Doesn’t it irk you when you’re on a great trip, but completely missed something fantastic? It happens a lot, and Urquhart Castle is such a spot. Driving southwest from Inverness along Loch Ness on the A82, it comes up quickly, after half an hour, at Drumnadrochit. You’re up on the road but the Castle sits low, right on Loch Ness. And if you miss it: this is not an easy road to do a U-turn on… trust me on that!
U-turns aside, the secret is out. Today, Urquhart is one of the three most visited Castles in Scotland, with the other 2 being Edinburgh and Stirling.
Get down with it
So, how does a visit work? Pull into the Car Park – plenty spots including 9 “accessible” ones as the Americans say – and you’ll wonder what’s next. How do you get to Urquhart? Well, the interesting bit starts right here: the Visitor Centre sits under the parking area!
The easy way is to use the lift/elevator down and then buy your tickets. Note that the Centre also has a restaurant and gift shop on the same underground level, for now or afterwards. Then walk the rather steep path down to the large Urquhart Castle complex that sits right on Loch Ness, part of Scotland’s Great Glen.
Route cause for traffic
By the way, the route along Urquhart is one of the most popular in the Highlands, with Loch Ness possibly the most famous name in all of Scotland, justified or not… The Loch stretches between Inverness and Fort Augustus. The A82 runs along the north side and there are no bridges. If, for example, you want to visit the Highland Folk Museum on the other side in Newtonmore, you’ll need to drive around it, and that takes a long time.
Ness is more
Fun fact: did you know that Loch Ness is only one part of The Great Glen? While Loch Ness is about 23 miles long, the Great Glen stretches over 60 miles from Inverness all the way to Fort William and consists of some 8 lochs, connected by rivers. The Caledonian Canal makes use of this, with man-made waterways in between. And for the outdoorsy crowd: in 2002, the Great Glen Way opened, a 79-mile long-distance route for bikers and ramblers. You can also canoe or kayak it – but there’ll be a lot of portaging required!
Another fun fact: deep secrets! Loch Ness holds more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined! This is due to the fact that Loch Ness is incredibly deep. And we all know what might be lurking in those depths …
Urquhart origins: from Picts to Present
Third-most visited Urquhart is actually also one of Scotland’s largest castles – in area, that is. Urquhart’s early origins are a bit murky, as befits a Loch where it’s hard to see anything swimming around… There is quite a body of research with theories about Pictish kings and noblemen, and even Saint Columba visiting. We get a first undisputed and well-documented reference for the year 1296: King Edward I of England takes Urquhart as the Wars of Independence bust loose.
Bruce up on your history
Over the following centuries, Urquhart was taken by Robert the Bruce (King of Scots and the real “Braveheart”), went to Clan Grant, was attacked by Clan MacDonald and Clan Cameron, got bounced back and forth between the Scots and English, but was oddly ignored by Oliver Cromwell in the mid 1600s.
It blows the mind
Urquhart was partly blown up by the English in the late 1600s to prevent it being used by the Jacobites. It fell into disrepair over the subsequent centuries until it was handed over to the state in 1913. Today, Historic Environment Scotland maintains and manages Urquhart Castle as a “scheduled monument”, a UK designation for protected sites or buildings.
What’s in your bailiwick?
The Castle complex consists of 2 main areas, the Upper and Nether Bailey. Enter the complex over the old drawbridge to the Gatehouse and look left for Grant Tower. At 5 storeys high, this “keep” or main tower house was the tallest structure at Urquhart.
In the late 1700s, the Tower’s southside wall collapsed in a storm. Much remains intact though and can be visited. You can even climb the staircase to the top battlements viewing platform!
Also in this Nether Bailey, the ruins of what likely were the Great Hall with the Laird’s lodgings, kitchens and perhaps a chapel.
When pigeons fly
Going to your right (or south), the Upper Bailey had a rise or mound, where you can see the remains of a hollow enclosure known as a shell keep and – probably – 2 more towers. The ruins here were likely a doocot, smithy and what may have been stables.
Fun fact: a “doocot” is Scots for dovecote. Popular as far back as Roman times (“columbaria”), dovecotes were useful as well as status symbols. In medieval times, doves and pigeons were desirable for their meat, eggs and, erm, fertilizer. Later on, homing pigeons and racing were useful and fun. Dovecotes could be larger than houses: Scotland’s biggest doocot at Finavon Castle in Angus had some 2,400 nesting boxes!
Catapulting back to modern times
Heading back to the entrance, the grounds make for a nice stroll. There are a couple of neat displays too, like a true-to-size “trebuchet” or catapult, a serious weapon against castles. Then steel yourselves for the walk back up the path to the underground welcome center, and remember: gift shop and restaurant!
We did work up an appetite in our several hours here, enjoying Urquhart on this gorgeous October day. However, I can’t tell ye about the restaurant, as we had other plans: the Black Isle was calling! But that’s another story…
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. It’s what you’d experience yourselves. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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