Scotland rose to the top of my travel wish list quicker than I expected thanks to the TV show Outlander. A dramatic green landscape filled with hiking, castles and whisky (spelled without an “e” in Scotland) for days would make for a different kind of experience and I was sold. Similar to the main character Claire’s journey, our trip would begin in the city of Inverness after landing at the Edinburgh Airport and learning how to drive on the other side of both the car and the road through a jet-lagged haze. The 3-hour drive was scenic and the weather was unexpectedly sunny, a trend that would continue for nearly our entire week-long trip at the end of June with the exception of one rainy day.
What to See and Do
Inverness is the unofficial capital of the Highlands and my first impression of the city was just how cute it was. The streets near our B&B were lined with adorable houses and its relatively compact size and pedestrianized center makes the city extremely walkable. While it’s light on major sights, we spent 2 days in Inverness and found it to be a great home base to explore the surrounding area. The city’s main landmark is the Inverness Castle, which sits on top of a hill overlooking the River Ness. Today the castle serves as a courthouse, although visitors are able to climb to the top of its tower.
We did a bit of souvenir shopping around town and found a ton of great tweed items at Harris Tweed Isle of Harris (6-8 Inglis Street), plus you’ll find more shopping near the train station at the modern Eastgate Shopping Center and old Victorian Market where we also enjoyed a quick coffee break with extremely personable service at the Milk Bar (8 Market Arcade). Other sites in the area include the 18th century Old High Church with its particularly intriguing cemetery and the 19th century St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the opposite side of the Ness River. For a nice after-dinner stroll you can walk further south along the river to the Ness Islands, which is accessible via a suspension foot bridge.
The next day we got up early and drove about 15 minutes outside of the city to visit the Culloden Battlefield. It was here that on April 16, 1746 that Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he was called) and his Jacobite army faced off against King George II’s army in a failed attempt to restore his family to the British throne. The site includes an included audio guide and fascinating multimedia exhibit inside the visitors center, which traces both sides of the story including the buildup and aftermath of the battle with artifacts, first-hand accounts, maps and more. We also caught a presentation about tartan with a demonstration on how they were folded and worn. After the engaging history lesson we headed outside for a 40-minute guided tour of the battlefields (for a small supplemental fee). Red (Government) and blue (Jacobite) flags mark the frontline across the green landscape and it was easy to see how the Jacobites were at a disadvantage both in number and location on the battlefield. Some 1,500 Jacobites were killed in this hour-long decisive battle, which marked the decline of popular clan culture and forced Bonnie Prince Charlie into exile for the rest of his life.
We also visited the Clava Carins (well-preserved prehistoric stone circles similar to the ones that transported Claire back in time in Outlander) about 5 minutes away and then drove further north to Dunrobin Castle. The French-style castle is one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in Scotland with the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland residing there as far back as the 1300s. Today visitors can tour the castle’s lavish rooms, gardens, Victorian museum and twice-daily falconry demonstrations. For whisky lovers you can visit distilleries like Glenmorangie and Dalmore, among others south of Inverness or farther east in the Speyside area.
Where to Eat
Our first night in Inverness was probably one of our favorite meals of the trip, which we ate at the The Mustard Seed (16 Fraser Street). This lovely and warm restaurant occupies a former church and includes a menu that rotates every two weeks, from which we ordered house salads with mustardy dressing, a special of sole fish served with green beans and potatoes and a steak, mushroom and onion pie with roasted carrots and potatoes. The food was delicious and reasonably priced and our waitress Sophia was full of personality as she helped recommend local spirits (Dalmore 15) to accompany our meal.
The second night we ate at Number 27 Bar and Kitchen (27 Castle Street) located on the main road below the castle. It was a relatively small space with a long bar and handful of tables and its menu included a good selection of both classic and regular dinner items, from which we ordered beef bourguignon and lamb saddle served with vegetables and potatoes. The service was a little scattered but the food was decent. I should mention that in Inverness and all around Scotland, reservations are advisable if you are traveling during high season.
Afterwards we went to The Malt Room (34 Church Street), a whisky bar with side street access that’s great for both whisky novices and experts alike. We sat at the bar and were impressed by the bartender Charlotte’s friendly and knowledgeable service as she helped us navigate the huge selection of whiskies, organized by price level and region, from which we ordered the Tour de Scotland flight (Glenmorangie 12 Nectar D’or, The Glenlivet 15 and Ardbeg Corryvreckan) and the super rich chocolate orange seasonal cocktail.
Where to Stay
We originally booked two nights at the Craigside Lodge just steps from the Inverness Castle. Between the time of making our reservations and confirming right before our trip the B&B had since been sold by its owners to the Redcliffe Hotel across the street. We checked in and ate breakfast in the light-filled restaurant in the main hotel building, but still had the experience of a private room in the former B&B. Our accommodations were cozy and cheery with a bright and modern bathroom, which we found to be a good value since the rate included a cooked-to-order breakfast menu plus a selection of cereals, fruit, yogurt and beverages. The location was easy to reach form the main road into Inverness and was within walking distance of the town center and many restaurants.