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Not so long ago the Highlands seemed far away, almost unknown and virtually disregarded by tourists.
However this situation has been changing in recent years, and Scotland became an increasingly attractive destination for travelers.
That’s how one day you’ve started planning your trip to Inverness (from the Gaelic “Inbhir Nis”, meaning mouth of the river Ness), the northermost city of Scotland -if you didn’t, keep reading anyway, perhaps you start after this post-.
Since you are a wise person, thanks to the numerous –and almost identical- tourist guides, you have already prepared a list with the places you plan to visit.
But just to be sure, let’s check that your list includes the following two, since you definitely should not miss them:
If you’re into latest fashion and crowded places, the Eastgate Shopping Centre with its almost 60 stores is always the obvious option.
But also devote enough time to the Victorian Market -almost in front of the railway station-.
Built in 1876, this was the first covered market in Inverness.
Later destroyed by a fire, and rebuilt by the Town Council between 1890-91, today it homes a variety of shops you will not find elsewhere in town : small businesses owner operated, offering products and services you usually will not find on the High St.
Pay attention to the entrance with three arches on Academy street, the classic watch, and the coats of arms of the various Councils who administered the market through the years.
If you look at the sandstone arch entrance on Church Street, you’ll notice a clearly worn part, because it was used to sharpen knives fish traders at a time when the market specialized in this product.
The esthetics of the place is completed by the characteristic round-headed shop fronts, and the elegant ornated cast-iron and wooden-domed roof.
Whether you are a bibliophile or not, visiting Leakey’s is with no doubts a must.
This unique shop deservedly earned a place within my own list of the best bookshops around the world.
While Scotland holds a number of peculiar shops stocking vintage and antique books, this is not only the country’s largest second-hand bookshop, but also the only one being located in an old Gaelic church, where the stained-glass and the old pulpit are still visible.
All that without forgetting the thousands of books stacked around the log-burning fireplace or heaped around on the shelves.
It also has a small café, with an ubiquitous assortment of hot beverages and cakes to briefly indulge yourself.
OK, so your list comprises both my recommendations and your own choices: St Andrews Cathedral, Town Hall, Inverness Castle, High Street, River Ness’ banks…, it even includes the Ship Space with its 1/10 model of the Titanic, and so on.
I must recognize : it really looks like a comprehensive list.
But I must also ask: why would you narrow yourself to visit only the city centre highlights?
A world of lochs, glens, mountains and a lot of hidden places plenty of history and charm is to be found a few miles beyond the city boundaries.
Follow me, we’ll take a look at a few of them:
- Clava Cairns
The Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Clava -three chambered Bronze Age burial grounds- are a well-preserved Bronze Age cemetery complex of passage graves; ring cairns and standing stones, near the historic battlefield of Culloden.
Little is known about the cairn builders, as no documentation was left at the site, but recent excavations found evidence of farming activities on the site before the cairns were built.
That ancient settlement was probably the source of some of the materials later used in the construction of the circular cairns.
When visiting Clava Cairns you’ll feel the unusual cohabitation of the quietness and the intense atmosphere of this singular place.
- Munlochy Clootie Well
Hidden witness of ancient pagan beliefs, this is one of the last remaining wells in Scotland, and perhaps the most famous.
Clootie wells are closely linked with Celtic folklore as places of pilgrimage, where people used to go to make offerings to the spirits and gods. They can be found along Celtic Nations, Scotland, Ireland, and Cornwall.
In Scots, ‘clootie’ means rags, and this tradition can be traced back to the times when people went to these wells and dip a cloth in the water, then tiying it to the branch of a nearby tree.
The cloots may first be used to wash the afflicted areas of the bodies, while praying some secret invocations or walking around the well.
In pre-Christian times it was said that a goddess or a local nature spirit with special powers of healing inhabited the well, those deities being replaced later by a Saint -St. Boniface in Munlochy’s case-.
A place where you will not only feel the stillness but also t the presence of a disturbing energy.
If you plan to join the tradition, be environmental friendly and carry a biodegradable cotton or wool cloot. The weel’s faeries will be grateful.
- Rosemarkie Fairy Glen
The beauty of this forest trails make it worthwhile to walk trought them at a leisurely pace, as we head to the Fairy Glen in Rosemarkie.
So take your time to wander along while you look out for waterfalls, while searching the ‘Money Tree’, which features hundreds of antique coins hammered into its bark, as offerings to the fairies.
This glen was a ceremonial place, where local children used to decorate the springs with flowers, in the hope that fairies will keep the waters clean and pure.
On April 16, 1746, the last great battle on Scottish soil was fought here, the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie determining the fate of the Stuarts and Scotland itself.
The new Visitor Centre is a must with its first-hand accounts of the battle, a 360º film realistically portraying the battle events, and a spectacular rooftop views of the battlefield.
The available hand held audio devices with multi-language dialogues allow you understand the military tactics, while immersing you in the Gaelic language as you can hear a faithful reproduction of the words, songs and music of that time.
You will also find a range of environmentally friendly facilities, including –no surprise here- a memorabilia shop and a restaurant with a fine variety of meals
Following the battle of Culloden, George II created the fort as the ultimate defence against further Jacobite unrest.
It is the mightiest artillery fortification in Britain, and perhaps in entire Europe.
Today, the museum comprises the garrison buildings, the artillery defences bristling with cannons, and a superb collection of arms – including pikes, swords, and bayoneted muskets – providing a fascinating insight into 18th century military life.
Located within the former Lieutenant Governors quarters, the Highlander’s Museum shows the history of the Highland Regiments from just after the Battle of Culloden to the present day.
So far, we’ve not only walked up and down the city center, but also ventured into the outskirts, drove to discover the amazinf scenery of the Highlands, visited every place included in our “to do” list, and also –as expected- loaded ourselves with shopping bags…
It’s a more than appropiate time to investigate some of the many fine restaurants and bars, and tasting the great local produce.
As always, I’ve already chosen a few…
Anecdotical note : from July 2015, the male staff at the popular Hootananny pub, are wearing trousers.instead of the traditional tartan kilts more suitable with the pub’s image.
They refuse to keep wearing kilts due to constant sexual harassment from women, who used to lift up their kilts -or stick their hand under them- to see if they were “true Scotsmen”, and so naked underneath.
The pub is not included in my selection, but this has nothing to do with the “kilt affair”…
Laid out over three floors, each with its own unique view, this is a restaurant on the modern style side, where you’ll find here fine food, beverages, wines and a friendly service.
But the main attractive is the heated roof terrace, and its views of the river and the Castle.
All the tables enjoy a great view, but you can also book one next to the kitchen and see the chefs create their dishes.
Uninterrumptedly operated by the same family since 1996, it’s far from being a secret place.
In fact, it is actually one of the best known Loch Ness Restaurants, mainly due to its simple but excellent food, ranging from Salmon to beef, grilled steaks, game, casseroles, seasonal and daily vegetarian dishes.
And also the right place to learn about Scotland’s national drink, since the knowledgeable and willingly staff will guide you through their collection of over 500 local and imported malts, including single casks, blends and single and vatted malts.
If malts are not your thing, you can take a look at their great ale cellar, which treasures a plentiful selection of Scottish ales, with an extensive range of bottled beers from independent brewers.
Starting as a simple two roomed black house back in 1505, it was enlarged to near its present state in the 17th century by Simon the 8th Lord Lovat.
Surely one of the very best dining experiences in Scotland. A living example of 16th century Scottish Clan home, with its original wooden panelled restaurant and the wide windows looking over the Moray Firth and the surrounding mountains.
A menu of traditional meals with a modern twist, where we’ll find some “don’t-miss-this” : Seared scallops wrapped in puff pastry served with a chive butter sauce, Bawd Brie with walnut and date granary bread rolls, Finest fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef with olives, caramelised shallots, Colcannon and buttered kale with green peppercorn and Taliskar whisky sauce –I know it sounds like the entire history of Scotland, but is just the name of the dish-.
Leave place for dessert, and go either for the Mulled plum and fig frangipane served with crème Anglaise or the Chocolate and hazelnut torte with Bailey’s ice cream and autumn berry compote.
Formerly a suspicious-looking pub, this stunning restaurant with 50 seats in the main saloon and a green-walled bar at the rear, is driven by Jim and Anne Anderson, an American couple that decided to leave Philadelphia in search of a better place for their kids to grow up, and finally settled in Fortrose back in 2003.
The main reason why I added it to my selection is that -being himself a beer and whisky enthusiast- Jim has built an offering of more than 250 whiskies, hundreds of ales of local breweries plus more than 100 beers from Belgium and USA, while the amazing cellar gathering a wine collection worth tenths of thousand pounds deserves a place on its own.
To be fair, Anne’s cooking is by no means of less importance : from the Mussels in Orval Belgian Ale sauce with Ullapool smoked cheddar, the Fresh Oysters on half-shell served with a nip of Compass Box Peat Monster whisky, to the Roast Breast of duck smoked on pine needles, with Munro’s whit pudding and Anne’s rhubarb-ginger chutney, her menu always offers an original, almost unique approach.
If you feel brave enough, you may try to finish the Megaburger (two 12oz steak burgers topped with two slices of haggis, two rashers of bacon and two fried eggs) in 20 minutes. If you’re able to, you’ll have your name added to the wall of fame, alongside the only one person who has succeeded.
Advice : The Anderson closes for about a month in November for family holidays opening just before Christmas.
Just outside Inverness is Culloden Moor, the scenery of the forementioned battle of Culloden in 1746.
Before that battle, Bonnie Prince Charlie used Culloden House as his lodgings.
The hotel hosts an excellent restaurant, serving fruit and vegetables from the orchards and gardens of the house, and meat and fish from local producers from Dingwall to Duncan Fraser.
And since the restaurant is a Malt Whisky Embassy affiliated with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, it’s easy to figure the quality you may expect from their offering.
There is also a “Whisky of the Month” promotion, each month offering a different malt from the over 160 of the Culloden House cellar.
As always, remember : “Life is about the journey and not the destination”.