Towns / Cities Visited: 124
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 6,551
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,170,396
It was another early start, but it was for a good cause, I swear. You see, after a half hour drive we were arriving at the first of the day’s adventures; a boat cruise on the world famous Loch Ness. The morning air was brisk, with the dappled sunlight providing very little respite, and as we settled in on the top deck of the vessel, we were infinitely grateful that we had decided on donning thermals under our clothes and bringing along our gloves. The cold proved too much for most of the other visitors, who scurried into the warmth of the cabin below, and we were left with a relatively unencumbered view as our journey commenced.
Our cruise did not begin in the Loch itself, but rather at a port in Dochgarroch to the north. The voyage began as we set off down along the famed Caledonian Canal. This important waterway was built in the 19th century to the design of engineer Thomas Telford, in order to allow large ships to make their way from Corpach on the west coast, inland to Inverness and onwards to Moray Firth which allows passage to the North Sea. Although it is nearly 100 kilometres long, only about a third of it is actually man made, as the remainder simply uses a series of pre existing lochs which dot the Great Glen, a huge geological fault which provides one of the only large expanses of arable land in the highlands. The canal contains twenty nine locks, which allow boats to be lifted or lowered using water in order to move along. We ourselves were soon pausing in the Dochgarroch lock, as our boat was shut in and raised two metres from the level of the canal fed by Moray Firth to meet the water level of the section fed by Loch Dochfour just a little further along. I had never seen a lock in use before, and experiencing it first hand had me impressed at the ingenuity of the Victorian era engineers who installed this one.
From here we continued on along the canal and into Loch Dochfour, peacefully admiring the private pleasure boats bobbing at the shore, and the lush rolling hills that served as their backdrop. All the while, one of the staff narrated a little history about the area and its waterways. Every now and again a gorgeous home would peak out through a break in the trees on the bank, and it was hard not to imagine how peaceful it must be to live in such a secluded and picturesque location.
Before long we reached the entrance to the main event. At this meeting place sits a small unassuming house which is actually hugely historically important; Bona Lighthouse. Although it may now simply be used as a beautifully restored bed and breakfast, it was originally built almost 200 years ago to guide ships into the Caledonian Canal through the placement and tending of a small lamp in the top bay window.
Finally, we were chugging out onto the open waters of Loch Ness. This famous lake is almost 37 kilometres long, although it is relatively narrow, and despite having a smaller surface area than Loch Lomond, its depth, which at points reaches 230 metres, makes it the country’s largest body of water by volume. This title is not what brings so many to its shores though, as I’m sure you know; instead it is the elusive Loch Ness Monster which captures the imagination of the majority of visitors. Now there are many theories out there about what this creature is, and if it even exists at all; most seemingly like to think it is some prehistoric dinosaur, or a huge beast similar to a sea serpent. Much like Big Foot, there have been many rather questionable photos passed round since it first came to the world’s attention in 1933, and according to our rather amusing guide, the majority of sightings seem to be thanks to locals leaving the pub at night. I myself am more wont to believe the theory of our aforementioned guide, who believes that the ‘monster’ is, in fact, simply a large sturgeon (a kind of catfish) which has managed to grow to unprecedented size due to the fact that the loch is not fished, and that it has no natural predators here. Given that sturgeon are long living bottom feeders who very rarely surface, it seems likely that a rare breeching by an eight metre long gargantuan fish could easily be mistaken as a monster in the eyes of even a mildly inebriated person. With that all said, the little kid in me still wanted some seemingly immortal plesiosaurus to pop its head up beside us, but it was not to be.
Despite no sign of Nessie, we still basked in the beauty of our surrounds, including a glimpse of Aldourie Castle, a gorgeous building which can be hired out in its entirety for weddings, functions, or just because you’re eccentrically rich and have some money to burn. Ahh, a girl can dream. Our cruise reached its turning point as we approached and docked at a sight we would be visiting later in the day; Urquhart Castle. Although we wouldn’t be disembarking here, it was a great opportunity to see the castle from a different angle. Before we reached the dock though, and given that even we had reached our threshold of chilled air, we quickly headed into the cabin to wrangle a seat before being inundated by more visitors piling onto our vessel for the trip back to Dochgarroch.
The journey back was peaceful, and as our guide continued to share a little history, and a lot of cringe worthy but still amusing jokes, we sat and snacked on a couple of packets of crisps. Let’s be honest, nothing says Scottish potato chips like Aberdeen Angus Beef, and Haggis and Cracked Black Pepper flavour. Although haggis may not seem like an appealing seasoning, I must say, give it a go before you knock it; its surprisingly good.
With the cruise over, it was time to hop back in the car and make our way to Urquhart. Parking and heading into the visitor centre, we realised quickly that a packet of crisps was clearly not enough to sustain us. Thus we nipped over to the café before beginning our exploration for another delicious Scottish classic; Cullen Skink, a traditional creamy soup filled with pototoes, leek, and smoked haddock.
Satiated, we headed over to the display area to view some of the impressive finds unearthed during the excavation of the site, and a quick video presentation which tells the history of this now ruined fortification. With the groundwork of knowledge laid we scurried out, as we realised that if we hurried we would be able to join the last free tour for the day. Stepping outside we were faced with a gorgeous look over the rather stark outline of the crumbling walls.
At this point, let me take the opportunity to give you a little background on this place. Firstly, Urquhart comes from the word ‘Airdchartdan’, a mixture of the Gaelic word ‘air’ meaning ‘by’, and the Old Welsh word ‘cardden’ meaning ‘thicket or wood’. It is believed that there has been some kind of fortification here since as early as the 6th century, however, the remains which sit here now date from the 13th century. Like most castles in this country, it has changed hands multiple times, and has been damaged and rebuilt even more. Much like Eileen Donan Castle, that we had visited the day before, this site has lay in ruins since the Jacobite Uprising brought about its demise. At this time it was owned by the Grants, who sided with William of Orange in the fight. Given its strategic placement on Strone Point on the Loch’s banks, the well provisioned garrison of soldiers posted here were able to hold out against an attack by 500 Jacobites, despite lacking in weapons. When the Jacobites eventually fell back, the soldiers left, but not before blowing up the entrance gate to prevent the Jacobites from occupying the site. This explosion was so forceful that huge blocks of masonry still sit lodged in the earth haphazardly where they fell all of those centuries ago. At this point the castle was abandoned entirely, and coupled with plundering of the stonework by local farmers for re-use, and a storm in 1715 causing Grant Tower to partially collapse, it has slowly decayed to what can be seen today. In the late 1800’s it came into the hands of Caroline, Dowager Countess of Seafield, who in turn left it to state care after her death in 1911. It remains in the care of Historic Scotland to this day.
Luckily we managed to make it in time to meet up with the enthusiastic and fiercely proud Scotsman who would lead us around the site. This hulking and fluently Gaelic speaking member of the Donald clan, may very well be one of the most Scottish looking men I’ve seen since we arrived. As he showed us around the castle ruins, he regaled us with the history not only of this place, but of the warring clans of years gone by. He led us around explaining the layout of the fortress, and taking us to the remains of Grant Tower, which can be climbed to give a stunning view over the loch and the castle equally. From the remains of the dovecot to the back entrance which allowed for escape onto the water if necessary, our guides descriptions brought the scant surroundings to life. There was something infectious about his passion for Scotland and its past, and we were in no way surprised to look at the time as the tour came to an end and realise that his thirty minute tour had lasted almost seventy minutes.
After exploring a little on our own, the sun was well and truly on its way to the horizon as we made our way back through the gift shop, stopping to buy some Scottie Dog shaped shortbread of course. Our day had been enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable, but unfortunately we arrived back at our Airbnb to find that our host was still nowhere to be seen since our brief encounter at our arrival. Despite attempting to contact her, we were left in our bedroom, of which the main light was non-functional leaving us with nought but a small lamp, and no instructions on how to get the hot water to work, meaning we were unable to take a much desired shower. Disappointed, we simply cobbled together a quick meal, and spent the remainder of our evening in the dining room attempting to get some work done on our blogs.
When I finally lay down to sleep, I attempted to let the inconveniences of the evening go, and thought once more about that most mysterious of monsters that so many venture here in the hopes of glimpsing. It is a fascinating look into the human psyche to consider that people have been ‘spotting’ mythical creatures the world over since time immemorial. From Nessie to Big Foot, unicorns to fairies, mermaids to werewolves, dragons to bunyips, it seems almost every country has their own unique being. Something about the rush of the unknown and the unexplainable still lurks within us, despite our ingrained desire to explain and rationalise our surroundings. Just like with magic, we long to believe there is more out there than we know; that there are fantastic beasts in our world, if only we had a guide of where to find them. They live in our peripherals, in our drunken stupors, in the shadows. We find them in the darkness, in isolated places, and only ever when no one else is there to witness it; and perhaps it is just our imagination, but it would break our hearts and out spirits of we stifled the inner child whispering to us with the blind confidence of youth that they are, in fact, real.