Europe · UK

Circling Inverness, Scotland – Europe Travels 2022

Glen Affric, Scottish Highlands

In the months leading up to our trip, I joined a Facebook group for travelers to Scotland. People like me who are planning a trip here can ask all their questions and there is a ready supply of people who either live here or have traveled here to provide answers and suggestions. One lengthy discussion revolved around top sheets – or the lack thereof – on beds in Scotland because everyone in Europe uses only a duvet. The person was thinking about packing one, despite the fact that her trip was only ten days long. Another prospective traveler fretted about blow dryers (every single AirBnb we went to had one). A recurring theme was a concern about the availability of American drip coffee, which is not the way European coffee is made. You can try an “Americano”, which Cal did while we were here, but it’s not the same. He survived in fairly good humor for three months just fine without, in his opinion, a decent cup of coffee.

In between all the mundane stuff, I picked up some good sightseeing tips. The Dean walk that we had taken in Edinburgh was a suggestion from this group. Knowing nothing at first about what to see, I made a list of all the Highlands sites that sounded interesting. Cal and I decided fairly early on that we did not want to rent a car, but to take occasional day trips for sights that would be out of reach otherwise. A tour company name that kept popping up on the Facebook group was Rabbie’s, so I booked two day trips with them during our Inverness stay.

The first tour was called “Glen Affric, Culloden & Clava Cairns” which is exactly where we went. I had heard a little of Culloden before, and nothing of the other two. Culloden and the cairns were not far from Inverness so I thought it would be a great place to start. Both of these tours were in a small group and we rode in a mini-bus. Our driver was also our guide, and from the time we left Inverness she supplied us with a lot of information about what we were seeing.

Clava Cairns are burial tombs from the Bronze Age – about 4,000 years ago – in a circular shape. They are sacred to the people who built them and to the people who reused them some 1,000 years later. Some have an entranceway to a single burial chamber, as the one I am standing in does, and it would have been covered. Others are an unroofed ring with no access to the stones. There are four cairns here, and actually fifty of them in the Inverness area. This group is called the Balnuaran of Clava.

This signboard shows what a burial ceremony may have looked like here. It was interesting for me to compare the place to the tombs we had seen at Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland. This site was much smaller. Just like Newgrange, though, the sentinel standing stones light the passage on the winter solstice – but at sunset, not sunrise.

This is a cairn that did not have a passageway

Although it looks like just a weathered grey pile of rocks now, the builders chose stones in various hues for their cairns. There were reds, pinks, and whites, and it is thought that the various colors had a meaning.

We had some extra time, so we strolled down the road next to the cairns to look at the railway bridge that was off in the distance.

The Battlefield of Culloden was not far from the cairns. Our guide gathered us near the visitor’s center to give us some history, and then turned us loose to explore as we wished. Inside the visitors center were historic armaments and archaeological finds from the battle. An immersion theater with a 360-degree view very realistically puts you in the middle of the battlefield with the Jacobites coming on one side and the British on the other, while you stand in the middle. The story of this battle is fascinating, complicated, and very sad. It marks the last battle that was ever fought on Scottish soil.

On Culloden battlefield; the blue flag at far right marks the front line of the Jacobite Army. The picture is taken from the British Army’s side.

The Jacobites were supporters of the restoration of the Stuart line to the British throne under Prince Charles, and they were a political movement from 1688 until this day of battle. Nicknamed “Bonnie” for his youthfulness (he was 24 years old), Prince Charles’s court was in exile in France. Having won some skirmishes, he was master of Scotland and summoned troops for the uprising. The army was made up of French fighters as well as Irish and Scottish clansmen. William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, led the British soldiers on the other side. The battle occurred on the 16th of April, 1746.

Looking over the heather to the red flag marking the British side; the visitors center is left.

The battle was a rout. The Jacobites had numbered 5,500. By the time the battle was over, 1,500 Jacobites had been slain compared to only 100 of the British. The bonnie prince turned tail and eventually ended up in Rome. This memorial, built in 1881, remembers the Scottish lives lost.

The Battle of Culloden marked a turning point in the British treatment of the Scots people. For the next 150 years, they worked hard to break up the clans by banning traditional songs, the wearing of kilts, and the Gaelic language.

Several clansmen are memorialized with stones such as this, which reads: “Well of the Dead. Here the chief of the MacGillivrays fell.” The well is on the left.

As we strolled through the battlefield, I kept eyeing this picturesque little thatched cottage on the far side of it.

Leanach Cottage existed when the conflict occurred and was once part of a larger farmstead. Immediately afterward, it was used as a field hospital.

The little town of Beuly was also on our agenda for the day, and on the way to it we caught a glimpse of our first Highland cow. It wouldn’t come any closer than this for a picture, though.

Beauly was a lunch stop, but it also contained the ruins of a 12th century priory. What is a priory, you ask? I looked it up for you: it is a small monastery.

We had circled Inverness from Clava Cairns and Culloden on the east to Beauly on the west, and now it was time to head south to Glen Affric. We were on narrow roads, getting deeper into the Highland hills, and I was impressed that our guide could negotiate the traffic and also talk to us, all at the same time. Riding on the left side was still awfully confusing to this American and I was sure we were headed for a crash!

We stopped at River Affric, in Glen Affric, for a hike. There were a couple of trail options, and also an option to just sit. The group split up, and when we set off on our chosen trail we mostly had it to ourselves. The forest was hushed, the air damp. We walked through blooming heather, ferns and lush greenery, tall trees and hills, and the beautiful rushing river. A picture from our hike is at the top of this blog, and there are more below. I will leave you here for now to just enjoy them. We thoroughly enjoyed our day with Rabbie’s.

While hiking, I was struck by the vivid multi-hued green of the forest
Those trees…
Which would you choose?

Next time – out to the Island of Skye

Europe · UK

North to Inverness – Scotland- Europe Travels August 2022

Inverness, Scotland

Have you ever traveled from Minneapolis to Duluth, Minnesota in the United States? It’s about a two-hour drive. Traveling north to Duluth, there is a feeling that you are entering another, separate world. Open Midwest farmlands disappear and you start to see birch trees. And then, you get a great view of Lake Superior, plunge down a massive hill on I-35, and the temperature drops. Down by Lake Superior, it can feel like you’ve stepped into a refrigerator. The distance from Edinburgh to Inverness, Scotland is a little further, the scenery completely different, but the perception is the same.

We began the first official day of our Euro Rail Pass by traveling from Edinburgh to Inverness. We had the same awareness of entering a different world as we left the city and suburbs surrounding Edinburgh behind. The villages were smaller and more spread apart. We entered the wild Cairngorms with its mountains swooping up from the valleys and the sheep grazing in the heather. There were dense forests and castles off in the distance. Stepping off the train, the cool and rainy weather let us know we were much further north. The weather felt the same as Duluth in August, although it of course did not look the same at all.

Inverness Castle was picturesque but closed for renovations when we were there

Inverness is only half the size of Duluth in terms of its population of almost 47,000 people. It is the Highland’s largest city and its cultural capital. Instead of Lake Superior, there is the River Ness, and inlets that empty into the North Sea.

The first priority is always to find our Airbnb, and we were delighted that what we needed to do was simply to follow the river. There were footpaths on either side. The question throughout our ten days here was: “which side of the river shall we walk on?” Every time we walked down these footpaths toward “home”, with the castle behind us, I felt so happy to be here. Imagine walking home on these paths every day of your life! You buy your groceries, run your errands, and maybe pick up some takeout on foot, and then just follow the beautiful river home. If you have a dog, what a perfect place to walk it. I guess I wouldn’t like being out much in the winter time, though, and I’m sure it comes early here.

Inverness Cathedral is on the left of this photo; it lies directly across the river from the castle

People in the UK walk the same way as they drive: on the left side. I took the picture below on a beautiful Saturday so there were more people out than usual.

If we walked on this side of the river, we had to take the footbridge over to our side, which was always an extra treat.

The bridge made a thundering sound and swayed slightly when other people besides us were on it. A thrill every time!

Our AirBnb was just a block from the river and was the last in a little row of townhouses with some pretty daisies growing out front. You can just barely see the outline of the door in this picture. Inside, we had a one bedroom apartment and every room was entirely separate, our largest stay in the entire trip. It was perfect for what was to be one of our longest stays.

These pictures are a collage of many that I took while we were in Inverness. In all of our days in the town, there was plenty of time to explore. Sometimes the sun shone, sometimes not.

This picture is of the old High Church of Inverness, built in the 18th century on the spot where in 565 AD a gentleman by the name of St. Columba preached to the native Pictish people and their leader, King Brude. It is the cradle of Christianity in the Highlands. We received a fine view of the River Ness from here.

Two churches, including High Church, seen from across the river.
Abertaff House, built in 1593

Most European cities that we visited had statues of one kind of animal created in many different ways for photo ops here and there on the city streets. In Inverness, it was the Highland Cow, affectionately known as a “Hairy Coo”. Besides this one, we would regularly see another covered in pennies when we were downriver near the footpath.

We saw the young man below standing in a cold drizzle. Michael is 15 and started playing the bagpipes at age 11. Probably more impressive, he was spending a Monday morning out on the street in his kilt. He played beautifully.

Like everywhere in the UK, Inverness had its share of pubs

On our first Saturday afternoon in Inverness, there was a full downpour. We whiled away the afternoon by listening to traditional Scottish music at a different pub from the one above, called Hootananny. They have music that goes on through the night on two floors at this popular pub, but this afternoon they were having a “ceilidh”, which simply is Scottish or Irish folk music and singing. We enjoyed listening to them. Are you thinking that “Hootananny” is an American word? It comes over as that way to me, but the word was brought over to Appalachia from the Scots. It has roughly the same meaning as ceilidh, but somewhere along the line the spelling changed to “hootenanny”. Whatever it’s called, we enjoyed the music and the company in the pub.

Venturing a bit further downriver past our AirBnb, there are some islands in the River Ness called, appropriately, Ness Islands. This was a relaxing walk on a Sunday afternoon. I admired the homes along the river pathway.

A walk over a little bridge took us to the first island. It is a beautiful, serene place even with all the other people out enjoying the day.

Cal always appreciates a restful park bench with a scenic view

From the islands, it isn’t far to Inverness Botanic Gardens. The gardens are small but I enjoyed seeing the hydrangeas and other flowers blooming.

We spent a greater portion of another day hiking the Caledonian Canal. It begins at Inverness and connects the east coast to the west coast. The canal was envisioned as a throughway and safe harbor for shipping during Napoleon’s reign. During its construction in the early 1800’s, there were cost overruns and construction issues. By the time it was completed, it was no longer usable; ships were being built that were too big to use it. Napoleon had been defeated and the threat was gone. Although never used for the commercial purposes that it was envisioned for, it became a tourist attraction. Trains were scheduled to connect with steamboat services, and even Queen Victoria took a ride in 1873. Today, narrow boating is popular; people can spend several days navigating the canal from end to end.

The canal is sixty miles long and contains twenty-eight locks. It follows the Great Glen, which is a beautiful narrow valley, and cuts through Lochs (Lakes) Oich, Lochy and Ness.

There was a small boat progressing through the locks. Cal was totally absorbed in this process, so we watched it for a quite a while. In the picture below, the lock operator is behind the white fence on the left, and one of the boat owners is walking beside her boat to tie and untie it at each lock.

While we watched the Skimble go through, we looked down at a bridge below this set of locks and wondered: what are they going to do with this bridge to let the boat pass? After a while we had the answer to this mystery: it is a swing bridge, which rolls to the side.

After the Fort Augustus Swing Bridge the canal opens up into a marina, where I photographed this cute little houseboat:

The canal starts (or ends, depending on your perspective) at Beuly Firth, an inlet which empties into the North Sea. We walked all the way to the end of the canal.

Looking out at Beauly Firth

From here we retraced our steps back, stopping by the swing bridge at a tiny cafe for lunch. I ordered a split pea soup with a cheese scone. Look at the size of this scone! It was as big as a small loaf of bread and the leftovers were enough for both Cal and I to share for lunch the next day. We were outside and able to look at the canal as we had our lunch.

We had walked much further than we had intended when we left the AirBnb: 7 miles. When we returned, it was time for a nap!

I have one more food shot for you: a Scottish breakfast which I had on our last morning in Inverness. Starting with the tomato on the top and moving clockwise, there is lorne (beef) sausage, black pudding, haggis, a tattie (potato) scone, mushrooms, and of course, egg on top and tea with cream on the side. I didn’t care too much for the black pudding. Honestly, although I enjoyed this breakfast and was glad I tried the haggis, Cal had ordered a delicious-looking plate of French toast, and I kept looking longingly over at his food..

Of course, there was more to see in our stay here than just the city of Inverness. In my next posts, I will take you out and about into the Highlands of Scotland.

Next time – the countryside around Inverness, including the Battlefield of Culloden