** As of Monday 14th September, the ‘rule of six’ has come into effect across Scotland, meaning that no more than six people across two households can meet up (with some exceptions such as sports activities and church services). So it almost goes without saying that some of my below recommendations may now be subject to the change in rules. However, so long as you’re sticking to the rules and you’re not, for example, travelling in a group of 30 from 10 different households, you ought to be ok. **
Hello from the Scottish Highlands!
I’m writing this on my iPhone from my top bunk in the Cairngorm Lodge Scottish Youth Hostel – My brother having won the coin toss for the lower bunk…
It’s great to be back in a Youth Hostel, we spent many family holidays in them around the UK and Europe, and in 2018 I spent a memorable night in the Hi Hostel on Lantau Island, Hong Kong, on the edge of jungle. Bugs, so many bugs!
The first week of our Scottish adventure has changed around somewhat, as adventures can do.
We had planned to spend a week traversing the North Coast 500 (‘Scotland’s Route 66’) from Ullapool, gateway to the Outer Hebrides, round to Thurso, then to take a ferry from wonderfully named Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney.
But, partly due to some spanners in the public bus network (one short transfer was going to cost £94 for private hire), we decided perhaps it’s best done another year.
Instead, we were lucky enough to spend the weekend in lovely Inverness, the largest city in the Highlands.
And I thought I would share a few recommendations of things to do and see, whether you plan to visit in the future, or just pass through on the way to your own adventure.
A stay at the Crown Guest Hotel
Rooms feature tartan touches, nice furniture and art on the walls. A night in a family room is a bargain £65 on booking.com. Note they’re not serving breakfast at the moment, but I’m told that Rendezvous Cafe does a whacking great Scottish breakfast, Comfort Foods has a vegan breakfast and Girvans do lovely brunches.
The hotel is near the Inverness Castle and you can pass it on your way down to the Ness River.
Ness Islands walk
Inverness, from the Gaelic Inbhir Nis, means mouth of the Ness. It’s quite a short river, 6 miles in length, flowing from Loch Ness through to Loch Dochfour.
I learned that because the Ness River has a glacial origin, meaning that there was a big catchment of water when the river was formed, it discharges a huge amount of water, one of the highest rates of any river in the UK, explaining why it’s quite fast flowing.
And the glacial origin is part of the reason for the Nessie monster myth – Loch Ness is a staggering 400m deep! Perfect for hiding monsters, real or imagined.
A good place to start is St Andrew’s Cathedral closer to town, worth a peek inside if you have time, and there’s a labyrinth cut into the grass outside too. If you continue past the Cathedral along that side, after about 20 minutes you’ll come to a small white bridge that takes you over to the Ness Islands.
A Dolphin Spirit tour
Whether you see dolphins or not (and we didn’t, sob), a Dolphin Spirit tour is a beautiful way to spend 75 minutes, gliding along the Moray Firth.
If you’re lucky with calm waters or even a bit of sunshine, and you choose a time closer to high tide coming in, you’ll stand the best chance. So I’d recommend the 1pm slot.
We saw harbour and grey seals lolling on rocks, swimming like otters (who are also around, though we didn’t see them), cormorants stretching their wings Batman-like, lovely gannets gliding by in the light breeze, oyster catchers and sandwich terns among other birds.
A detour to Cromarty
Cromarty is a lovely little town right on the top of the Black Isle peninsula.
About a 40 min drive from Inverness (or a scenic hour on the 26a bus), it’s got pretty cafes, art galleries and shops, a lighthouse (used by Aberdeen university to chart marine life and birds in the area).
I especially loved Cromarty’s East Church, a historic parish church under the care of the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust.
A church has been on the site for over 700 years and in its heyday in the 1700s services were so popular that a new wing had to be added, the north aisle.
With really lovely views of Cromarty Firth and out to the North Sea, the Hundred Steps Walk is a must-do if you have a couple of hours to spend in Cromarty.
It takes you along the headland – called the Sutors of Cromarty – through beautiful woodland, up lots of steps (more than 100 I felt!) and along quaint little bridges.
Detour to Chanonry Point
Anyone wanting to increase the chance of seeing the famous Moray Firth dolphins should head to Chanonry Point.
It’s on the way back from Cromarty, or else around 20-30 mins from Inverness.
There are no guarantees (as I say, we didn’t see any, sadly) as dolphins are wild creatures, but you’ve got a wonderful vantage point, and a chance of seeing seals and sea birds like terns, if not dolphins.
Fixed price menus at The Mustard Seed and Contrast Brasserie
I can vouch for the Contrast Brasserie’s salmon supreme, cooked to absolute perfection and served with basmati rice, cream and plenty of steamed green veggies and crispy kale.
We went to Contrast Brasserie on a Sunday when only the a la carte is available but on weekdays the fixed price menu is £17.95 for two courses, featuring local meat, fish and other produce.
Over at The Mustard Seed Restaurant, a bright yellow converted church, their early evening menu runs 7 days a week and two courses are a bargainous £14.95.
A picnic and a wander round Culloden
Culloden. Know what happened? It was a decisive loss in 1746 by the (mostly Scottish) Jacobite army against British government forces that ended the Jacobite rebellion – one that hoped to have the Stuart heir Charles Edward Stuart on the throne instead of the Hanoverian George II. Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the Catholic grandson of the Catholic King James II who had reigned Britain for only two years after his brother King Charles II died. He had escaped on a boat to live the rest of his life in exile in France – and it was pretty much the same fate for the Bonnie Prince, after Culloden.
Culloden Battlefield is owned by National Trust for Scotland and it costs £11/£9.50 to go round the exhibition or else it’s free to explore the heather-filled moorland yourself. If the weather is even vaguely good, there are picnic tables outside the centre, before you walk round. There are a few signs dotted about, or audio guides for exhibition ticket holders, but Wikipedia actually has a really good rundown of the battle, if you’re self-guiding as we were.
It is hard at times to imagine that such a peaceful place could be the same place where 1,500-2,000 Jacobites died or were wounded, in the space of an hour. But, lack of bogs aside, NTS have maintained the moor much as it would have existed back in the 1700s, as farm land for highland cattle. The cows are still there, as too are some wild goats.
If you’re not already a member, I highly recommend getting National Trust for Scotland membership. They have struggled through the pandemic, and need all the help they can get. I’ve been a member for a few years and it’s cheaper than National Trust, but you get the same access to all National Trust properties in the UK, and it costs £61.20 for a year compared to £72. NTS also handily let you pay monthly instead of a bigger sum annually.
So, why should you go to Inverness, in a nutshell? Much of Inverness’s charms may lie on the outskirts or on day trips, but the Ness River is surely one of Europe’s prettiest city rivers, and a stay nearby is a brilliant way to kick off a Scottish holiday – or adventure.
Any highlights you think should be in the guide? Let me know below!