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Issue 59 - Inverness & the Highlands

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011

 

This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Inverness & the Highlands

The Highlands of Scotland is generally defined as the territory lying north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, an ancient geological aberration which bisects mainland Scotland from Dunbartonshire on the south west coast to Stonehaven on the north east coast. It embraces a vast area of glens, lochs and mountain ranges, the content of a million picture postcards and historical romances.

Traditionally, therefore, the “Highlands” begin above the Campsie Fells and the Ochils, which stretch from north of the Firth of Clyde to north of the Firth of Tay, but it is perhaps easier in this instance to leave Perthshire, Stirlingshire and Argyllshire out of the equation.

Until the 18th century there were no roads to be found anywhere in this vast region, and the great herds of small black cattle that were the bread and butter of the Highland communities were driven south across mountain tracks known as the Drove Roads to the markets of Perth, Comrie, Crieff, Stirling and Dumbarton.

The hinterland north of Perth was considered largely inaccessible and dangerous and certainly not to be contemplated by the faint hearted; the majority of visitors up until the 18th century travelled by sea, landing on the coastal inlets.

It was a hostile landscape which even the Roman legions of the early part of the first millennium backed away from, and by the middle of the second, it had been largely been divided up into clan territories occupied by a mix of Pict, Norse and latterly Norman families submitting allegiance to an Ard Righ located at Roxburgh, Stirling or Dunfermline, and in Edinburgh.

Such seats of government suited both Highlander and Lowlander alike. Highlanders, so far as the dwellers of the prosperous south were concerned, were little better than savages.

Such were the difficulties of travel and communication that Highland chiefs ruled with virtual autonomy, answerable to none. Gaelic was the Highland language; inter-clan feuds were commonplace, and although Lowland based Scottish kings made infrequent attempts to curb the excesses of some of the chiefs, it took the non-decisive outcome of the bloody Battle of Harlaw in 1411, when a Lord of the Isles challenged a Regent of Scotland, to determine the future of the “old ways”.

Three centuries after Harlaw, two unsuccessful Jacobite Risings in support of the Stewart/Stuart Dynasty finally curtailed the power of the chiefs by depriving them of their men-at-arms. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, where supporters of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his father, the de jure King James VIII, were savagely decimated, Highland culture was changed forever. The patronage of the chiefs was broken, many fled into exile, and Field Marshall George Wade arrived to build roads and to police the remoteness of the landscape.

In the years thereafter came the period known as the Highland Clearances which stretched well into the latter half of the 19th century.

Still deeply embedded in the Highland psyche, the Government’s strategy was to disperse the crofting communities to make way for sheep farming. The brutal manner in which many of these evictions took place was to leave a bitter legacy, especially in regions such as Sutherland and Knoydart, but it should also be remembered that a large number of Highland landlords in other locations refused to have anything to do with it.

All the same, the countless small piles of rubble scattered over so many of the remote northern glens bear lasting testimony to communities scattered throughout the world. Of course, the particular irony is that while the true Highlanders were being driven from their homes, or leaving voluntarily for the prospect of a better life either in Glasgow or across the Atlantic Ocean in the Carolinas or Nova Scotia, those who remained behind, influenced by the writings of James Macpherson and Sir Walter Scott, were becoming obsessed with their national identity. This, as it began to evolve, was to unashamedly embrace everything that was Highland, from clans and tartan to the songs of the Gael and the Loch Ness Monster.

Exploring the Highlands of today, you are therefore never far from the visitor attractions paying tribute to this melancholy past, historic clan strongholds or a long ago clan battlefield. The tartan-clad romance of the past is everywhere, yet the cities and towns that you come across are as modern, prosperous and forward looking as anywhere in the United Kingdom. From Oban, Ballachulish, Fort William and Ullapool on the west coast, to Inverness, Dingwall, Cromarty, Golspie, Dornoch, Helmsdale, Wick and Thurso on the east, local communities are enjoying a quality of life that is to be universally envied.

While public transport systems operate efficiently throughout the Highlands, it is the A9 road which for motorists links Perth to Inverness and the Far North. From the Perth by-pass, therefore, the road sweeps past Dunkeld and Pitlochry, past the white-harled Murray stronghold of Blair Castle at Blair Atholl, the retail House of Bruar, and into the Clan Macpherson territory of Newtonmore, bi-passing the ski resort of Aviemore and rising to reach the Pass of Drumochter.

Beside the distillery at Dalwhinnie, the A889 turns west to meet the A86 to travel past Loch Laggan to Spean Bridge.

Here, before travelling west, the road connects with the A82 and the Great Glen skirting Loch Linnhe and the Caledonian Canal where the eight locks of Neptune’s Staircase take the canal to 19.2 metres above sea level.

From Fort Augustus, the route takes you to Invermoriston and eventually to Drumnadrochit, Castle Urquhart, and eventually to the City of Inverness, situated on the estuary of the River Ness in the Moray Firth.

However, sticking to the A9, although marginally less spectacular in terms of scenery, is an infinitely quicker way of reaching the Capital of the Highlands.

A settlement was established here on The Moray Firth by the Picts as early as the sixth century, and Inverness is still considered to be the administrative centre of the Highlands. Low lying, and sprawling into various industrial estates, it provides the main campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands a federation of 15 colleges and research institutions delivering higher education. It is twinned with Augsburg in Germany, and La Baule and Saint-Valery-en-Caux in France, Straddling the river as it flows from Loch Ness into salt water, Inverness city centre is a popular destination with visitors and locals alike, housing a first rate museum and gallery, varied retail opportunities and facilitating cruises on Loch Ness to search of the illusive Nessie.

At Eden Court, there are several book and film festivals, a variety of theatrical performances and conferences throughout the year.

The red sandstone Inverness Castle, of course, is relatively modern, dating from 1836 and today houses Inverness Sheriff Court.

From Inverness, tourists can journey east to the National Trust for Scotland visitor centre on the battlefied of Culloden, to Brodie Castle at Forres, and to Cawdor Castle at Nairn.

Heading west, the A862 runs along the coastline of the Beauly Firth to Beauly and Muir of Ord, which annually hosts one of Scotland's largest agricultural shows. Beaufort Castle was historically the ancestral home of the Frasers of Lovat but today is owned by Ann Gloag, the Scottish bus tycoon.

At Belladrum, there is an annual two day Tartan Heart Festival in early August which attracts thousands of music enthusiasts.

From the A835 at Connon Bridge, the road sets off for Ullapool and Lochinver with breathtaking scenery on all sides, and spectacular views across the ocean to Harris and Lewis.

Splicing into the west coast mainland are Loch Torridon, Loch Maree, Little Loch Broom and Loch Broom. At the National Trust for Scotland’s Inverewe, the Victorian laird Osgood Mackenzie transformed 100 acres of barren coastline into one of the finest tropical gardens in the world.

North east from Inverness, across the Kessock Bridge and the Black Isle, the A9 travels the length of the Cromartie Firth, past Invergordon and Tain to Bonnar Bridge.

In 1900, a priceless collection of early Bronze Age jewellery known as the Migdale Hoard was discovered here by workmen blasting a granite knoll. It can now be seen on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

This is a pleasant coastline creating its own distinct mild climate. The “Black Isle”, 20 miles long and eight miles wide, was anciently known as “Ardmeanach” meaning “the height between”.

Records show that it was once covered by black peat, but the name may also derive from “The Land of the Black Danes,” a reference to the Viking invaders of long ago.

Cromarty, a delightful Georgian town on the north of the Black Isle remains untouched by the passage of time. There were two previous towns here, but the third town prospered when George Ross, a local entrepreneur, built the sandstone pier and opened flax, flour and hemp factories, and a brewery.

However, Cromarty’s most famous son is the geologist, author and stonemason Hugh Miller who was born here in 1802. His home is now a charming museum.

Across the Cromarty Bridge, the A9 leads into East Ross. Foulis Castle, four miles from Dingwall, is the home of the Chief of Clan Munro. Below Ben Wyvis sits the Victorian spa town of Strathpeffer where the family of the Earl of Cromartie, Chief of Clan Mackenzie, inhabits Castle Leod, where there is the informative Clan Mackenzie Museum.

At Skibo Castle on the Dornoch Firth, the Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie created his “earthly paradise”, which is today run as a luxurious country club.

Nearby is Balnagowan Castle, ancient stronghold of the Pictish kings and today the Scottish home of the Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al Fayed.

In 1907, an estranged Dowager Duchess of Sutherland built an enormous castle with 365 windows at Carbisdale, on the edge of Sutherland lands. Her intention was to spite her step-son-in-law who had banned her from her husband’s formed lands, and it is said that whenever the he passed by in his private train, the curtains were drawn so that he would not have to see it.

The castle’s clock tower has only three clocks, the side facing Sutherland remaining blank.

The Sutherland family rose to wealth and political prominence in the middle ages, but the fairytale Dunrobin Castle that is seen today at Golspie is largely the creation of the Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also involved in creating the Palace of Westminster. Controversy continues to surround the first Duke, formerly the Marquess of Stafford, who was, in fact, an English Whig politician who was married to the Countess of Sutherland in her own right, and was ennobled to a dukedom six months before he died.

It was Lord Stafford who, unimpressed by the living conditions of his wife’s crofting tenants, and with the best of possible intentions, imposed the Sutherland clearances.

Consequently, his name has gone down in history as the “bogey-man” of so much suffering.

Ironically, a plinth carrying his imposing statue still towers over the landscape surrounding the heights of Ben Bhraggie.

However, at the mouth of the Strath of Kildonan, at Helmsdale, a 10ft high “Exiles” statue by the Black Isle based sculptor Gerald Ogilvie Laing and funded by the Canadian mining millionaire Dennis Macleod, commemorates the many families who were exiled at that time.

What some readers might find amusing is that in the Timespan Heritage Centre at Helmsdale, there is a room dedicated to the romantic novelist Dame Barbara Cartland whose family owned a holiday home nearby.

To my mind, it all goes to prove that the Highlands of Scotland are never lacking in surprises.

WHERE TO STAY

Glenmoriston Town House & Restaurant
Ness Bank, Inverness
Four star hotel with a fantastic riverside location. Winner of Inverness Hotel of the Year for two years running. Excellent restaurant and whisky bar.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 223 777 www.glenmoristontownhouse.com

Ness Bank Guest House
Inverness
Riverside bed and breakfast just yards from Inverness Castle.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 232 939 www.nessbankguesthouse.co.uk

Muckrach Lodge
Dulnain Bridge, Grantown on Spey
Luxurious country house hotel and restaurant in the Spey valley.
Tel: +44 (0)1479 851 257 www.muckrach.co.uk

Sunny Brae Hotel
Nairn
Small, family run seaside hotel offering eight ensuite rooms priced from £40 per person.
Tel: +44 (0)1667 452 309 www.sunnybraehotel.com

March House Guest House
Kincraig
Scandanavian-style accommodation tucked away in this beautiful Highland glen. Log fires in the lounge, excellent views and candlelit dinners.
Tel: +44 (0)1540 651 388 www.kincraig.com/march

Aldourie Castle Estate Cottages
Loch Ness
Three utterly charming traditional cottages, sleeping between four and six, tucked away on a 500 acre estate on the shores of Loch Ness.
Tel: 0870 625 0265 www.aldouriecastle.co.uk

Inverness Cottages
Inverness
Choice of three self catering cottages to rent, located in a quiet residential corner of the city.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 236 060 www.invernesscottages.co.uk

Heathmount Hotel
Kingsmill Road, Inverness
Luxury city accommodation with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Popular restaurant downstairs.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 235 5877 www.heathmounthotel.com

Ramada Encore
Academy Street, Inverness
The city’s newest hotel, offering 90 very reasonably priced ensuite rooms. Good choice for a stop over.
Tel: 0844 815 9006 www.ramadajarvis.co.uk

Macdonald Aviemore Resort
Aviemore
This huge resort has something for everyone with its four distinctive hotels and self-catering lodges, leisure and spa facilities, choice of on-site restaurants and championship golf course.
Tel: 0844 879 9152 www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk

WHERE TO EAT

Mustard Seed
Fraser Street, Inverness
Popular, stylish restaurant housed in a beautiful converted church building, complete with double height ceiling and log fires. Excellent food served by attentive, friendly staff.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 220 220 www.mustardseedrestaurant.co.uk

Rocpool Restaurant
Ness Walk, Inverness
Chic, contemporary brasserie with an eclectic and not overpriced delightful menu.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 717 274 www.rocpoolresturant.com

Ash Restaurant
Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness
Smart dining at one of the city’s oldest and best loved hotels. Offers a contemporary menu and superb wine list.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 231 926 www.ash-inverness.co.uk

The Fishmarket Restaurant
Mallaig
Unpretentious café restaurant serving hot roast meat rolls and some of the freshest and finest seafood found anywhere in the Highland region.
Tel: +44 (0)1687 462 299

The Bothy Restaurant and Bar
Fort Augustus
Simple food, beautifully cooked and served in a traditional pub setting.
Tel: +44 (0)1320 366 710 www.thebothyfortaugustus.co.uk

Hootananny
Church Street, Inverness
One of the busiest pubs in Inverness with live folk music in the Ceilidh Bar most nights. This distinctly Scottish venue, rather strangely, serves excellent Thai food.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 233 651 www.hootananny.co.uk

Girvan’s Restaurant
Stephens Brae, Inverness
Family run restaurant with a varied lunch and dinner menu. Great value for money.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 711 900 www.girvansrestaurant.co.uk

Blackfriars Pub
Academy Street, Inverness
Home cooked and hearty pub food served with a selection of cask ales and local Black Isle beers. Folk music on Monday nights.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 233 881 www.blackfriarshighlandpub.co.uk

The Boat
Boat of Garten
Ospey bistro showcases seasonal fare and Scottish classics, made with only the finest seasonal produce. A range of guest rooms and suites make this hotel perfect for a Highland getaway.
Tel: +44 (0)1479 831 258 www.boathotel.co.uk

The Cross
Kingussie
An award winning restaurant with rooms, coupled with fantastic service and an emphasis on quality.
Tel: +44 (0)1540 661 166 www.thecross.co.uk

WHERE TO VISIT

The Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition Experience
Drumnadrochit
Five star interactive exhibition telling the story of Loch Ness, with café and shopping outlets onsite. In summer, take a trip aboard ‘Deepscan’ to see what lurks beneath the loch.
Tel: +44 (0)1456 450 573 www.lochness.com

Highland Folk Museum
Newtonmore
Wonderful living history museum that brings to life the domestic and working conditions of Highland people from days gone by.
Tel: +44 (0)1540 673 551 www.highlandfolk.com

Cawdor Castle
Nairn
Fairytale castle that has been home to the legendary Thanes of Cawdor since 1370. Superb gardens, nature trails, golf course, restaurant, gift shops, snackbar and picnic area.
Tel: +44 (0)1667 404 401 www.cawdorcastle.com

Dalwhinnie Distillery
Dalwhinnie
No visit to Scotland is complete without a whisky tour, and this traditional Highland distillery offers one of the best.
Tel: +44 (0)1540 672 219 www.discoveringdistilleries.com

Pheonix Boat Trips
Nairn
Take a 90 minute trip along the beautiful Black Isle coastline to watch the seals and maybe even a few of the local Bottlenose dolphins.
Tel: +44 (0)7703 168 097 www.pheonix-boat-trips.co.uk

Culloden Moor Visitors Centre
Culloden
An award winning visitor centre and exhibition; featuring tours, film and various Living History presentations to really bring this battle to life.
Tel: 08444 932 159 www.nts.org.uk

Cairngorm Mountain Railway
Aviemore
Take the train up to the top of Cairn Gorm, Britain’s sixth highest mountain, and enjoy the spectacular scenery of this mountain range. At the top you’ll find ranger led walks and the popular Ptarmigan Restaurant. Call for train times.
Tel: +44 (0)1479 861 261 www.cairngormmountain.org

Nevis Range Cable Car
Torlundy, Fort William
Britain’s only mountain gondola transports visitors effortlessly to 2150ft, allowing breathtaking views of the Highlands. At the top, there are signposted walks, panoramic viewpoints and a restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1397 705 825 www.nevisrange.co.uk

Fort George
Inverness
Britain’s mightiest artillery fortification, built by George after the defeat at Culloden in 1742. The extensive garrison buildings and collection of arms provide a fascinating insight into 18th century military life.
Tel: +44 (0)1667 4460 232 www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

Glencoe Visitor Centre
Ballachulish
Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most popular sites for walking and climbing. The eco-friendly visitor centre here is a great place to set up your activities, and to learn more about the history and geology of this landscape.
Tel: 0844 493 222 www.nts.org.uk

Speyside Heather Centre
Grantown on Spey
Award winning attraction with unique heather story exhibition, extensive gift shop, large garden centre, restaurant and antique shop.
Tel: +44 (0)1479 851 359 www.heathercentre.com