Inverness, Thurso, Orkney Islands
Inverness, a very picturesque town, was our next stop. It is in a valley at the mouth of the River Ness with low hills surrounding it. It has nice green spaces along the canal and river. Inverness was the first place that the regular use of the Gaelic language became obvious to me.
Our first full day we joined an organized tour to Loch Ness. We went by bus first from Inverness along part of the Caledonian Canal. Then, at a northern point on the lake, we boarded a boat for a 30 minute cruise to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. No, we didn’t see any monsters in the lake.
Urquhart Castle has quite a history of being invaded and ownership being passed back and forth to different clans and families until it was partially destroyed in 1692 to prevent the Jacobites using it. We checked out all the corners of the ruins and soaked in the view. Then we had a scenic trip back to Inverness by bus.
Since we had rail passes, we took the train south to Aviemore, a town in the Cairngorm Mountains. From Aviemore, we took a bus to Cairngorm Mountain. It still had snow on it but we attempted to hike up to the top anyway. There was light rain when we started out at the bottom and we saw a beautiful double rainbow. However, the rain got worse as we climbed. To make matters worse, the wind started to blow harder and the wind became rather cold. We were on a mountain with absolutely no trees or bushes for protection against the wind and rain. The weather made the trek very rough going. About half way up, we decided that since this hike was optional and we didn’t have to do this hike as on our Hadrian’s Wall walk, we went back down the mountain. At least it gave us an example of the bad weather we could have had on our Hadrian’s Wall walk. We were certainly glad we missed that! Then, after drying off and warming up, we went for a scenic ride on the Strathspey Steam train.
While in Inverness, Donna and I did some walking tours around the town to explore it, including a 15 km walk along the canal and the River Ness. So picturesque.
As we headed north towards Thurso and the Caithness area, we noticed how barren and bleak the landscape became. The landscape was missing trees. Some of the hills had a variety of colour, though. We found out heather plants cover the hills but the heather does not bloom until August & September. I imagine the hills would look very beautiful then.
Thurso is such a cute little town on the very north coast of Scotland.
On our first full day there, we joined an organized wildlife tour to see puffins and other birds common to the area at the time. We couldn’t get close enough to the puffins to see them without a telescope and binoculars. But it was great and the birds were entertaining. We got to see quite a bit of the coast on our quest to see the wild birds and seals, etc. Instead of returning to Thurso, the tour guide dropped us off at The Castle of Mey. This castle was the late Queen Mother’s home in the area and is still used by members of her family. We toured through the castle and the grounds and then took the sparse and empty bus back to Thurso. There was so much more to see in the Caithness area but we needed our own vehicle if we wanted to see more as they local bus service was not great.
The Caithness area produced lots of slate at one time and you can still see plenty of it used around. There are many fences built of the slate.
The next day we got up early to take the empty (again) bus to John O’Groats and then a ferry to the Orkney Islands. Then we joined an organized tour of the Orkney Islands by bus. We went over the “Churchill Barriers” – causeways built by Italian prisoners of WWII to link several islands. We visited its two main towns of Kirkwall and Stormness. Stormness had plenty of small lanes and closes and seemed to be compressed into such a small area.
The highlight was seeing Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar (standing stones). Skara Brae is a fairly recently discovered archaeological site originally occupied from 3100 to 2500 BC. It felt like a privilege to see them.
The Orkney Islands had so many interesting things to see and so much history. We tried to spend a couple of days on these islands but we could not get any accommodation. They were all booked up. Well, at least we had the one day there.
As the ferry got back just a minute too late to catch the last bus back to Thurso, a ferry employee had to race us to the next stop (also a ferry landing) in his car to catch the bus. It was not a highlight of the trip but the high speed along the narrow, curvy road was memorable. They probably have to do it regularly because they don’t get the arrival time of the ferry to coincide with the bus schedule.