Inverness (Scotland)

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Inverness (Scotland)

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Review of "Inverness (Scotland)"

published 24/01/2017 | skyelightsmoke
Member since : 17/01/2017
Reviews : 39
Members who trust : 12
About me :
Pro a major Higlands hub, good base for outstanding day trips, fairly inoffensive small city
Cons nothing special at all in itself
Value for Money
Ease of getting around

"Highland Hub (Inverness itself)"

Lukewarm intro

Inverness is a really a bit of a dump. No, honestly. For a place whose known history goes more than a millenium back and which is a county town and a centre of pretty much everything for a vast area of exceptional beauty and heritage (aka the Scottish Highlands), this "city" (granted this status officially a few years ago) of around 50,000 people really is a bit of a disappointment.

Admittedly, this might be more of an impression of someone who travels here few times a month for practical purposes, and on some occasions that practical purpose involves spending several hours in a court room watching the less-than-lucky and not-so-good and gosh-I-guess-a-poor-sod-but-still citizens of Inverness present themselves in front of the sheriffs and justices of the peace than a tourist or a traveller. So I will try to be fair.

Having said all that, Inverness isn't by any means a terrible place and it has its charms and a few excellent saving graces. But it is a bit disappointing in itself and when giving advice to visitors I always tell them that there is no reason to go there just to visit.

However, it must be said that if you are touring the Highlands, and especially if you are travelling by public transport, you are very likely to end up in Inverness whether you like it or not. It is a major regional hub and a centre of provision for pretty much anything that can't be organised at the community level in a large, sparsely populated rural area.

Big box DIY and outdoor chain stores, automotive dealers and garages, shopping featuring such attractions like Debenhams, Marks and Spencer's and Primark, every single large and small supermarket apart from Waitrose, a large full-service hospital, extensive sports facilities and the only ''proper'' theatre in the region - these are all the reasons the local people to travel to Inverness from as far as Skye, Wick and Tongue.

To the point: Practical travel

A visitor and a traveller is most likely to pass through or stay in Inverness because the city is a major transport hub for the Highlands.

It has an airport with good connections to London and other English cities, Belfast and Amsterdam as well as the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Inverness train station links the Highlands to Glasgow and London south and is one of the termini of the Caledonian Sleeper service. You can continue from here to stations far north (Wick) and west (Kyle of Lochalsh) while the bus station is a hub for local buses and long-distance coaches (run by Stagecoach and Citilink/Megabus) covering pretty much all Highland destinations.

It's difficult to give much of an idea of prices, as they are extremely variable and not necessarily even by season. I booked flights from Inverness to Luton for under 15 GBP one way, and have seen Megabus prices of less than a tenner if booked well in advance. Train tends to be more expensive, expect to pay around 50-60 GBP minimum for a one way train ticket.

An interesting affordable train option not many people are aware of is the seats on the Caledonian Sleeper. UK lacks overnight trains in general, and the few that exist are invariably sleepers, which means fairly expensive (think 100+ GBP one way for Euston to Inverness, 80GBP if you book months in advance, though you do get a hostel-level sleeping facilities I guess). The same train, however, operates a slightly ghettoised coach with airline type seats (comparable to 1st class seats on daytime trains) in which you can travel overnight for a fixed advance fee of 55 GBP and even as low as 40 GBP if you book long time in advance. Yes, it's longer at 11 hours than the less-than-9 daytime option, but you do save the daytime hours, you will get some sleep even in the seat and if you travel let's say in June, you will still see the views on the way in the early morning.

It is fairly easy to drive to, as well, being a significant staging point on the A9 that connect the Scottish Central Belt (Glasgow/Edinburgh) with the far north (Thurso) and branching west to Ullapool and Skye. Most major national car hire companies have their offices either at the airport or in town.

Inverness offers a large choice of accommodation, from numerous hostels and airbnb providers at the cheap-and-local end to several affordable chains (including Holiday Inn Express, Premier Inn and Travelodges) as well as a selection of independent hotels and B&Bs. High-end accommodation is in more of a short supply, but can be found in country hotels in the surrounding area.

Obviously I have not really used the accommodation offered by Inverness apart from one week in one of the Travelodges which was just like any other Travelodge Britain-wide, but researching accommodation for others taught me one thing: prices in the busy periods are much, much higher than in the low season, and rooms do get booked up.

Fortunately, the busiest periods are not really the best periods to come here: July, August (particularly the first two weeks of August which form the tail-end of the Scottish school holidays while being the most popular travelling month for the Europeans) and the Christmas/New Year period. The best times to visit, as pretty much everywhere in Europe and perhaps even more so in the Highlands, are late spring (late April, May, into June) and early/mid autumn (mid-September to October). The weather might be a bit colder and the days a bit shorter pat the equinox, but it's really the best time, with beautiful light and either spring green and blossom or autumn colours, and let's be honest, it doesn't get exactly hot or reliably sunny in the summer months either. If travelling in October, do check the dates of the local school holidays (we get two weeks in October) as things can get busier and more expensive then.

While there: Fuel

There are numerous eating or coffee options in town, some very well regarded fine dining ones I had no chance to sample ('''Rocpool''' and Chez Roux being the best known), others mid-range and none outstandingly special, so follow your nose and feel. Below a subjective selection of daytime cafe options:

I like Cafe Nero on the High Street which is just like others all over the place, and if you want churros-focused half hour, So Coco down the same street isn't too bad though gets very crowded.

Artysans Cafe, at Strothers Lane between the train and the bus station is a social enterprise employing local disadvantaged young people as trainees but also has brilliant quality coffee roasted on-site and significantly cheaper than the chains, reliable wifi and decent food.

The tiny Nourish on the corner of Church Street and Church Lane has only a few tables and an alt-therapy facility upstairs and a crowded-living-room vibe but the vegetarian/vegan/organic food they serve is top quality. Best soup in town.

Miele's Gelateria on the other side of the same street is just what the name suggests. Ice cream. Italian. Good stuff.

While we are on Church Street, I must mention Leakeys Bookshop. It doesn't have a cafe any more, but it's an amazing bookshop, apparently Scotland’s second largest secondhand one, set inside an 18th century church. Go inside. Have a look. Buy something. Keep this place going.

While there: Places to see, things to do

The dearth of town attractions in Inverness makes it unattractive as a destination in itself, but it's got enough for a day's stroll especially on a sunny day.

The best thing about the city is undoubtedly its situation: spanning the banks of the river Ness near its mouth - Inverness means the mouth of the Ness in Gaelic - the city can appear to an incoming visitor in a rather sudden way, especially if coming from the west or north: you are driving across pretty much empty fields and rolling hills and suddenly, you are in a busy-ish, populated town. The view from one of the bridges or along the riverside is rather pretty: spanned by iron foot-bridges, lined with trees and warm-coloured sandstone buildings, an odd Baronial-style turret or a Gothic church spires and the red-stone 19th century castle rising above the town echoing the hills on the horizon.

And it's also along and near the river that most interesting and attractive places in town are located. The few highlights include:

The Castle - a Victorian red-stone pile rising above the town in a pretty-but-domineering manner, only the last of the structures on the hill that had been a major defensive stronghold for the area for thousands of years. The castle buildings house the Sheriff and Justice of Peace courts and offer nothing special to see inside unless you want to observe the slow wheels of Scottish jurisprudence turning over local petty crime cases. But it is worth climbing up to the castle as it offers excellent views north, south and west and the Flora-McDonald-and-her-dog statue provides a dramatic focus for any photos you might want to take. Sometimes pipe bands play near the castle, so check what's on listings (or just listen out when nearby) if you are into that kind of thing.

The Museum - while you are near the castle, you might as well pop into the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, a typical county museum showing natural history, art and history/archaeology displays. It's nothing exceptional, but free to visit and provides some decent information about the town and the area, and a few interesting exhibits including some hands-on stations, for example a chance to try on a belted plaid (so-called great kilt), as well as a modern art gallery. All in all, it's a plucky wee museum that seems to try pretty hard and is worth a bit of patronage.

Ness Islands - a small, very attractive urban park located, yes, that's right, on a couple of islands on the river Ness. Walk down from the castle hill and continue upstream along the river bank for about half a mile until you get to a little iron bridge that takes you to the islands, into the trees, and to new and surprising views of the river.

Eden Court - If you walk to the end of the Ness Islands park you'll get to a bridge which will take you to the other side of the river. Turn back and take Ness Walk downstream for less than a mile and you will arrive at a large modern building with a landscape-art area in front of it which, despite its recent refurbishment still emits the 1970's bringing-art-to-the-people-will-change-the-world vibes typical of more innocent or more hopeful times. The redeveloped building actually incorporates the Victorian Bishop’s Palace and the 1976 theatre, both Grade A Listed. Inside there is a second (smaller size) theatre, two cinemas, two dance and drama studios and excellent backstage facilities.

For the weary visitor, it offers a cafe and very good toilet facilities and in many ways is one of my favourite places in Inverness. Perhaps because it is less self-consciously provincial and dowdy-tartan-tat-donning than many other cultural locations on the Highland trail, or perhaps because I have a fondness for the aforementioned arts vibe. But it's a good place and even if you are not intending to see a show here, it's worth popping in to have a quick look (walk upstairs to see the serpentine landscaped feature from above) or to take advantage of the cafe which does good quality and reasonably price food and snacks, has friendly staff, comfortable seats and a bookshelf with various reading material. And if you are into celebrity spotting, Tilda Swinton (who lives in nearby seaside town of Nairn) pops round now and then.

The Cathedral - Next door to Eden Court and separated from it by a leafy car park, the red-sandstone and granite church, officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Andrew, this is an attractive Victorian building in the 19th century version of the Gothic style that this island is so good at.

Inverness entertainment scene can be fairly busy especially in the summer months. Check online or paper listings for what's on. In addition to Eden Court, the two best known local music venues are Hootananny, a popular trad music venue, pub and a site of a weekly ceilidh; and the Ironworks which seems to feature mostly a very broad range of tribute bands with the occasional up-and-coming and well-past-its-heyday appearance. The 2017 listed acts include The Red Hot Chilli Pipers (actually, they are not at all a tribute band, and quite a hoot), Guns 2 Roses (yes) and Hotter than Hell (guess). But also Stiff Little Fingers, still playing for the faithful or Amy Mcdonald in her whole run-of-the-mill-pop-rock glory.

While there: a base for exploration

The best use to make of Inverness, if you can, want or have to stay there for a length of time for any reason, is to use it as a base for exploring the area that surrounds it and that is well served by public transport and road links from town.

I could fill a book with destinations, locations, attractions, activities, hills and adventures that are doable as day trips from Inverness by public transport, and multiple it by a factor of 10 if I included car-accessible destinations. It's a small island after all, and the Highlands, relatively large as they are, are pretty accessible. Below some personal favourites.

Culloden Battlefield: National Trust for Scotland cared-for battlefield at the location of the last stand of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Very worth visiting either for a thoughtful stroll on the moor where the more than 1,500 clansmen and other Jacobite soldiers and around 50 of the government forces fell or for a longer visit including the excellent if very expensive visitors' centre, and easily accessible from Inverness by bus or car.

Clava Cairns: If you are visiting Culloden by car, do drive just a little bit further down the road and see this Bronze Age burial complex consisting of passage graves; ring cairns, kerb cairns and standing stones in a wooded setting. It's an amazingly atmospheric site and I have no idea why it's not better known. If visiting in the busy season, go early or late to reduce crowds.

Black Isle: This flattish peninsula north of Inverness sitting between the Moray and Cromarty firths deserves a wee guide of its own, and certainly makes for a good day-trip or half-day trip from the city. I always had an ancient, rural feel coming here. Maybe it's the narrow lanes, or cultivated fields of crops, or the fact that it has indeed been inhabited for a very long time. The highlights include: Chanonry Point, with views to Fort George, a pretty Stevenson lighthouse and very reliable dolphins (this is the best place in the UK to watch dolphins from land, and accordingly crowded even in low season - the purpose built car park and the extortionately priced ice-cream and tea van testify to that, but it's still worth visiting, just don't expect an empty beach - but expect dolphins, fat, playful and happy to show off); Fortrose with its atmospheric streets and ruins of a cathedral, and my very favourite even in its current comercialised state, the Munlochy clootie well.

Fearn Peninsula: If you ARE visiting the Black Isle and want to make a bigger trip with a bit of excitement added, drive to the nondescript village of Cromarty at the very tip of the Black Isle and take the little 2-car ferry across the Cromarty firth to Nigg. There has been a ferry here for centuries and this one, operated by the Highland Council, is apparently the only vehicle ferry on the east coast and although expensive, it's a fun way to cross, while worrying about the precariously feeling traverse of the wee ferry and looking at the oil rigs and tankers up expanse of the firth, strangely organic there despite their technical provenance. I do realise that not many people share my fascination with industrial maritime installations though, and there is more reasons to go over than the Nigg oil depot or the rigs. The Fearn Peninsula lies between the Cromarty and the Dornoch Firth just like the Black Isle a few miles south. The main reason to come here is the collection of several outstanding Pictish stones (marketed locally as the Pictish Trail) of which the first one - a magnificent Class II stone - awaits you in the Nigg Old Church, with others in Hilton (replica of the original housed in Edinburgh) and Shandwick (in a transparent case) and a wee museum at Tarbat church. Come back to Inverness along the main road (A9).

Loch Ness: Inverness sits at the end of the Great Glen, and few miles along the river Ness to Loch Ness proper, the most voluminous (due to depth rather than surface area) freshwater body of water in Britain and Scotland's national treasure, income-generator and a focus of intense tartan-tat industry. In itself, Loch Ness isn't really visually that special. Sure, it's long and vaguely atmospheric, has many historical connotations and the splashes of the legendary plesiosaur's tail create an extra interest factor. But there are more beautiful lochs (Loch Maree often appears at the top of such lists) though perhaps none as famous. So it would be silly not to see it when in Inverness and it's an easy thing to do, with A82 hugging the better-known shore and frequent buses to Drumnadrochit, the very centre of the Nessie industry boasting not one but two official Nessie exhibitions. I'd skip those but have at least a look at the magnificent and strikingly located if very, very, VERY busy ruin of Urquhart Castle a couple of miles up the road from Drum. You can also take a boat trip (Inverness end or Drum) or for a more unusual trip with a good waterfall thrown in, drive the single-track road that roughly follows the southern shore (take the Dores Road from town then B852 from Dores). The waterfall is in Foyers and an easy walk from the car park, but those of occult inclinations might want to make a stop in Boleskine graveyard which has somewhat mythical associations with Alistair Crowley who used to own the nearby Boleskine House. Occult or not, the graveyard is atmospheric and provides good views of the loch too. For a solid fill of Loch Ness, make it a round trip starting with the southern road, taking in Fort Augustus with its Caledonian Canal locks and abbey and drive back via Drumnadrochit with its castle and Nessie stuff along the much faster A82 on the north shore. Please note that 'north' and 'south' here are approximations, as Loch Ness lies along the Great Glen and thus almost exactly follows the NE-SW line.

Glen Affric: If you have only one day for the Loch Ness direction, forget circling it round and instead combine it with a visit to Glen Affric, a well know, iconic and very, very attractive wooded glen indeed. Take A862 to Cannich along the Beauly Firth and then follow the road into the Glen, stopping at a walk or two (all well signposted, trail-marked and generally made civilised by the Forestry Commission) to explore the woodlands and waterfalls of the area. The Dog Falls loop is reasonably quick and gives good ROI for the effort. Plodda falls on the other side of the river are better, but the last three miles of the road there from Cannich are a dirt track that has more potholes than flat surface (or at least was like that the last time I went, in the late 2016) so either walk or allow a lot of extra time and care while driving. Come back to Inverness down Glen Urquhart and via Drumnadrochit.

The west coast is perfectly doable as a day trip, either by train to Kyle of Lochalsh or by car, though there is too much to see there not to go for longer; as is Sutherland north and the whisky routes and other attractions of the Speyside and Aberdeenshire.

Would I recommend, then?

To be perfectly honest, only conditionally. I actively discourage people who only have a few days in the Highlands from using some of their precious time to visit Inverness. On the other hand, there is a certain logic to using it as a base for touring more and less immediate surroundings of the city, especially if you travel by public transport, and it's a very obvious transport and facilities/culture hub, so you'll probably end up there anyway.

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Comments on this review

  • jules.34 published 04/09/2017
    E review! I live in Inverness and think your review is justified. It is a lovely place but there are even nicer areas outwith it.x
  • gothic_moon published 21/02/2017
    Fantastic write-up and congrats on the well-deserved Diamond! x
  • CelticSoulSister published 27/01/2017
    Beautiful place and excellent review!
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Product Information : Inverness (Scotland)

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