Touring the Scottish Highlands: Looking for Nessie and Finding So Much More

I was anticipating 10 very quiet days in Inverness since I figured touring the Scottish Highlands wouldn’t take much time. I mean, the area’s biggest attraction is a mythical creature, right?

Wrong! Plan plenty of time to explore when visiting the northern Scottish hills because there is so much to see while touring the Scottish Highlands, and so many legends to learn, songs to sing, and glasses of whisky to drink!

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
Nessie was last seen here at Loch Ness near Urquhart Castle where the water is 750-feet deep.

Stories, Music and Whisky Fuel this Tour of the Scottish Highlands

I was wandering the streets of Inverness when the clouds opened up, drizzling another Scottish rain on me. Suddenly the live music behind the steamed-up windows of MacGregor’s Bar sounded pretty good.

Inverness in the Scottish Highlands
Inverness

I listened to the guitarist mix classic rock with Scottish folk music while warming up over a local brew and a bowl of soup with chicken and spiced lentils.

Then the bartenders told me that I should come back the next evening for a special program called the Highland Malt Whisky Experience. And I thought…well, when in Scotland!

That was a good decision. It is impossible to recommend the Highland Whisky Experience enough.

Starting my lesson in Scottish whisky (no “e” in Scottish whisky) at MacGregor’s Pub.

Not only did I learn that I like whisky – at least the really good stuff – I learned so much about the history of the Highlands through music and beautiful storytelling that I was inspired to visit some of the places that I heard about that evening.

A Scottish Highlander pretending to see the Loch Ness Monster
TJ, my tour guide, pretending to see the Loch Ness Monster.

Here is what I learned:

The History of the Highlands Needs to Be Heard

Over a glass of Dalwhinnie Winter which, though made in the coldest part of Scotland, has a way of warming the insides, my Whisky Experience host, Davy Holt, struck a chord in my soul with more than his guitar.

He told us that it’s common to be unfamiliar with the history of the Highlands. Even many Highlanders are unfamiliar with the history of the Highlands because lessons and education plans were set by London until the newly established Parliament of Scotland first met in 1999.

Before that, the northern hills of Scotland were overlooked in education plans.

Kilt Rock in the Scottish Highlands
If these hills could talk! Kilt Rock is named for its resemblance to the Highland garment.

The Highlander in Battle

Davy spoke of the many battles throughout history in which Highlanders were placed on the front lines. This was, in part, due to the legendary Highland Charge, which filled the hearts of opponents with fear as they faced a charging mass of clansmen who, wielding broadswords, joined their voices together in a shrill cry that echoed across the hills.

It was a fitting story to hear over a taste of The Dalmore 15, which boasts a stag as its emblem in recollection of the moment that the chief of Clan Mackenzie saved King Alexander III from a charging stag in 1263.

(The king granted the clan the right to use the Royal Stag on their coat of arms, a tradition that continues today with each whisky bottle of the Dalmore!)

Touring Culloden Field in the Scottish Highlands

We moved onto our next whisky and onto a story a little more familiar to me. I’m a fan of the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon and the first book covers the Jacobite Rising of 1745 that culminated in the Battle of Culloden when “Bonnie Prince Charlie” lost the fight – and ultimately his bid for the throne – to the Duke of Cumberland.

Culloden Field in the Scottish Highlands
My tour took me to Culloden Field where the Highlanders were massacred.

I now know there is so much more to the Battle of Culloden than covered in Outlander.

The Jacobites marched through the night and then stood, exhausted, on Culloden Field. The Duke of Cumberland positioned his men on the other side of a muddy bit of land, thereby ensuring the charging Highlanders would be – literally – bogged down in the mud. Perhaps most lethal of all, the Duke instructed his men not to fight the man charging straight on, but, rather, to stab the man to the right where the sword and shield left a bit of flesh exposed.

Culloden Battlefied in the Scottish Highlands
Culloden Battlefield

It was a massacre. To this day, the Duke carries the nickname the “Butcher of Cumberland” both for his methods on the battlefield and for his strategy of ensuring no further rebellions after the battle.

First, he instructed his soldiers to kill the wounded men who lay on the battlefield.

But the Butcher of Cumberland didn’t stop there.

The Suppression of the Highland Culture

The Jacobites who lived were rounded up and systematically shot at Old High Church in Inverness. I visited the church to see the musket ball marks that can still be seen in the tower wall.

Old High Church in Inverness where Highlanders were shot to end the Jacobite uprising
The grooved gravestone in the foreground was used to hold rifles steady for the mass killing.

Jacobites were hunted for years and the Highland culture was suppressed by the strict enforcement of bans on the kilt and the Gaelic language.

The Skye Boat Song (“that Outlander song”)

As we sipped our next whisky, our host picked up his guitar and struck another chord. He told us that there was more behind “that Outlander song,” the theme song of the Outlander TV series on Starz (adapted from the books). Our host launched into the familiar tune but used the original lyrics to what is called the Skye Boat Song.

The familiar music is even more haunting when matched with the original words that tell the tale of Prince Charlie being smuggled across the water to the Isle of Skye while his men are left behind to die. It is the last bit of the song that Davy says tells the story most poignantly.

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Cullodens field.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

The men really thought the Bonnie Prince would return, but Charlie never came back to the Scottish Highlands, leaving his men behind to face what amounted to genocide. (Click here for more on the haunting truth behind the Outlander theme song.)

Despite the cold reality of the story, our host warmed the cozy, candlelit room with another pour and another story of the Highlands using two of the best storytelling tools in history – music and whisky.

After the whisky experience, I went with Davy and a few others to Gellions Bar, the oldest pub in Inverness, to listen as Davy took to the stage for a full set of Scottish folk music. By the time I left that night, I had many new friends with whom I spent the next week singing, dancing and learning about the “Highlands and the Islands” that had so completely won my heart.

The first of many friendly pours at Gellions Bar.

Quick Facts for Touring the Scottish Highlands

How do you get to the Scottish Highlands?

I took a train from London. It was a long, nine-hour ride, but a beautiful one. It takes about the same time to drive or it’s a two-hour flight from London.

Inverness is a three-hour drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Where should you stay in the Scottish Highlands?

I adored Inverness. It’s small enough to be a quiet getaway, but there is a lovely book store, tons of bars playing live music, a castle to explore, and a riverwalk to wander. By the time you leave you will know all of the musicians and bartenders in town!

Should you take a guided tour of the Scottish Highlands?

I like to stay somewhere a long while and book a day tour or an overnight adventure. It is a great way to meet people and to learn more about a place from an expert.

While I didn’t plan to do this in Inverness, I’m really glad that I did. Especially since, as an American, I would have been distracted from the sites by trying to stay on the correct side of the road!

I booked two separate day tours with Happy Tours. The first was the Isle of Skye Tour, which provided a beautiful overview of the Highlands and Islands and all of its castles and hills.

Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle just outside of Inverness is a ruin with a complicated history.

The second tour I took was the Outlander Highlands tour, which focused more on the battlefield at Culloden and the stone circles that inspired the novels.

The stone circles in the Scottish Highlands
The stone circles

The days were long (11 hours!) but included so many sites and stories that it was well worth it. I still think back on my time in Inverness and the Scottish Highlands and Islands with great fondness. I know you will too.

If you like liked this story, please save it for later. And check out my other stories on travel and history (also below)!

A Highlander
Save for later
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    5 Comments on “Touring the Scottish Highlands: Looking for Nessie and Finding So Much More”

      • I’m so glad you liked it! I hope you also enjoyed the season finale. I’m waiting in anticipation for the next book to drop. And…for the next trip to Scotland. Fingers crossed!

    1. Jen,
      Thank you, I travel the world through your eyes and your magical ability to paint a story with words. Thank you, Thank you so very much!!!!

    2. I’m retiring soon and my bucket gets heavier through Jen’s eyes. I can visualize places and atmosphere. And the feeling of awe

      • Thank you for following my travels Marilyn! And thank you for your review on Facebook. I can’t wait to meet you in person one of these days! (Maybe Philadelphia in June??)

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