Forget sangria and sunburn. True romance is roaring log fires, Gothic castles and Wuthering Heights-esque landscapes – and historic Inverness has it all…
There’s a gentle knock on our cabin door. I slowly open my eyes and realise we’ve finally arrived at our dream honeymoon destination. I rush to the window, and there before me is the most incredible view. No, not of palm trees and gently lapping waves on a sun-drenched beach. This view is an altogether more ruggedly romantic beast – it’s of ominous black mountains silhouetted against the slowing rising sun. This is the gateway to the Scottish highlands.
Full of beans, having had a decent kip on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Inverness, I pounce on my newly wedded husband only to be told to go bother someone else and let him sleep. Charming. Unfortunately, what I felt as a gentle rhythm of the train lulling me into a deep sleep, my other half described as nine hours of being knocked about in a tin can as the train wound its way 700km (as the crows flies) northwards. Still, he cheered up immensely once he took off the eye mask and got an eyeful of the highlands just the other side of the window.
King and Queen of the Castle
Disembarking at Inverness train station we picked up our hire car and headed towards the ancient town of Dingwall just a 20-minute drive away, taking in the rolling landscape and seascapes of the Black Isle as we drove over the iconic Kessock Bridge.
Perched high on top of a hill overlooking the town, we felt excited as we drove up the gravelled drive to our new home for the next few days, the dinky but perfectly formed Tulloch Castle. Small it may be, but from the outside it had everything a self-respecting castle should have – from beautiful turrets to heavy oak doors. On entering the candlelit foyer, we discovered this place was a gem both inside and out. Dark and Gothic, with winding oak staircases and a huge roaring fire, Tulloch Castle was the real McCoy. We were greeted warmly by the hotel’s assistant manager, Milena, and shown to the honeymoon suite, which was everything we could hope for and more – high ceilings, four-poster bed, a sleek bathroom, and patio doors leading out on to a huge roof terrace with views of the town below.
Gateway to the Highlands
Lovely as the room was, we were eager to explore, so we jumped back in the motor and set the Sat Nav for the infamous Isle of Skye, just a three-hour journey away. Inverness’s moniker is the Gateway to the Highlands, because they literally are on the doorstep, and so we soon found ourselves winding our way through magnificent scenery. From mirror-like locks and pine-scented wooded glens to the spectacular snow-topped mountains themselves, the landscape was ever changing, always breath-taking. And then we saw a castle…
There can be only one
…But not any old castle – this was Eilean Donan, the setting for a host of classic films, such as The Wicker Man and Highlander. Sitting on an island where three great sea lochs meet, it’s no surprise then that this castle is recognised as one of the most well-known images of Scotland all over the world. Exploring the castle was made all the more exciting knowing we were walking in the footsteps of film stars such as Britt Ekland (hubby well excited) and Christopher Lambert (be still my beating heart!). The Eilean Donan is in perfect condition, having been reconstructed in the 1930s, and a nice touch is the staff – all dressed in 13th-century attire – who talked us through the history of the castle.
The fourth best island in the world
Back in the car, we continued towards the Isle of Skye. Crossing from Kyle of Lochalsh over the Skye Bridge, we could see why the largest of the Inner Hebrides was voted the fourth best island in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine. Home to dramatic landscapes, the island comprises mountain ranges, a rugged coastline and incredible geological features, such as the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing and the Cuillin. We came across some truly picturesque fishing villages, while the town of Portree had a good choice of boutiques and pubs. Be warned, though, that Scotland has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving, so we headed back to our Dingwall home for dinner and a dram or two of uisge beatha (whiskey in Gaelic – a bit of the local lingo for you).
Lochs, castles and… Nessie!
Feeling a bit groggy the next morning, after a fair few more than two drams and a late-night ghost tour of the castle (no headless highlanders but a giggle nonetheless), the heavenly Scottish fry-up sent the hangovers packing, and we were soon up for our next adventure – to find Nessie, which was pretty easy as it goes (see pic above if you don’t believe me). Just 40 minutes later, we were pulling up at the huge Lock Ness, which is undeniably impressive – especially when you clock the ruins of Urquhart Castle perched proudly on its north banks. The lock, big as it is, was busy with coachloads of other Nessie-hunters – the slight downside of visiting one of the world’s most famous mammals (myth or otherwise) – so after the necessary snaps of us with Nessie, we headed off to find some real-life sea dwellers.
Wildlife and waterfalls
The locals are seriously shy. Not the people – everyone we met was happy to chat (being Londoners, we found it a bit alarming to have strangers say hello to us, but we soon got into the swing of it). No, it was the local wildlife that was acting all nonchalant and Hackney-esque. We’d done our research and it quite clearly said that the best place to spot seals and dolphins was at Chanonry Point, and as we pulled up, we did indeed spot the seals splashing about in the waves. But on seeing us, they started play hide and seek as we desperately tried to take snaps of them. They won.
We weren’t too despondent with the shy sea life, though, as being in the Highlands Capital, there is a wealth of rich heritage to explore in the castles, historic ruins, cathedrals and museums (check out the ‘must sees’ in the box below). For us, though, the pull of a waterfall can’t be resisted, so we headed over to two local falls – Plodda Falls and the Falls of Foyers. There are bigger ones to be found in the highlands, but these were both lovely, within an hour’s drive, and – most importantly after a night on the whiskey – an easy walk to get to once we’d parked up.
The River Ness is seriously hip
Of course, the highlands aren’t just about lochs and falls, and with our last day fast approaching, we needed to get some souvenirs. On the advice of the Tulloch Castle’s Milena, we headed to the famous Victorian Market in the centre of Inverness itself. The market is within a charming building that dates back to the 1890s. We found a good number of independent shops and boutiques, so we were able to get some pretty unique gifts for the folks back home. We then wandered along the cobbled lanes to find a place to eat, and were impressed to discover some cool-looking restaurants running along either side of the River Ness. The capital of the Highlands may be steeped in history, but its ultra-modern bars and eateries could compete with some of London’s finest.
Snow whatever the season
No winter honeymoon would be complete without some frolicking in the snow, but strangely, the weather in Inverness was warmer than back home in London, and waking up on our last day, I was distinctly miffed with the lack of the white stuff. Milena came to the rescue again, telling us to drive to the CairnGorm Mountain, Britain’s sixth highest mountain, which sits in the heart of the CairnGorms National Park. As we drove through the pretty holiday town of Aviemore, we spotted countless ski shops – all promising signs. And indeed, as we made our way up the winding road to the CairnGorm Base Station, odd patches of snow soon turned into thick blankets of the stuff. Yes!
You can take a guided walk from the Base Station to the Top Station, 1,097m above sea level, but we opted for the much more civilised Funicular railway to take us to the top. Once there, the views were spectacular, not to mention freezing. So after a short but enthusiastic snowball fight, we ducked back inside to the Top Station café and enjoyed the view, huddled together over steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Looking out at this ancient glacial landscape, sparkling with diamonds – thanks to the clear skies and bright-white sun – was the highlight of our honeymoon in the highlands. You can keep your long-haul holidays – we were in newly wedded bliss just where we were.
From castles to waterfalls, here’s just a wee dram of the places to check out on your highlands holiday…
• Cawdor Castle: This Macbeth-linked castle, with its beautiful gardens, dates back to the 14th-century and is still home to the Cawdor’s today
• Urquhart Castle: This impressive 16th-century fortress sits on a rocky promontory on the north shore of Loch Ness
• Inverness Cathedral: The foundation stone of this, the first new cathedral to be completed in Great Britain since the Reformation, was laid in 1866 by the Archbishop of Canterbury
• Clava cairn: Named after the group of three cairns at Balnuaran of Clava, this is a type of Bronze Age circular chamber tomb cairn to the east of Inverness
• Inverness Museum and Art Gallery: Explore exciting stories from the past and learn about the people, environment and traditions of the Highlands
• Plodda Falls: A walk through the forest of Douglas Fir leads you to the highest waterfall in the area at 40 metres high
• Falls of Foyers: Picturesque falls on the River Foyers, which feeds Loch Ness. It’s an easy walk from the car park off the main road to Lock Ness, so good if you have children in tow
Inverness is surrounded by wildernesses that are home to incredible wildlife…
• Craig Phadrig: Thanks to its well-marked trails, it’s easy to take a tour around Craig Phadrig and discover the wildlife that make this their home, including the native red squirrel
• Chanonry Point: Every day at low tide, people gather on the northern side of the Moray Firth to see the resident pod of bottlenose dolphins, seals and porpoises. You may even be lucky enough to spy a Minke whale or basking shark (patience is a virtue when it comes to waiting for them to put in an appearance, though)
• Longman Shore: Found at the south end of Inverness’s Kessock Bridge, this is a well-known area for spotting birdlife, including the rare Ivory Gull
• Ness Islands: Sitting in the waters of the River Ness, these Islands, linked together by bridges, are a great place to watch the waters for salmon and seals.
To find out more about Tullock Castle in Dingwall, call 0843 178 7143 or visit bespokehotels.com/tullochcastlehotel
Prices for the Caledonian Sleeper start from £55 return for a seat to £205 for 1st class single-occupancy cabin. For more information, call 0330 060 0500 or visit sleeper.scot/js/#/caledonian/fares
For more information on where to go and what to do in the Scottish Highlands, go to visitscotland.com