East out of Kyle we retrace the road to Invergarry where we pick up the rift valley route. As in Ireland, the east of the country is more gently scenic than the wild west. This is the Highlands still, though. Inverness, our destination, is the capital of the region. Along the shores of Lough Ness, we are unmolested by the mythical beastie. In truth, there is no chance of dinosaurs surviving anywhere, let alone a busy narrow waterway. They were here once, as Dughal Ros told us yesterday, but only their fossils remain. Still, it’s good to have fantasy.
Inverness has grown to city status with a population of fifty thousand. It’s centered on a low rise above the eastern bank of the Ness river where it flows into the Moray Firth, heading towards the North Sea. We stay at Carrig Eden on the western approach. The area is attractive, typically Caledonian in characteristic honey coloured stone with gable fronts. Our genial hosts, Caroline and Donald, have polished their home to a welcoming jewel. We are warned of two things. One, Daniel O’Donnell is playing that night in the Eden Court theatre nearby. Two, there is a bagpipes festival in town. Looks like it’s the bagpipes so.
The Eden Court is a modern complex by the banks of the river. From the banks we catch our first glimpse of the city. Inverness Castle is the dominant feature. Built in red sandstone it tops a steep escarpment rising from the Ness. It is not, strictly speaking, a castle. The present structure dates from 1836. It functions as a courthouse. The first castle to stand on the site was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1307. The next castle stood here until sacked by the Jacobites in the rebellion of 1746. A statue of Flora MacDonald stands at the entrance park, shielding her eyes to gaze meaningfully westward. Having aided the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and doing time for it, she headed out west herself, living in America before returning to die on the isle of Skye.
Both sides of the river are pleasant. We pass the nineteenth century gothic Cathedral on the west bank before stopping for coffee in an Italian place with outdoor seating. We are entertained by a young woman making a major production number tying up her bike. Man, you must have to mind your bike real careful in these parts.
The strains of the pipes beckon us east across the bridge. Before that, we take a look at the House of Fraser. I reckon I’ll need to kit up, the whole nine yards, on the off-chance of running into Claire from Outlander (as portrayed by Caitriona Balfe) somewhere about town. A convincing impersonation of Jamie is quickly conjured. You can go for a variety of rental of traditional outfits here. Full dress for that formal night, half-dress for the more casual, a dashing Jacobite attire for the full blooded Scot.
High Street slopes uphill from the bridge. It’s busy and sporadically loud with the great yarp of the bagpipes. Something stirring about them, to be sure, if not quite the first music for the car stereo. Here, in this special place, I’d opt for the Waterboys. The attractive main street jolts to an unlovely close at the harshly modern Eastgate Centre. Still, probably better to have it in town rather than dragging people out to the periphery.
After extensive shopping, time for a quick snack. Hoping to sidestep the inertia that can pass for service in the Highlands, we opt for McDonald’s – an ominously local name now that I think of it. Inverness McDonald’s is the worst McDonald’s ever. The till is abandoned just as we reach the head of the queue. After a couple of minutes we call the attendant from the next till. He says he’ll get the manager, who is standing conveniently nearby with other staff leaning on the furniture, chatting. She informs us, cheerfully enough, that the attendant will return soon, and rejoins her discussion group. A few more minutes and we give up.
We attempt a trip down memory lane to find the lost hostel of our youth. Still lost to us, sadly. Having followed the signs through winding residential roads we eventually lose the trail. But it’s a pleasant walk in glorious sunshine. We’ve booked dinner at the Castle Inn and, hungry and thirsty, head for it early. Nicely situated, clinging to the cliff overlooking the river, the Castle visible to the north. Rustically traditional, the place is crammed, as any good place should be. We take our drinking and dining pleasures al fresco. Good food, service and company, perfectly passing the sunny afternoon into early evening.
Afterwards, we potter around the Castle grounds. The place itself is not open to visitors but there are plans to remedy that. We follow Flora’s gaze up towards Loch Ness, back to the wild, wild west. We head down to the nearby bank as evening falls. This is a pedestrianised river walk leading to a footbridge that will take us back to Eden Court. There’s plenty of time to stop for drinks on the lawns of the Waterside Rest, busy now as the city nightlfe clicks into gear. The sky seeps slowly to velvet blue as the first stars peep out. A stillness settles in the air. We could sit here forever, relaxing by the riverside in the chill of the endless Highland evening.