Tour 18/22 : Inverness

'Damn you for a cowardly Italian!'

Lord Elcho to the retreating Bonnie Prince Charlie

The Nessie Hunter scanned the loch with the eyes of an old sailor. Some had said they had seen something incredible, and this had been enough to bring him to Loch Ness years ago for a summer holiday. Now he was hooked and it had become a way of life. Would he see the monster in     Loch Ness? Increasingly, that was not really the question. Just yesterday he had watched some dippers work a stream and talked to a group of tourists who had sought him out. He was content.

Loch Ness drains to the sea at Inverness in arguably the best location in Scotland. Its east coast aspect means it is (relatively) dry and sunny, yet only a short distance from the west coast and the best wild country in Britain. The Central Belt is only two hours away on a fast road. No wonder Inverness, capital of the Highlands, is the fastest growing town in Scotland! The lochs and glens to the west of Loch Ness are some of the most attractive in Scotland, retaining ancient pine forests long gone from many other glens in the Highlands. Walking through these glens - then around the spacious, roadless country at their heads - provides one of the best wilderness experiences Scotland has to offer. In Loch Ussie is said to be a magic stone, cast there by the most famous prophet in Scotland, the     Brahan Seer.

The rivers of these glens exit to the sea near Inverness, where a resident dolphin population can be seen playing. Boats can be hired to get closer to these amazing mammals, or you could try your luck spotting them from land at Chanonry Point or Fort George. Sticking out into the sea on a peninsula, Fort George is Scotland's premier example of an artillery fort. It was built in the 18th century as the last and most impressive link in a chain of forts at strategic points to help quell the Jacobite threat. By the time it was complete, Jacobitism was spent, but the emergence of Napoleon in France meant that Fort George potentially still had a role to play. The commander was reportedly keen for Napoleon to invade the north of Scotland, just so that he could try out his fort! Fort George is Scotland's last and most militarily advanced castle, but it never saw any action. Had it been completed in 1746 it might have, as close by is the most atmospheric battlefield in the British Isles -     Culloden Moor.

Around and north of Inverness is fertile farmland. The land around Arabella is Dutch in its flatness, more lowland than the Lowlands. Red Kites wheel over arable fields with distant views of snow-capped hills. The remains of fabrication yards line the banks of Nigg Bay, one of the largest anchorages in the world. Decomissioned oil rigs shelter in the bay awaiting their fate. At its seaward end the bay narrows at the quaint old county town of Cromarty, huddling in on itself against the wind. Cromarty was home of geologist Hugh Millar, who has a museum dedicated to his achievements, and the remarkable     Thomas Urquhart, who doesn't.

Cromarty aside, a scattering of attractive small towns dot the countryside of the Black Isle and Tarbat peninsula. Fortrose, Dingwall, Strathpeffer, Beauly, Tain, Sandwick, Portmahomack - and the industrial towns of Alness and Invergordon - prove that even far into the Highlands there are fertile, gently prosperous areas.

The coast is particularly dense with Pictish stones, some of which are gathered at the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie (once seat of the Bishops of Ross), some in Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack (situated on the site of an old Pictish monastery), and others in their original situations outdoors, such as the Cadboll and Shandwick stones.

Inland is quieter, great empty fishing and stalking country, though it used to hum with activity: people were cleared from the long straths of Ross in successive waves. In 1792, am Bliadhna Caorach (the Year of the Sheep), crofters were forcibly ejected from Strath Oykel by the Sheriff of Ross, backed up by soldiers from Fort George. In 1845 Glencalvie was cleared without notice by the cruel factor Gillanders, despite the tenants never being in rent arrears. Those with nowhere to go spent a week camping in the kirkyard, their poignant messages still scratched into the windows today. The final great wave of clearances came in the aftermath of 1846-56s     potato famine. In 1880, cheap mutton and wool from Australia undercut the Highland sheep industry, and newly uneconomic estates were given over to hunting and shooting. The last wolf in Scotland was shot in Sutherland in the 18th century, and one landowner plans to reintroduce them to Glen Alladale. The empty glens face a choice - rewilding, or repopulating?

Inverness Castle

Inverness Cathedral

Loch Ness at Dores

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

Loch Beinn a' Mheadoin in Glen Affric

Glen Affric


Crops growing on the Black Isle

In the Black Isle


Nigg Bay from the Sutors of Cromarty

Cadboll Stone

Pictish museum

Glen Alladale