Europe · UK and Ireland

Castles and Whiskey in Scotland – Europe Travels August 2022

Before I ever came to Scotland, two of the things that came to mind when I thought of this country were its castles and its Scotch whiskey. In my prior blogs about our visit here, a sharp-eyed reader may have wondered why I hadn’t written about visiting castles. The ones we saw are all in this posting; later, we’ll have a taste of whiskey.

Castles are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Some, like Dunrobin above, look pristine and like every vision you’ve ever had about castles. Others are in ruins. They can be medieval (think knights and coats of armor) or a glimpse at more recent royal life. The inside could be decorated like the occupants just left, it could be empty, or it could be a museum unrelated to the castle. Scotland’s castles were the first for this trip and we saw four of them.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is a fortress which was built on volcanic rock. It was once the home of the Scottish monarchs, dating all the way back to Malcom III Canmore whose reign began in 1058. The castle was beseiged 23 times. The oldest surviving building in all of Edinburgh, St. Margaret’s Chapel, is inside the fortress and dates to the 12th century. The city of Edinburgh itself grew out of the castle, spilling down the hillside.

I had purchased tickets for the castle several days earlier but didn’t count on the weather: in typical Edinburgh fashion, it was cold, windy, and rain threatened. Still, it was a thrill to enter the gates of such a famous place.

From the ramparts of the fortress, we could look down on the city below. This is a view of “New Town” and Princes Street in the foreground with a view all the way out to the Firth of Forth.

Inside the castle buildings were the Royal Chambers where Mary Queen of Scots lived and the room where she gave birth to her son James in 1566. There was also the knights hall:

Inside one of the castle courtyards

My memory of Edinburgh castle will always be inextricably linked to the cream tea I had in a cafe just off the Royal Mile following the visit. I was cold and wet and I wanted soup. We visited Deacon Brodies Cafe but we were too early for soup. Instead, I had a Scottish cream tea for the first time. It consists of a pot of tea with cream and a scone with butter, jam and clotted cream. It was absolutely heavenly and I have had nothing better since. I needed nothing else to eat until evening. It was one of those happy surprises that come with traveling Europe. Cream tea instead of soup, who knew?

Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart

And now we come to the third thing people think of when they think of Scotland: Loch Ness.

When planning our trip, I suspected that Loch Ness was not going to be a destination for us. Other places more interesting called to me for the time that we had. This was later verified by Rick Steves, who is my travel guru. For the uninitiated, Rick Steves is the go-to person for all things Europe travel-related. He has guide books, tours, TV shows, and a large on-line presence. I also follow Cameron Hewitt, Rick’s associate. Both suggested giving Loch Ness a pass as its own destination. Rick suggested that if you are on a tour in the Highlands or simply driving from point A to point B, you will probably drive right by it. And then, you can tell everyone back home that you saw Loch Ness.

On our first tour from Inverness, our guide asked if anyone had not yet seen the lake. There were several of us, so she stopped on our way back to Inverness. We hiked down to the lakeshore, and this is it. No monsters in sight. But it is quite pretty, particularly the Highland bluffs on its northern side.

We did, however, see a monster on the way down to the lake:

Castle Urquhart is in ruins. It was built in the 13th century, but its fine location on the lake meant that it was raided several times. The final blow was dealt in 1692 from the British in order to prevent the Jacobite forces from using it, and it went into decay after that. It is now one of the most-visited castles in Scotland, probably because of its location on famous Loch Ness.

On our second Rabbie’s tour out to the Island of Skye, the guide made a quick stop for a look at Castle Urquhart. We were dealt a prettier day than our first visit here, and the lake sparkled. It was a lovely sight, and it was all we needed to see.

Eilean Donan Castle

We visited Eilean Donan right after the Castle Urquhart stop. In the Scottish Highlands, it is amazing how the weather can change in just a matter of 50 miles distance!

Like Urquhart, this castle was also laid to ruins as part of the Jacobite uprisings. It gets its name, Eilean, from the island it sits on. Donan is attributed to a 6th century Irish saint by the same name who came to Scotland and formed a community here. It was built as protection from the raiding Vikings and expanded over the years. The final blow was dealt by the British, though, in 1719, and it sat in ruins for 200 years. In 1911 a man by the name of Lt. Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the island and dedicated the next 20 years to reconstructing Eilean Donan.

Eilean Donan is one of the most picturesque and most photographed castles in all of Scotland. Every postcard rack I saw everywhere had beautiful images of this place, and many movies have been filmed here.

I’m not a great judge of time. On some of these tours, left to our own devices, we would arrive back at the mini-bus way too early with no one around. Other times, we would find just about everyone already seated and ready to go. At Eileen Donan, we were given an hour to explore. Our guide did not think it would be enough time to actually tour the inside, but we could either do that or purchase a ticket to walk around the outside of it. We couldn’t decide what to do, so we simply walked around shooting pictures, looking in vain for hot cocoa and then had too much time on our hands. It’s a small regret of mine that we didn’t at least buy the ticket to walk across the bridge and around the outside.

Dunrobin Castle

Flipping through my Scottish Facebook group one day, a picture of Dunrobin came up in my feed, and I was entranced. After a bit of Internet research, I found that we could go there on a two hour train ride north from Inverness. Going further up into the Highlands was a bonus. Better yet, the cost of the train ride was included in our Eurrail pass.

On the journey north, we saw herds of cows and sheep. It was funny to watch them run in panic away from the train. After all, it comes through at least twice a day! The white black-faced sheep dotted bright green pastures. The train also disturbed a little horned roe deer, which suddenly leaped out of the tall grasses. Two different flocks of swans graced a small winding river. A castle could be seen high on the cliffs in the distance. For awhile we rode along the sea where there were massive kelpy flats where the tide had gone out, with horses in a meadow on the shore.

The castle, pictured at the top of this blog, is the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and Clan Sutherland and is still owned by them. The lands were acquired in 1211. The oldest surviving portion of the castle goes back to 1401, but most of what is presently seen was added in the early 1800’s. This castle has its own private rail station, which is where we arrived just like royalty of old. After a short walk through the woods, we were inside the castle.

As we entered the castle, we were greeted by pictures of ancestors and spoils from the hunt.

Dinner was set on the table and waiting for us.

The ladies’ sitting room was lovely. And oh, that library! This was only one wall; all four were covered. Can you imagine having so many books at your disposal?

In the nursery, a child would have every toy and book imaginable for playtime.

There were rooms upon rooms as we wound our way up and down stairs and down long passageways. At times, we could look out into the back garden.

We sat in on a falconry presentation. My impression is that it seems pretty difficult to use falcons to aid in hunting birds.

After watching the presentation and wandering through the gardens, we still had a great amount of time before the train returned. The castle sits on the North Sea, so we explored the shore.

The Sutherlands were loyal to the crown and so Dunrobin did not run any risk of being ruined by the British. It was stormed once by the Jacobites, but of course they did not have the armament necessary to do any damage.

On our train ride to and from Dunrobin, we passed a very large whiskey distillery. There are 141 operating distilleries in Scotland and a person could go on a whiskey tour to visit several in one go. Distilleries abound in Inverness, inviting us in for samples. We are not whiskey drinkers and so by the end of our stay we still hadn’t tasted a drop. How could we pass up this iconic taste of Scotland?

I found something that was a bit of a compromise for our very last night in Scotland: a whiskey tasting evening in a pub accompanied by Gaelic music and stories of Scotland. The owner of the pub played two-hundred-year-old songs on his violin and sang. The stories he told of Scotland’s past were sad. But Scotland’s future is bright: the country is promoting education in traditional instruments such as the bagpipes and violin. The old Gaelic language is being taught, and college is free for all. In 1998, Scotland finally received its own Parliament. A toast to that!

For those in the know regarding whiskey: we sampled Singleton of Glen Ord, Clynelish, Cu Bocan, Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, and Tomatin.

Next time – South to Haworth, England