St. Andrews and the Highlands

posted September 30, 2010 by Holly Hayes
part of trip: UK + Western Europe 2010

Greetings from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It is beautiful here and we've been having a good time. Our journey didn't start off so well, though! Yesterday, from the moment we woke up in Edinburgh until into the evening, it poured down rain. And I mean poured! This was no gentle British mist, but full-on Oregon-style rain. Apparently it hasn't been this bad since April. The rain and wind made photography almost impossible and driving really no fun - lots of standing water on the roads and bad visibility. Added to that, David was coming down with a cold and felt pretty miserable.

Morning in Edinburgh

But we managed to follow through with our plans anyway, which were to leave Edinburgh early and visit St. Andrews on our way north to Inverness. It was very disappointing to have such bad weather in St. Andrews, but on the bright side, David was really happy to find he could get so close to the famous Old Course. We bought a golf umbrella at a shop next to the course and he had a great time watching the golfers (who were all Americans) and walking around the course.


After the course, we walked up to the ruins of St. Andrew's Cathedral and Castle. They are pretty great ruins, overlooking the sea, but it was really hard to take pictures without getting rain on the camera lens, so we only took a few and they aren't that great. Oh, well. Can't win 'em all. There's a bright side to this part, too - during the walk along the coast, we shared a package of cooked salmon slices we'd bought the day before at Marks & Spencer. It was SO GOOD. And it was Scottish salmon, so it seemed fitting to eat it by the ocean.

St Andrews Castle

Martrydom site of George Wishart, Protestant reformer

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral. I climbed up inside a wall tomb to take this out of the rain!

St Rule's Tower (oldest bit) framed by cathedral arches - with some of the umbrella inadvertently included in the top of the photo! I'll crop that out later.

Happily, there was a cathedral museum with lots of great carved stones, which I could photograph while keeping nice and dry.

We had lingered for longer than planned at St. Andrews and it was still raining hard, so we pretty much just drove straight to Inverness rather than making any stops along the way as we'd expected. The heavy rain lasted for most of the three-hour drive, but then it finally began to slow down and we could see the scenery better. It is definitely beautiful up here.

The rainy drive

Last night we were so tired from the long stressful day of driving, David's cold, and me staying up too late the night before working on a big blog post, that we only managed to find some dinner in downtown Inverness (really terrible burgers and good fries at a pub called Johnny Foxes) and download our photos before going to bed at 8:45!

"Highland River" room in our Inverness B&B

We got 9-10 hours of sleep last night and really needed it. David still has a cold, but feels quite a bit better today. I don't have a cold yet and hope to keep it that way. And the weather has made a magical recovery! It got off to a foggy start in some places, but has otherwise been mostly sunny and remarkably warm - we weren't even wearing jackets by the mid-afternoon! We couldn't be more thankful for that.

We are staying two nights in Inverness, so today we had a really nice time on a relaxed sightseeing drive around the Inverness area. I had only a couple places I wanted photos of, neither of them terribly important, so we mostly played it by ear and stopped at any castles or other sights that we could find on maps or historical signs.

First, after a seriously good breakfast at our B&B, we headed 9 miles down the road to Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. It was still really foggy, but that made the castle and mysterious lake even more atmospheric than usual.

The sun tries to break through the fog at Loch Ness

Sign at Loch Ness

Foggy views of the ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness:


Then we drove east of Inverness along the Moray Firth (an ocean bay) and saw lots of great sights; some of them planned, some nice surprises. Here's a quick summary:

Site of the Battle of Culloden, where rebelling Highlanders (the Jacobites) were massacred by British troops in 1746. They have put up a fence so you can't see most of it without paying admission, which seems really wrong for what is essentially an empty field and war memorial, but we got this view from a distance.

Near Culloden and on my to-see list was Clava Cairns, which turned out to be cooler than we'd expected. The site was free and in a very rural location, shaded by beautiful trees. Very atmospheric. It consists of three tombs dating from around 1000 BCE, each with a stone circle around it. Two of them are passage-tombs with a similar design to the big famous one in Newgrange, Ireland. We loved it.


Not far down the road from there, we pulled off to check out a signposted castle. The castle didn't turn out to be worth it (too new, too difficult to visit), but I got a great surprise on the way - a carved Pictish stone! The Picts were the native barbarians in Scotland, similar in some ways to the Celts of Ireland. Ancient carved stones and crosses are some of my favorite things, so I was thrilled to randomly find one on the side of the road. It's called the Rodney Stone and dates from the 800s AD. It has a cross on one side and intriguing Pictish symbols on the other.


Soon after that, we saw a sign for Kinloss Abbey and saw ruins! David made a quick turn and we made a quick visit of a pretty great site. It turns out it is a Cistercian abbey from the 12th century, and the surrounding burial ground was really interesting as well, with dates on the gravestones spanning hundreds of years. While wandering around, we met some very friendly locals walking their enthusiastic Scottie dogs.

These are 20th-century graves of members of the Royal Air Force, which has a base nearby.

We passed the RAF base shortly after leaving the abbey, where we saw this unusual plane. And there were two fighter jets flying in formation overhead.

Then we followed signs to an "Ancient Pictish Fort Site" in the town of Burghead, only a few miles further down the road from the abbey. There wasn't much left of the ancient fort (although they had a few Pictish stones displayed in the visitor centre), but the views from the site were absolutely gorgeous! The village was quite pretty, too, and the lady at the visitor centre was extremely nice and gave me a brochure on Pictish sights in the area. By this time we had removed our jackets and it felt like it was at least 70 degrees out - we just couldn't believe how magnificent the weather was. Pretty much every local we met in the area greeted by saying, "Lovely day!"

Unusual visitor centre, with Moray Firth in background


And finally, we got to the main destination on my list, Elgin Cathedral, which dates mostly from the 13th century and is now in ruins. It included a tower for me to climb for some great views! And David decided to do telephoto-only for this one, getting us some great details.


Back in Inverness this evening, we walked into town for dinner. The sun was still shining beautifully, making the fairly average town look a lot prettier than it did last night. The views from the bridge over the River Ness were especially nice.


Tonight we ate at a chain Italian restaurant called Bella Italia. I had minestrone and spaghetti that were both good, but David's calamari and chicken cacciatore both royally sucked. But the fries that came with it were very good. They never screw up the chips in the UK! Poor guy.

After a stop at Tesco for some Pepsi Max, I started downloading photos, finding our next place to stay, and writing this, and all of the sudden it's almost after midnight again! What idiot designed this crazily-paced itinerary anyway? Oh right, that was me.

Tomorrow we'll get an early start and drive 2.5 hours to the northern coast of Scotland, where we'll take a ferry to the Orkney islands. We're staying two nights so I'll probably only post the second night, if we manage to get internet access at all up there! We're really looking forward to Orkney - it looks pretty great.

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St. Andrews and the Highlands
Holly Hayes
Date Published
September 30, 2010
Last Updated
April 22, 2022
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