Say hi to Nessie for me.
It’s a gloomy, rainy day here right now, so I got to thinking about Scotland, Inverness in particular. Back when I was studying in the UK in 2018, I took a wildly atmospherical winter trip to Inverness and Isle of Skye and I still can’t get over how beautiful the landscape was and how friendly and warm the people I met were.
Inverness is known as the capital of the Scottish Highlands and is usually the base people choose to explore the Highlands from, which is exactly what I did. Since I was there in winter, I can’t exactly describe it as a vibrant, lively city the way it is advertised, but I can tell you that there is nothing quite so mystical and atmospherical as the Highlands in winter and it is absolutely worth going to get a different, less touristy experience.
When I arrived by train from Leeds, the first thing I had to do was find my accommodation, which turned out to be quite a challenge. I was staying in a small local hostel with single rooms and they told me I could collect my key from a deposit box at the door and then find my room inside. So, imagine this: you’re standing in front of a random door with a green safety deposit box on a late Saturday afternoon in the middle of January. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground, the wind is howling through the streets and lashing at your very bones and the cold is seeping in through your feet, because you didn’t wear proper winter socks. You’re punching in the code numbers with freezing fingers and there’s literally no one around while you start feeling like an absolute eejit when the box keeps flashing red for the wrong number. You notice a help button and press it and nothing happens. You call the hostel phone number and no one answers. You press the help button again and again and there’s finally a man on the other side, but he’s grumpy and his Scottish accent is so thick it’s like talking to a bear. You patiently explain that the number they gave you seems to be wrong, but he keeps harrumphing something about keys and correct numbers. You punch it in again, and guess what, the door opens! You do an embarrassing little victory dance and you can hear the guy cackling on the other side, but then you realise that the safety deposit box is still closed, because he’d opened the door remotely. You finally step in out of the cold and there’s a small table with a key and a note with your name on it just sitting there on a small table with a water heater, a cup and a teabag. The note says: “apologies, the safety deposit box is out of order, someone should let you in when you arrive, here’s the key.”
Either way, the room was clean and cosy and the first thing I did was make use of that tea. Then I took a walk through the centre and the town was so quiet it was crazy. I could hear my footsteps crunching through the new snow and the closer I got to the river Ness, the louder it got. I discovered there’s a small island park in the middle of the river and met some squirrels, which were promptly chased off by a local walking his very unimpressed poodle. I also met an old lady who pointed me towards her favourite pub with live Scottish music and that was me settled for the evening.
All in all, Inverness is a nice town with large, imposing historical buildings and old streets, but it is not very interesting in winter. There are the free entry botanical gardens that I skipped, a very solemn looking church and the huge red sandstone Inverness castle on the riverbank, which is unfortunately not open to the public. I took a walk through the castle grounds though and it looks really awesome up close. However, there are a lot of other awesome things to see in the vicinity of Inverness, so you won’t be bored if you visit for sure.
Impressions of Inverness
The next day I visited the historical battlefield of Culloden and the Clava cairns, which you can read about in their separate posts I linked to, and I also went to the Urquhart castle at Loch Ness. I managed to get off the bus a station too soon and had to walk for almost an hour to reach the lake, but I got to enjoy some very nice views on the way. I didn’t see Nessie, the mythical Loch Ness monster, so if you do, say hi from me, but I did make friends with some shaggy local sheep and a farmer who gave me a lift the rest of the way to the castle.
Unfortunately I arrived just as it was closing, so I couldn’t join any of the guided tours, but I did take a quick look through the ruins. Urquhart castle was once one of Scotland’s largest castles and saw a lot of political drama during its 500 years as an important medieval fortress. It is said that St. Columba performed miracles there in the 6th century and that the legendary Gaelic bard Domhnall Donn was imprisoned in one of its cells, but it was also at the heart of turmoil during the Scottish Independence wars. It was passed around between the English and Scots a lot during that time, until it was finally blown up during the last Jacobite risings in the 18th century by the British government and only ruins remain now.
Another thing Inverness is famous for are its two scenic railway lines. You can either take the Far North Line through the remote north of Scotland to Thurso and Wick, where you will cross through the peat bogs and pass by the salmon fishing rivers to reach the most northerly inhabited point, from which you can go even further north to Orkney islands. The other option is to take the Kyle line through the Highlands, which connects Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, the gateway to Isle of Skye. Both are rated among the most beautiful in Europe and cross through absolutely gorgeous Scottish wilderness, but personally I chose the Kyle line because I was going on to Skye. Even in winter with a bit of rain, it was an incredible journey and I was glued to my window for the duration, so I would absolutely recommend you include at least a part of it in your Scottish itinerary if you are ever planning a trip there. I’ll have to try out the Far North Line sometime in the future too!