22 April – Fort George, Dunrobin Castle and Highland cattle at Lochinver………
Our Scottish Highlands adventure for the day took us from our B&B in Inverness to the impressive Fort George. We then headed north to Dunrobin Castle which with its beautiful gardens and amazing falconry show. The afternoon there was spectacular scenery, reminiscent of Iceland, before we stayed at one of our favourite places of the whole trip – Split Rock Croft, a tiny farm in the North of Scotland with amazing cliffs, rocky outcrops and the cutest animals including hairy coo (and tiny hairy calves)! An impressive day of scenery……
After an OK nights sleep at our B&B in Inverness, only interrupted by Astrid falling out of the bed and hitting her head on the floor/bed, causing all sorts of commotion, we slept until 7ish. The B&B had a continental breakfast available in room next door. There was another apartment upstairs which had been rather noisy overnight (although we were too tired to care). At breakfast we discovered the apartment had been occupied by 3 Italian teenage girls and their mum. They further annoyed us at breakfast by using multiple plates each leaving us none and left a huge mess. This meant I spent time cleaning up for the host, who had been rather kind to us the day before washing Astrid’s vomit clothes, and didn’t deserve to have his breakfast room left in such a state.
Breakfast was an acceptable array of cereal, toast, croissants and cheese and ham. After we had full tummies and did a bit of repacking we were off for the day, heading further into the Highlands. The kids were rather annoyed to be leaving another good apartment for more driving!
First on the agenda for the day was Fort George, which we’d not had time to visit the previous day. Fort George was a short and scenic 25 minute drive to the North-East of Inverness. Despite being in a relatively populated area as far as the Highlands go, there was more single lane driving on the way to the Fort. The roads however were in a much better state than we were to find later in the trip.
The first Fort George was built in 1727 in Inverness; it was a large fortress capable of housing 400 troops on a hill beside the River Ness. It was a cool (at 11 degrees) but pleasant morning and there weren’t too many people when we arrived at 9.40am. It wasn’t currently raining but the stormy skies ended up making for some good photos.
The fort was built to pacify the Scottish Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The current fortress has never been attacked and has remained in continuous use as a garrison. The fort still serves as an army barracks but you are able to visit many areas. The exhibits show the fort’s use at different periods and many of the exhibits were hands on.
We all loved exploring the buildings of the fort. It remains virtually unaltered from it’s original design. Incidentally the fort was never attacked!
The kids loved running around the grassed areas and checking out the views across the water. There were plenty of signs warning about the sheer drops off the sides of fort. Luckily the kids were well versed in staying were was safe after plenty of cliffs and waterfalls in Iceland.
There were plenty of birds nesting everywhere within the fort. They were almost deafeningly noisy. We figured there were so many birds as it was impossible for any non-flying predator to get in!
The fortifications were amazing, and had been improved upon over the years. It seemed that was entirely unnecessary as it never attacked, but perhaps they thought there was little point as the large star-shaped design looked particularly imposing.
Fort George is also home to the Highlander Museum. The Museum had plenty of history about the Scottish military, including lots of the uniforms worn through the ages, they certainly love their kilts! It took the Scots until the 1940s to realise that kilts are not a sensible option for combat. The museum also had dress up section and Anto was made to wear several outfits by the kids!
After the Highlander Museum we wandered the final bit of the fort and completed our tour in 1.5 hours (when we returned the head-set the staff told us this was very quick). It was definitely worth visiting and we had all enjoyed our wander around.
As we left Fort George it was just starting to rain lightly. We headed North in the drizzly weather. The next stop was Golspie a 1.5 hour drive from Fort George.
As we drove the rain got steadily heavier, making car-based sight-seeing difficult. There was still plenty of pretty countryside, but not a lot of photo-taking opportunities. We did notice that towns were getting less as less frequent as we headed further from Inverness.
We finally arrived at Dunrobin Castle at around 12.45pm. It had stopped raining briefly but was still rather cold so we decided to take coats with us (this turned out to be a wise move). All feeling a little hungry we into the castle and confirmed the time of the falconry display and the headed to the tea room for lunch. The tea room was rather pretty (and fairly busy). Anto had a chilli con carne baked potato and the kids shared a smoked salmon and cream cheese baguette. I had cheese and onion Panini, with salad. Lunch was nice if not spectacular but was definitely welcome as we were cold and hungry.
Dunrobin Castle is on the east coast of the Northern Highlands overlooking the Moray Firth, just north of the villages of Golspie and Dornoch. Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands with 189 rooms. Dunrobin Castle is also one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s, home to the Earls and later, the Dukes of Sutherland.
As it was currently not raining we decided to go and do the gardens of the castle first and be ready for falconry show which started at 2pm.
The castle, which resembles a French château with its towering conical spires, did remind us of many of the châteaus we had visited in the Loire Valley, in France. The gardens were also spectacular. The castle was perched up on the hill, overlooking the firth and had bulbs all down hill and then formal gardens with hedges, flowers, apple trees and veggie gardens and fountains on the flat expanse below the castle.
The gardens were somewhat reminiscent of both Chateau Villandry in the Loire Valley and Versaille, France, although on a much smaller scale! It was mid-Spring and plenty of the garden was in bloom, although it did appear that we were a little early for all the bulbs and most of the deciduous trees were still bare.
We enjoyed walking through the gardens. There were beautiful views to the sea on one side and back to castle on the other.
Down the end of the garden the birds of prey were out. Soren was fascinated by them sitting on their perches. We learnt that they keep them tethered for safety and they fly regularly off their tether. They had lots of owls, raptors, falcons, and hawks. All of them got a tad excited when they saw their trainer come out. The kids had been talking about falconry all day so we were glad we’d managed to time it well enough to see the exhibit.
We had about 10 minutes to spare before the falconry show commenced so we decided to go into the museum which turned out to be a large collection of taxidermied animals. The Scottish seem fond of this as they had made an appearance in several museums. This exhibit included elephants and giraffes, plus lots of bones and rocks. Some of the stones were interesting but I couldn’t cope with the vast numbers of hunted animals on display so had to leave.
Luckily it was soon time for the falcons and we got a good seat at the front. There were probably only around 30 people there for the show and it currently wasn’t raining so we thought we might get lucky with the weather. The kids saw the birds coming out to their waiting platforms and were pretty excited.
The first bird to fly was a Harris Hawk, an American bird. His name was Elm and he was 12 years old. We saw how he glides when he flies and learnt about his soft feathers that bend easily. Harris Hawks can turn rapidly and reach speeds of 45 miles per hour in level flight.
Elm did lots of flights back and forwards and over our head and was being very cheeky. The kids were grinning and clapping every time he flew over. He was 1.5 pounds but looks much bigger mostly due to the fact he was all feathers and his body was quite small. Harris Hawks have a tight turning circle so are good at chasing rabbits.
It was just starting to rain and as the Icelandic Gyr falcon came out, who was 14. They fly at 90 mph and dive at 200 mph, rather impressive. Icelandic Gyr falcons have keratin feathers that don’t bend and are the biggest type of falcon at 2.5 pounds. We learnt that they keep hoods on them to keep them calm and stops them from hurting themselves.
We saw the falcon using a rabbit training lure (it wasn’t a live rabbit) and eating (pre-dead) chickens. She did lots of swoops, including many over our heads. It was so fast it was difficult to get photos.
We were learning plenty about keeping and training the falcons and how the breeding program was building up numbers. The trainers all obviously cared for the falcons and spent a lot of time training injured and orphaned individuals, using dogs to help flush out rabbits and grouse to teach them how to hunt and survive in the wild.
It was now raining hard and we were all getting soaked but it was fascinating so we kept listening. Next up was the peregrine falcon. They have different colours depending on what comes out in clutch, and come in 3 different colours and you can end up with 1 of each colour from one batch of eggs. They are known as the execution bird due to their mask markings, and the fact that they knock pigeons in the head in flight to kill them. They fly at 248 mph, making them the fastest animal on earth. They actually look quite small, everyone thinks that peregrine falcons are bigger birds than what they actually are!
We learnt that dogs would protect them while they are eating as the falcons are trained to sit on the ground eating so need protection from eagles while they are eating and vulnerable. It was fascinating learning about how the practice of falconry was rehabilitating injured birds that are then bred and released to wild. All captive birds bred from disabled birds, and you can’t catch birds from the wild.
By the end of the show we were all soaked and cold as it had been raining hard. It was worth listening to and we all enjoyed it. It is definitely worth timing a visit to the castle to see the Falconry while you are at Dunrobin Castle.
We now headed inside the castle, glad to be out of the rain and cold. We’ve seen a lot of castles and châteaus in the last few years but Dunrobin is quite good. The interior was beautifully decorated and the rooms were all set up nicely. As seems common in these parts there were lots of animal skin rugs as well as tartan carpets (in case we forgot we were in Scotland). The nursery and kids play rooms were particularly interesting. All the rooms at the rear of the castle had fantastic views over the gardens and the sea.
We spent another half an hour looking around the inside of the castle then had to get moving as we still had a lot of driving for the day. We’d spent almost 3 hours at castle with lunch but it had been an enjoyable visit and the highlight was the falconry. Sadly we still had 2 hours of driving to do before reaching our accommodation for the night.
We were all rather cold and wet but glad to be back in a warm car. We had hopes that the kids would go to sleep during the afternoon drive but instead they chatted non-stop.
As we headed north, we were leaving most civilisation behind. Our plan to stop in a town to grab a coffee didn’t work as we didn’t really pass through any town, let alone ones with luxuries like coffee! It was a scenic drive and only lightly raining intermittently.
The landscape was starting to look decidedly Icelandic, with bare rock mountains, and plenty of shaley mountains devoid of trees. We drove past plenty more lochs and rivers and weren’t being troubled by too many other cars on the road.
We had over an hour of driving on single lane winding roads (the lack of traffic was a blessing as having to stop to let oncoming traffic pass is time-consuming). Somehow Astrid managed not to puke, but I was even feeling sick so we were expecting the worst.
The last half hour of driving was particularly pretty, with rocky outcrops and little stone houses.
It was around 5.30pm when we reached the tiny town of Lochinver, hoping to find some groceries as we were staying on a farm for the night. Only 1 tiny store was still open. There wasn’t a lot of variety, and not much fresh food but it thankfully wasn’t too expensive (so much cheaper than Iceland) so we picked up dinner and breakfast supplies.
It was then a 10 minute drive to Split Rock Croft, our accommodation for the evening. The drive up was on a very narrow and winding road, barely wide enough for 1 car and there were sheep everywhere on road, including sitting on it. The sheep weren’t bothered by the reasonable amount of traffic and just happily sat on the road, expecting vehicles to go around. Some bits of the drive were very steep and although we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere we passed farms, caravan parks and several houses.
Finally we arrived at Split Rock Croft. In the Highlands small farms are known as ‘crofts’. As we approached the farm and went through several gates the kids spied hairy coo (Highland cattle) and got very excited.
Our accommodation for the evening was rather spectacular! When we arrived we quickly unpacked and got the oven on for dinner, then found our boots and coats and headed out on for an explore. There was mud absolutely everywhere but we said hello to pigs and the cows (including gorgeous calves).
As there were a lot of tiny calves we were wary of annoying their mums too much. The calves were dotted around everywhere, you’d walk to the top of the hill and find them curled up in tiny little cracks hiding from the chilly wind. There were rocky outcrops and cliffs everywhere, and the it was rather spectacular (if cold!).
We were now freezing and we should have gone inside and got beanies but were enjoying exploring the farm. There were spectacular cliff views and it was lovely to walk around and meet the animals. We found plenty of cows, sheep and chickens roaming all over the place and right down to the sea.
Eventually we had to drag the kids back inside for dinner as it was getting rather late (and we were blocks of ice from the freezing wind). Dinner was whatever we could find in the freezer section of the tiny Lochinver store – some cottage pie and onion bahji – an ecclectic mix. We’d also picked up some apple strudel and ice cream for dessert.
The cottage was huge and split over two levels and had amazing views. The other half of the building was being used by some young French men and women working as farm hands, who we met the next day. The cottage was well set up and the farm was so beautiful we wished we were staying longer.
After a hot dinner and shower we bundled the kids off to their beds (which came with tartan blankets). The late sunset made for some spectacular views as we watched some British TV before turning in for the night.
Daily statistics for Sunday the 22nd of April 2018 in Inverness and the Scottish Highlands: The temperature started out at a cool 4 degrees Celsius, making it to about 11 degrees by the time we reached Fort George. It was 12 degrees Celsius and raining during our visit to Dunrobin castle, near Golspie. The late afternoon and evening in Lochinver was 8 degrees but much colder with wind chill!
The total walking for the day was 7.5km.
The total driving for the day was approximately 225km, which ended up taking over 4 hours with the single lane and winding roads. Here is the map of our driving adventures for the day……..
Up next, some very scenic (and scary) driving as we head to Ullapool and then drive the famous Bealach na Bà winding, single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula (twice) before our trek to the beautiful Isle of Skye………