To see the fiery heart of Inverness, the Highland’s oft-discounted cultural capital, you’ve got to look beyond its stony streets. It may seem unassuming, poised by a river and atmospherically bleak when the weather turns fierce, but don’t let that fool you. This is a place of monsters, witches and the battlefields of old. Here history is underfoot and myth becomes real, breathing life into a city you may otherwise just pass by.
When delving into Inverness lore a certain creature from the deep must be acknowledged. Mysterious rather than sinister, the Loch Ness Monster has captivated visitors’ minds for centuries, despite being difficult to spot. First sighted in 565 AD by Saint Columba (the Irish monk of Iona fame) as she attacked a local fisherman, Nessie opted to lie dormant for a while, not making her next documented appearance until 1933 when a sleepy couple ventured home along what was then the new road on the northern side of Loch Ness. In the driver’s words they spotted “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface”. It was the editor of the Inverness Courier who put the word ‘monster’ in the headline and really set the legend in motion. Alas, despite numerous scientific expeditions, fleeting ‘sightings’ and a bounty on her head, put there by London’s Natural History Museum, the Loch Ness Monster remains elusive, which, given the Loch’s scale, isn’t the most difficult thing to do.
Easily mistaken for an inland sea, Loch Ness holds more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined. And, with the aid of neighbouring lochs and the Caledonian Canal (built during the Napoleonic Wars), it links the North Sea to the Atlantic, falling on the topographical tear that splits Scotland in two. Watched over by the castles of the Great Glen, including the stately Aldourie Castle, which boasts the ghost of a lady in grey, and rocky hills that tumble dramatically into the water, Loch Ness is both picturesque and painfully cold. Yet even white-cap-filled days are not without their adventurous magic.
Equally resplendent, Urquhart Castle is undoubtedly the most iconic regal ruin to grace the Loch’s shores. A castle, supposedly built with the help of witches, stood on this site as early as 1250 and recorded attacks on its stoic walls began around 1296 under the command of Edward I of England, who wasn’t exactly a fan of the Scots. Repeatedly ravaged by the MacDonalds, Viking descendants who became the most powerful of the Highland clans, the castle was eventually burnt down by its owners, who preferred to see it become a crumbled ruin rather than fall into Jacobite hands.
But Urquhart isn’t the only castle of note. It was on Craig Phadraig, a forest-covered hill west of Inverness, that St Columba converted Brude, King of the Picts, around the time he first spotted Nessie. This point was subsequently occupied by the real-life King Macbeth, who built a wooden castle here in the 11th century. While it’s unlikely that this was the site of Duncan’s untimely demise it was nonetheless burnt down by Malcolm Canmore, his justifiably vengeful son. It was replaced by a nearby stone structure, a predecessor to the rose-hued castle that stands today and which now, rather less excitingly, plays host to Inverness’s courthouse and council offices.
Other 12th century buildings, constructed when King David I made Inverness a royal burgh, no longer fill the city. Given its strategic position, this was an incredibly violent place and architectural features rarely lasted long. Instead Inverness has a refined Victorian atmosphere, with many of the current buildings emerging at the same time as the Caledonian Canal. Of particular architectural beauty is the Victorian Market and St Andrew’s Cathedral, the first to be erected following the Reformation. Victorian footbridges also connect the leafy Ness Islands, the stomping ground of fly fishers and dog walking locals, with the start of the Great Glen Way, a walk ideal for those with a fondness for jagged mountains moulded by ice and the elements.
When surrounded by architecture and leafy expanses, it is easy to forget that mere miles away lies a site steeped in Scottish military history. In 1746, the Battle of Culloden Moor, the last pitched battle fought on British soil, saw the ultimate defeat of Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the deposed James II of England, and his Jacobite supporters. During the 68 minute massacre, 1200 Highlanders perished at the hands of the Hanoverian Army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II. Interestingly, despite earning the less than desirable name of ‘Butcher’ for his brutal treatment of the fleeing Highland army, he had the ‘Sweet William’ flower named after him (two sides to every story and all that). Culloden has changed little in the ensuing years and the atmosphere is still one of solemn remembrance. Large stones guard the graves of the fallen clans while a memorial cairn stands tall in the centre. Sombre and vast, there is no denying the power of this place.
Nevertheless, it was this battle, and the actions that led to it, that fuelled the tales of honour, chivalry and heroism that are now seen as an embodiment of the Highland spirit. And you can see why this part of the world has been so romanticised, thanks largely to the imaginings of the likes of Coleridge and Burns who understood this region’s hidden allure. Surrounded by desolate beauty, monsters and the scars of warfare, Inverness stands as a humble gateway to the Highland’s dark and enchanting history.