You ride the bus out of Inverness, down a country road winding around little lochs scattered here and there. You get off the bus after about a half an hour and find a sign pointed down a set of stairs. You stand at the top of the stairs and look out ahead of you, over the stately pile of bricks, the black waters of the loch, and the steep treed hill beyond.
And you kind of stare for a bit.
Fall set in rather suddenly here in Scotland. Before I went to Inverness, it was summer, the trees were green, and it was in the upper 60s and low 70s. I got up to Inverness, and it was fall. It was rainy, mid 40s, and all the trees had turned. That just means that Loch Ness was all the more beautiful.
For almost 600 years, a castle has stood at the northern end of Loch Ness. It’s a perfect location. From the promontory the castle sits on, you can see where the Ness River meets the Loch, and in the other direction you can see three quarters of the way down the Loch (which is roughly 26 miles long). When the castle was built in the 1230s, the Ness River and Loch Ness were the major water highway across Scotland, and were therefore an important trade route. This also means that whoever controlled that particular water pass maintained a very lucrative position, as they were able to collect both tolls from the sailors going by and tithes from the surrounding countryside.
The scenic ruins that are left of this particular castle belie its tumultuous history. Urquhart Castle (ur-kart) was built on a site that is believed to have been a Pictish stronghold, territory of the ancient inhabitants of Scotland. According to one story, St. Columba visited a Pictish chief here, miraculously healed him, and converted him to Christianity. It was also on this visit that St. Columba fought with the river serpent plaguing the Picts, defeated it, and trapped it for all time in the nearby Loch. That’s right, the Loch Ness Monster is a refugee, doomed forever to be able to see home, but never to get there. Poor old Nessie.
During the reign of Alexander II, the people of the north rebelled against the king. After quashing the rebellion, the king granted the estate of Urquhart to a trusted family on the condition that they keep things under control up there in the hinter regions. Urquhart quickly gained a reputation as one of the strongest castles in Scotland. It was besieged several times, including once during the Wars of Independence and once during the wars of the Bruces. The final siege came during the Jacobite Rising of 1689-1690, when the defenders of the castle, knowing full well both that they couldn’t hold it and that this castle in the hands of the Jacobites would be devastating for the new king, William of Orange, filled the walls with gunpowder, marched out of the gates, and lit her up.
Despite having a rather disappointing end to her career as a stronghold, Urquhart Castle is still a commanding presence on the shores of Loch Ness.
If you’re staying in Inverness, it’s easy to get out to Urquhart Castle by bus (if for you, like for me, driving on the left is a disincentive to rent a car). Depending on which line you take, round-trip tickets can run up to £11. Lines 917 and 919 on Scottish Citylink and 19 on Stagecoach Highlands run from the Inverness bus station to the parking lot above Urquhart Castle.
Tip: Make sure you check times for the return buses before you go! Buses run less frequently on the weekends.
Tickets cost £8.50, and a video introduction and guided tour of the castle are included in the price.
Wear layers. Even in summer, the wind coming off the Loch Ness was chilly, and in the fall it was downright cold. If you’re there on an especially blustery day, I can recommend the cafe, which serves all manner of hot beverages, as a warming point. Bonus: The gift shop right next to the cafe sells books, so you could have a very nice experience while recovering from windburn.
Check out their website here.