Inverness Tours with Hugh Allison
I can’t say enough about Hugh Allison! His 2017 tours were largely booked seven months prior to my trip – He’s that good. He’s really wonderful and makes my trip extra special. The depth of his knowledge about Scottish history is bottomless! He’s a tall, avuncular man in his 50s with a great Scottish wit and a wonderful storyteller. I enjoy his tales of Scottish folklore and how he frames each day within Scottish history and how Outlander fit (or didn’t) into real events. Prior to tour guiding, he worked at Culloden Battlefield for ten years so he’s the real deal when it comes to history and that particular event.
Throughout the three days, I learn a few things like what a “broch” is and why and when it was built (*spoiler: Protection from the Romans during the Iron Age), what “second-sight” is, and so much about Scottish history! Also, he’s quite adept at driving in a van throughout the Highlands on single-track roads. This is “Driving in the UK 101” for me before I pick up my rental in Edinburgh! I am grateful to be a passenger and learn from him but I am still getting into the wrong side of the car every day.
Day 1 “Don’t Barbecue Your Cat” From Inverness to Skye
Though there were no signs of Nessie, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle have a long history. When the mist comes in over the lake, will it transport you back to Pictish times or when the castle was used as a stronghold against the Jacobites in the eighteenth century?
An ancient kirk called Clachan Duich that inspired St.Kilda in Dragonfly in Amber when Claire discovers Jamie’s headstone.
Dun Telve is one of the best preserved brochs in Scotland. Located in Glenelg, it’s built solely of stone from the Iron Age about 2,000 years ago.
The last turntable ferry brought us to the southern coast of Skye. Learn about the ritual Tagh An Orm on the Isle of Pabbay and you’ll make sure not to barbecue your cat!
Day 2 – Tales from the Stones: Culloden, Clava Cairns, whisky and Lallybroch (from the books)
When Diana Gabaldon wrote about Craigh Na Dune, it was a fictitious place that was inspired by Clava Cairns or “The Good Stones”. An ancient and mystical stone circle, it dates back almost 4,000 years ago. There are several stone structures that were built for astronomical purposes. One structure was used for cremation while another allows the sun’s beam to shine through its entrance on the winter solstice of December 21st symbolizing a path to the next life. Clava Cairns is also near Culloden Moor and could’ve been seen from the hilltop on that fateful day of the 1746 battle.
Fun Fact: Though Craigh Na Dune is fictitious and Diana had never visited Scotland when writing Outlander, perhaps an ancient spirit whispered in her ear to write about a split stone that Claire walks through to travel to the past. How surprised she must’ve been when she finally visited Clava Cairns and discovered the following. The Good Stones indeed!:
Culloden Battlefield is a significant historical place in Scotland that commemorates the past and offers people from all over the world to come and learn more about their clan history. How may have they played a part in this event? If you’re interested learning more, they have a great museum that tells the story from both sides – The Jacobites and the English.
There is also an “immersion room” that aims to convey the intensity of the battlefield on that day via surround screens and sound design. If you’re sensitive to that kind of experience, you may want to abstain.
Fun Facts: It was fascinating to learn how the battle was lost that day but one of the best takeaways (as it relates to Outlander) was how in the light of recent historical documentation, Bonnie Prince Charlie was certainly not the dandy as presented in the books and TV series. Diana seemed to write what was known at the time (which wasn’t much) but in recent years, thanks to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, history says that he was charismatic and sharply intelligent. He spoke five languages and grew up learning warfare. His charm was such that he led a country into battle against the English and when he was on the run for five months afterward, no one snitched his whereabouts to the British patrols.
At the Glen Ord Whisky Distillery in the Highlands learn about how one of the oldest breweries in Scotland creates their famous 12 year old Singleton (which is only available in their shop and Asia – say what? It’s true!). Also, they are one of the few distilleries who malt their own barley.
Hugh sent a few pictures of places to Diana Gabaldon asking her which one looked most like the Lallybroch in her mind when she wrote about it. The Ord House Hotel in Beauly was it! Built in 1637, this house-turned-hotel still retains some of its original floor. Their tea and biscuits are wonderful and worth a stop. Even Herself has stayed here! If you take a tour with Hugh, he’ll show you his collection of Scottish war weaponry.
A stop at Beauly Priory showed us where Clan Lovat is buried. Keep your eyes peeled for a “John Gray” headstone. Over at the Lovat Arms Hotel you can see the Fraser lineage tree, a familiar motto on the floor, and a historical record of Lord Lovat “The Old Fox” himself.
Day 3 – “You’re not worth your salt so hit the sack!” Craigh Na Dune, Highlands, and Castle Leoch
Weaving through the rolling hills on a single track road, the “Dance of the Druids” theme seeps into our ears as we’re on the move towards Craigh Na Dune (Hugh knows what we Outlander fans like)! Although fictitious, the show’s shooting location is buried deep in the Highlands on farmland so rural that the winding road leads you in a direction that seems to rove forever.
I work in film and television production so I can’t help but wonder how in the world the show’s Locations department found this unique place! Did someone shoot there before on a different project? Did someone know another person who was familiar with this hill top? I also geek out about logistics like did they put the crew up for a night at a local hotel since the location is three hours away from Glasgow? So many questions!
“Craigh Na Dune” is a faery hill. What’s that you might ask? Well it’s a place denoted as mystical and powerful to warrant magical properties like stories of faery experiences. When you stand in the middle as our friend Claire does, you look out amidst all the natural splendor of the land. Every direction has mountains and greens in different shades with moving white dots called sheep. On this day the wind is strong and cold but the experience is exhilarating!
Fortingall is a small village in the Highlands known for its white homes with thatch-style roofs and pastoral beauty. It may be small but its history is long! In a wide open field, there is a small stone slab which marks a burial of victims who died of The Black Death in the middle ages. Also, it’s 5,000-year-old yew tree sits next to a church whose location has been inhabited by early Christians since about 700 AD. The church’s interior is beautiful with a barrel oak wood ceiling and a few displays of ancient relics like a Pictish hand bell from the 600s.
These small villages that nestle amidst all the bucolic country fascinate my urban view of the world. Who lives here? Why…not? Suddenly a one or two week stay at a cottage in the Highlands or Isle of Skye without internet and phone connection sounds grand to me. Going from a place of noise chaos, overstimulation, and granite landscape to one of quiet, stillness, and natural elements becomes appealing to me for future respite.
We head south to Edinburgh and finally reach “Castle Leoch”! Doune Castle is the actual place they shoot as the Mackenzie stronghold. Make sure to get an audio tour and listen to Sam Heughan croon in your ear about filming the show there! Yes, Monty Python filmed here as well but Outlander has appeared to swallow up Doune Castle’s former famous film. The gift shop has a designated “Outlander alter” for us worshippers (as do most places they filmed at) and by that I mean a bookcase with the book series, tokens, mugs, amulets, etc. All the things you’d love to blow money on!
At the castle Hugh explains that in the Great Hall, servants would eat at a long table (after their masters) and in the middle a bowl of precious and expensive salt would be passed down but only go so far; If lower class you were denied the delicacy. Therefore, the saying “you weren’t worth your salt” derives from this time. After dinner, you’d grab some hay and a sack and sleep on the floor. “Hit the sack” as the saying goes!
We end our three-day journey in Edinburgh. No longer will I have Hugh regaling me with stories of the land and it’s history (or driving lessons). He leaves me with an outline for my next day and recommendations of places to eat. A man after my own heart!
Delicious Places to Eat During My 3 Day Outlander Tour
Isle of Skye: Claymore Restaurant, Broadford – A delicious casual restaurant known for it’s fish & chips (you will encounter so much fish & chip places in Scotland) and has a nice selection of local beer like Skye Ales. This is a great place for vegetarians like me and the wait staff were super friendly.
Outside of Inverness: The Storehouse, Evanton – With a gourmet gift shop (a good place for gift shopping) and delicious restaurant, this place is poppin around lunch time. Sandwiches, soups, various plates, and desserts are ordered at the front and they bring it out to you at your table. I appreciated their variety and home cooked meals.
A Wee Tip for Your Trip
Whisky Pass: If you’re a whisky drinker or interested in exploring distilleries while in Scotland, sign up for The Friends of the Classic Malt (www.malts.com). It’s a free lifetime membership that gives you free admission to several Scotland distilleries. Cheers!
Historical Sites & Museum Passes: Both Historic Scotland and The National Trust for Scotland offer passes to museums and historical sites that they each maintain. Check out their list of places and see if you’d like to visit any of them. Admission prices range but depending on how many you’d like to see, these passes may come in handy and be more cost effective than paying each admission separately. *Fun tip: Glasgow’s art museums are free!
Check out the highlights of the tour!
Next up: “Lallybroch” aka Midhope Castle, “Fort William” aka Blackness Castle, “Craines Muir” aka Culross and so much more!
Did you miss the first few days of my trip? Check em out here.