Cromarty Courthouse is set back from the south-west side of Church Street, the picturesque street that runs through the heart of the oldest part of Cromarty. Cromarty Courthouse is home to an excellent community-run museum that includes a recreation of the courtroom in action. It stands next door to the better known Hugh Miller's Birthplace Cottage & Museum and a combined visit to the two can be highly recommended.
Church Street is fairly narrow and the buildings that line it are quietly restrained, which makes your encounter with the Courthouse all the more impressive. The street frontage is provided by a wall topped off with iron railings, and steps lead up to an open area in front of the building itself. To get to the entrance you need to walk round Cromarty's mercat cross. This was originally erected in front of the (long gone) Cromarty tolbooth in 1578 and moved here by the local laird, George Ross of Pitkerrie and Cromarty, in 1773, the year in which work on the Courthouse was completed.
George Ross did a great deal to develop Cromarty after taking over the estate in 1767. The hemp factory he built to provide employment has since been turned into housing, and the Courthouse, which he partly funded (with the rest of the money coming from the Commissioners responsible for lands forfeited by Jacobites after the 1745 uprising) stands as his most obvious memorial in the town.
The Courthouse itself has more than a hint of a medieval tolbooth about it, with an imposing square clock tower complete with an octagonal upper stage projecting from the frontage of the main building. It's worth giving the clock a second glance before you enter the Courthouse. It was made by John Ross of Tain in 1782 and married to a bell dated 1778 which carries an intriguing inscription suggesting that it may have been cast in Caracas in Venezuela. If so, the story of how it found its way to Cromarty appears to have been lost. The clock ran almost continuously until 1990, when the mechanism was modernised to allow it to be wound every three days rather than every day.
On entry to the Courthouse you are greeted by a figure standing at the foot of the stairs representing Sir Thomas Urquhart, Cromarty's second most famous historical resident after Hugh Miller. Sir Thomas was the local laird in the troubled mid 1600s, and was a writer and translator, best known for his translation of the works of François Rabelais.
There is a visitor reception and shop on the ground floor, and the recommended tour then takes you up the stairs to the first floor of the building. Here you find the Urquhart Room, in which there are a number of exhibits casting light on the industries which have helped sustain the economy of the area over the centuries. Nearby is the Courthouse's document store. In an early take on conservation, bags of papers were hung from hooks in the ceiling to ensure they were not damaged by rodents looking for a meal.
Cromarty Courthouse ceased to function as a court in 1872, and was thereafter used as a police station and, for a time, by the Royal Navy. It is therefore very welcome to find that the next stop on your exploration is the courtroom itself, with an audio tape playing that re-enacts a real case from 1779. This really is the highlight of the tour, and gives a real feel of the conduct of justice over 230 years ago.
Back on the ground floor, the tour leads you to the Jailer's Room, with an exhibition about the fabrication yards at Nigg, on the opposite side of the Cromarty Firth. The nearby Legend Room explores the meaning of some of the folk stories collected by the geologist Hugh Miller.
Cromarty Courthouse had a cell block added to its rear in 1844, and you now move through to an example of the pretty uncomfortable existence "enjoyed" by prisoners at this time. A fascinating sign illustrates the state of the art ventilation system installed when the cells were built. The last and largest of the cells is known as the Debtor's Cell and is used as a gallery space by local artists. It is possible to pass through to the rear "garden" of the Courthouse, an open area that also extends behind the neighbouring Miller House. On the outside of one of the cellblock walls is a carved plaque showing "Incidents from the Life of Sir Thomas Urquhart".