After a day at sea, the morning of August 1 found us sailing up the Cromarty Firth (a firth is an inlet or bay leading to the sea) to Invergordon, Scotland. This is a town in the highlands of northern Scotland not far from Inverness. It is a mostly rural area & Invergordon is a small town that specializes in repairing oil platforms & making whisky (yep, this is Scotland). It was a very foggy & cloudy day, which lent the area an atmosphere right out of Macbeth.
There is not a lot to see in Invergordon so the thing to do here was to see the highlands, which we did on a bus excursion. When we disembarked there was a single piper walking back and forth on the pier to welcome us.
We drove through the hilly region for a while, along rivers & lakes (lochs) and through several small towns characterized by square stone buildings, lots of chimney pots & flowers. We passed several whisky distilleries and many farms. We stopped in a small town called Beauly (pop. about 1,000), reputedly named by Mary Queen of Scots who remarked in French during a visit that it was a beautiful place (“Beaulieu”). It was very nice, despite the gloomy weather, but it seemed pretty typical of the towns we saw. It was notable for the ruins of a 13th Century priory.
Our first destination was Urquhart Castle, a ruin that sits on the shore of Loch Ness. First built in the 13th Century on older foundations, it is one of the largest castles in Scotland. It has been under public control for about 100 years.
The castle is at a strategic spot on the shore of Loch Ness & had a very bloody and complicated history with control shifting back and forth among a long list of English & Scottish aristocrats. This was particularly true during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th Century, which involved Robert Bruce and Williams Wallace on the Scottish side countering repeated nvasions by English Kings Edward I, II & III. It was again a point of contention during the Jacobite uprising that began in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution when William of Orange was placed on the English throne to replace the deposed James II of England (who was also James VII of Scotland). The English-sympathizing Grants who held the castle at that time withstood a siege by the Jacobites (who supported the exiled James), then when they left the castle in 1690 they blew up the gatehouse to ensure the Jacobites could not occupy it. There is still masonry lying in front of the gatehouse from that explosion. After that the castle fell into disuse.
The curtain wall up the hill on the right is the oldest part of the ruins, dating to the 13th Century and probably built by Alan Durward. The Grant Tower, the most prominent feature on the left, was built by (you guessed it) the Grants. It once had turrets on each of its four corners.
As I mentioned, the castle sits on the shore of Loch Ness, a huge lake 23 miles long and up to 750 feet deep where the Loch Ness Monster is said to hang out. We didn’t see the real monster, although there were lots of stuffed ones in the gift shop at the castle & elsewhere in the area. Loch Ness contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England & Wales combined. There are great views of the Loch from Urquhart Castle.
So the castle was very interesting to explore, as you could climb up to the top of the tower and wander through the ruins. But our time was pretty limited so we didn’t get a chance to visit the old part on the hill. We also saw a movie in the visitor’s center about the castle’s history & there was a gift shop selling everything from stuffed Nessie toys to whiskey (I was told later they were giving away free tastes, but we missed that). Altogether well worth visiting.
Next we headed for Inverness where we had lunch. But first I should mention the Great Glen, a series of glens (river valleys) lying on a geological fault line running across northern Scotland from Inverness in the east to Fort William in the west. Five Lochs are aligned along this fault: Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy and Loch Linnhe. There are also rivers connecting the Lochs, including the River Ness, which runs through Inverness. In the early 19th Century the Caledonian Canal was built to connect all of these watery features into a navigable passage all the way through northern Scotland from the east coast to the west coast. The canal is some 60 miles long but only about a third of it is man made. It has a couple of dozen locks (not to be confused with lochs). We rode along the canal & the River Ness on our approach to Inverness.
After a short drive through Inverness (no stops, so only quick pictures from a moving bus window) we had a very nice lunch at the Kingsmills Hotel. The lunch included the Scottish favorite haggis. For those who don’t know this is made from sheep’s entrails (heart, liver & lungs), minced with spices, oatmeal and onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach (today they use sausage casings) and simmered for 3 hours. It looks like a hockey puck on the plate, round and black. Yes, we tasted it, so now we have done it and never have to do it again. Some of the people on the tour really loved it, though, and ate more than one.
I mentioned above the Scottish Jacobite resistance that arose when the Scottish house of Stuart was summarily replaced as English monarchs in 1688 by William and Mary (the Dutch William III of Orange & his wife Mary Stuart, daughter of the deposed James II of England). In 1745 this cause was revived by Charles Stuart, grandson of James II known as “the Young Pretender” (in later years he was often called “Bonnie Prince Charlie”). Charles landed in Scotland from exile in France & raised an army among the highlanders. They took Edinburgh & successfully marched south well into England. But his military leaders decided to retreat rather than continue to London because of little support among the English and a fear of English military strength. The uprising ended at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when the British crushed the Scotts on an open marshy field, then pursued the remnants of the Scottish forces relentlessly. The battle lasted less than an hour, with close to 2,000 Jacobite casualties against only about 300 for the English. This turned out to be the last battle ever fought on British soil. Charles escaped & was spirited out of Scotland dressed as a lady’s maid after an epic flight, then spent the rest of his life in exile. Sir Walter Scott portrayed this uprising from the Scottish point of view in his first novel, Waverly.
So after lunch we proceeded to visit the battlefield at Culloden. It was, as you might expect from the description above, a large open field. There were flags marking the British lines (red) and the Scottish lines (blue) at the beginning of the battle. But really there wasn’t much else, beyond the usual feeling of being on a spot where history was made. If we had had time to visit the visitor’s center we might have learned a little more about it.
Prince William, Duke of Cumberland was the English commander at Culloden, and his brutal campaign to find & execute the remnants of the Jacobite army earned him the nickname “the butcher.” There is a noxious yellow wildflower that seems to grow everywhere along the roadside in this part of Scotland that the Scots call “Stinking Willie” or “Stinking Billy,” reflecting their view of Prince William the Butcher.
We proceeded to our last stop, Cawdor Castle. This was the reason we picked this excursion over several others, because at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is made the Thane (lord) of Cawdor, & that is presumably where King Duncan is then murdered. Unfortunately, this is hogwash (as is much of Shakespeare’s history). The real Duncan was actually killed in battle, and Macbeth crowned King, in 1040; neither of these events occurred at Cawdor Castle, which wasn’t even built for another 350 years. The real Macbeth was never Thane of Cawdor & he was king of Scotland for some 17 years. Nonetheless, Duncan’s comment in the play when first reaching the castle (Shakespeare never actually calls it Cawdor castle) is pretty apt (Macbeth Act 1 Scene 5):
This Castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses’
Unlike Urquhart, Cawdor Castle is an intact house in which the owners still live. The castle came into the hands of the Campbell family in 1510 when Muriel Calder (the original spelling of Cawdor) married Sir John Campbell. Today, Colin Campbell is the 7th Earl of Cawdor and his stepmother lives in the castle during the off season. The Campbells are actively involved in running the castle; the Earl’s wife was there on the day we visited. Our bus driver saw her come into the cafeteria & clear the dishes from an abandoned table. I would say that is pretty hands-on! The central tower dates to the 15th Century, although part of it may date to the late 14th Century.One interesting thing in the castle is the remains of an old holly tree. Legend has it that the castle was built around a living tree after a donkey, carrying gold, lay down to rest under it. Scientists have determined that the tree in the castle died in the 1370’s, so that may be when the first part of the castle was built. Unfortunately, no photography is permitted inside the castle so you won’t see any of that here. But it has extensive and beautiful gardens.
I guess that, before leaving Cawdor’s gardens, this would be an appropriate place for today’s set of flower pictures. A lot of these are from the gardens at Cawdor Castle.
As our bus neared the dock about 5 minutes after the all aboard deadline our guide said “Well we’re right on time.” I doubt the ship’s officers would have agreed, but fortunately this was a ship-sponsored excursion so they had to wait for us. The day had finally turned sunny & on the way home there were massive clouds shining in the sunlight.
On the way to the sea we passed the town of Cromarty (population under 1000) on the opposite shore from Invergordon. It looks like a nice little village with a lot of local character judging from the buildings. There was a small lighthouse there. Cromarty dates back to the 13th Century.
And so we sailed out of Cromarty Firth into a dramatic ocean view, and headed for the Shetland Islands.