After setting out from Kinlochleven, where we’d spent our first night in the Scottish Highlands (Gàidhealtachd in Scottish Gaelic), we headed toward Loch Ness. About an hour and a half of driving later (thanks Andy), we arrived in Fort Augustus at the south-west end of the lake. It’s a small town, but a popular tourist spot because of its position at the intersection of the loch and the busy Caledonian Canal.
The impressive Caledonian Canal stretches 60 miles (97 km) from Inverness on the east coast of Scotland to Corpach, near Fort William on the west coast. Amazingly, only one third of it is man-made, as the rest is comprised of lochs. We chose a lunch spot along the canal and watched boats go through a series of stacked locks (lots of lochs and locks here – how do they tell the difference?). It’s slow going for boats, but fascinating to observe.
Fueled up and ready for our Nessie search, we drove along the loch to our cruise rendezvous site. We had just enough time to stop at the beautiful 1816 Invermoriston Bridge and nearby falls along the way.
Can’t beat a charming old bridge, and this won’t be the last! There was even an appropriately historic observation building.
We’d booked a two-hour Jacobite Freedom “clansmen & castle” tour as a good way to explore Loch Ness. I can’t even think “freedom” without hearing Mel Gibson shouting it, though I won’t tell the Scots that.
We set out on the moody loch, securing a cozy spot inside on the lower deck, but of course we had to venture out to take some photos. This is where packing multiple layers definitely came in handy.
We were headed south-west on the loch, toward Urquhart Castle, where we’d be disembarking for an hour.
It’s easy to see why this would’ve been the perfect site for a castle, and while the current ruins date back to the 13th – 16th centuries, there’s evidence of earlier medieval fortifications. Urquhart has witnessed a lot of Scottish history, from its role in the 14th century Wars of Independence to its partial destruction in 1692 to prevent Jacobite forces from using it.
There was so much to see, and we could’ve easily spent a few hours here given the chance. Despite the level of ruin, there were fabulous displays depicting what the castle would’ve looked like, and details about all the different rooms and life within its walls.
We kept a vigilant eye out for Nessie, but there no signs of the denizen of the deep. The sonar on the boat didn’t pick up anything Plesiosaur-shaped either. Unlike whale watches, you don’t get any refunds here if you don’t spot the famous cryptid.
Sadly, the trebuchet wasn’t available for a test run, but it still looked pretty cool. Here’s what the castle would’ve looked like in its heyday.
After a nice time exploring Urquhart, and just as the rain rolled in, our boat arrived to take us back. As we were walking back to the car, we spotted something… unusual. Could it be?!
Nessie is real after all, and definitely not made of concrete. The truth is out there.
We didn’t have far left to go to Inverness, our destination for the night. While our accommodation wasn’t as charming as the previous night, it was a cool city to get out and explore briefly on foot. We found a great beer garden where we had some delicious pizza in our own little cabin, before calling it an early night after a very full day.
Bright and early, we were off to see some historic sights before the drive back to Edinburgh. Culloden battlefield was somewhere we all agreed we couldn’t miss. The visitor center was absolutely incredible, perfectly setting the stage for the final conflict of the Jacobite rising of 1745. It’s a tragic history, but Culloden stands as a beautiful, windswept monument where the fallen live on in memory. The weight of the place is impossible not to feel, and everyone treads with respect.
We wandered the fields where the British forces overpowered the tired and outnumbered Jacobites. Thousands of Scots were killed, fighting to the very end, while the British lost around 50 men. It was a horrific day and, while it marked the end of the uprising, it only added to tensions that have simmered for centuries.
It’s a truly peaceful place, with monuments to the clans who fought here, and Highland cattle grazing on the moorland. The Clan Fraser stone had a few more flowers than others, whether that was due to the many Frasers who visit, or the popularity of Outlander and Jamie Fraser.
Blue flags mark the Jacobite lines, and red, the British,
This is another place where you could easily spend an entire day, but we did have a big drive ahead of us that day. On to our next stop!
The nearby Clava Cairns are a cluster of well-preserved Bronze Age burial cairns and standing stones.
This is another spot popular with Outlander fans. Although it wasn’t used in the show, the standing stones are far too tempting not to pose with, although my dad and Andy for some reason didn’t want to pretend they were time traveling. I’m not sure I’m doing any better, though I don’t have a coffee cup at least.
This main site at Clava is known as Balnauran of Clava, featuring two passage cairns with a central burial chamber, and an enclosed kerb cairn, all dating back 4,000 years to around 2000 BC.
Another incredible spot where it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, even without any actual time traveling.
On the drive south toward Edinburgh, we entered the Cairngorms National Park and took the turn-off toward Carrbridge. This had all started with a gorgeous photo I saw of an old bridge online, and everyone was on board for the brief stop. The Old Packhorse Bridge dates back to 1717 and has the distinguished honor of being the oldest bridge in the Highlands. You can see why it’s a popular photography spot!
Who would we be if we visited the Highlands without stopping in for some whisky? Andy and my dad definitely wouldn’t have allowed that to happen, especially since Dalwhinnie was just off the main road.
My mom and I had some nice whisky cocktails while my dad savored the tasting tray. Andy had some small sips, as he was our obliging driver for the Highland trip, and he’s done the distilleries before. A nice stop!
We continued on to Edinburgh, dropped the car off, had a fabulous dinner and flew down to Exeter the next morning (after a very close call catching our flight from Edinburgh Airport). Wedding time was fast approaching for Pat and Adrian! On the drive from Exeter to Bideford, we decided to head into Dartmoor for lunch in the charming little town of Chagford. Not so charming were the tiny one-lane roads, where our car sensor beeped at the hedges and very narrow bridge posts as we neared the village. It was one way to get my dad used to driving the back roads in Devon!
We decided we had time to make one last historic stop at Okehampton Castle. Are you sick of ruins yet? An 11th century castle with ties to the Wars of the Roses and Henry VIII, we could’ve spent an afternoon here (sensing a theme?).
The rest of the trip was spent enjoying time with family, and celebrating Pat & Ade’s big day. Here’s one photo out of many amazing memories.
And that brings our epic UK adventures to a close, until next time! Stay tuned for some outings closer to home, before the Fly contingent comes over to NZ for Christmas. ❤