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Urquhart Castle

Started: 2014-06-01 08:55:17

Submitted: 2014-06-01 11:00:35

Visibility: World-readable

Tuesday, 20th May: in which the intrepid narrator drives into the Scottish Highlands and fails to see any monsters in Loch Ness

While packing for our vacation, Kiesa packed Calvin's rain coat but failed to check whether it actually fit Calvin. (She brought her GoreTex.) This proved unfortunate once we reached Scotland, tried to put the coat on Calvin, and discovered that it was at least too sizes too small. While wandering around Inverness the previous night in a desperate attempt to find somewhere to eat we found a small outdoor apparel store that looked promising, but it (along with the rest of Inverness) was closed after 17:00. We walked there after breakfast, past the River Ness and through the pedestrian-only streets that make navigating while driving difficult, and found a friendly shopkeeper (who discussed the relative merits of down sleeping bags in the wet Scottish weather) and a Calvin-sized coat.

River Ness
River Ness

We set out by car to drive west into the scenery in the Scottish highlands, heading west on the A862 right on the Beauly Firth. We drove through the Scottish countryside, dotted with small farms and pastures with irregular borders, entirely unlike the Cartesian grid laid out on the American west. I felt comfortable driving on the left side of the road, though I remained vigilant since Kiesa read that most Americans have problems on their second or third day driving, when they feel comfortable and become complacent. I managed to get the hang of some of my rental car's quirks: the diesel engine wanted to run at about 1250 RPM, and would show an indicator on the dashboard when it wanted me to shift, so I ended up shifting into sixth gear on occasion even at modest speeds. The only thing I couldn't quite get used to was looking over my left shoulder while backing up; I always looked over my right shoulder instead.

We turned into the town of Beauly, then headed west along the A831 along the River Beauly. The road narrowed and the countryside turned mountainous as we climbed. This reminded me very much of parts of Colorado: broad valleys between wooded hillside dotted with farmsteads and houses (many of which seemed to be for sale). The road continued to shrink as we drove west, finally becoming a single-lane (though still paved) road with passing lanes for opposing traffic. We encountered only a few cars, but passing them was always interesting.

Country lane along the River Cannich
Country lane along the River Cannich

We reached the town of Cannich and continued west along a tiny paved road running along a small river. I eventually figured out we were on the wrong road; we'd ended up driving up the River Cannich instead of the river I'd intended. We enjoyed the scenery but turned around, found the turn we'd made wrong in Cannich, and found the right road leading up the River Affric to Dog Falls.

River Cannich
River Cannich

On the road to Dog Falls we passed a number of Scottish Hydro installations. We parked and headed up the trail, an old logging road climbing the hill on the south side of the river. After walking for a while I began to realize that we'd picked the long way around the loop, for a two-mile round-trip rather than a short jaunt down the road to the cascade. I tried to remember the map I'd glanced at from the trailhead and managed to make the right turn at a junction.

Calvin hikes in Scotland
Calvin hikes in Scotland

Calvin walked slowly, and required multiple breaks, but I was eventually rewarded with a small trail leading down the hill to a small bridge leading over the river and eventually to the falls.

Calvin crosses the River Affric
Calvin crosses the River Affric

The falls themselves were more of a small cascade; I thought they were the least interesting part of the whole hike.

The River Affric
The River Affric

We drove back to Cannich and continued along the A831, which turned sharply to the east (and widened into a proper two-lane road) toward Drumnadrochit, where we joined the A82 along the west bank of Loch Ness, then found Urquhart Castle, a majestic ruined castle perched on a rise above Loch Ness. We ate lunch at the visitor's center's cafe, then watched the video overview of the castle's history before heading down to the castle itself. It changed hands several times before it was eventually destroyed in 1692 to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Calvin enjoyed running around the ruins and climbing the stairs, and I enjoyed the views of Loch Ness (which was, really, just a lake) and of the castle itself.

Tourists traipse over the ruins of Urquhart Castle
Tourists traipse over the ruins of Urquhart Castle
Calvin and Kiesa look out over Loch Ness
Calvin and Kiesa look out over Loch Ness
Calvin with a trebuchet at Urquhart Castle
Calvin with a trebuchet at Urquhart Castle

We departed the castle and headed south-west on the A82 along the shore of Loch Ness to Fort Augustus. When we reached the town we promptly got stuck in traffic while something I couldn't quite see was happening to the road in front of me. I eventually realized that a drawbridge on the road had been turned to let one or more boats pass on the Caledonian Canal, and that if I had known exactly what was going to happen I could have parked in the car park I'd passed on my way into town and walked forward to see the bridge in action. Once the road was restored I turned around, parked in the car park, and walked in search of the five evenly-spaced stair-step locks on the Caledonian Canal, which was built to connect the North Sea at Inverness with the Atlantic Ocean at Fort William, bridging both sides of Scotland, but was soon rendered obsolete by larger, steam-powered canal boats. It's still maintained today, though, for leisure traffic running up and down the Great Glen. (The Great Glen is the diagonal rent torn across Scotland, much of which is filled by Loch Ness; it looks very much like something is trying to tear Scotland apart at the seams because that's exactly what's happening: most of Great Britain is on one plate but north-western Scotland is on another plate, which is pulling Scotland apart, very slowly.)

Locks on the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus
Locks on the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus

We found the canal's small visitor's center and looked around for a few minutes, including an animation of how exactly the canal locks work, then went out to look at the locks themselves. It started raining, so Kiesa grabbed our coats (including the one we purchased for Calvin that very morning) to continue looking around. Calvin and I climbed to the top of the locks, looked at the boats there, then climbed down to find Kiesa. (She looked at the restaurants in the small town and decided there was nothing for us to eat.) We bought a snack at the local grocery store, under whose awnings we had waited out the worst of the short rain storm, then headed back to Inverness along the A82, traversing the entire length of Loch Ness without making a single cryptozoological sighting.

Calvin crosses the locks on the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus
Calvin crosses the locks on the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus

Back in Inverness we ate at George's Thai and South Indian, which we'd seen and passed the night before, but Kiesa's Internet research indicated that they serve dosas, so we decided to give it a shot. When we climbed down the stairs into the basement restaurant we ran into a giant group of Indian tourists on a bus tour, but once we managed to get the attention of the staff they seated us off to the side. My dosa was not quite as crispy as I would have liked, but it was still pretty good. After our meal the proprietor, George, a friendly south Indian, talked to us, probably bemused by the presence of a family of American tourists ordering off the Indian side of the menu. He mentioned that Thai food is more popular with tourists, but he still serves Indian because that's what he likes. (Tonight, judging by the appearance of the other customers, it looked like the Indian was more popular. I began to wonder about the applicability of the Darjeeling Rule to traveling outside of India and decided that it was just an advisory role here.)

We headed back to the hotel but were awoken at 23:00 by a fire alarm. Kiesa jumped up, grabbed Calvin, wrapped him in his duvet cover, and headed for the fire exit. I did not see any obvious signs of conflagration, so I decided that I did not want to be outside for any length of time without at least clothing, phone, and passport. I dressed quickly, grabbed my phone, passport, and room key, and left through the nearest stairwell, which terminated in a door marked "fire exit only". This was, I reasoned, a fire alarm, so I pushed through the door and found myself in the perfectly dark and quiet breakfast room on the ground floor. Just as I was wondering where to go, the fire alarm stopped, so I headed back to our room and let Kiesa (who'd neglected to grab her own room key) back in. She heard vague comments suggesting that someone had fat-fingered the fire alarm while trying to get into their room. Calvin slept through the whole thing.

For more photos on Tuesday 20th May, see Photos on 2014-05-20. For Kiesa's parallel account, see Scotland – Day 6.

I distrust few things more deeply than acts of literary explication.
- William Gibson, foreword to _Dhalgren_