Inverness and exploring the Highlands with a Macdonald (no, not a quarter pounder)… Warning: photo overload ahead!

After an active and lively 5 days in Edinburgh,  Oldest and I were ready for a little downtime.  We traveled via ScotRail train from Edinburgh Waverly station to Inverness.  The train was overcrowded, and the attendant a bit grouchy because people were putting their bags anywhere and everywhere.  We were grateful to have a seat, though, and the beautiful weather continued:

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After checking into our Airbnb in Inverness,  a lovely, 2-story, 2 bedroom attached home, (Inverness Airbnb), we enjoyed a relaxing walk along and through the islands of the River Ness.  No hills here on this walk!  At all!  My thighs thanked me.   Here are a few photos from our stroll:

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amazingly clear water!

Early the next morning, we were greeted by John Alasdair Macdonald, proprietor of The Hebridean Explorer, a private tour company based in Inverness.    Looking back,  Oldest says this day was a highlight of the trip.

John Alasdair Macdonald (I love saying all 3 names) spent time as a businessman in England before returning to his homeland to start his tour company and study for a Master’s in History.   He grew up speaking both Gaelic and English. Additionally,  he is a proud member of the fabled Macdonald clan.  A really interesting tidbit I found on the MacDonald clan,  courtesy of www.greatscottishclans.com:

 There are more than half a million Macdonalds worldwide, and a recent study suggests that one in four can trace their origins back to Somerled, the clan’s founder and “The Greatest of all Celtic warrior kings”.  Only one man has more living descendants:  Genghis Khan.

/returns from digression/

As we had a Loch Ness cruise tour booked for the following day,  I chose the “Hebridean Explorer Tour with Eilean Donan Castle”.  Unlike most Inverness day tours,  which  journey to the Isle of Skye and back,  this tour heads further north toward the Apple-cross peninsula. My planning thought process here was that we would return one day to Scotland, and spend a few days exploring Skye –  I wanted to do something that would give me a flavor of ‘wild’ Scotland, without the summer crowds expected on Skye.

As it turned out,  this choice was fortuitous –  according to John,  although it wasn’t his most popular tour,  it was the tour that would take the greatest advantage of the incredibly blue skies we enjoyed in Scotland.  He mentioned that he had been thinking about discontinuing the tour, because the views were frequently obscured by poor weather and required a disappointing re-route.  But then, on occasion,  he was blessed with a day like our tour day,  and was only too thrilled to explore the Applecross route.   Sadly,  it appears that the tour is no longer offered,  but I’m sure if you asked John about it he would be more than happy to set it up – and hope for great weather!

I truly wish I had taken more notes during our tour,  so I could do a better job of describing the day’s beautiful photos and telling you the exact route we took.  Then again,  more time spent on my ipad would have meant less time enjoying the incredible scenery.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking now.

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Our first glimpse of Loch Ness
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Eilean Donan Castle
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The drop below him was a good 60 feet.  I’m still a nervous mommy but managed to get a pic!
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The view and beautiful skies from Eilean Donan
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Eilean Donan Castle
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Viewpoint over Loch Carron in Stromeferry
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Near the shore at Sanachon
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The little seaside town of Sheildag was a favorite stop
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View from A896 between Sheildag and Torridon
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The Torridon Hills – made of sandstone
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Amazing viewpoint along A832 near Kinlochewe

I do know that we started off toward Loch Ness, heading through Drumnadrochit (it’s fun to try to say that in a Scottish accent –  spit out the “droch”), a town on the side of the lake and the home of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, which we would visit the next day.  Then we headed toward Eilean Donan Castle,  where we enjoyed lunch in the cafe, and up toward Torridon before heading back to Inverness.  The full tour took about 8 1/2 hours.

The historical tidbits offered by John Alasdair Macdonald definitely added to the trip.  We asked whether he rooted for England in the World Cup (spoiler: he did) which kicked off a long discussion about Scotland’s history.  Although modern Scotland is a part of the U.K., its history and people are a true melting pot of tribal Picts, Normans, Britons, and Vikings.    We also learned that in the 1790s,  after a rebellion of farmers,  Highlands clan lords forced people out of the highland plains and valleys in favor of sheep, which helped them afford their lordly lifestyle.  As a result,  the  majority of Scotland’s population to this day remains near the coasts.

The Hebridean Explorer tour was an outstanding day.  I cannot recommend John’s tour more highly.  Throughout the booking process, communication was top notch.  And the tour itself was memorable for our host’s knowledge, flexibility, and unbelievable scenery.

A note on my planning for Inverness.  I had considered several small group, multi-day tours, to take the most advantage of our short time in the Highlands.  In the end, I opted for booking our own lodging in Inverness for 3 nights, combined with a single day private tour, and  half day tour of Loch Ness.  There were several advantages to this approach, for us:

  • We chose our own lodging, and did not have to pack and move nightly to a new location.
  • We enjoyed a ‘downtime’ evening in our Airbnb, getting snacks from the grocery and watching a movie on our iPads
  • We slept late one morning
  • Our private tour was catered to our interests and tastes, allowing for plenty of interaction with our very knowledgeable guide.
  • We never had to wait for a line to use the toilet, or for lagging tour guests to return to a bus.

For us, even though it was not an inexpensive option, this was the right balance, Given our busy time in Edinburgh, combined with the fact that we were still only halfway through our vacation, we wanted to regain and retain some energy.  Because tomorrow…. we will be hunting monsters!