Late Early August, Inverness.
As it is nearing the end of our summer cruise we decided to collect our car from home early. This gave us many more options for touring around Speyside and Cromarty. As Inverness to Oban is very easy by public transport, moving it after our passage through the Caledonian canal should not be a problem.
On our arrival, for convenience, we berthed in Inverness Marina which is accessible at any state of the tide. However it is not very salubrious, being located in a building site on the edge or an industrial estate, with the only facilities being a small portaloo-cum-shower. It was a improvement when we moved to Seaport Marina which is just inside the Caledonian Canal. This has the advantage that the canal locks only operate between 8 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. so you are not woken in the night by moving boats. This was a real problem in Inverness Marina as the commercial harbour pilot boats were located near the visitor berths, and would come and go at all hours of the night.
Not having been through canal locks before we were slightly nervous, but the warden on the Clachnaharry Sea Lock (left) was very helpful so we passed through without a hitch.
Inverness is a small city which is great if you are traveling mostly on foot, being about a half hour walk from either marina into the centre. The second hand book shop, Leakey's, was a must for us. It is huge, occupying an old chapel, with floor to ceiling books on two levels. It also manages to squeeze in a coffee shop, so when you start to tire there is caffeine ready to hand. The only let down was the paperback fiction. This was not sorted alphabetically, but instead roughly arranged by subject (crime, sci-fi, other) and then all jumbled together. So it took a lot of patience to find what you were looking for. Around the corner is Blackfriars, an excellent Real Ale pub, though it is for sale at the moment, so how long it will remain excellent is an issue.
There are some imposing buildings around the city. The Victorian cathedral (see more pictures) is a mini Notre Dame on the banks of the River Ness. On the opposite bank is the court house (see more pictures), another Victorian red sandstone edifice with the obligatory crenellated turrets and ramparts. In the courtyard is a statue to Flora Macdonald (right) of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame. She makes a favourite perch for the gulls. It is not obvious what pose she is striking, but it looks just as though she is trying to brush the gull from her head!
Inverness is a popular place for dolphin watching. The Moray Firth is one of the few areas of the country to support a resident population of bottlenose dolphins. At low water, and for a couple of hours afterwards, they can be easily seen at the narrows at the Kessock Bridge, and at Chanonry Point (below) where the Inverness Firth empties into the Moray Firth. It does not give you the thrill of watching them bow riding where you can watch them effortlessly swimming underwater, but with binoculars it is great to watch them splashing about. We ate our lunch on this lovely beach with the crowd of other people all looking out at the flat water waiting for the appearance of the odd fin. The one advantage of Inverness Marina, it that it is located at the Kessock narrows so only a short step from your boat to a good view point. It was here that Tim saw one with a huge salmon in its mouth.
From the 3rd to the 9th Centuries the north and east of Scotland was dominated by the Picts. Little of their history is known as there are very few surviving written records. However there are many Pictish carved stones (left) dotted along the coast. The symbols on the stones are unique to the Picts, and often, as with this one at Brodie castle, have Christian motifs on the reverse. This one shows the "Pictish Beast" and the "Double disc and Z-rod". Others had and eagle, a wolf, and one had a lovely image of a cow licking its new born calf (see more pictures).
The Moray coast is also the site of the last battle on British soil, where the government forces finally defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites at Culloden. The battle site is a war grave, and is bleak windswept moorland with a great view down to the Inverness Firth. The battle lines are marked with rows of flags, and an audio tour describes the significance of each spot. It is very atmospheric, but an open field does not make a very interesting photograph (see more pictures).
A few miles to the east is Cawdor castle (right). This is very popular because of it's link to Shakespeare's Macbeth, where the fulfillment of the witches prophecy that Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor gives him the greater ambition to be king. That the castle dates from several hundred years after Macbeth's time does not discourage the tourists - us included! The castle grounds are also impressive, with an colourful walled garden, extensive woodland walks and a large maze. This is made from mature holly hedges which should discourage anyone tempted to try and force a short cut!
The advantage of having our car was it brought the Cairngorm national park and Speyside within easy reach. Armed with various maps, walking guides and tourist leaflets we enjoyed several days in this area. The general itinerary was to go for a walk in the morning, then by mid afternoon find a suitable cafe located somewhere interesting. The walks contrasted to the overly busy with lots of mountain bikers as well as walkers, to no one but ourselves and this little hedgehog. It took no notice of us whatsoever, just shuffling along across the grass and rooting amongst the leaves. Our cafe spots included the distilleries of Glenlivet and Glenfiddich (see more pictures). Unfortunately the Cairngorm brewery did not have a cafe, so after stocking up at the shop we headed off to Boat of Garten to try our luck at the Strathspey railway. There was no cafe here either, but they did sell Orkney ice cream!
August is the time for agricultural shows in the area. The biggest appears to be the Black Isle show at Muir of Ord. Having been to similar shows in the South, it was interesting to see highland breeds. The judging of the champions champion for the horses was entertaining, with the huge placid Clydesdale (below: right top) contrasting with the feisty shetland who would not stand still. The cattle were all beautifully clean and well groomed, and the sheep neatly clipped - most unnatural. Throughout the day the judging was interspersed with other events in the main ring. The most popular was the Royal Signals motorbike display team (below: centre top). This must be a good secondment, much more popular than a posting to Iraq or Afghanistan!
For us the most entertaining were the dancing sheep (above: bottom). This was an hilarious routine, staged in an open sided lorry trailer. Each sheep was introduced with their own theme music, while the speaker (a New Zealander) gave a brief history of the breed full of double entendre. He then went on to give a shearing demonstration before the dancing commenced. The sheep clearly knew what was coming as each got up and eagerly started their different routines as soon as the music started, all encouraged with liberal sheep-treats. The routines were tenuously related to be breed (as far as dances and sheep can be!) with Rupert the Rouge de Louset doing a sort of can-can with the front legs, Lenny the Lincoln Longwool doing a sort of hippy dance swinging its "dreadlocks" and Nobby the Norfolk Horn doing an imitation Michael Jackson moon walk. It had us in stitches! The chap tours around agricultural events in the UK and it is well worth looking out for his show.
With our lift out for the winter is booked for the end of August it is now time to get a move on, after nearly three weeks in Inverness, otherwise there will not be time to enjoy the Caledonian Canal.