Having successfully located Nessie, we enjoyed the remainder of the day and evening in Inverness. We gathered with locals at the Castle Tavern (located, unsurprisingly, next to Inverness castle) to watch a very exciting World Cup match with England vs. Colombia, which resulted in an English victory via penalty shootout.
We wondered: Do Scots root for the English team, as loyal members of the United Kingdom? Or is it a rivalry based on a history of war between the two countries? The answer we found, by asking tour guides and pub patrons, was both. As we were educated by John Alasdair Macdonald, our Hebrideaen Explorer tour guide, Scotland’s history began well before its famed wars with southern neighbors and Hadrian’s wall. While today there is most definitely a Scottish identity, the history of the people inhabiting Scotland is not as clear cut. In addition, many modern Scots, such as John, have spent time studying or living in England. So, our very unscientific poll revealed that while many Scots eagerly rooted for England’s opponent, just as many cheered their UK brethren. We just enjoyed watching them.
Dinner was at the Black Isle Brewery, which we had walked past several times during our time in Inverness and always seemed lively & busy. As the name implies, this is a craft brew house, but with an organic twist. We were a little bit beered out by this point so we chose the organic wine, which was delicious. Black Isle is also famous for its pizza, but Oldest is non-dairy so we chose a vegan pizza with pesto – I will admit to being doubtful, but it was delicious. Highly recommended, and one of our better meals in Scotland, especially if you are growing tired of traditional pub fare.
After enjoying some traditional music at Inverness’ most famous pub, Hootananny’s, we took one last stroll along the lovely River Ness. By this point in our trip, I had successfully “closed my rings” (Apple-speak for getting enough exercise) for 7 consecutive days, and I wasn’t about to stop now. By now it was fairly late: in fact, it was midnight. And yet, off to the southwest, was a bright glow. Indeed, this far north, and less than two weeks past the summer solstice, Inverness’ sky never really darkened, and it was as bright as day by 3:00 am. If you travel to Inverness during this time of year, bring an eye mask if you like your mornings dark!
Thus ended our visit to Scotland. The country’s wild beauty, combined with its residents’ fierce patriotism, heartiness, and charm, won us over completely. We may not have become whiskey connoiseurs, but we will undoubtedly return.
Our next day in Inverness found us checking off another bucket list item: Loch Ness. Although many travel advice blogs and comment board afficianados will tell you that Loch Ness isn’t Scotland’s prettiest loch, and that there are many better sights in Scotland, and they may be right, it’s still LOCH NESS. Come on. Even as an American child growing up in the Midwest, the mythology of the Loch Ness Monster captivated me. Perhaps because I grew up before technology, I believed the storytellers and witnesses, just as I believed in Bigfoot. A few decades, uncovered hoaxes, and the internet later, I am clearly aware of the non-existence of these imaginary creatures. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to look for them.
Prior to arriving in Inverness, this day was completely uncalendared and free for exploration. But as we rode the train into the Highlands from Edinburgh, coming closer and closer to Loch Ness, both Oldest and I realized that we could not deny ourselves the opportunity of Nessie hunting. So we booked the 4 hour “Sensation” tour with Jacobite Cruises. Departing from Inverness bus station, the tour included a cruise on the Loch, a visit to the Loch Ness Monster exhibition, and Urquhart Castle.
Another perfect day – actually it was a bit warm and we both got a bit of a sunburn! – resulted in some pretty amazing photos:
We learned that Loch Ness is Scotland’s second deepest loch, and contains more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined. And because of the high peat content in the soil, its waters are very dark and murky. With soft movement along the water’s surface, it is easy to imagine a large, dark form lurking just beneath.
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:
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:
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.
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!