‘S a bhaidealan àrda Air sgàineadh o chèil’ ‘S chan eil eachdraidh no seanchas A dh'fhàg dearbhadh o chèin Air an àl chuir an àird e No dhaingnich a stèidh Òran do Ghleann urchadain — Tòmas an Todhair
The tall towers have fallen apart
And no history or tale has left any trace
Of the generations who
built it or laid the foundations
A Song for Glen Urquhart — Thomas MacDonald
The rain pelted against my face as I looked down the Great Glen and took in its stormy beauty. I was surrounded by ancient stones that whispered their secrets to me in between the gusts of wind that challenged my sense of balance. Even though I was standing in an incredibly strong storm, I delighted in the chance to take in my surroundings. My eyes danced over a cacophony of colours- greys from the tempestuous clouds, lush green from the hills of the glen, the almost black colours of the waters below me, and a rainbow shining through it all. I blocked out the weather and imagined the centuries of history that have unfolded on these remarkable grounds. For I was standing in a tower at Urquhart Castle and overlooking the iconic Loch Ness.
In this week’s article, we take a break from Edinburgh and head up to the magnificent Highlands. And, what would a proper Scottish adventure be without visiting some castle ruins? You can read a few of our past articles from our ongoing castle series- Craigmillar, Tantallon, and Dirleton. We’ve been to Urquhart Castle a few times and the pictures in this article are a mix of all our visits. My above account is from our most recent trip last September. So, let’s continue our exploration and learn a wee bit about the Castle’s history as well as all it has to offer visitors in more contemporary times.
Mysterious Origins & Turbulent History
The origins of the land that now holds the ruins of Urquhart Castle are shrouded in a bit of mystery. There are some historical accounts that suggest St Columba visited the area around AD 580. According to Historic Scotland, while he was “travelling up Loch Ness, Columba was summoned to visit an elderly Pictish nobleman at Airdchartdan (Urquhart). Emchath was close to death, and Columba baptised him and his entire household. Emchath’s residence may have stood on the site of the castle”.
What we do know is that Urquhart Castle was once a mighty medieval fortress that, as Historic Scotland so eloquently puts it, “has seen some of the most dramatic chapters in our nation’s history”. It played this role starting in the 1200s until its dramatic demise in 1692. During this time period, control of Urquhart went back and forth between the English and the Scots. Much history happened at the Castle, but we will highlight just a few aspects below.
Of note, Urquhart Castle played an important role during the Scottish struggle for independence. Robert the Bruce gained control of the Castle in 1306 when he became King of the Scots. In 1332, and shortly after Bruce’s tragic death, “Urquhart was the only Highland castle to hold out against the English”.
In the late 1600s, Urquhart Castle served as a military garrison during the Jacobite Risings. The Highlands provided much of the support for the Jacobite cause which was seeking to restore the Catholic Stuarts to the monarchy. Unfortunately for us, the soldiers blew up Urquhart when they left the Castle in 1692 (so the garrison could not fall into the hands of the opposing side). It lay in ruins until it was ‘re-discovered’ during the 1800s.
Return to the Castle
There is a reason why the ruins of Urquhart Castle came into fashion again in the 1800s among writers and artists. During this time period, there was a resurgence in the popularity of Gaelic culture. Lowland Scots in particular, started to better appreciate the Highlands and its culture (for more on this, read our article on the past National Museum exhibition, Wild & Majestic). Urquhart Castle became a popular symbol of this romanticised period and tourism to the area increased.
However, we can’t simply brush aside people’s interest by saying it was just a “romanticised” outlook. I do not know how anyone can go to Urquhart Castle, and the area in general, and not be consumed by its stunning splendour. After all, as I describe at the beginning of this article, I was standing in a powerful storm, and was thoroughly captivated by my environment. Let’s continue our journey with a photographic exploration of the grounds and what is available for more contemporary visitors.
Exploring Urquhart Castle
While it is mostly ruins, there are some notable sections of the Castle that remain and that we recommend you take the time to explore. Of note is the Gatehouse that once protected the entrance to the Castle (most of it was blown up in 1692 as discussed above). In the basement, you can still see a former prison cell. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be locked up in this windowless, dark room.
Earlier, I mentioned standing atop a tower and that is a reference to what is now known as Grant Tower. In 1509, King James IV gave Urquhart to John Grant as a gift for his support during the King’s struggle against the Macdonald Lord of the Isles. At some point after this, the Grant family built a five-storey tower house. If you visit Urquhart, make sure to explore what is left of the tower. The views at the top overlooking Loch Ness truly are spectacular. If you are looking to get a little closer to the Loch, you can head down to the rocky shoreline and envision the many sieges that took place over the centuries. Although there are much more modern pursuits happening nowadays.
After you are finished exploring the grounds, be sure to check out Historic Scotland’s wonderful visitor centre located behind Urquhart Castle. You must go through the centre when you first arrive (this is where you get your tickets), but I recommend you save your exploration here for last. Speaking from experience, it is a wonderful place to warm up (and dry out) on colder days. It has a great café with delicious food, drinks, and tasty desserts for those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth (I can never resist good coffee and cake).
There is also a nice gift shop area with a wide array of Scottish items; it’s the perfect place to pick up some lovely souvenirs. Nearby, tucked away over to the side, you can see a recreated model of what Urquhart Castle looked like during its heyday. There are also artefacts on display that were found during archaeological excavations of the grounds. Lastly, before you head out, be sure to check out the little ‘theatre’ area where they show a brief movie that provides a nice overview of the Castle.
We highly recommend a visit to Urquhart Castle when you visit the Scottish Highlands. There is so much fascinating history to take in. It truly affords some of the best views of the Great Glen and Loch Ness. And, as you are standing high on the rocks, be sure to keep a weather eye on the horizon because you never know when you may spot the famous Loch Ness monster, Nessie (or consider a visit to the nearby Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition to learn more).
When you have finished your journey around the Highlands, be sure to head back to Edinburgh. There, you can enjoy more history, myths, and legends on one of our Wee Golden Walks. You will be guided by our human tour guide, Sami, and Sawyer, our Golden Retriever tour guide. They delight in the opportunities to help visitors learn a bit about Edinburgh- its past and present.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!