Thursday, September 18, 2014

Last minute holiday in Scotland: A Mountain and a Castle and a River

May/June 2014:

Inverness is a lovely place to visit – however as we were travelling up the Great Glen we thought we would visit the “magnificently situated Urquhart Castle” on the banks of Loch ness, which was conveniently on the way.

There was another more important thing to get done first though – have breakfast. We were only just in time. The coach tour must have been away early – there was no-one else around.  Whilst we had a peaceful night after random wine deliveries it turned out our daughter was woken early-ish by builders banging working in the lift shaft. So for a change, we’d probably had the better room.

As a result of being the only ones around for breakfast my scrambled egg and toast was freshly cooked and really rather good.

It was then time to check out and move on, however since we didn’t have that far to go we thought we would have a ride on Britain’s only Mountain Gondola, on the Nevis Range before heading up the Great Glen. As it happens the weather wasn’t too bad either, so the views would be good and as it wasn’t too windy the Gondolas wouldn’t sway around too much.  I have twice been stuck at the top a mountain waiting for the cable car system to re-open.

This is the Souter’s Lass (Crannog’s Cruises), you can take a 90 minute cruise down Loch Linnhe and enjoy breath-taking scenery. Note for the Sassenachs reading this – Souter – Cobbler.

Souter’s Lass on Loch Linnhe


Here is the hotel were we had been staying in Fort William, the Cruachan Hotel, not the Hollow Mountain of the same name – Cruachan - The Hollow Mountain.  As you can see the hotel is a game of two halves – the older front bit and then the newer bit across the back.

The hotel appears to be having some improvements – the lift is new.

Cruachan Hotel

The views to the front of the hotel were lovely – across the road there were wide-open views of Loch Linnhe – a sea loch.

Sailing Boats Moored – Loch Linnhe

This looks rather like one of the two former Western Ferries boats now being used by the Diving Training company. The picture isn’t clear enough to tell whether it is the same one we saw when we were on the Jacobite train, or the other one.  They are both over 50 years old, but in good nick.  The Western Ferries Company still operates – they bought some new boats to replace them.

One of the Old Western Ferries Boats – now owned by the Underwater Centre (Loch Linnhe)

If I have driven somewhere then I usually find it pretty easy to find my way there again. So when we set out for the Nevis Range to ride on the Gondola I didn’t give it’s exact location much thought. Annoyingly the same thing happened as when we visited Eilean Donan Castle – we thought it was a wee bit closer than it was. I guess it is because we weren’t driving. The last time on holiday in Scotland, we visited the castle by coach and also we took a taxi up from Fort William to the Nevis Range. So I didn’t really pay much attention – well that’s my excuse anyway.

As before we just had to drive a wee bit further and then we arrived. In fact we arrived to a hive of activity.  The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup was being held at Fort William and preparations were underway (third round).  They were constructing the race track and putting in a load of stands for the crowd.  Did I mention that I had taken my Brompton folding bicycle up to Scotland. I could have easily got it up the Mountain in the Gondola. I didn’t want to show the MTBers up though so I left it back in the car.

We got our tickets and headed up, we were warned that there might be the odd stop on the Gondola system because of the construction going on.

I have mentioned how mobile phone coverage is rather patchy in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Well a Gondola ride is quite a good place to get coverage and I got a call as we trundled up.  Fortunately there was only the three of us in the Gondola so it wasnae too embarrassing.

The view is great even at the start of the ride. If you look closely you can see the stands that have been constructed for the race event and will be taken down once it is over (by the next day. The green blobs to the top-left.

The View from the Gondola

Whilst we were going up and sometimes just hanging around, we got to observe the preparations taking place below us.  If you go to the website there is a You Tube video - Behind the Bill which is possibly what this guy below was shooting footage for.

Track Building and Filming

When we got out at the top of the Gondola System (which isn’t the top of the mountain) I could more of less have ticked all the boxes for doing the Downhill Orange Extreme ride. The only thing missing was my bike didn’t have disk brakes or full suspension, and I had forgotten my full body armour and full face helmet.  It was downhill – what can be difficult about that eh? It is the uphill I find tricky.

Fort William MTB – Orange Extreme Route

The views were tremendous though, both across the mountains and down to Fort William. The Gondola take you up from 300ft to 2,150ft in around 15 minutes, although ours was a little slower.  You reach the North face of Aonach Mor from where, in the winter, there are other ski lifts operating to take you higher.

You get a good view of The Narrows, the thin gap between Loch Eil (to the right) and Loch Linnhe to the left.

Fort William from the Mountains of the Nevis Range

In case you were wondering (and even if you weren’t) there was snow in these-there hills.  To the right of the snow is one of the ski lifts to take you even higher. They weren’t running though.

Snow Melting on Aonach Mor

This is a rider just about to set out on the slightly easier Red Route – rated Difficult. 

The guys we saw weren’t wearing full body armour that’s for sure.  Although this one has goggles and a full face helmet – but no body armour. The route drops 543m and they think it is more than 5.5km in length.

Fort William RED MTB Route – Difficult

MTBers riding the Fort William Red Route

MTBers riding the Fort William Red Route

Surely that is cheating, it’s downhill all the way. Actually, you lose track of the scale, it took them a fair while to get to the tree line, see how small they look and yet the distance doesn’t look that far.

MTBers riding the Fort William Red Route

Meanwhile, behind us the mountains are another 600m higher. Across the valley the highest mountain is over 1,200m in height.  There is still a fair bit of snow there. Sorry about the change from feet to metres.

Ben Nevis is off to the right and behind the ridge.


Carn Mor Dearg
(A great place to admire the Ben’s magnificent North Face)

We walked to one of the viewpoints – Meall Beag.  The blurb reckons it takes around an hour, there and back – I don’t think it took us anything like that long.

The View from Meall Beag

Meall Beag viewpoint – 630m

The View of Fort William from Meall Beag

Whilst we were walking back we saw a couple of what looked like powered hang gliders cruising above us.  This was an Aeromot AMT-200 Ximango. It is a Brazilian motor glider.

Motor Glider flying the Mountains around Fort William

The other plane was a Grob G-109B, it is a two-seater self-launching motor glider.

Motor Glider flying the Mountains around Fort William
Like buses, you see none and then two arrive at the same time!

I wonder how long the snow will remain – there was a lot of water running down the mountain.

Water running off Aonach Mor

In the time that we spent on Aonach Mor the clouds seemed to be gathering, although further into the distance there were still blue skies.

Loch Eil from Aonach Mor

As we headed back to the Gondola to ride back down another cyclist was warming up ready to ride down. 

MTBer Warming Up to Go down

A map of the skiing area – Aonach Mor – 4,006ft, Ben Nevis - 4,406ft

As we headed back down more cyclists were heading back up. That’s how they carry the bikes on the Gondola. Either this guy is crying his eyes out with fear, needs more sleep or has a hangover.

Bicycle being carried up the Mountain

Hum, I wonder if it is too late for me to enter (on my Brompton).

The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup was being held at Fort William and preparations were underway.

Downhill racing anyone?

It wasn’t far to drive to get to Urquhart Castle from Fort William, past the interestingly named Loch Lochy as well as Loch Oich. The latter Loch had its level raised by “many feet” to provide a navigable channel for the Caledonian Canal.

The castle is managed by Historic Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish Government. In the wee few years I have been visiting it (well it wasn’t that long ago since I was a wee lad) it seems to have undergone quite a transformation. The castle itself is “an impressive stronghold despite its ruinous state” and also seems to have acquired a significant car park and visitor centre. It is also a popular spot for tourists, judging by the number of visitors when we called in.

My wife had bought our tickets on-line. There was a special queue for us, because of our on-line tickets. However it seemed that we were the first to have bought on-line tickets, well for the chap that dealt with us anyway.  So he got my wife’s autograph on the print-out we took along. Quite what that was for who knows.

As you can see, the castle clearly hasnae been restored, in 1912 it was taken into State Care. But if you check out the history it has had a lively and turbulent past, probably because of its commanding location (page 2).  There is also a plan of the castle on Page 4 of that link.

Grant’s Tower

As you can see the tower had a pretty good view both up and down Loch Ness.

Urquhart Castle on the bonny banks of Loch Ness

The view down Loch Ness (in the direction of Fort William)

It seems to be the latest fashion, avoid the crowds and fly over Scotland (like we did when visiting Skye).  This is a Piper PA-38-112 Tomahawk, which seems to fly out of Inverness Airport and belongs to the Highland Flying Club – G-BRLP. I didn’t know Inverness had an airport – it has a small but reasonable set of destinations. (More than Cambridge Airport.)

Piper Tomahawk above Urquhart Castle

That is a more leisurely way to view the castle – by sailing yacht

I think this was the water gate, although I took the picture because of the bluebells.

Urquhart Castle – bluebells down to the water

As you will see from later pictures you can climb the tower. Although there is only one narrow spiral staircase, which can/did lead to traffic jams as you make you way up or down.

Grant’s Tower

Loch Ness – Inverness is up there somewhere

Urquhart Castle from Grant’s Tower (the steps are new by the way)

Another way to view the castle – The Jacobite Warrior. “An hour trip with views of the stunning ruins of Urquhart Castle”.  If you follow the link you will see that the boat has two hulls.

The Jacobite Warrior on Loch Ness

Before we left for Inverness we thought we’d better check out the cafĂ©. It has great views over the Castle and the Loch and the food was very tasty as well.

After first visiting the mountains and then the Castle we carried on to Inverness (Inbhir Nis – “Mouth of the River Ness). We had hoped to stay in the same hotel we had stayed in previously but my wife had had to book the one next door instead (availability).  So we would still be alongside the River Ness.  Actually neither of us could actually remember the name of the hotel and couldn’t be bothered looking it up, still we were on Ness Walk.

When we got there it turned out to be the same hotel we had stayed in previously – The Columba. If you check out the link I can confirm it has a perfect position in the City.  It is in a peaceful area on the river, but the city centre is very conveniently just over the river as well.  One of the best bits about the hotel was a wonderful lounge on the 1st floor, for the avoidance of doubt the one above the ground floor. The room had a couple of large bay windows and a fireplace at one end – it was a great place to sit and read or chat whilst watching the world go by.  The room was still there – but the fireplace end had been blocked off for some building work. We were still able to sit in one of the bay windows though.

There were some foibles to the City, although I would certainly go back again.  One of the first foibles was that as we drove down Young Street, we discovered that they had been not very busy and not very hard at work on the roads or so it seemed, but they had made some progress in altering the rights of way on the road, since the last visit when there was work taking place (20months ago). We expected to turn right, off Young Street down Ness Walk to the hotel. However they had removed the traffic lights before the bridge and made the route no right turn. So we had to go across the bridge and loop around Bridge Street, Castle Street and then Castle Road to head back over the bridge in order to get down Ness Walk (one way).  It was a good job we had some inkling of the layout of the place. The SatNav was no real use or rather was wrong.

The hotel doesn’t have any parking either. Fortunately there was some unloading/loading space and then a small amount of parking on Ness Road. Even more usefully there was a Long-stay car park about 500m down the road (Bishops Road next to St Andrew’s Cathedral). It was also quite cheap, by Cambridge standards anyway.

The final foible (hotel this time), was that after flushing the en-suite toilet it would carry on flushing for ever unless you intervened with a bit of handle-wiggling.  What is worse is that the same problem existed 20 months ago when we last visited (and we were in a different room). I can only imagine that they aren’t on a water meter.

After checking in and sorting out the car parking we went for a stroll to stretch our legs and get a newspaper to catch up with what had been happening in the world.

Almost directly opposite the hotel is Inverness Castle (Caisteal Inbhir Nis). The River Ness is pretty wide at this point.

Inverness Castle

The last time we were up this way we were amazed at the number of churches up and down the river.  Here is a bit of history with a list (21 denominations– but only including those with websites).  It doesn’t really explain what it is about the Scottish psyche though. If I and some of my rellies are anything to go by it is because we don’t like being told what to do I reckon. Hence so many different denominations?

Here is one of the many churches in Inverness – Ness Bank Church (Church of Scotland).

Ness Bank Church – Church of Scotland

Looking downstream you can see quite a few more spires. The first Spire to the right, looking downstream, was up for sale (well the whole church building actually) when I looked on Streetview. I think that it was also a Church of Scotland – St Columba’s Church. According to this news article the sale was driven by a dwindling congregation.  The purchasers are the evangelical CityLife Church and paying around £400,000. See what I mean about churches and Scotland.  As you might imagine the congregation were not best pleased at having to move. It seems they have been on the move ever since

The second Spire on the right is the Free North Congregation of the Free Church of Scotland.  Apparently it has the tallest spire of the riverside churches. The interior of the church has two tiers of seating – it looks impressive.

On the left hand-side there is St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. Beyond it is another tower – but this is Funeral Home.  Beyond that – but not easy to see is a Methodist Church

The River Ness, Inverness, Downstream

The view upstream. Both up and down stream there are pedestrian bridges spanning the river. These bridges bounce quite a lot as people walk across. Which makes taking pictures from them a bit of a nuisance.  You can see on in this picture.

The large Church-like building to the right is St Andrew’s Cathedral – of the Scottish Episcopal Church. That last link has a flow-chart showing how nine churches seem to arise from the Scottish Reformation.

The River Ness, Inverness – Upstream

What is rather nice about the foot bridges is you can have a very pleasant walk up one side of the river and then back down the other side.

Here is the hotel we were staying at – Columba Hotel. Those three bay windows above the ground floor are where the lounge is.

Columba Hotel, Inverness

Whatever you do keep looking at the statues and don’t blink. Fortunately they weren’t Weeping Angels so we were ok. (If you haven’t a clue what I am talking about they are an ancient race of aliens from Dr Who.)

They are the three virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity and were originally commissioned by the YMCA in Inverness to stand on top of their building.  They ended up in private ownership until the council purchased them in 2007.

The Three Virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity, Ness Bank Gardens

The view downstream from a bouncing bridge

The view upstream from the same bouncing bridge

The last time we were here the Clock Tower was being repaired, or Inverness Town Steeple as it is also known.

Inverness Town Steeple

The former St Columba’s High Church building – now the CityLife Church.

The Former St Columba’s Church, Inverness

We went to an Italian Restaurant for dinner, next door to the Hotel called Riva, by the river – get it. Although it seems to have three parts – the restaurant, a pizzeria and a take-away pizza service. More by luck than judgement we made our way to the restaurant. The food was delicious.

After a peaceful nights’s sleep it was time to head South – well back to St Andrews where we were staying for a few days. Although I had to pop down to Manchester for a meeting.

I mentioned that we sometimes booked breakfast with our rooms and sometimes not. One of the problems with eating hotel breakfasts is that they get a bit samey. I am not a great fan of breakfast buffets where food has been left to congeal.  So we reckoned it would be better to be a bit more flexible in our breakfasting habits. Mind you I would certainly have the breakfast at the Duisdale House Hotel on Skye – good choice and freshly cooked.

Our plan was to have breakfast or elevenses elsewhere on the way down to St Andrews. It was a bit of a rainy and grey day when we woke and went to collect the car from the nearby long-term car park.  Mind you that didn’t stop this chap going out for an early morning fishing expedition.  You know what they say:

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.
Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.”

Apparently that is a quote from Desmond Tutu! (According to the web)

Here are two more cycling quotes:

Albert Einstein (about relativity) “I thought of that while riding my bike”

Mark Twain:  “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.”

We got in the car and drove the convoluted loop over the bridge and back again to get back to the hotel, loaded up and headed down to St Andrews.  The journey was good, you pretty much drive down the A9 along the edge of the Cairngorms. It was about 150 miles, according to Google Maps. The only slight snag was my SatNav didn’t seem to have the most recent access to the A9 from Inverness so we took a slightly more scenic route to it.

A Fishing Cyclist or a Cycling Fisherman?

It seems that the A9 is regarded as one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland and will shortly be getting an average speed camera detection system, with trials currently running.  I reckon such systems work well. However various weird groups seem to have formed such as the “A9 Average Speed Cameras Are Not The Answer” campaign with anecdotal “evidence”.  What a load of twaddle.  The A9 is due for dualling by 2025, so not long to wait for those speeding motorists.

We decided we would stop somewhere along the way to have a late breakfast/early lunch. More out of desperation than planning we pulled into an area that didn’t really look very promising.  It was called the House of Bruar and looked more like a distillery or clothing outlet that anything.  

Well it was far more than that, it had a rather good Food Hall, with a Butchery, Deli and market stall.  They had a restaurant and we just managed to get breakfast served to us (bacon and sausage in a roll in my case) even though we were a few minutes over the breakfast menu deadline.  Then we sat in an “open” area with a glass roof and patio heaters spread around. It worked really well.

After our late breakfast we went back to the Food Hall and bought a few lot of bits and pieces.  If we hadn’t been staying in Scotland for a few more days we would have bought even more bits and pieces – especially pies (in my case).

As we neared St Andrews we detoured to Dundee. One of the minor challenges of my Land Rover Discovery is that it doesn’t always fit into Multi-storey car parks so I have to be careful to check out the height restrictions. In most of the places we visit in Scotland they don’t have a need for multi-storey car parks – but the City of Dundee is different.  (It is Scotland’s 4th largest City.  Fortunately London it isn’t (or even Cambridge for that matter) and we parked in a street just beside the Shopping Mall.

As you might notice, although the weather was grey and drizzly oop North, it was bright and the skies were blue in Dundee.

This is the centre of Dundee – City Square. The building opposite is the Caird Hall and the places was bustling.

City Square - Dundee

We then made our way to our nth hotel of the holiday. It is a good job I am used moving around hotels.  The Best Western on the ScoresIt does have very limited parking under an arch round the back. Hearing the word arch put me off so we either managed to squeeze in along the front or just down the road with large car parks with lots of space.

This was the hotel where on the first night there were three of us staying, on the 2nd night my daughter was moving back to her place and I was down in Manchester and then on the 3rd and 4th nights I returned. My wife decided that it was easier to speak to a human when booking the hotel rather than on line. Even that took a wee while. When we did check in, they didn’t seem too sure whether she was moving rooms or not, they did say she would definitely have a bed though!

In the room she had been sent a card by the person she spoke to at Best Western when booking the hotel. The card was to wish us all a pleasant stay. You don’t get that from on-line booking systems… yet.

Once settled in we went for a stroll (and some shopping I think) around St Andrews.  As we walked along the Scores I took this picture. This was around 7pm – there was still plenty of light around.

I am sure we had supper somewhere – but it is all a bit of a blur. In any case I had to get up early the next day to drive to Edinburgh and then fly to Manchester.

The sea was pretty calm.

The Sea from The Scores – St Andrews

It wasn’t all that long ago that many Seaside towns had swimming pools along the edge of the sea that were filled and flushed by the tides.

The Old Sea Swimming Pool - St Andrews

This is St James’ Church, they have a small Roman Catholic parish of around 600 – that sounds pretty good to me.

St James’ Roman Catholic Church – St Andrews

And this is the same picture – after Google’s “auto-awesome” got hold of it.

St James’ Roman Catholic Church – St Andrews

There is a ginger cat the lives in the town of St Andrews and goes by the name of – Fred Bloggs Hamish McHamish. He is a connected cat with a Facebook page and Twitter account (well according to Wikipedia).  This is his £5,000 bronze statue – if I were Hamish I would ask for my money back – it doesnae do him justice.

(Unfortunately since our return Hamish has passed away.)

Hamish McHamish

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