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Urquhart Castle & Loch Ness

Of all the castles we visited in Scotland, this one’s probably had the most words written about it, thanks to its being situated on the bonny banks of Loch Ness. Let me just get this out of the way right now: yes, we did commune with Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, but once the venerable beast tried to get us to give it $2000 so that it could in turn get $15 million out of the bank, half of which would be ours, we just tuned out.

Whenever I saw photos of Urquhart Castle, they always made it look like some forlorn, isolated thing, a single tower ruin situated on a windswept bank of the mysterious lake. Part of me knew the romance of such photos couldn’t possibly reflect reality. Outside of Edinburgh, I’m betting this is one of the most visited places in Scotland, and any attempt to make it look mysterious and supernatural requires getting there at like five in the morning on a day when the castle isn’t open, and situating your camera just so. But still, as we made the drive from Ft. William, a part of me couldn’t let go of those spooky images.

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At least up until the point where we turned into the very modern looking, very crowded visitor center that serves as the gateway to the castle beyond. Ahh well. Not having access to the castle on a nice day when no one else was around, I’m afraid my photos reflect less the romance of Urquhart and more what it looks like if you were to actually go there: which means there are a lot of people and some caravans parked in the background. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very cool site, far more expansive than the “Mysteries of Loch Ness” photos I’d seen of it initially lead me to believe.

Although nothing more than a bunch of ruins these days, in its prime, Urquhart was among the mightier castles in Scotland. The earliest known records of it come from the 6th century, though it’s quite probably older than that. Being a Pictish outpost at some point, its recorded history suffers somewhat from the Picts’ tendency to not record history. A castle proper has been on the site since at least the early 1200s. In 1296 it was captured by King Edward I of England — ol’ Longshanks himself. Like pretty much every castle in Scotland, it changed hands more times than can be easily recounted. The MacDonalds had it for a while, during which time the castle and surrounding area was presumably ruled by Mayor McCheese. Covenanters seized it in the 1600s. The Grants owned it for a while, clear up until 1912 in fact, though that doesn’t mean it was always in their possession.

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The castle achieved its current state of ruin in 1692, when troops loyal to William used it to fight off Jacobite attackers. When the castle had to be abandoned, the Williamites were determined that it not become a stronghold for the Jacobites. They demolished the place, and so it remains to this day, despite the fact that occupation by militant Jacobites is unlikely at this point in history.

It’s an impressive ruin. From the visitors’ center, after watching a movie and walking through the gift shop full of Nessie memorabilia, musical bagpipe keychains, and Walker’s Shortbread, it’s a short walk down a hill covered with those thorny yellow flowers (gorse?), past the trebuchet (which you are not allowed to arm and fire), and over the moat into the ruins. There are still a number of stable structures, including rampart walls and the iconic little tower where people can stand and keep an eye out either for the Loch Ness Monster or for people taking cruises to look for the Loch Ness Monster (considerably better chances of spotting one of these).

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Interest in the monster sprung in 1933, with the now famous photo hitting the papers a year later. If you are planning a Nessie expedition, I think you probably launch it from elsewhere along the banks of Loch Ness in order to avoid paying the entrance fee.

Our visit to Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart occurred on a suitably gloomy day, after we’d skipped out on hiking up Ben Nevis since we didn’t have the clothes to match the weather at the summit. So off we went to what is one of Scotland’s most famous locations. We didn’t see Nessie, but I did run into a guy from Danville, Kentucky. Even surrounded by ancient ruins, on the banks of a mysterious loch (it seems less mysterious when you see it after coming through a visitors’ center) containing an ancient monster, we ended up talking Kentucky basketball up on the ramparts, which I’m sure is the same sort of small talk soldiers made when this castle was still whole.