Scotland #05 – Inverness. Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
Scotland July 2022 - #05 Inverness. Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
This travel-blog is for a trip we took to Scotland in July of 2022. Other than a few days on our own in Edinburgh at the beginning this was on a formal tour of the Scottish Highlands operated by RS (Road Scholar, www.roadscholar.org).
In this installment we talk about Inverness, Loch Ness and Nessie, the rift Valley, Caledonian Canal, and Urquhart Castle.
Entire Trip map
Detail of our route these 2 days (some portions covered in next installment)
The name Inverness comes from “Inver” meaning top of and “Ness” is the name of the river that flows through it. So, Inverness is “top (or mouth) of the river Ness”.
Given its strategic location on a sheltered bay on the northeast coast, it has been constantly raided by folks in the west as well as from invaders from the sea. But, its location also allowed it to become a major world center of trade and thus it not only survived but thrived.
Inverness traces its roots back more than 2,000 years to the Picts who preceded the Vikings. We’ve talked about them before. Of course a lot of history has come and gone that involved Inverness but I found a few tidbits worth mentioning.
One involved good old Mary Queen of Scots. In the mid 1500’s, before she became queen, Mary Stuart, as she was known then, had been traveling around Scotland. When she arrived at Inverness, she was denied entry as she was deemed an undesirable person. This was probably not a good decision by the leaders of the town as soon after she became queen (Mary Queen of Scots) she had those leaders taken out and hanged. Talk about carrying a grudge. But, then, all of a sudden, the remaining Inverness government officials became very loyal to Mary. I wonder why?
Let’s see, what else happened here? On September 7th, 1921, an historic gathering of England’s Cabinet was convened there by Prime Minister Lloyd George. At this meeting the “Inverness Formula” was adopted. This legislation paved the way for a treaty which created the Irish Free State. This meeting remains the only Cabinet meeting of the UK Government to ever be held outside London. The Irish Free State was a dominion of the British Empire and consisted of 26 of the 32 counties on the island of Ireland. The other 6 counties (now Northern Ireland) opted to stay under the rule of England. The Free State mostly had self rule but was still attached to the British Empire in many ways which gradually changed over time. But, after a subsequent civil war, in 1949 it became completely independent from the UK and is now known as Ireland (or The Republic of Ireland).
Although Inverness has been prosperous and strategically important for both military and commerce it was only given the designation of being a “City” in the year 2000. Up till then I suppose it was a “Large Town”. In case you care there are currently 6 classifications for such things (village, small town, medium town, large town, city and core city). This designation of being a city resulted in Inverness being the northernmost city in the UK.
Of the 189 designated places to live in the UK, Inverness ranks as fifth. It is currently one of fastest growing population centers in the UK with new people arriving not only from other parts of the UK but also from abroad. Interestingly enough, according to the 2000 census, after English the 2nd most spoken language in Inverness is Polish rather then the historic Gaelic.
Having a very good primary and secondary educational system has certainly helped attract new residents. Speaking of higher education, the University of the Highlands and Islands is headquartered in Inverness. This University has 13 campuses scattered throughout Scotland and is Scotland’s newest university. It became an independent accredited University in 2011 providing degrees in Gaelic, Tourism, Viking studies and Sustainable Development. It was Established to stem the brain drain of folks leaving Scotland for college and not coming back.
Best Football Headline
As this was our last day staying near Inverness, I thought I’d share something completely irrelevant that has an Inverness connection. In February 2000 there was a football (soccer to us folk in the US) third round match in the Scottish Cup. This match paired a low ranked club from Inverness called the Caledonian Thistle which was a team from two local pubs and nick named “Caley”. The other team was the best team in Scotland from Glasgow called the “Celtic” who were supposed to coast to victory without even breathing hard. But, to everyone’s shock and dismay, the underdog Caley beat the Celtic 3 to 1 which is said to be one of the biggest upsets ever in Scottish football. The next day, the headline read.....
Rift Valley and Caledonian Canal
A knife straight rift valley divides Scotland in half. It runs 60 miles from Moray Firth on the North Sea down to where it opens into the Irish Sea. This rift valley forms a distinct bifurcation of Scotland into the NW section and SE section. It is made up of two rivers flowing in opposite directions from the high point in the valley with each river punctuated with a string of long skinny Lochs. In fact 40 of those 60 miles are Lochs. The River Ness flows NE into Moary Firth a few miles past Inverness. At the other end of the Ness River Ness is the famous Loch Ness. Going the other way the River Lochy flows SW to the Irish Sea.
In the modern age, we see large bodies of water as an impediment to travel requiring bridges, ferries and airplanes. However in prior times bodies of water were considered as the only viable means of significant travel as most of the places one wanted to go to and from were on bodies of water. But sometimes even sailing from place to place took too long a time if the route required one to go around a large land mass. And so it was with Scotland. Getting from the east side to the west side required a long voyage around the north of the country.
So, in the 1780’s they decided that they needed a shorter and safer way to get goods and navy ships from one side of Scotland to the other without spending days sailing around the north side of the island in the rough North Sea. It was decided to build a canal through the rift valley. The lochs themselves where already well suited for the ships but most of the rivers between them were too narrow and shallow to support the merchant and navy ships. The plan was to widen and dredge the bigger rivers and to dig a man made canal parallel to the smaller ones. Construction actually got started in 1804. As it turns out, the highest loch along the route is Loch Oich which sits about 106 ft. above sea level (Loch Ness is only 52 ft above sea level). So in addition to dredging rivers and digging 22 miles worth of shipping canals between the lochs, they also had to build 29 locks to raise and lower the ships along the route.
This new passageway was completed in 1822 after18 years of construction and is called the Caledonian Canal. The full 60 miles was completed just in time for it to become obsolete for trade a couple of decades later due to the larger new steam ships which began taking over on the high seas and were too big for the canal. However the canal is still used for pleasure boats and in the summer can be quite crowded with boats going both ways.
A Caledonian Canal lock at Fort Augustus
Pleasure craft waiting to be lowered down into Loch Ness
One of the lock gates
Originally the mechanisms used to operate the locks were modeled after equipment found on sailing ships. The large valves used to flood and drain the locks were opened and closed by manually turning large capstans like the ones used to raise and lower the anchor on ships and took two buff men to turn them. They also used a system of ropes and pulleys like those used to raise and lower sails to manually open and close the large gates. Over the years the locks saw several modernization projects and now they use electric motors to open and close the valves and gates but they still are operated manually by lock keepers. The old manual valves are still there and could still be used in an emergency.
A Fort Augustus Lock Keeper at the controls of one of the locks.
Controls for one of the locks
Would you believe that in all of Scotland there is but one lake and that is Lake of Menteith. All other bodies of fresh water in Scotland are called “lochs” and the term loch extends to some salt water bays as well. But, even though Lake of Menteith is often thought of as the only body of water in Scotland that is referred to as a lake, actually, there are several others (some of which are man made). But, why let facts get in the way of a good story.
Loch Ness is the largest of the lochs along the Caledonian Canal in the rift valley. It is 23 mi long but only about 1 mile wide. Even though it ranks number 2 in surface area in Scotland, due to its depth (average 433 ft. – which is deeper than the North Sea) it holds more water than any other body of water in the British Isles. In fact, Loch Ness holds more water than all the other fresh water lochs, lakes, and rivers in the whole of the British Isles combined. It’s a big lake (oops, I mean Loch). At the north end of Loch Ness is the little town aptly name “Loch End” and at the southern end is the town of Fort Augustus.
Ship Wreck on shores of Loch Ness
Even though it holds a lot of water, it really is not much different than any other loch or lake around the world. But, it is known world wide. If you ask people anywhere in the world to name any loch around the globe the only one they can usually come up with is Loch Ness and this is entirely due to one supposed inhabitant of the loch – Nessie (AKA the Loch Ness Monster).
Scholars of the Loch Ness Monster find a dozen references to “Nessie” in Scottish history, dating back to around 500 AD, when local Picts carved a strange aquatic creature into standing stones near Loch Ness. But the earliest written report of a monster appears in the Life of St. Columba by Adomnán, written in the sixth century AD. According to Adomnán, writing about a century after the events he described, Irish monk Saint Columba was staying in the land of the Picts with his companions when he encountered local residents burying a man by the River Ness. They explained that the man was swimming in the river when he was attacked by a "water beast" that mauled him and dragged him underwater despite their attempts to rescue him by boat. To further investigate this claim, Columba sent a follower, Luigne Moccu Min, to swim across the river to fetch a dinghy on the other shore. And, the story goes, an aquatic beast approached the swimmer. But Columba made the sign of the cross and said: "Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once." At this point the creature stopped as if it had been "pulled back with a rope" and fled. The swimmer retrieved the boat, and rowed back to St. Columba where Columba's men and the Picts gave thanks for what they perceived as a miracle.
Following the St. Columba account, other than dubious sightings in 1871 and 1888 all was quiet on the Nessie front. The first modern sightings started in 1933 after the lake shore highway was completed and continued through 1938. Of course with the new road, came new hotels and restaurants along with increased tourist volume. And, these new businesses had a vested interest in drumming up business for the area.
Many of the sightings since the road opened were published in various newspapers. One account had the animal on land, crossing the road with some sort of animal in its mouth. The first photo of the creature was taken by Hugh Gray in 1933. But it was widely discredited as being just a blurry shot of his Labrador retriever fetching a stick.
Around the same time, the tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, sponsored a big game hunter from Africa to come over and search for Nessie. This fellow, with the posh name of Marmaduke Weatherall, set up camp on the shores of Loch Ness with a sizable entourage. It didn’t take good old Marmaduke long to find footprints of Nessie in the mud on the shore of the loch nearby his camp (what a coincidence). Plaster casts of the footprints were sent to the Royal Museum in London for scientific analysis. And, lo and behold the result came back that the prints were made by an elephant foot umbrella stand which were common in hotels and homes at the time. It is still unknown if the footprints were a prank by locals or an act of desperation by the famous game hunter trying to justify his fee.
In 1934 Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London gynecologist got 4 photos (only one usable) supposedly showing the creatures head and neck which is now considered the “classic” photo of Nessie. For the next 60 years believers offer this photo a proof but skeptics point out there is nothing in the photo to provide a reference of scale and many printed versions used a highly cropped rendition of the image causing the ripples to look like waves. Due to this, the object in the photo has variously been identified as drift wood, an elephant (in Scotland?), and/or an otter or bird. In 1993 a Discovery Channel documentary team went back and analyzed the original un-cropped images. They found that all the images had a white object out in front of the “monster” which they said was the source of the ripples and evidence that the “monster” was being towed by a boat just out of the frame. They also determined that the object being towed was only 2 to 3 feet long. And thus, the classic proof of Nessie being real became dismissed as another hoax.
Wilson’s 1934 image of Nessie
After the 1934 photos, nothing much happened for a few decades. Then in 1954 a fishing boat crew claimed a sonar reading of something big swimming at a depth of around 480 feet but what it was has never been determined. Another discredited photo showed up in 1965. And on it goes. Every few years someone turns up with a photo, video or sonar reading that “proves” the existence of Nessie – until it is discredited or debunked or at least attributed to an alternate explanation. There have been studies by documentarians and universities over the years which tend to debunk the hoaxes but never seem to come up with anything resembling credible evidence for the existence of Nessie.
One of the problems in searching is that the water in the loch is filled with sediment and is pitch black below just a couple of feet from the surface. This has thwarted almost all attempts at sending down cameras, as even with lights the visibility is only a few feet. However sonar has been a bit more practical but can’t really resolve any detail and a school of minnows can look like a whale on sonar. But that doesn’t stop them.
In the 1960’s the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau was established to investigate the legend but they disbanded in 1972. In 1967 a major sonar based search was mounted through the University of Birmingham. More underwater scanning projects took place in 1972, 1975, 1987, 2001, 2003, and 2008. In 2018 an international team did a DNA scan looking for evidence of large animals such as sharks, catfish, or sturgeons that might be in the lake – they didn’t find any.
But finally, in July of 2022 we finally got proof of Neisse’s existence. You’ll be happy to know that I was able to get a good photo of Nessie even though none of the other 200+ people on the boat even saw her (they must have been looking the other way). And here it is, published for the first time as absolute proof, beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nessie exists.
Proof that Nessie exists
The Loch Ness Monster legend has even crept into our modern web-verse world where “believers” claim a darkish blob in Apple Maps App is Nessie. And then Google Street View also got into the act when, in 2015, they spent a week on the loch photographing the lake from both above and below the water. They then made these images available through a feature of Google Street View called “Google Doodle” which allowed users to peruse the images looking for Nessie.
Of course one should point out that the original Nessie would now be over 100 years old if one assumes that it was at least 10 in 1933 when the first photo appeared and several hundred years old if you go back to St. Columba.
On the tip of a little peninsula that sticks out into Loch Ness are the ruins of a castle called Urquhart Castle, and we made a stop there. The ruins date from the 13th to the 16th centuries, but forts can be traced back to early medieval times. Back in the 13th & 14th century’s Urquhart castle played a role in the Wars of Scottish Independence. It was subsequently held as a royal castle and was raided on several occasions by the MacDonald Earls of Ross. Even after the castle was given to the Grant Clan in 1509, conflict with the MacDonalds continued.
It was thought that building a castle on the tip of peninsula would make it very defensible. For one thing, from this vantage point you can look all the way up and down the loch for approaching ships eliminating any surprise attack from the water side. This left only the possibility of a land based attack. To thwart land side attacks they dug a formidable moat with a draw bridge making the area containing the castle an island. And the moat would never go dry was it was part of the lake. Pretty good plan, if only it had worked.
The problem it turned out was that just beyond the moat the valley land rises at a pretty steep angle. Not so steep that an army can’t run down the hill but steep enough that you don’t have to go too far up the hill to be able to lob cannon balls down into the middle of the castle as well as hitting the castle exterior walls. Pretty close to an aerial attack without the need for yet to be invented airplanes. At the same time, the defenders in the castle had to fire their cannons up at a steep angle to hit the attackers above on the hillside which limited their shooting range. This resulted in a situation where the cannon balls of the attackers could reach the castle but not the other way around. And thus, the castle changed hands many times only to be re-attacked and defeated again and again.
Even after several upgrades that didn’t solve the problem, the castle was finally abandoned in 1692 at which time it was partially destroyed on the way out to prevent the Jacobites from being able to use it. And, of course since that time it has further succumbed to earthquakes and the elements. But, being right on the popular Loch Ness, it is now one of the most-visited castles in Scotland with over half a million visitors in 2019.
View from “up the hill” with now solid bridge where drawbridge used to be
Grant Tower at Northern end of Castle Complex
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the Road Scholar Guides)
Keywords: :, best football headline ever, blog, Caledonian Canal, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogscotland2022, Inverness, Loch Ness, Loch Ness Monster, Nessie, Scotland, Scotland Rift Valley, Urquhart Castle
Great history lesson on Ireland - always wondered why there was a small area at the north that was a different country - and now I know! You are a great researcher and historian. I loved that Mary had the dudes who barred her hanged later - yeah, make a list, and get even. Pretty great to be queen.
I've always loved the Nessie stories - the obvious issue of getting old and dying since there is only one....the biologist in me just snickers. Wonderful photos of the castle, and really bad planning on the location.
So glad you and Ellen are out there - I feel like I am traveling without having to leave home!
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