade
arts and crafts, including glass, ceramics, textiles and upcycled furniture.
The Sweetie Shoppe of Nairn, meanwhile, a short hop along the street, pulls in candy lovers young and old with its dizzying selection of sweets. From old-fashioned boiled sweets in jars to fudges, brittles, jellies and chocolates, this Wonka-style emporium has it all.
Also on the High Street is the friendly Nairn Bookshop, one of the best in the Highlands, which stocks a full selection of fiction and non-fiction and plays host to regular literary events.
Those in search of seasonal local produce – fruit and vegetables, meats, cheeses, jams and home-baking – should make the five-mile trip to Wester Hardmuir farm shop (hardmuir.com), just east of the town. In summer, you can pick your own fruit.
Where to Eat
If it’s Highland beef you’re after, The Classroom on Cawdor Street (classroombistro.com) serves up some of the best steaks in town. The cocktail list is also pretty impressive.
The Sun Dancer Bar and Restaurant on Harbour Street (sun-dancer.co.uk) is the newest kid on the block, offering modern, beautifully-presented food and views across the water.
Café One One Two, a bistro and deli on the High Street, is a big hit with locals and visitors for its sharing platters, seafood, vegetarian options and extensive wine-list. For a quick coffee and cake Café Nairn, a few doors down, offers a friendly welcome and also does a tasty fry-up.
Where to Stay
Luxury: Set in 22-acres of gardens, regency manor Boath House offers understated luxury and fine cuisine in a relaxed setting. Bed and breakfast from £295 per room.
The Sweetie Shoppe of Nairn pulls in candy lovers with its dizzying selection, from old-fashioned boiled sweets in jars to fudges, brittles, jellies and chocolates, this Wonka-style emporium has it all
Comfortable: Set back in an Edwardian villa overlooking the sea is Napier at Nairn, a welcoming upmarket B&B with spacious, well-appointed rooms. From £100 per room.
Cosy: Less than 500ft from the harbour, Sutors Hauf is a romantic seaside cottage complete with open fire. Sleeps two. From £50 per night on Airbnb.co.uk.
Oscar-winning Scots actress Tilda Swinton has lived in Nairn for the last decade with her family and regularly contributes to the town’s artistic and social life, having founded a film festival and a school. Charlie Chaplin often holidayed in Nairn with his family in the 1970s, booking a whole floor of the Newton Hotel. Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston were also regular visitors, as was former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Willie Whitelaw, the Home Secretary for much of the Thatcher era, was born in Nairn.
What to see nearby
If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, ACE, 45 minutes west of Nairn, offers some of the best white-water rafting anywhere in the UK, as well as canyoning, kayaking and cliffjumping. There’s camping, glamping and a yoga retreat on site. (aceadventures.co.uk).
No matter how much you read about it in the history books, there’s nothing quite like soaking up the atmospheric battlefield at Culloden, where the 1745 Jacobite rebellion came to a brutal end. Just 25 minutes’ drive from Nairn, the National Trust for Scotland site offers an interactive exhibition and guided tours.
Built in 1755, Dulsie Bridge, 25-minutes drive south of Nairn, crosses a deep, twisting gorge over the River Findhorn. Make a day of it with a riverside walk and picnic.
Historic Forres, 10 miles east of Nairn, is a particular draw for artists and has a number of thriving galleries and studios.
In the coming weeks I’ll be going to Linlithgow, Stornoway and Cupar. Send your hints and tips for things to do and places to eat, drink and stay, with a few lines about what makes them so memorable, to email@example.com
Tilda Swinton, Charlie Chaplin and the beautiful gardens at Cawdor Castle