Scotland is full of legends and lore. Superstitious by nature, the clans passed down fairy stories and traditions from one generation to another. The Scots are natural born story tellers and my gentle giant tour guide Gavin Nicholson lives up to the celebrated reputation.
Gavin, owner and operator of Loch Ness Tours and I met a year ago September when I visited Glasgow to take part in the charity High Hopes Hike via my connection to Outlander actor Sam Heughan’s My Peak Challenge organization. Gavin is what you would call a Scotsman’s Scot, a true believer in preserving the Scottish way of life. All 6’ 7” of him oozes positive Highland energy. He hails from Invergordon, but there is no mistaking that somewhere along the line a Viking conquest occurred in the family tree.
Loch Ness Tours specializes in crafting personalized experiences. Gavin prides himself on taking the queue from his clients about how much (or how little) to pack into a day. I had a 24-hour window to see some highlights of the Highlands, and had requested to have him pack in as much as humanly possible before I needed to board the train back to Glasgow. I requested accommodations off the beaten path near (if not on) the water and naturally whisky tasting was high on my list of “musts” so Gavin suggested I kill two birds with one stone by staying at the country estate Glenmorangie House. The estate is 200 yards from the beach on a grassland cliff, and just minutes away from Glenmorangie Distillery. I did a highly civilized Scotch Whisky tasting at The House and then a tour of the distillery the next day. Click here to read more about my stay at Glenmorangie…
The Black Isle
Cromarty, birthplace of Hugh Miller, legendary geologist and writer is on what’s known as the Black Isle on the Firth. The Black Isle, according to legends, was named as such after the Vikings left the area. The pillagers did not want locals to benefit from their infrastructure so they burned everything to the ground – the scorched earth was literally black. The Firth is the inlet waterway that leads to the North Sea and is filled with wildlife including dolphins and seals. Charming bungalows and summer cottages dot the landscape while eclectic shops and restaurants are just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. I ate at the petite but well-known Sutor Creek Cafe, known for simple, fresh local seafood dishes and killer gluten-free brownies. Tip: Reservations are a must!
When people think of Scotland, kilts certainly come to mind. One of the most unique souvenirs for travelers is to find on the Black Isle is a tartan that tickles their fancy. Did you know to be considered an official tartan the pattern must be recorded with the Scottish Register of Tartans? Clare Campbell of Prickly Thistle is one such designer of official tartans. She assists clients as the co-author on a tartan journey to create bespoke patterns reflecting their core values, history and future identity aspirations. Tip: Done by private bookings only.
Around Inverness and the Loch Ness Trail
Touring Loch Ness by boat – I took the Jacobite Rebel Ferry boat (reference to the 18th century rebellion of the clans of Scotland against the British) and enjoyed panoramic views of the Highlands. Regaled along the mysterious waterway with tales of the most famous of all lake creatures, alas Nessie, the elusive Loch Ness Monster, was nowhere to be found. I disembarked at the impressive ruins of the once mighty Urquhart Castle.
Balnuaran of Clava – located in Inverness-shire is the spot where a set of standing stones and cairns (human-made pile of stones) can be found. Recent flocks of visitors seek out the area hoping to go “through” them like the fictional time traveler Claire from the Outlander book series. Author Diana Gabaldon’s acclaimed novels, and subsequent popular television series based upon them, motivate devotees from around the world to seek out these and others in the Highlands trying to reenact illustrious scenes. Gavin insisted that I pose for the obligatory fan photo mimicking Claire’s passage through the stones, but he looked more impressive posing in his kilt. Apparently, my deep affection for the books was not enough to send me back to the 18th Century, but I sure did get a kick out of trying.
Cawdor Castle – home to the 7th Earl of Cawdor of the Clan Campbell of Cawdor, this estate has been in the family for over 600 years. An imposing structure, it is a massive structure built with a tower and garret giving residents a high vantage point to see intruders advancing. I delighted in wandering through drawing room, tapestry bedroom, old kitchen and dining room areas as well as in the Maze and Paradise Garden.
Culloden Moor and Museum – I requested my last stop be at Culloden so that I could take my time to pay my respects to the gallant Jacobite warriors who fought for Scotland’s independence from the British. The final Battle of Culloden was fought on this Moor on the 16th of April 1746. The graves of the Highlanders who paid the ultimate price are marked on the headstones bearing only their clan name. It was a somber finish to a thrilling and amusing day, but I could not imagine ending my tour any other way. To understand the depths of the tragic history of the Scottish clans you must pay a visit to the Culloden Museum and walk the windswept Moor for yourself. Tip: Don’t miss the short film in the 360° theater prior to walking the battlefields, bring tissues!
I was impressed that Gavin could pack so much into a 24-hour period, but my personal Uber was so organized; everything ran like clockwork. He knows the backroads by heart and planned for seamless entry into each historical site. The itinerary was exactly as I imagined, action packed with moments of relaxation, heaps of fascinating historical facts and tons of laughs. Sure, it ended with tears, not just because of Culloden, but for my longing to stay a bit more to explore this fascinating region…
Slàinte mhòr! That’s Scottish Gaelic for “good health” to you.