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Issue 95 - To Inverness and beyond

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


This article is 13 months 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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To Inverness and beyond

The capital of the Highlands makes a perfect base for exploring. Christopher Coates investigates

Strategically situated on the River Ness, the capital of the Highlands has long served as an outpost from which one may access the Black Isle and Sutherland, to the north; Nairnshire, Moray and Aberdeenshire, to the east; the wilderness of Ross-shire, to the west; and Loch Ness and Highland Perthshire, to the south.

At the heart of the city is the elegant, red sandstone structure of Inverness Castle. Although only built in 1836, it has its roots in previous fortifications that date back as far as 1057. Today serving as the Inverness Sheriff Court, the castle’s north tower has recently been opened to the public as a viewing platform that offers a spectacular outlook of the city. On the castle esplanade visitors will find an impressive bronze statue of the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, with a hound at her feet.

To the south, a pleasant walk away along the riverside and a hop, skip, and a jump over the picturesque Ness Islands, visitors will find the popular Inverness Botanic Gardens. Opened in 1993 by Prince Edward, the gardens offer a haven of verdant tranquillity that is sure to ease the soul of all who visit. Especially popular is the Tropical House, which mimics the climate of a rainforest and is home to the gardens’ most impressive specimens.

Back in the city centre, bibliophiles will be delighted to discover the much-loved Leakey’s Bookshop. Founded in 1979, this Mecca for bookworms is home to over 100,000 volumes and for the past 19 years has made its home within a beautiful old Gaelic church that dates from 1793. But be warned: time passes differently inside Leakey’s Bookshop and a whole day may pass in the blink of an eye while browsing its shelves.

Leaving the city and heading east, along the B9006, travellers will find one of Scotland’s most infamous historic sites: the battlefield of Culloden Moor. Now home to a modern visitor centre, the exhibits found here tell the sad tale of the terrible hour on 16 April 1746 that claimed the lives of more than 1,200 soldiers. Be sure to visit and pay your respects to those who lost their lives and remember the day that heralded the end of the traditional Highland culture that had existed until that point — and was brutally suppressed thereafter.

History buffs will be pleased to learn that another important site lies not far away. The Clava Cairns represent the remains of one, or possibly two, Bronze Age cemeteries that were constructed around 4,000 years ago. The Balnuaran of Clava site, which is situated inside a small wood, comprises two passage graves, a kerb ring cairn, a central ring cairn, and standing stones. A short walk away, at Milton of Clava, can be found further cairn remains and the ruin of a Mediaeval chapel.

Further to the north, on the shores of the Moray Firth, can be found the stratefically-situated Fort George. Built to guard the approach to Inverness following the 1745 Jacobite Rising, it is arguably the finest example of 18th-Century Military engineering in the UK. For over 250 years this venerable fortress has been a key outpost of the British Army and between 1881-1964 served as the depot of the Seaforth Highlanders.

The fort is also home to the Highlanders’ Museum, which houses more than 20,000 artefacts and over 10,000 documents pertaining to the Queen’s Own Highlanders — the descendant of four famous Scottish regiments that were raised in the 18th Century from the Highland hinterland. The museum experience is sure to enthral all who have an interest in Scotland’s colourful and varied military history.

Providing the perfect end to this historical itinerary to the east of Inverness, a trip to the 17th-Century Cawdor Castle is a must. Home to the Campbells of Cawdor family for over 600 years, this imposing tower house is an extraordinary place that offers insight into the family’s impact on the region. Those seeking out more leisurely pursuits will enjoy a gentle stroll through the estate’s gardens or perhaps fishing on the River Findhorn.

Back at Inverness, it’s time to head south toward the spectacular Loch Ness. There are many opportunities available to cruise the loch from the water but, failing that, touring its majestic banks is sure to delight — whether on the lookout for the eponymous monster or simply enjoying the views.

Depending on which bank you choose to explore, there’s much that can be done in this area. On the western bank, by Drumnadrochit, are the romantic ruins of Urquhart Castle. A Pictish fort has existed on the site at least since AD580 and by the 1200s this had evolved into a sophisticated military site that became a key factor in controlling the region — until it was destroyed by Government forces in 1692. Those looking for a walk through woodland would do well to explore the eastern bank instead and head for the small village of Foyers, which is home to two waterfalls. A pleasant, but steep, circular walk will reward ramblers with wonderful views of the lower falls, while the upper falls are more easily accessible and can be viewed from an old stone bridge. Nearby campsites and hillside log cabins adjacent to the falls are well suited to visitors who wish to remain closer to nature.

Before heading back toward Inverness, a detour east to the A9 will allow a visit to the distillery-village of Tomatin. Established in 1897, Tomatin has a fascinating history. The distillery at one point was Scotland's largest producer of single malt, but in the darker times of the 1980s it faced liquidation. However, the distillery recovered and since then has gone from strength to strength. Over 80 per cent of their staff live in the grounds of the distillery, in purpose-built homes erected to house the distillery workers, with generations of the same family working side by side. Today, a visitor centre manned by well-trained guides promises to educate and entertain, while also offering a chance to sample the distillery’s celebrated single malts.

Looking north, beer enthusiasts shouldn’t miss out on their chance to visit one of Scotland’s pre-eminent independent breweries. The Black Isle Brewery, which prides itself on using only organic ingredients, was founded in 1998 by David Gladwin. Out of work at the time of its establishment, he has since grown the business to such an extent that the small brewery may now produce up to 10,000 litres of fine beer per day — just enough to quench the thirst of its global following. A visit to the brewery may include a personal tour around the small facility, which is based at an old farm, and a chance to browse the brewery shop. Those planning a party, or staying in self-catering accommodation in the area, will surely be tempted by the kegs of beer on offer to take away.

A short drive away, at Chanonry Point wildlife lovers can easily pass a day gazing out over the Moray Firth in search of the resident dolphin population. Although most likely to be seen on a rising tide, these much-loved creatures often pop up unexpectedly — to the delight of all onlookers. Also located here is a lighthouse that dates from 1846 and a monument to the ill-fated Brahan Seer, who was brutally murdered here after invoking the ire of Lady Seaforth by ‘predicting’ her husband’s adulterous affairs in Paris.

Further along the shore to the north, the village of Rosemarkie sits on the edge of a wide bay that offers beautiful views across the water toward the aforementioned Chanonry Point. Also in the village are a number of finely-carved Pictish stones and a popular old pub called the Plough Inn, which represents a great stopping-off point for a bite to eat or a chat with the locals.

Whisky fans will no doubt be delighted by their sudden proximity to a number of pre-eminent distilleries, all of which can be found more or less along the main route north. First comes Dalmore Distillery, which was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson after making his fortune as a partner in Jardine Matheson — a trading firm that took over the East India Company’s control of the Chinese opium trade. By 1878 the distillery had passed to the Mackenzie family, the source of the distillery’s logo: a 12-pointed Royal stag. The Mackenzies obtained the emblem themselves after their chief, Colin of Kintail, saved King Alexander III of Scotland from a maddened stag — or so the story goes. The clan association has certainly become ingrained in the Dalmore legend and has remained prominently displayed on the bottle, even after the distillery passed from family ownership and into the care of the blending house Whyte & Mackay.

Today, the distillery offers superb tours of its unusual (by modern standards) production facilities. At Tain, another household name will be found at the world-famous Glenmorangie Distillery, which is home to the tallest stills in Scotland. However, it’s worth mentioning that the village is also home to a superb museum, Tain Through Time. This independent, volunteer-run museum comprises three buildings set within the beautiful grounds of St Duthac Collegiate Church and tracks the social and religious history of the region from the medieval period to the 20th Century. Also on the site is the Clan Ross Centre, a must-visit for members of the clan.

Now onto the final leg of our push north, we pass over the Dornoch Firth and reach the historic town that shares its name. Home to the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and its two 18-hole courses — the Championship Course and the Struie Course. Established in 1877, this world-famous golf club has long been held in the highest regard as one of the world's very best places to play the 'Scottish game'.

Also in Dornoch is the Carnegie Whisky Cellars, a well-stocked whisky shop named for the industrialist whose Scottish home was at nearby Skibo Castle, and the imposing Dornoch Castle Hotel, which contains arguably the most well-curated whisky bar in Scotland. Humble and unpretentious, the bar at this family-run hotel has myriad liquid treasures hidden on its shelves, many of which are unlikely to be found anywhere else. In fact, such is the extent of the whisky knowledge held between the ears of the brothers who run it, Simon and Phil Thompson, that they’ve started their own craft distillery in the castle grounds. Be sure to stop by for a bite to eat and a dram if at all possible, or stay the night in sumptuous surroundings if time permits.

The penultimate location in our itinerary is perhaps the most visually impressive. The family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and Clan Sutherland, Dunrobin Castle looms large like something from a fairy tale. The current structure, with its pointed turrets and resplendent windows, was completed between 1835 and 1850 but its origins can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages. Still home to the Sutherland family, this stately home has nonetheless been open to the public since 1973.

Our final push north brings us to the village of Brora and its two distilleries. The original Clynelish Distillery, now known as Brora, has been mothballed for some time but may be toured on request. Founded in 1819 by the Duke of Sutherland, it was central to his economic enterprises following his forced eviction of many Highlanders that had been crofting his land up to that point.

Those permitted to stay were relocated to the new village and set to work on building the distillery. Flash forward to 1967 and such was the demand for Clynelish spirit that it was deemed necessary to build a new, modern distillery right next to the original (which was closed). The old distillery was reopened again between 1969 and 1983, producing a new, heavily-peated style of spirit that is now incredibly scarce and ranks among some of the most valuable whisky ever sold at auction.

Lest we venture too far from our home base of Inverness, it is perhaps wise to turn back to the capital of the Highlands. However, the road doesn’t end here and the adventurous may continue north to explore the delights of Caithness and, not far away across the water, the spectacular Orkney Isles.