Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

site-in-brightening-skies
Urquhart Castle

It was 7.45am on a gloomy, dark Wed in December when we sped off in the Megane to spend a few days catching up with my husband’s family on Skye.I’d be very happy on Xmas and New Year’s Day to simply go for a nice long walk, no matter the weather(it can feel exhilarating to brave the worst the elements can throw at you) or go up a hill(truly elemental),  then enjoy a quiet dinner with the boys and watch a favourite film or have a Box Set fest. But the kids had other more exciting plans(Gregor, for a start was in Japan), Alasdair had various parties lined up and was working most of the holidays. AND, we’d been invited to a Hogmanay dinner at the home of family friends on the island.So over the sea -or rather Bridge – it was to Eilean a’Cheo, the Island of Mist.

Storms Conor and Barbara had already hit NW Scotland, though not as hard as the media had rattled on about.70-90mph winds in the Outer Hebrides are not uncommon in winter but the BBC News(London based and focused) made it sound like it was Armageddon.Now that they’ve given storms a name (an Americanism), the hype around bad weather is making low pressure seem worse than it actually is. For heaven’s sake, we’re an island in the North Atlantic and Scotland is at the extreme north west of that….what do they expect?!

a-moody-glencoe
Glencoe under glowering skies

I don’t mind setting off in gloomy skies and rain and  strong winds.It’s a travel day…better to get it over with now in the hope of brighter days when we have more time to enjoy them.The scenery never suffers though and the Highlands were looking majestically wild as we hit Loch Lomond then Rannoch Moor and Glencoe.We’d thought of doing a 6 mile return stretch of the West Highland Way across part of Rannoch Moor en route, but on  the few occasions I’d got out of the car to take photos, I was nearly blown over. Controlling the car door as I tried to open it was a battle.The cloud was quite low too.Since we’ve walked the route often, the decision was made to leave it till a better day (Chris is, sensibly, not so easily persuaded to go out in any old weather.)

loch-achtriochtan
Glencoe

So at Invergarry, we turned right towards Loch Ness rather than  Skye , noticing that the skies looked clearer that way and it had been a few years since we’d visited Urquhart Castle.It would make a nice detour and an easy stroll.

the-castle-looms
Urquhart Castle

Arrived at the Visitor Centre at 11.15am exactly.It had taken us 3.5 hours non stop driving on reasonably quiet roads to reach this spot from the  southside of  Glasgow.The car park was busy and there were several coaches around, spilling out visitors who looked like they came from warmer climes.Looking at their faces, they looked like they weren’t quite sure what had hit them as the cold Highland air hit them full in the face and they stepped into a slice of raw nature.

The dramatic ruins of the Castle and the dark brooding waters of the loch beyond, deeper than the North Sea, certainly was an assault on the senses after being hunkered in the car for so long. Bare empty hills and air so fresh and clean and  cold it seared itself into your soul.I reckon they’d got their money’s worth already, even if they didn’t know it quite yet.I’m not a huge fan of Loch Ness but by God , it was all looking quite something even under heavy grey skies.

castle-site

Anticipating a rush to get in, we almost sprinted over to the Visitor Centre and found ourselves squashed into a tiny, cramped area which was already chock-a-block.Don’t these people have jobs to go to? Homes to tend? My impatience began to boil as one of my many failings is not liking to be kept waiting. It must truly be a nightmare in peak season.People were doing all sorts of complicated transactions and firing a trillion questions at the single member of staff. Groan.Finally – finally –  it was our turn.A quick flash of our Historic Scotland passes and we swept through the turnstile into the Centre itself, the only way to access the Castle now (without tearing your way through gorse bushes and dreepying over a high wall. Better to keep your legs unbroken to enjoy the site more.) It’s beautifully done, the Centre, I had already forgiven it and I’d clocked the good shop but we were desperate for a cup of something and made for the cafe right away.

Ordered ourselves tea and a scone for me .I can’t say the cakes on offer were anything brilliant, not much looked ‘home made’ as such. Asked the girl if I could get my scone heated a wee bit(serving a cold scone should be a hanging offence) and she looked nervously round.’We’re not really allowed to heat things….’ she whispered nervously then wandered off to find someone ‘in charge.’ In seconds, an older woman emerged from behind the scenes, grim faced and muttering something in a Scandinavian accent about needing the microwave to heat lunches.I looked round the cafe ; it  was deserted except for us. She disappeared and we headed for a table with a castle view (sort of, you could see it a bit through the scaffolding on the patio). Then waited to see if my scone was deemed too likely to hold up service if it spent ten seconds in the microwave.A few minutes later it duly arrived, nicely heated through.Bliss.

We did our usual illogical approach to a historical site of dodging the 8 minute intro video  and leaving it till last.It was still dry outside so thought we’d make for a wander round the atmospheric ruins before our luck ran out.Anyway, Chris is very knowledgeable about Scottish history and tends to give a running commentary to me as we read the various  info boards, so we weren’t going in totally ignorant -well, he wasn’t.Plus after  3.5 hours in the car , we were keen to stretch our legs and get some more of that Highland air into our lungs.

castle-close-up

It was a moody, atmospheric kind of day and the loch was dark and wild, whipped by the wind.We could just make out the rounded summits of the Monadliath mountain range far to the east, snow dusted.It’s not the most spectacular area in the Highlands ( the West is truly world class wow and if anything under-rated) but anywhere else,  Loch Ness would be lauded. But such is the quality of the competition that Loch Ness doesn’t make it into the top 10 by a long shot.However, the castle really makes it a very special place.And the loch’s stats are impressive.The second longest in Scotland(longest accolade belongs to Loch Lomond ), it is deeper by far than the North Sea, at over 700 metres. And since 700 AD there has been talk of a monster, as mentioned in Adomnan’s biography of St Columba.Columba visited the castle around 580 AD as part of his cross country journey to meet the Pictish King Bridei at Inverness and there are Pictish carved symbol stones scattered around the area.Next time.

The grounds,  as ever in these places, are beautifully landscaped with excellent dry paths weaving in and around the ruined structures.Plenty steep winding staircases to clamber up for great views over the whole site and the loch.

 

An excursion boat berthed at the tiny harbour, allowing its passengers a close up look for fifteen minutes or so.It must be quite the thing to see it all from the water though I’d want time to wander around too.

There was a small staircase going down to the lapping waves , a spot where the galleys and boats used to arrive with supplies and important visitors many centuries before and a beautiful spot.

the-loch-shore
Where the galleys used to land

As ever with Historic Scotland places, the shop itself is a cornucopia of delights.Cashmere scarves in various tartans, soaps and candles, crystal whisky glasses, children’s swords and helmets, woolly jumpers…..all of nice quality.No, Chris said firmly, he didn’t want a new clan scarf, he lost them too eäsily so it was a waste of money.He shook his head too at a lovely silver hipflask I waved at him, claiming he had one(I’ve never seen it in decades).Managed to escape having punctured my purse with only the cost of a postcard (for a cousin in NZ)and  a fridge magnet to add to my collection.No, I replied when quizzed mildly by Chris as to whether I’d asked for the 20% reduction we were entitled to on ‘not a lot.’ The ignominy!

Off we trotted to see the video of the castle’s history.It was well worth it, simply but beautifully done and informative.A nice surprise at the end of the film was the backdrop curtains opening to reveal the castle in front of us in all its glory.

In all,  we’d been 2 hours at Urquhart Castle, well worth the extra 26 miles off route.Hadn’t driven through Glen Morison before and it was lovely at first with lots of Scots Pines dotting the landscape.Then it sort of deteriorated into humdrum farmland and undistinctive hills as we sped towards the junction with the superb A87.

right-on-the-loch

a-robin
He knows where to get fed……the car park

The rain came on heavy as we picked up the usual route to Skye and wonderful Loch Cluanie appeared on our left, wild and lonely and a big favourite.Then the road swept down into magnificent Glen Shiel; to me , a rival to Glencoe and wilder.

a-moody-glen-shiel
Glen Shiel

It’s mesmerisingly impressive and colourful even on the dullest of days  – which it now was.We were half frozen as I had the window down most of the way, snapping away at the views, desperate to capture some of the grandeur. The results were poor quality photos but they gave a sense of the spectacle around us. In no time , we had reached Loch Duich, a sea loch and had sped past iconic Eilean Donan.

eilean-donan
Eilean Donan

Stopped off in Kyle of Lochalsh to say hello to my nephew Matthew who was doing a few days as a locum pharmacist in the chemist’s.Arranged to meet him for a pub meal on Thursday night down at the lovely Am Praban bar of the Hotel Eilean Iarmain, a very Gaelic Inn.

Then over the elegant sweep of the Skye Bridge and we’d arrived on the Misty Isle, living up to its reputation with the big hills swathed in cloud.

above-sligachan
Above Sligachan, Skye

First stop, after 45 mins driving north,  was a quick visit to say hello to Chris’s Mum , Rena and his Aunt Mary in the nice Budh Mor Care Home in Portree.What great form they were in, sitting in Mary’s room, listening to some great tunes from Blair Douglas’s latest CD.Foot tapping stuff! It sounded like a ceilidh was on the go, as we walked down the corridor.Chris kidded them on (93 and 90 respectively) about trying to attract some bodach (old guys) in but they said the talent wasn’t great. Arranged to take them out for lunch next day.

Picked up a cooked chicken from Portree’s Co-op and some veg and milk and arrived at the now empty family house, Rena’s previous home,  at 5pm.

It had been a great day, busy and full.Relaxed during the evening, reading and me catching up with some Whats App messaging with my younger son Gregor, still in Japan but due back on New Year’s Day.Had a look to see whether the sky had cleared, in case the Northern Lights were visible but plenty cloud still about.Unfortunately, the forecast was ‘intermittent’ rain plus gales (usually meaning bursts of clear weather too).Intermittent sounded promising and not a total washout!

 

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