If traveling round Scotland with an eye to visit its castles and distilleries, you will face at one point the stretch from Inverness to Fort William, about two hour’s drive on the (two-lane) A82 with no traffic – but expect traffic along here in the summer. One can press on to Oban, perhaps another hour south. So what do you do on the way? Well, you are driving along Loch Ness, and halfway down is Urquhart Castle, just south of Drumnadrochit.
Drumnadrochit was the only place in we stumbled upon during our Scotland trip that brought to mind the term ‘tourist trap.’ At heart it is a pretty little Scottish town, but overlaid with a lot of Loch Ness themed stores, visitor center, crowds of people, etc.
The busy nature of Drumnadrochit foreshadowed our visit to Urquhart. The castle looks stately and a little lonely out on its promontory in many promo shots, not unlike my photo at left. But that’s misleading.
I expected the usual experience for Scottish castles: a modest booth at the car park (mostly empty), a small castle shop, perhaps with a few food items or coffee and biscuits. We would tour the stones with a few other folks and enjoy a pleasant walk around ruins and grassy knolls. Even at the big-name spots like Scone we never felt crowded. Sterling was a bit busy but then it is at the edge of a largish town.
My suspicions about Urquhart were raised by the signs to ‘park in town and ride’ to the castle, and as we entered the Urquhart car park they had traffic wardens directing us. That was new! The park there is long and narrow and traffic is one way. There were a number of buses and groups of people speaking various languages wandering about. Inside the visitors center we saw an operation of unprecedented size. The center is a multi level building with a rather plain entrance above and a cinema, gift shop and cafe below. And that place was packed!
Back to that misleading photo. It had just rained. We were at the head of a mob streaming out of the cafe and down the hill. Through the gatehouse were more folks than I’d seen in such a small area at any castle in the U.K. and things got even tighter as the skies lightened. We made for the tower straight away, and waited five minutes for a chance to climb the narrow stairs. From the tower we waved at the many boats coming by. It seems that everyone with a boat on the Loch hangs a shingle in the summer and advertises Loch Ness tours. We saw proper ferries, big cabin cruisers, smaller runabouts even, all with their tour name emblazoned on the hull.
Besides the tower the castle is mostly ruin, though the gatehouse has enough structure left to spark the imagination. The spot is interesting for its uneven ground, many knolls, and access to water.
On the way back we pushed through the shop which had become even more crowded. Tourists were literally shoulder to shoulder, and there was no way to get through that crowd and maintain one’s normal politesse; making way became a contact sport. I tried to get some coffee at the cafe. After waiting for a while, I noticed the lady at the head of the line relating a complicated order and making slow headway with the woman behind the counter. Counter lady appeared overwhelmed; I could be here for an hour. No coffee was worth that. I made for the restroom, met up with the wife and we sallied forth.
Urquhart was kind of a zoo but given I have visited probably thirty castles in the U.K. and never had trouble with crowds, I rolled with it. Turns out it is the third-most-visited site in all of Scotland behind Edinburgh and Sterling castles (both of those a lot bigger).
I just think it is a shame that so many people appear to land at Fort William (cruise stop), ride a bus to Loch Ness, jostle about, take some pictures, buy some souvenirs, and then leave. This section of Scotland, the loch country, has a lot to offer. Oban, south of Fort William, is a prettier town and along the drive there you pass the moody and picturesque Castle Stalker. South of Oban lies the beautiful Arduaine Garden. Even in high summer we found those spots to be relatively lonely. I don’t know if I should say this as perhaps some day the experience will change, but Scotland has a lot to offer outside of the big name attractions.
Finally, I have to give props to Historic Scotland for providing lifts and nicely paved walkways at Urquhart for those wheelchair-bound. We saw a number of folks in chairs being accompanied by their families, and you could tell the non-perabulatory were pleased to get out and among the ruins. Castles were not made with accessibility in mind, quite the opposite of course, so making castles accessible is very difficult. I’m glad they made it work at Urquhart for it is such a popular spot.