3 Things to See in the Scottish Highlands | Plodda Falls, Clava Cairns & Urquhart Castle
And yet, here I am typing this post on my computer, while simultaneously working my way through a bag of Doritos Terry has causally left on my desk. I am blatantly NOT in the 18th century right now, and, I dunno, it’s just… I’m starting to think Outlander might not be totally accurate in its depiction of what happens when you touch these things, you know? Food for thought, folks: food for thought…
Anyway, this particular standing stone is part of the Clava Cairns bronze age cemetery complex, near Inverness, and they’re roughly 4,000 years old now, which is the kind of little fact that never fails to send a quick shiver down my spine, even without the whole “time travel” thing. Most visitors to the Scottish Highlands travel this way to see the much better known Culloden battlefield, which is nearby. As it happens, Terry and I went to Culloden, too, but I’m just going to level with you here: we didn’t actually get out of the car. Because it was FREEZING. And Max was sleeping in the back. And this is the reality of travel with a toddler, really: it’s fun, sure, but it sometimes means you can’t fit in every single thing, and, when it came down to it, we decided we’d rather see the cairns than the battlefield, so we drove on, and found this waiting for us:
Clava Cairns, near Inverness
It’s impossible to do justice to this site with photos, unfortunately, because it’s only really when you’re standing right next to one of the cairns that you realise just how huge they are, and how much work must have gone into their creation, all those years ago. It was quite humbling, really: I mean, here we are, still struggling to finish our stair remodel, over two months into the project, but Bronze Age man was all, “Sure, we’ll just rattle up some giant burial cairns for you, no worries. Would you like some standing stones with that?” Or something like that, I’m sure.
There are three cairns in total at the site, plus the standing stones, which are rumoured to have inspired the fictional Craigne na Dun in Outlander. (Be aware, though, that these stones weren’t used as a filming location for the show: I’ve read that there have been some issues with tourists turning up there thinking they’re going to find Sam Heughan wandering around in a kilt, but no: the stones used in Outlander aren’t actually real – if they were, I’d have been to see them by now, obviously.) Although the weather was cold and drizzly during our visit, that was actually in our favour, as it meant we got the site totally to ourselves: sadly, though, the cold wind and grumpy baby forced us back to the car a little earlier than we’d have liked, but if you have a bit more time on your hands, and are in the Inverness area, I’d definitely recommend a visit.
Speaking of places to visit in the highlands, here’s another one for you:
Plodda Falls, near Glen Affric
Yes, it’s yet another one for the, “Impossible to do justice to in photos,” files, I’m afraid. There is a reason why I’ve chosen to lump these three sites into one roundup, rather than giving each of them the detailed posts of their own that they deserve, and that reason is currently sleeping peacefully in his cot, totally oblivious to the fact that his mother’s sitting in the room next door going, “Wait: did we REALLY visit Scotland’s highest waterfall, but only take two photos of it, both of which are a bit blurry, really?” And yes: yes, it would appear we DID do that. It turns out that taking photos with a toddler on your back is pretty hard, actually, and, for most of our trip to Plodda Falls, Terry literally had a toddler on his back:
The walk to the falls from the carpark is only about ten minutes or so, thankfully, and, before you reach the falls themselves, you first of all reach the wooden viewing platform, which you can see me running along in the image at the top of the page. From this structure, you can see the top of the waterfall below you, and the water tumbling down the rocks, but it’s only really when you leave the platform behind that you get a real sense of the scale of the thing:
The wooden platform you can see peeking over the top of the falls is the same wooden platform I’m walking down in the photo underneath it. Terry, who’s scared of heights, found the rickety platform just a little bit hair-raising: I, meanwhile, had no problem being on it, but I have to admit that, once we got to the bottom of the falls and looked back up at it, I was a bit like, “THAT’S what I was just standing on?!”
Again, I really wish we’d managed to capture the waterfall itself here, but it’s so high that it was actually really hard to get it all into the frame, and so loud that Max was absolutely terrified of it. This is something we hadn’t anticipated at all when we set out to walk to it (Although, given that he bursts into tears every time I try to use a hand-drier in a public bathroom with him present, I probably should have…), and is the main reason for our woeful attempts at photographing it. The good news, however, is that our next stop on this particular day was at Urquhart Castle: and SURELY we wouldn’t have had any issues getting some photos THERE? </foreshadowing>
Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness
One of the things I’ve mentioned a few times now in my posts about our Highland adventure is how cold I found it: and this was despite me having packed sensibly, for once, with coats and boots, and even a selection of hats for Max, which he ripped off his head, and threw to the ground at every possibly opportunity.
Now, I think it’s probably tempting to assume that it’s ALWAYS that cold in the Scottish Highlands, but actually, it was really just bad luck on our part that we arrived during a particularly cold snap. I mean, March is never going to be WARM there, obviously, but this was something else entirely, and, being the soft lowlander I am, when we pulled up in the carpark of Urquhart Castle, I have to confess that my heart sank a little at the thought of leaving the warmth of the car. No, you really WOULDN’T think I’d lived here all my life, would you?
So, Urquhart Castle sits on the banks of Loch Ness, which is, of course, famous for its mythical monster. We didn’t see the monster, though, obviously: because it’s not actually real. (Despite this, there were several occasions as we were having lunch in the visitor centre afterwards, when I kind of half jumped out of my seat, thinking I’d seen something in the water below us, only to instantly realise that, nope, it was just a wave. Again.) What we DID see, however, was one of the more picturesque ruins you’re likely to come across on your travels through Scotland: and that’s really saying something, because this is a country FULL of picturesque ruins…
I mean, it’s ironic, really, that Terry has the camera around his neck in the shot above, because these are the only photos we actually got at Urquhart Castle. (Well, these and there was also one of Terry bending over to help Max navigate the uneven ground, but you can totally see Terry’s underwear in it, so…) YAY, US! Still, with that said, this is another one of those Scottish landmarks that doesn’t really need me to take photos of it: like, I don’t expect anyone’s sitting at home right now thinking, “Gosh, I wish Forever Amber would go to Urquart Castle and take some photos of it, because how will we ever know what it looks like otherwise?” Be honest: you’re not, are you?
So, no, you don’t need my photos (Which is handy, because I don’t have any…), so all that remains for me to say here is that, unlike Clava Cairns, Urquhart was reasonably busy when we visited, with a couple of coachloads of tourists, and it gets even busier during the height of the tourist season, so if you’re visiting, it’s probably a good idea to get there as early as possible: not just to avoid the crowds, but also because there’s a lot to see, both of the castle itself, and the surrounding loch. There are boar tours available, which allow you to view the castle from the loch, and, if the weather’s REALLY cold, this is another castle with a visitor centre which gives you a fantastic view of the main attraction from the comfort of your lunch table. (And it’s just this second occurred to me that, instead of writing blog posts about tourist attractions, I should probably just write about their visitor centres instead, as that seems to be more my speed. A new niche, perhaps?)
Loch Ness, meanwhile, is most notable for the sheer size of the thing. At Urquhart, you’re surrounded by a pretty large expanse of water, but it’s still only a small fraction of the loch itself, which is over 20 miles long, and 230m deep. Which, honestly, is terrifying to me. Terrifying. (And, despite this, it’s not even the longest OR the deepest loch in Scotland. We have a LOT of water up here, seriously…) No monsters, though, sadly. It would be cool if there WAS a monster, obviously (Although maybe not for it, because that seems like it would be a lonely life for a monster, really…), but it’s also a pretty cool place to visit without one. Just please remember your camera…