I was still somewhat jokingly (nah, not really) in search of a good cup of coffee. I was sure I could find one somewhere en route during the trip. I like decaf; I like some teas as well, but there is the ritual value of a cup of decaf in the morning. I like the flavor without the buzz. In most places, though, I went with breakfast tea just to make it easy on our hosts, and to save myself the disappointment of having to drink instant decaf. A couple of the B&Bs had good coffee, Greenlawns in Nairn being one of them.
Driving north from Ballachulish, we did a quick turn in to Fort William to look for a café, but we didn’t find one easily and went further north on the A82. We stopped along the road at the Well of Seven Heads and found that the little store across the road was not very welcoming, and it didn’t have a place to sit and have warm drinks.
The Well of Seven Heads, Tobar nan Seachd Ceann, stands as testament to the Scottish clan system and the vengeance of “fire and sword” wherein a rift between cousins from the Macdonald Clan in the mid-1600’s ended with two brothers dead. Two years later, an edict was issued by the Privy Council in Edinburgh and the seven killers were sought out, killed and beheaded in revenge. Before presenting them to the Clan Chief, the heads were washed in the well on the shore of Loch Oich. The heads were later sent to Edinburgh to be set on posts along the roadside.
We found what turned out to be the best warm drinks all around for the entire trip at the Thislestop Tearoom, a lovely little place perched on the side of a hill overlooking the countryside, just north of Invergarry on Loch Oich. The woman there responded to my question as to whether she had an espresso machine by asking us what we had in mind; and then, she served beautiful coffee drinks for Liisa and me and a dark hot chocolate for Kyle. It was wonderful that they were not the automatic machine kind. She crafted them and crafted them well. Having had our lattes and hot chocolate at Thislestop, we were off again, heading north to Wick.
We spent a couple of hours at Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness. Caisteal na Sròin, (originally Airdchartdan: from the Gaidhlig air “by” and the Old Welsh cardden “thicket or wood”) has been a fort since the 5th century and was built in to a castle in the early 1200’s. From the late 1200’s until the mid-late 1400’s, the castle was under English or Scottish rule at different times. In 1395, control of the castle was taken by the MacDonald Clan (Lords of the Isles, Triath nan Eilean) and held for fifteen years until it was again under the control of the Scottish crown.
In the 1500’s, the castle was the center point for disputes between the Clans Grant and Fraser (Lovat) against the MacDonalds. Raids went on, back and forth, with cattle and sheep being run off by one clan or another, and in the final “Great Raid”, the MacDonalds took 2,000 cattle, hundreds of other animals and took everything from the castle: its furniture, cannon, even the gates. The Grants were able to regain the castle, and were awarded some of the Clan Cameron lands as payment for their loss. At the end of the 16th century, Urquhart Castle had been rebuilt by the Grants, and they were a clan that held a lot of power in the Highlands. They continued to make repairs and do remodeling in the castle until 1623.
In 1644 a mob of Covenanters (Presbyterian agitators) overtook the castle when Lady Mary Grant was in residence; they robbed the castle and forced her to leave because she would not denounce being an Episcopalian. In 1647, an inventory was taken and the castle was, at that time, virtually empty. During the Jacobite Revolution of 1688, the castle was held by 200 of the Grant’s soldiers against the siege of 500 Jacobites. When the soldiers were able to leave in 1690, they blew up the gatehouse to prevent occupation of the castle by the Jacobites. By the 1770’s, the castle had no roof and was starting to fall apart. In the late 1880’s the castle became the property of the Dowager Countess of Seafield who left it to Scotland when she died in the 1911. The Castle has been maintained by Historic Scotland, and it follows Edinburgh and Stirling Castles as the third most popular historic site in the country.
Urquhart Castle is built on a bit of land that juts out in to Loch Ness, Loch Nis, on its western side. Loch Ness is the second largest (surface area) loch in Scotland (Loch Lomond, Loch Laomainn, is the largest); it is a very deep freshwater loch and is the largest loch by volume in the country. It’s a tossup as to whether the most well-known loch is Loch Lomond, for the song, or Loch Ness, for Nessie, Niseag, the Loch Ness Monster.
We left the visitor’s center at Urquhart Castle, drove through Drumnadrochit (my favorite town name to say), Druim na Drochaid (“Ridge of the Bridge”), where we did not stop at the The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, and instead turned east through Glen Urquhart to the Corrimony Cairn, a chambered cairn built 4000 years ago. After a nice walk down a shaded country lane along coo pastures to reach the cairn, we headed north to Beauly where we had a wonderful lunch at The Old School Café.
Back in the car, we made our way to Wick via Dingwall where we connected to the A9. We made note of, but passed by, Glenmorangie, Dalmore and Dunrobin Castle, knowing that we would have time to stop in as we came back from Wick in a couple of days. It was getting a bit late, and since the B&B was out on a long country road, we wanted to have dinner and then be at the B&B and settled before dark. We still had miles to drive to get to the northeast tip of the country and the town of Wick.
One of the places where I had had a very enjoyable meal on a previous trip was at #1 in Wick. #1 is located in the Mackays Hotel (built in 1884) on Ebenezer Place, which, at 6’ 9”, is the shortest street in the world. I had talked to Kyle and Liisa a lot about how much I had enjoyed my dinner at #1 several years ago. It was so good that based upon that meal, my traveling companion at the time made the decision to start ordering vegetarian meals because what I was getting was so much better than the meat dishes she was ordering.
It’s no surprise that things change over the years, but sometimes it can be quite disappointing. We stopped by for dinner and found that it had completely lost its pub-like atmosphere. Now called #1 Bistro, seating is reservation only and the restaurant was completely full for the evening. We asked for a recommendation and were sent a couple of blocks away to The Alexander Bain where, amidst mutilple screens with American football on the television, we had some very nice pub grub (cheese and tomato toasties and beer all around).
The next day we made it back from Orkney just in time for our reservations at #1. For more on our time on Orkney, click here.
Breakfast and tea on the ferry to and from Orkney had been what one would expect for cafeteria style eating, and though filling, it was not satisfying. I do want to mention here that the gentleman who checked us out at the cafeteria on the Northlink Ferry was extremely kind (not a surprise in Scotland). When he saw the amount of vegetarian food we had selected from the expanse of what was available for breakfast, he only charged the three of us as one person. On the way back, we had had only light snacks and auto-espresso lattes, so we arrived at the restaurant very hungry.
I had a pleasant conversation with the Hotel Manager on the way in to the Bistro. He was very happy to hear that I had been there before, and was very accommodating, allowing us to do a little bit of finagling with the menu. We were able to get vegetarian meals despite there not being any on the menu. A bit of a walk through the town of Wick, and then we were back to the Bilbster House for the night.