In the 17th century, Cromarty Castle, belonging to the Urquhart family, stood on high ground with the settlement of Cromarty to its north-west. Little is known of its landscape layout, but it was the administrative centre of the small sherrifdom of Cromarty, established in the 13th century. The Castle, a substantial L-plan tower, dated from the 15th century, to which an extensive rage of domestic buildings was added in 1632 by Sir Thomas Urquhart (d.1660). Plans of the Castle, possibly made in connection with a proposal to establish it as a barracks after the 1745-6 Jacobite rising, survive (Stell, 1986). Although a plan of 1753 indicates the layout of the castle grounds, it is not certain whether the plan is indicative of proposals or is a survey of an existing layout (May, 1753).
Sir George, Viscount Tarbat, Lord MacLeod and Castlehaven (1632-1714), acquired the Urquhart property by the 1680s and, when he was created an earl in 1704, took his title, Earl of Cromartie, from this estate. Mackenzie, using his significant social and political status, had begun to direct the economic and social fortunes of Easter Ross (see Castle Leod; Tarbat House; Strathpeffer Spa). The small Cromarty estate had, however, been transferred to his second son, Sir Kenneth Mackenzie (c 1658-1729) before 1700. From 1729 it was in the hands of Sir Kenneth's son, Sir George Mackenzie of Grandvale and Cromartie, whose mounting debts forced him to sell the property in 1741 to Captain John Urquhart.
Urquhart, a kinsman of the last Urquharts at Cromarty Castle, had already acquired another former Urquhart property at Craigston, Aberdeenshire in 1739 (q.v. Inventory, Volume 3, pp.179-83). He undertook agricultural improvements and estate landscaping at both properties. Between 1747-53, he commissioned James May, his surveyor and gardener at Craigston, to prepare several plans of the Craigston policies and in 1753, a proposal plan for Cromarty Castle. This plan indicated a model landscape of woodlands and agricultural estate linked to the formal Castle grounds by a wide tree-lined drive bounded, on its northernmost approach to the Castle by policy walls.
To the south-west of the castle, on slopes facing the Cromarty Firth, Urquhart laid out a regular pattern of enclosed fields, serviced by straight drives linking the castle, mains farm, plantations and farms. The castle was furnished with an enclosed formal garden to the south-west, set with formal walks. Gallow Hill was thickly planted with trees, forming an 'étoile' of twelve rides radiating from a central hilltop 'rond-point'. May's plan identifies the views from the hilltop, including those to 'Dunrobin and Kulrofie' (Calrossie, near Fearn), 'Dornoch Town and Glastulich, Newtarbat and Balnagown, Alness Town, Inverness Town and Castle, Chanonry Point and Rofsmarkney', Nairn and Forres. A spiral walk led to the summit (May, 1753).
Estate records for 1752-58 itemise the work undertaken in enclosures, dyking, and tree planting. James May's planting list of 1756 has survived, itemising 136,363 trees and an additional plantation of 2,000 trees. In 1758, 13,000 trees planted included oak, fir, ash, elm, plane and birch. Fir seed was brought from nearby Balnagown and from Craigston (1759), which indicate that Urquhart was trying tree-seeding. This activity resulted in considerable employment – 23 gardeners in 1757 and 12 in 1758.
In 1763, Urquhart's son William sold the estate to Lord Elibank, who acquired it for William Johnston, his nephew, to qualify him for a parliamentary seat. This achieved, the estate was sold on in 1768 to George Ross (1708/9-1786), a lawyer, of Pitkerrie. Ross, formerly confidential clerk to Duncan Forbes of Culloden (see Culloden) and subsequently patronised by Argyll, was a successful London-based army agent. Ross had built Rosedale House, Kew (c 1749, now part of the Royal Hospital), incorporating in this building the cottage formerly home to the James Thomson (1700-48), poet and author of the 'Seasons'.
He invested in both the Cromarty estate and the town, raising additional funds of £80,000 from his influential friend William Murray, Earl of Mansfield (1705-93). In collaboration with William Forsyth (1722-1800) a local merchant, Ross built a hemp factory (later used as a rope works), was responsible for the courthouse (1772), the harbour (designed by John Smeaton and built 1781–84), the brewery (1770s) and Gaelic Chapel (1783). Ross built Cromarty House by demolishing the old castle, which 'stood hard by where the present house is built, but came nearer to the slope of the bank; it was pulled down by the late proprietor in 1772' (Old Statistical Account, 1791-99). It was sited at the north end of the central axis of the Castle's formal gardens, themselves remodelled in an informal style. Ross also acquired many of the houses at the east end of the town, on the present Causeway, and built the high wall around the garden, making this part of the former royal burgh, in effect, part of the estate policies.
On George Ross' death, his half-nephew Alexander Gray Ross inherited Cromarty, along with considerable debts. As a result, in 1804, the estate was sequestered. A survey of the estate in 1823 (Douglas, 1823) indicates the landscape changes since the Castle's demolition, with destruction of the formal gardens and the étoile on Gallow Hill grown over. Eventually, the estate returned to the Ross family in 1847, Catherine Munro (d.1852), George Ross's niece gaining control. Catherine married Hugh Rose (later Rose Ross), the owner of extensive properties in Easter Ross (including Bayfield, Phippsfield and Calrossie), funded on supplying the British Fleet in the West Indies. The Rosses built the lodge and west drive, enclosed the park south-west of the house with shelter belts, laid out a rose garden and introduced ornamental planting throughout the policies. Hugh Rose Ross was known as an enthusiastic agricultural improver, responsible for modernising his properties. He oversaw the management of the policy woods, informal planting and the construction of footpaths on Gallow Hill and the headland. Further planting was done by George W. H. Ross in the late 19th century.
Despite the estate's high capital value, it was still encumbered by debt. Brigadier-General Sir Walter Charteris Ross (d.1928) sold some tenanted farms to reduce the continuing debt. By 1964, his son, Colonel 'Geordie' Ross, decided to sell the estate to the Nightingale family, retiring to a house built within the Walled Garden.
The estate remains in private ownership.