Strathpeffer belonged to the Cromartie Estate (see Castle Leod; Tarbat House; Cromarty House). The value of 'Castle Leod Waters', as the mineral springs were then known, was recounted to the Royal Society in London in 1772. Thereafter, in 1777, Colin Mackenzie, factor to Cromartie Estate, suggested to the Board of Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates the value in building a house nearby to attract visitors. The wells were enclosed to prevent cattle fouling them, but his suggestion came to nothing. It was in 1819 that a wooden Pump Room was constructed, over one of the wells. The work was supervised by Dr Morrison, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Strathpeffer after being cured of chronic rheumatism by the sulphurous waters (Fortescue-Fox, 1896).
Thereafter, the reputation of the Spa grew. Dr Morrison, who recommended a stay of six weeks and three to four tumblerfuls of spa water both morning and afternoon, strictly supervised visitors' diets. By the mid 1800s, the Cromartie Estate again turned its attention to the potential attractions of the waters, which were 'so beastly as to prove there must be some virtue/reality in it' (Andrew Scott, the factor in 1857 quoted in Landscape Conservation Studio, 1996). The 1850s saw plans for the building of a harled Poor's House and a stone house over the Upper Well, wooden bridges over the burn and gravelled walks through the adjacent plantations – gentle exercise being part of the regime. By this time there were three wells, the Upper Well being within the gardens. The walks were constructed in 1853 at a cost of 13/4d per linear yard and the plantation was enclosed with a wire fence.
The 1860s saw the promotion of the Spa in earnest. The impetus came from George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1828-92), created 3rd Duke of Sutherland in 1861. The Spa was the catalyst for the development of the settlement at Strathpeffer and the landscape of the Strath itself. This was then serviced by the main Dingwall-Strome Ferry railway line opened in 1869 (Close-Brookes, 1995). The estate commissioned the architect George Devey to plan the proposed expansion but, although the layout of the roads relate to his proposals, his full scheme was not adopted. Altogether, the Duke spent about £2,500 in capital to lay out a new Pump Room (which replaced the original wooden one) and Bath House, a Well-Keeper's House, shops, post office and Postmaster's house. By 1876 the Pump Room (demolished 1950) was complemented by a latrine block, screened by shrub planting (1876, OS 6").
The 1880s saw the further expansion of activities and facilities. Renewed impetus was given to the Spa with the arrival of the Dingwall-Strathpeffer branch line of the railway (1885), new Ladies Baths and experimental peat baths. Explorations for new springs in the shale strata resulted in new wells in 1884 and 1886, which increased the volume of sulphurous waters from 279 gallons (1867) to 1482 (1886). A fourth well, named Lady Cromartie's Well or the Challis Spring, was exploited in 1889. Strathpeffer Spa Pavilion, designed by William Joass, was built 1879-81. It was designed to be the social focus of the Spa, as opposed to the medical and curative centre at the Upper Pump Room. It provided a refreshment room, tearoom, billiard table and games room. The central concert hall was overlooked by a gallery, which housed a reading room, and the whole building was surrounded by a covered verandah. An octagonal Bandstand (removed when the main road frontage was fenced in, c 1908), stood at the entrance to the complex, in view of the town centre.
From early on in the planning and promotion of the Spa, the pleasure grounds and drives were recognised as important aspects of the town's promotion. John Martin, assistant factor, renewed the plantations in 1864 by interplanting many evergreens in the belts and transplanting trees from a plantation along the public road, to form an approach. The walks were planted and path junctions were highlighted with 'clumps of evergreens with a spiral or weeper plant in the middle to relieve the mass' (SRO, GD305/2/1858 p.39).
In 1867, William Gunn of Nutwood, successor to Andrew Scott, wrote about 'the constant brushing up during the Season required by the Spa Beltings and Sundry plots of fancy plantation, together with the gravelling & Keeping in order of all the public roads & walks around the Spa ...'. The Spa Gardens were considered integral with the Spa itself. Gunn recalled in 1889 that the Strathpeffer estate had been 'exceedingly bare of Wood, and with no Hedges' when he had started in post. He was responsible for extensive planting and woodland improvement throughout Strath Peffer as far as Castle Leod. A major feature was a walk made in 1888 for visitors to reach the summit of Ord Hill and admire the views. In 1898-1900, a pleasure drive was made through Blackmuir Wood, a 93ha (230 acres) pinewood planted c 1820, by way of the Knockfarrell vitrified Fort. Other walks, furnished with rustic rain-shelters, were laid out through the Kinettas Plantation, Ord Hill.
A tennis/croquet terrace behind the Pavilion (1882) provided recreation within the gardens. A four-rink curling pond (1890) was followed, in 1904, by a Bowling Green incorporated into an eastward extension to the gardens. These facilities all necessitated terracing the hillside with stone-retaining walls.
In 1908 the Spa Syndicate Limited acquired the rights to the Spa wells. The Spa facilities were run on more commercial lines, thus the gardens were enclosed and an entrance fee charged. Park Farm Road, which led through the middle of the gardens, from north to south, was removed, and the garden paths adjusted to accommodate this and further changes. Summer entertainments were important to the venture, so the Curling Rink was converted into tennis courts and curling moved to the Jubilee Pond. A major change in 1909 was replacing the 1870s Pump Room with the present Upper Pump Room.
Thereafter, from 1914 to 1949, there were few changes in the gardens. A leaflet of c 1925 describes the:
'spacious pleasure gardens, charmingly laid out with lawns, pergolas of roses, parterres of flowers, noble trees and dainty summer houses, while a picturesque note is supplied by a little burn which wimples over falls or broadens into little lakes...' (Landscape Conservation Studio, 1996).
In 1949 the gardens were sold to the owner of the Ben Wyvis Hotel. Subsequently, the Spa manager's house was demolished, the fountain pool infilled and the tennis court area redeveloped for curling. Management of the gardens was abandoned due to costs, in 1970. The Highland Council now owns the gardens.