I bet you never expected to see a blog entitled “I like haggis”, or even encounter someone who claims to like haggis, but this morning I dared to try it for the first time. I guess if you’re going to lose your “haggis virginity”, Scotland is the place to do it. And, I really did quite like it. It’s the patty on the right side of the plate. A lit bit spicy and very flavorful – way tastier than the black pudding which I will also eat (Mary won’t, and she makes the best “little kid face” when she sees it on my plate).
So, today (Monday September 17), is the day when we’ll try to get a glimpse of Nessie, the famous Loch Ness Monster. But, before setting off on our journey, we paused over breakfast to savour the serene view of Beauly Firth, as seen from the dining room window of Bunshrew, the castle house we spent the night at. It was a lot of fun, and a most enjoyable stay.
First things first – the weather report. Storm Ali is on its way, and we are in for a day of steady rain in the Highlands, with the winds starting to really pick up some time tomorrow (Tuesday). Seems like the perfect type of weather to go on a sea-monster hunt.
The drive from Bunchrew House to Loch Ness took about 35 minutes, and the top of Loch Ness is located about 20 miles south of Inverness. One of the most scenic viewing point of Loch Ness and the location of most of the purported sightings of Nessie, is at Urquhart Castle, which dates back to the 1200’s. More on that in a moment.
Before heading to the castle, we stopped at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhbition located in the village of Drummnadrochit, just a short 3 minute drive from Urquhart. Established in 1980, the exhibition has been written and narrated by Adrian Shine, the leader of the Loch Ness Project research team for over 40 years. Upon entering, we found ourselves in the first of seven themed areas that tell the story of Loch Ness, the mystery that surrounds it, and a detailed accounting of the efforts to prove or disprove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster (spoiler alert; they don’t really confirm or deny the possibility)
In addition to the narrated commentary, we had a chance to check out some of the actual research equipment that has been used through the decades, including “Machan”, the World’s Smallest Submarine. the “John Murray” (World’s largest inflatable boat), and the Viperfish Submarine.
At the conclusion of the seven-room walk-through that took about 20 minutes, we entered the Loch Ness Archive which we found really interesting. There was a tribute to John Cobb, who in 1952, tragically crashed and died while trying set a land speed record on Loch Ness. We also learned about a WW ll Wellington Bomber aircraft that crashed in Loch Ness on New Year’s Eve, 1940, and the wreckage was not found until 1985. It was raised, salvaged and restored, and is now on display in the Brooklands Museum in England (see the stock photo below). It is one of only two surviving Wellingtons and the only one that saw action as bomber in operational service.
A few notes about Loch Ness itself. It is a very deep (750 feet at its deepest point) freshwater loch (lake), that extends for 23 miles, and is ultimately connected to the North Sea via a series of canals and the Moray Firth which we expect to see tomorrow. It is the largest loch (by volume) in the British Isles, and second deepest behind Loch Morar, which we expect to see this coming weekend. Lastly, it is also very murky due to an exceptionally high peat content in the surrounding soil, and that has helped add to the myth of Nessie.
Our first look at Loch Ness occurred about a minute before arriving at Urquhart Castle, when Mary managed to find a small pull-off allowing me to take a couple of pictures. It was very picturesque but also similar to many other loch-views we’ve seen so far, so our first impression felt a little anti-climactic.
As we approached the turn-off to Urquhart Castle, Mary let go an “oh no”, as we came upon a long line of cars waiting to turn into a drastically under-sized parking lot. Inching our way forward, once in the lot, we employed our strategy of going to the farthest end first, leaving everyone else to fight over spots closest to the front. Our luck held and Mary pulled into a spot that was just being vacated. Walking back through the parking lot, I counted the buses in the coach lot – seventeen of them. Arrrgh.
The visitor centre was a madhouse. Fortunately this was yet another Historic Scotland site, and with the aid of our pre-paid passes we avoided yet another line-up. Next, we inched our way through a jam-packed gift shop out to a veranda, where we were finally able to get our first look at the dramatic ruins of Urquhart Castle. It is from or near this spot where many of the Nessie “sightings” have taken place.
Mary says I have a knack of taking pictures that make it look like hardly anyone is there and I guess this is one of those examples. There were at least 200 people crowded behind me on the lookout, but being built close to the ground has it’s advantages (yes I’m short), and I was able to edge my way in front of the masses. To the left of this picture, there were long lines of people snaking their way downhill to the ruins and I just managed to snap the shutter in time.
The ruins themselves are pretty neat and I wish it hadn’t been so busy. I would’ve liked to take the time to fully explore them and read all the information signs, as that’s where I get a lot of the historical details for my blogs. What I can tell you is that despite its tranquil setting, Urquhart Castle has been the scene of centuries of bloodshed and turmoil going back to its origins, around 1230.
In 1296, it was captured by the invading army of Edward 1 of England. From the mid-1300’s, it was a Scottish Royal castle, but further strife came in the 1400’s and 1500’s, and the final siege occurred during the Jacobite Rising of 1689-90. When the government troops left in 1692, they blew up the gatehouse, leaving the castle impossible to defend. The picture in the bottom right of the montage below shows a massive piece of the gatehouse which still lies where it landed after one of the explosions.
I will share one other image with you from Urquhart, and that is of a modern replica of the ” Trebuchet” – a medieval siege engine, and one of the most feared weapons of the Middle Ages. Essentially a giant catapult, It was used to hurl massive boulders and cannonballs at the enemy.
Urquhart Castle was the most tourist-laden site we’ve visited and as a result we didn’t linger as long as we otherwise might have. Instead, we took a few last pictures, memorized the view of Loch Ness, and set off for the peaceful venue of Beauly Priory, a monastic community founded in 1230.
You may recall from yesterday’s blog I made reference to the narrow roads and the stone hedgerows that abut them. Check out these images below taken on the drive to Beauly.
Beauly Priory is not the best documented abbey, and few of the priors are known by name before the 16th century. It became Cistercian in 1510, and was gradually secularized until it’s lands were given over by Royal Charter to the Bishop of Ross in 1634. The priory’s name comes from its picturesque riverside setting. Beau lieu, means beautiful place in French, and the earliest monks who inhabited the priory came from France.
The ruins are extensive and quite lovely giving only a slight hint of its original layout, which apparently included many buildings. Some time after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, the church became a burial ground for local people. We saw carved swords, stag’s heads, and symbols of both mortality and immortality on many of the gravestones. There is one wholly intact building still on the grounds, although it is not open to the public. Mary managed to take a picture (through the barred window) of the tomb of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie who died in 1491. Many of his ancestors right through more modern times are buried on the grounds of Beauly Priory.
At the main gate, there is the most unusual tree trunk which seems almost mythical in nature. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of it as I thought it looked both eerie and pretty cool, all at the same time. Mary thought it looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie.
We’ve been all around Inverness for the last 24 hours but as yet have not actually gone into it, so before it got too late in the day, I input the coordinates for the Victorian Market, and we were on our way.
Inverness is considered the capital of the Scottish Highlands and is a fair-sized city with a population in excess of 60,000. Since our month-long adventure was more about exploring Scotland beyond the major centres, I hadn’t really identified too many things to do in Inverness. One thing that had caught my eye though was the afore-mentioned Victorian Market which dates back to 1870. A fire destroyed the original gas-lit market in 1889, but by 1891, it had been rebuilt with the addition of a market hall and a fish market. It has a range of shops that you won’t necessarily find elsewhere in town, such as a bagpipe accessory store.
They are smaller businesses, owner-operated, and in general offer a unique environment and pleasant change from the typical shopping experience.
When we exited the market, it was pouring, plus we were feeling our usual mid-afternoon peckishness (is that a word?) Mary had spotted a brightly-lit cafe opposite the car-park when we first arrived in Inverness, and it was just two short blocks away. We stick-handled our way under a few storefront canopies, negotiated the light-changes by hovering in doorways until the right moment, and managed to get to Cafe Artysans without getting too wet (yes we left our umbrella in the car).
The food was good (especially the three scoops of ice cream I inhaled) and so was the tea, but what was particularly interesting about Cafe Artysans is that its a Social Enterprise operated by a local Trust Company. It was set up to give young people an opportunity to work in a cafe and learn various food-service and hospitality skills in a real-life environment. We thought that it was a pretty terrific initiative.
The rain had decided to take a break by the time we emerged from the cafe, so we decided to take a chance on the weather, and wander over to the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre, about a 10-minute walk. The walk itself was quite pleasant and it took us across the River Ness which splits Inverness in half. Still pictures don’t quite tell the story, but perhaps you can sense from the ripples in the water just how fast the current was moving.
In a classic case of web-site hyperbole, the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre was nothing more than a cheap excuse to entice customers to come and check out the Highland House of Fraser – a Tartan retail store which one has to navigate through and then pay to enter the Visitor Centre. This was one “attraction”, that gets a two thumbs down from the Stangers.
Re-crossing the bridge, we were afforded a terrific view of Inverness Castle which sits on a cliff overlooking the River Ness. A succession of castles has stood on that site since 1057, but the red sandstone structure we were looking at was built in 1836. The castle is not currently open to the public, but public pressure has forced the creation of a working group to examine doing so in the future. At present only the grounds and the observation deck in the north tower are open.
Inverness is the starting point for a scenic touring route called the North Coast 500 (NC500). It is a 500+ mile route around the north coast of Scotland, that starts and ends at Inverness Castle. With the exception of completing the last few miles in a return to Inverness, it is our plan to incorporate this route into our travels over the next week.
The concept of the NC500 was launched in 2015 as a Tourism project in an attempt to boost the economy of many of the smaller communities in Northern Scotland. Described as Scotland’s answer to Route 66, it had the backing of the North Highland Initiative, a non-profit organization established by Prince Charles who has long expressed a deep appreciation for Scotland’s north country.
To kick-start our drive, we decided to cover the first 45 miles this afternoon, which would have us in Dornoch, sometime between 5:30 and 6. Apart from the presence of oil rigs off to our right, this portion of the journey was going to be one of the more pedestrian segments of the route. By the way, these oil wells are actually sitting idle, in some cases for more than a decade, waiting for offshore drilling to become profitable again. The media describes this section of the coast as the Oil Rig Graveyard of Cromarty Firth, and in the mist and the rain, it certainly did have that look about it.
Right on plan, we arrived in Dornoch shortly before 6, and after a brief struggle to locate the Albatross B&B, our home for the night (no street numbers, and no identifying sign on the property), we unloaded the Vauxhall in the rain, and asked our host Matthew to recommend a place for dinner.
His suggestion was the Eagle Hotel, just a 2 minute walk along the high street, and what a great suggestion it was. Delicious homemade steak and veg pies, and an even more yummy apple crisp desert. Good lord, I don’t know about my suitcase, but the way I’m eating, I may end up exceeding the weight limit for the flight home. As we exited the hotel for the short walk to our room for the night, a light mist was starting to turn into big drops of rain. We got back without getting too wet, and settled in to our very spacious, modern and comfortable room for the night.
We continue to be very very fortunate in our daily selection of accommodations, and while the idea of having no plan from day to day is a little unnerving to some our friends, we are reveling in the great variety of lodgings we’ve stayed in.
As the last Stanger eye closed for the night (mine), I could hear the rain bouncing off the skylight windows and I wondered if the full brunt of the storm we’d been waiting for might finally be upon us.