For a slice of history that can be glamorous, gruesome, impressive, imposing and colourful in equal measure (whatever your age), take a tour of Inverness, Loch Ness and the Highlands.
Loch Ness, Highland & Inverness Castles and Historic Buildings – *Contains affiliate links/Sponsored Post
Some of the most engaging, moving and inspiring historic locations of Scotland are located in and around Inverness. They tell key chapters of Scotland’s history too, and have played an inspiring role in the popular Outlander series. Junior and I visited the region with Visit Inverness Loch Ness to tackle castles, forts, gardens and ruins, all with their own story to tell.
East of Inverness – Inverness Castles and Historic Buildings in the Highlands
This vast Historic Scotland site is a historic and an operational military base. Visitors can see how soldiers lived through the ages, tour the museum, see weapons glistening in the magazine, spot numerous cannons and walk the mile long walls that surround the base. It’s slightly unnerving considering that it was built just after the Government victory at Culloden in 1746. This fortress, big enough to hold over 1500 soldiers and bristling with bayonets and dynamite, was a way for the victors to maintain control, crush further insurgence and send a clear message of who was in charge. It is an imposing place.
Yet inside the Highlanders’ Musuem are ‘souvenirs’ brought back by Scottish soldiers from frontline combat against the Japanese and the Nazis in WW2. By this point the Scots and English were all in it together, so Fort George is an unexpectedly emotive building. Still operational, it’s not uncommon to spot young soldiers going about their business. My six year son was fascinated by the scale of the place, he loved seeing the armoured vehicles, and was shocked at how many soldiers historically would have to share a room! (Adult ticket – £9.00 but free with membership, café and gift shop.)
In terms of buildings, the cottage at Culloden is the key historic building at this National Trust for Scotland site. But let’s face it, the entire place is vital in understanding Scottish and British history. The Visitor Centre explains the pivotal battle of 1746 that crushed the Jacobite uprising for the final time. Stepping onto the windswept battlefield itself is a moving experience because the lives lost and blood shed in close combat was quite horrific – read a full review here.
Don’t miss the memorial cairn and clan graves that begin to sum up the bravery and suffering on all sides. The cottage itself is known as ‘Leanach’, a typical example of an 18th century single storey thatched building. Situated between Government lines it was at the heart of the action. Its last occupant passed away in 1912. (Adult ticket -£11.00 but free with membership – click on box below. Visitor Centre, café and gift shop.)
For something altogether more relaxing step out to Cawdor Castle. The gardens are utterly beautiful, and were a surprising hit with kids. Our favourite was the Flower Garden featuring a host of sculptures and beautiful planting. This led onto the wild garden, where my six year old scampered through the flowers down to the river, absolutely in his element.
Finally, the Walled Garden features three smaller gardens, which are captivating. The Earth garden hosts a sculpture of Adam and Eve leaving Paradise, and lots of edible planting. Next is a thistle garden that represents Purgatory, before you step into ‘Paradise’ itself – a haven of white flowers and a calming water feature. Don’t miss the minotaur guarding his holly maze. The castle itself dates back to the 14th century and contains a holly tree of the same period. It’s said that the Thane of Cawdor, following instructions from a dream, let a donkey roam about the district for a day – wherever the animal lay down that evening would be the site of the new castle. The beast rested under a holly tree. Whatever the truth of this very unusual tale, the tree is present to this day.
This castle ticks many boxes, so expect a moat and drawbridge, turrets, turnpike stairs, vaulted 16th century kitchen, tapestries, art, and rich furnishings. (Adult ticket £13.50. Gardens and grounds only, £8.00. Café and gift shop.)
This FREE open air site was built 4000 years ago, originally as a burial site for leading members of the local community. It’s recently attracted a LOT of attention because Outlander’s fictitious stone circle, Craigh na Dun, is thought to be inspired by the site. The Clava Cairns feature standing stones, three cairns, and a ‘Kerb’ cairn where sparkling white quartz crystals were found. Visitors get up close and personal with prehistoric history, nothing is cordoned off. Perhaps calming or spiritual for adults, and strangely captivating for children (my son loved the fact you could walk into the heart of two of the cairns) this Historic Scotland site is worth a rural pitstop. [Easy parking but no facilities.]
Loch Ness – Inverness Castles and Historic Buildings in the Highlands
These atmospheric ruins boast sweeping views across the deep waters of Loch Ness. We visited Urquhart Castle as part of a Jacobite Cruise – docking at the castle for roughly 1.5 hours was part of the experience. Read a review here. The castle was at the heart of several Jacobite/Government conflicts, and was eventually torched to the ground by the Jacobites so that their foes could no longer call upon its services. The Grant Tower is a great spot for keen Nessie hunters as it’s a fantastic vantage point of the loch. (This Historic Scotland site charges £9.60 for an adult ticket – free with membership. Visitor Centre, café and gift shop.)
You may also find this interesting – ‘Top Things to Do in Loch Ness with Kids – Top Ten Attractions’
North/West of Inverness – Inverness Castles and Historic Buildings in the Highlands
Dunrobin is straight from the pages of a fairytale, with exquisite views from the castle over the formal gardens straight out to the Moray Firth. It’s supremely elegant, akin to a French chateau, but historically the castle was used as a naval hospital during the First World War and as a boys’ boarding school from 1965 to 1972. Seat of Clan Sutherland, there’s also a museum on site set within the former summer house. The gardens, inspired by the Palace of Versailles no less, were laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament. Also, be sure to look out for regular falconry displays. (Adult ticket £12.50 – shop and tearoom.)
Situated on the banks of the River Ness, Inverness Castle used to serve as a courthouse. As such, it wasn’t open to the public, but it’s worth looking out for this 18th century sandstone building on a riverside walk. Good news though, Highland Council has recently bought the South Tower of the Castle, and, in time, the building will be transformed into a visitor attraction.
Inverness Cathedral is a renowned monument of Gothic architecture, the most Northerly Anglican Cathedral in the UK. Its foundation stone was laid in October 1866 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Today, it’s a place of quiet reflection, spirituality and architectural beauty, open 365 days a year. (Free, with café and shop.)
Where to Stay – Historic Hotels
Whitebridge Hotel is situated on the south side of Loch Ness in the village of Whitebridge itself. It’s a long established Highland Hotel, built in 1899 on the site of a King’s House, which was destroyed by fire some years before. A King’s House was a hostelry used by the soldiers while in a specific area. This one was used by the soldiers of General Wade while they were stationed in the Highlands. Building roads was one of the troops’ duties, and you can still see the original bridge built here in the 18th century. The hotel is also an old hunting lodge and fishing hotel and there are relics of its history dotted around the place often with a quirky twist.
The decor is stylish yet relaxed (think an Arts and Craft style restaurant, and more of a croft feel in the bar). The menu is strong (with notably good vegetarian options) and the hotel possibly has the most glamorous toilet in the Highlands! The lounge is a relaxing place to enjoy a drink in front of the open fire, but also stocks LOTS of board games for some traditional family fun. Something for everyone here. Discover prices and availability here.
Foyers Lodge is wonderfully situated on the banks of Loch Ness with exceptional views over the loch. This unique hotel only accepts children aged 12 and over, so it’s a child free escape offering a mix of rooms and one delightful self-catering apartment. The richly sumptuous decor, art, furniture and antiques have been lovingly selected by owner Anna Low, with much of the restoration and decoration work carried out by husband Philip Crowe. The devil’s in the detail.
Foyers also has its own story to tell. In the mid 1600s an Inn at Foyers was first built and, at that time, was mainly used by cattle drovers moving cattle to and from the markets in the South. The site of the property, under a variety of names, has been used almost continuously as an inn to this day. In 1726, General George Wade started work on the military road between Inverness and Fort Augustus down the south side of Loch Ness. At Foyers he built himself what was to become known as the ‘General’s Hut’ and here he lived while supervising the 500 soldiers from the Highland Companies engaged on this tremendous undertaking. It’s said the present building, formerly known as ‘The Foyers Hotel’, sits on the site of the ‘General’s Hut’.
This Art Deco 1930s hotel has a beautiful curved frontage and a lot of history to boot. The establishment was requisitioned during WW2 and became a rather chic base for the RAF, housing No 13 group and No 14 during the war. Today it sits peacefully in nine acres of parkland, and offers an indulgent six course tasting menu as well as à la carte dishes. It’s also a popular wedding and events space. Really well positioned for the Clava Cairns, Culloden and on to Cawdor Castle, discover prices and availability here.
History in the Highlands is fascinating for adults, but also fun for kids. It’s gory, accessible and you can reach out and touch most of it – walk on a real battlefield, visit a real barracks, climb a castle tower, hide within a cairn. I’d recommend it.