In September 2020, desperate for a holiday but with the pandemic having considerably cut down the number of possible destinations, I started researching places within the United Kingdom. Despite having lived in England my whole life, I have not really ventured extensively around the UK, preferring to go further afield when the opportunity arises! Because of this – amazingly – I had never even been to Scotland, one of our two bordering countries! For the first time ever, I researched the country and worked out my priorities within the limited time I had, and decided it was to climb Ben Nevis. My research led me to flying into Inverness because of it’s proximity to Fort William, the town as the base of Ben Nevis mountain range. From Inverness it was a two hour journey to Fort William on a public bus; I also researched Glasgow but the journey would taken double the time using trains, and therefore be more expensive. Another benefit of flying to Inverness meant that on route to Fort William, I could visit somewhere I have wanted to see since I was a child – Loch Ness. This post will be the first of two about my long weekend in Scotland.
For this trip I was joined by my childhood friend, Ele. It was both of our first flights since things has started opening up again in the summer post-pandemic (I write this mid-second wave) and we were both surprised to see the flight fully booked, every seat full with enforced wearing of face masks as the only added precaution. Luckily its an only an hour and a half flight which went smoothly, so it wasn’t long before we arrived at Inverness’s small airport, took a public bus to the city centre, and then walked the short distance to our hostel – in the rain, naturally. We found Inverness city itself to be very pretty, with lots of old stone coloured buildings, and houses lining the green hills rising up from the edge of River Ness. I had booked a twin room in a hostel overlooking the river, and it had a pretty view of the hill (pictured) and then to our right hand side, Inverness Castle. On arrival, Ele and I checked in and then walked down the hill to the river, for a long walk along the riverside, initially past houses, and later through some woodland that lined the river. It was so peaceful; everything around us was lush and green (perhaps from all the rain), and the only noise we could hear was the roaring river. The air felt fresh, and to top it off the sun came out. A perfect first stop!
We used a rickety bridge to cross the river, and looped round back the way we came. On the way back we asked in a few pubs/ restaurants for a table along the riverside, in the thought that it would be nice to sit outside and have a drink in this idyllic location, but absolutely nowhere would let us in because of COVID restrictions on bookings/ numbers. At this stage Scotland was lot more strict on rules than England, which we found interesting in order to compare the differences. Finally we found a small bar on the river which let us have a beer outside without a booking, so we sat in the cold and toasted our small victory with a native Scottish beer ‘Peroni’. We then walked ‘inland’ away from the river and into the city centre, and finally found a restaurant with walk-in availability for dinner. After eating (and a few more beers), the rain forced our hand against further exploration, and we headed back to our hostel and sat in the cosy little kitchen area and played cards.
After a fairly restful night, we bid goodbye to our lovely twin room with a view the next morning. The sky was very gloomy and grey but thankfully the rain had finally stopped – making our return walk to the bus station slightly more pleasant than the first. We caught an early local bus (coach) heading to Fort William via Loch Ness, which understandably, due to COVID was running at 50% capacity, both in passenger numbers and number of departures per day. Once we left Inverness, it was only about a 20 minute drive or so to reach the loch driving the edge of River Ness. As we reached the loch, the weather became foggy; typically spooky and only to be expected in such a mythical place! Ele and I disembarked the bus in the village of Drumnadrochit, one of the ‘bigger’ villages on the loch edge, but still not big – just a collection of pretty houses, B&Bs, a few cafes and a small shop, from what we could see. It was also home to the Loch Ness Centre and Museum, which was the reason for our visit to this pretty little village – an exhibition outlining all the sightings, myths and history of Nessie the Loch Ness monster over the years, through a series of pictures and videos. It was delightful, I LOVED it – as soon as it would dispel one myth or photo for being inaccurate and unrealistic, it would then point out the potential accuracy and truth in another. A definite recommendation for any Nessie believers! Or just anyone visiting the area, it was really sweet. Entry was about £8.
After the museum, we stopped for ‘brunch’ in one of the village cafes, it had outdoor seating in a beautiful setting, surrounded by green hills with the sun peeping out. Having always been one to try the ‘local delicacies’ in countries I visit, I had some traditional Scottish porridge (which did taste better than at home to be fair); it was really rich, creamy and very filling! The cafe was full of bikers, who like us, were making the most of the scenery, fresh air and sun after a year of restrictions.
Rather than wait potentially another few hours for the next bus to come by, we took a taxi to Urquhart Castle on the Loch Ness. Urquhart Castle is a castle ruin, with a thousand years of dramatic history. My first impression was that I was amazed by how big the site was, I read later that this was one of Scotland’s largest castles in its heyday. Because of COVID you had to pre-book entry slots online, which was easy enough. As our pre-booked slot wasn’t for a little while, we walked from the car park up a nearby hill to get a better view of the loch and castle from above. It looked amazing! Back in the breakfast cafe in Drumnadrochit, I had bought a local Loch Ness themed beer ‘Nessie’s Monster Mash’, and we shared it overlooking the loch which was a lovely touch!
When it became close to our entry slot, we walked back down the hill to the ruin, showed our ticket at the entrance and entered the ruin. As I mentioned, the castle itself is steeped in over a thousand years of history. It was possibly built as far back as the 700-800s, but it became most well known and used from the 1200s onwards. During these times, the castle saw plenty of conflict, and ownership was passed back and forth during various wars of independence. In the 1700s, the castle was blown up by departing government troops during the Jacobite Risings, and consequently fell into decay. Later in the late 1800s/ early 1900s, it was realised just how much of a part in history the castle had played, and the ruin became a protected site. Nowadays, it is one of the most visited castles in Scotland.
As you walk around the ruin, you can visit the various ‘rooms’ (what is left of them), all brought to life with descriptive and informative displays informing what each room would have been used for. To name a few, you can view a great hall, some living quarters, even the area where the pigeons would sleep! You can walk up to the top of the Grant Tower, (we had to queue for some time as only one group allowed up at a time due to social distancing) or walk down to the loch itself, through what in olden days would have been an entrance for any visitors or food deliveries coming to the castle by boat. The ruin was really interesting, Ele and I enjoyed our visit perhaps even more so than we expected to. As we walked around, the sun came out which made the loch look beautifully blue, creating a stunning backdrop for the ruin. We felt very lucky!
After an hour or two, once we had walked around every part of the ruin, I briefly visited the lovely gift shop, and we then caught the next bus (coach) to Fort William. The journey to Fort William was another hour and a half, and as journeys go, the scenery definitely didn’t disappoint! We drove right along the edge of Loch Ness, then along the edge of another two lochs, a very small Loch Oich and a larger Loch Lochy. The scenery was honestly just incredible, I didn’t recognise it as a neighbouring country, it felt like an entirely different part of the world. Also having had pretty incredible weather the whole time we were walking around the castle, it actually started to rain when we got the bus, so we were even more grateful for the sun we had been lucky enough to have!
We arrived at Fort William in the evening, which I will cover in my next post about Fort William and Ben Nevis. Stay tuned!