Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle and the Isle of Skye
Thursday 13 April - Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye
Words failed me for quite some time when I first saw the magnificent countryside. Then I struggled for the correct adjectives that would encompass all that Scotland's highlands portray.
I simply can't put into words, just how ruggedly beautiful and changeable this country can be. I could, and really want to ramble on about how wonderful it is and how it almost makes me cry it's so beautiful, but I won't do that. If you have been to the highlands, then you will certainly understand how I feel. If you haven't been, and have an appreciation for the magnificence that nature can offer, then Scotland is the place to visit.
I was tired and it was getting late when I arrived in Inverness. I had a quick look at the town as my taxi took me to my room at the Moray Park Hotel. The town had an old world feel about it and I could see that modern civilisation had not wrought too much chaos on the historic aspects of the city.
The Moray Park is one of many B&B's all over Inverness. I would hazard a guess and say that you probably couldn't walk more than three hundred metres without coming across one in most streets.
My hotel overlooks the river Ness. A very fast flowing, but relatively shallow river with the blackest water. The water flows so fast that it causes little rapids where it comes to a bend. The waters of some of the rivers in Scotland are black due to the high content of peat in the water. Peat
is still used by some people up in the highlands, but it is a relatively precious resource these days.
The Ness river is the shortest in the highlands, at only 8 kms long. It runs out of Loch Ness.
My room is lovely, warm and up two small flights of stairs. I have my own bathroom, which I have to go down four stairs and up three, basically across the landing. The bathroom is ever so swish. Shiny tiles, heated towel racks and the shower is frosted glass and lit up all blue by a strong blue down light. Sort of a new age TARDIS look. Even the droplets of water reflect the blue light when you have a shower.
The proprietor is a lovely lady and Andrew, her father is what I would describe as a 'kindly old man'. Very polite the Scottish. The breakfast room is well lit with the front bay window my favourite spot for breakfast as I look out over the little park and river.
I ate my scrambled eggs for breaky and then walked to the bus transit centre, just beside the train station. I had a general idea of where to walk and gave myself an extra half hour just in case I did lose my way. It was all uphill, but it was so lovely looking around that I didn't really notice the climb.
I walked up past Inverness castle, which was built in the 19th century. It was a fighting castle, used to protect the town, until it was blown up in 1745 during the final Jacobite uprising.
Inverness is the biggest town in the highlands. The population of Scotland is 12 million. There are 205,000 people living in the Scottish highlands, with 65,000 of them residing in Inverness. Inverness is ten times the size of the nearby towns. The highlands were broken up into 50 counties, but with the new government, the highlands are now divided into 12 large regions.
The town has no real factory industry. It has always been a trading town and now relies a lot on tourism.
The houses in and around the highlands are built of pink sandstone, which is very pretty. Most of the houses have a grey and pinkish tinge and look almost ageless.
Coming from Inverness, the Caledonian canal runs along the Ness road and joins up with Loch Ness, which is the start of the true highlands.
Caledonia is a very old name for Scotland. It is how the Romans referred to the country when it was habited by the Picts.
I found the bus station, walking through a very short and light snow shower to get there. It's cold, but I'm not finding it overly cold. I don't need gloves or a massive coat, but do find that you need a scarf and ear muffs as the face gets very chilly.
I met a young bloke with a red setter cross and got my fix of doggy attention. He was a beautiful dog and it made me miss my two boys terribly.
I boarded the coach and had the last single seat, right at the front. I've learnt to get in early and get the front seat as the view is much better for taking photos and general panoramic viewing.
Sandy, the tour operator was a crusty old guy who was lovely. Softly spoken with the melodic Inverness accent that I just can't get enough of.
We headed off up and around the town before heading down Loch Ness road. Driving along a windy and often steep sided road, the farmland gave way to the Loch and I watched in awe at the vista that appeared. Small mountains of forests, birch (known here as larch), American spruce and fir and other foreign trees in huge plantations. The birch and oak trees are about to come into bud and the stark white bark and pink tips contrasted against the green and blue pines to provide an awesome display.
The Loch is massive, 27 kms long, 1.5 kms wide in the widest place and 800 feet deep, which is deeper than the sea. It gives off a timeless and untouched feel, despite being dotted with farms and villages along the banks.
I took over 400 photos for the day, many of which will be deleted, but it was so wonderful and changed so often that you just needed to capture it all on camera.
During our trip around Loch Ness to Skye we went through farmland, rolling hills, granite mountains, metamorphic mountains, snow covered peaks, mist covered peaks, gorse, forests, heather, tree less terrain, habited and uninhabitable land. We had rain, sleet, snow and sunshine, all in the space of seven hours, giving you an idea of the constantly changeable nature and terrain of the highlands.
We drove along the road to Drumnadrochit (means bridge on the ridge), where you find the two Nessie centres. One is scientific, where they show you a huge display about why the monster does not exist, and the other one is pro Nessie, called Nessie Land, which gives you an idea of what it would be like. We didn't visit either of them.
Do I believe in the Loch Ness monster? After seeing the Loch, I think it's definitely plausible that something exists in the depths, whether that be a giant sturgeon, dugong or something more ancient.
There was a lot of gorse bushes growing up the slopes, all in flower early due to the unseasonally warm weather a couple of weeks ago.
Primroses also dot the hills, small pastel yellow flowers that are very pretty.
We stopped at Invermoriston (inver meaning where the river flows into - this being the equivalent of the Irish word Aber). I said hello to the highland cattle and gave one of the yearlings a pat. There had been two bulls in the paddock until one died last year. They were called Hamish and Hector, and I'm not sure which one died.
The red bull didn't come too close to the fence but the five black yearlings certainly did. The bulls have the horns facing more upward and out and the cows have horns facing more forward. The cows in the paddock were not for meat, but rather just pets of the owners. They are wonderful looking cows, as you can see from the photos in the photo gallery.
The cattle were getting a lot of attention from a couple of buses that had stopped in the same car park.
I said goodbye to the cows and wandered down the road to the Invermoriston river waterfull. Over the top of the small waterfall is a bridge, erecting between 1800 and 1819. It's a solid stone bridge which will probably be there fore another couple of hundred years.
Sandy, our tour guide was very helpful in explaining the gaelic meanings. A glen is a steep sided, v shaped valley, while a strath is a gentler sloped valley with a flatter floor. He gave good running commentary, despite the asians talking over the top of him.
The forests of pine are planted for commercial reasons. They are strip logged because any remaining trees would not be able to withstand the winds and fall over. Sandy explained that there is now a government incentive for farmers to replant Scottish pines, which are very slow growing and have a much more rounded top canopy. There were pockets of these growing throughout the highlands.
We travelled further around the loch towards our first castle stop. The mountains on the far side of the loch were now snow capped and getting larger. The highest mountain is Ben Nevis at 4500 feet, with anything over 3000 feet referred to as a munro. Mountain climbing is a big sport high with Munro Baggers always present. There are more than 200 Munro's and it is said to be quite something of an accomplishment for a mountaineer to bag all of them.
I couldn't believe how many people seemed to be out walking in the mountains, whether hiking or mountain climbing.
We drove past Urquhart castle but didn't stop as it's a ruin and there is much more to see at Eilean Donan castle.
We also drove past Plocton, which I would have liked to visit. Plockton, ring any bells with anyone? It was the village location where the fantastic series Hamish McBeth was filmed. It starred Robert Carlyle. If I get time, I may grab a bus there if one runs to my timetable.
My camera clicked away with each kilometre as the ever changing view became wilder and more rugged.
We arrived at Eilean Donan, the most photographed castle in Scotland, and immediately I could see why. With forest covered mountains behind it over the other side of the loch and the village of Loch Duich (pronounced Doo-ish) sitting prettily against the banks of Loch Ness to the side of the castle, who wouldn't want a picture.
How much you say, to get in to see such an icon? £5. Yep. I just can't believe how cheap everything is here, even when you convert it to Australian dollars.
Eilean Donan castle, strategically built as a fortress in the 13th century to guard the McKenzie Kintail lands from the Vikings. The castle was partially destroyed by the British in the Jacobite fighting of 1719. The British saw the castle as a stronghold of the Jacobites and like so many other castles, they destroyed it to stop the rising against the British throne.
John MacRae-Gilstrap, having married a wealthy woman from the Gilstrap family, brought the castle in 1919 and restored it to a habitable state. The family still use the castle at times and this part is closed to the public. However, they have provided a wonderful display in the kitchen, dining room and a couple of other castle rooms, with mannequins, furniture and a replication of how life may have been in the 1600/1700's.
I climbed all over the ramparts, up and down the towers and even on top of the portcullis. Bad knees be buggered, I wasn't going to let that stop me. The views from the battlements were amazing. The castle takes you back in time, drawing your attention to the world as it would have been.
It was wonderful. Simply wonderful.
I was sad to leave, but we pressed on towards Skye, stopping for a photo opportunity of the Skye bridge. The bridge was built in 1995 under the PPI scheme (Private, Public Initiative). Basically with bridge was built for the goverment by a private company. They company charged a toll to travel on the bridge, £40 one way per bus and the bus companies stopped going. Even the cars were expensive. Skye suffered and the residents complained bitterly for ten years.
It wasn't until the Scottish government came to power that they repealed all tolls on highways and bridges in Scotland that the Skye bridge became free to travel.
Skye is very big. 30 kms across with huge mountains all around. The mountains are unique as some are very young and made from granite, whilst the older mountains around Loch Ness are metamorphic, coming about through volcanic activity. They hold a great deal of geological interest for scientists.
We stopped for lunch at Broadford. I had lunch with Reece and Michelle, whom I met on the bus. Michelle is originally from Glasgow, with the broader burred accent, whilst Reece has the smooth Inverness speech. They were very nice and we hit it off well.
We pushed on to our ultimate goal, Algol, at the top of Skye. The road we travelled was very narrow, with signed 'passing points'. You pull over to let the other driver go by, which is sometimes a bit of a squeeze. There were a couple of marble quarries near Portree (Bay of the King) which are still in use, but only for marble decorative pebbles.
After a slow ascent winding up and over a couple of mountains, we headed down a steep incline to the very small village of Algol. The bay opened up onto the Atlantic sea, with the island of Rum and other islands visible on the horizon. Small fishing boats were in the harbour, fishing mainly for crayfish.
The area is a start point for the Cilliun mountains, with climbers beginning their ascent over the rough and jagged peaks. It was beautiful when we arrived, the peaks shrouded in cloud, which cleared to expose the mountains in all their glory against a sunny sky.
A lot of Skye is barren, rocky terrain, covered predominently in heather. It's rough, wild and brown, but somehow very beautiful and unspoilt.
Having our fill of such a wild and wonderful landscape, we headed back to the mainland. We couldn't do a circular route back to Inverness due to land slides cutting off the secondary road. It didn't matter. We stopped for more pictures of the mountains as more snow had fallen on the peaks and they were bathed in late afternoon sunshine. Our tour guide was wonderful in affording plenty of stops for photos.
It was a long, but wonderful day which was etched into my memory as one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The harshness, wild and rugged mountains, with little or no vegetation were as memorable as the lush forest covered hills.
Michelle, Reece and I went to a small cafe for tea and enjoyed discussing the sights of the day. Michelle, despite being almost a local, had never been on this tour and enjoyed every bit of it. It was lovely meeting them.