From hence to Inverness

“But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine

On all deservers. – From hence to Inverness

And bind us further to you.

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1.4.47-49)

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The Scottish Highlands – Wild, Untamed, Extraordinary

Summer hiatuses from routine are almost mandatory for Canadians. When half the year is filled with bitterly-cold winter and all you feel like doing is curling up with a mug of tea and writing the long, dark night away…the late summer nights heavy with Ottawa’s saturated humidity are meant to be spent out-of-doors, soaking as much of the heat in as possible – however suffocating it can sometimes seem.

Now that September has suddenly begun, and in anticipation of a late-October early-November trip to France which I will undoubtedly wish to write about, I’m going to try and finish chronicling the tales of the Great Gurski UK and Ireland Trip of 2014 as soon as possible.

I believe I left off all those months ago with our leave-taking of the much needed respite that was Aberdeen, Scotland. So here goes.

Breathing in the invigorating ocean air before trading it in for the stale, recycled air-conditioning of motorized transport, Kristen and I lugged our baggage onto the embarrassingly-cheap bus we had booked to take us on the next leg of our journey: North-East to Inverness, The Capital of the Highlands.

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Based on Macbeth, this is kind of the type of scenery I expected to find in Inverness. I was not disappointed.

I can’t even explain today why I was so excited to set foot in this city – my knowledge of the history of this area was limited to its association with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And yet, I spent the entire bus ride fidgeting impatiently (much to the chagrin of my poor younger sister) in anticipation of what we might find when we got there.

Had I only known what was in store, Kristen’s annoyance with me may have come to blows with the height of my excitement and subsequent non-stop chatter.

As it was, I had a three-hour bus ride to contend with before reaching our destination. That might seem rather boring and uncomfortable, especially considering the ‘recycled air’ comment above, but I truly believe there is nothing better than a good-old-fashioned country bus ride. You get to see parts of the landscape you would have never visited otherwise and, as an added bonus, the people watching is incomparable. Witnessing a local bus driver interact with familiar passengers, or possibly even old friends, along the route is as endearing as it is time-consuming. And I’ve got to tip my hat to these ladies and gents who drive the circuitous routes throughout the British Isles – how they manage to remember where every middle-of-nowhere bus stop is along the deserted country roads, I’ll never know. But more power to them for both remembering each stop AND simultaneously deftly avoiding what seem like inevitable head-on collisions with every other car on the all-too-small roads.

After witnessing many a conversation reminiscent of small-town mystery novels, the bus finally pulled into the modern half of Inverness and, I have to admit, at first I was….thoroughly disappointed.

The parts we drove through on the way to the bus station were so unexpectedly modern, complete with a large mall and an imposing concrete parking garage, that I began to rethink my insistence to add this place to our itinerary. Shopping malls and Macdonald’s, and an odd statue the image of which I can’t quite conjure up at the moment, certainly don’t set the scene for either double toil or trouble, or bubbling cauldrons for that matter.

(Edit: I have been informed by the incredibly helpful people over at Visit Inverness that the odd statue mentioned above is in fact of a unicorn, designed by Gerald Laing and is a sandstone pillar 37 feet tall. It has also served as the city’s mercat (market) cross since the early 2000s. If you wonder, as I did, as to why their mercat cross was the likeness of a unicorn…The Unicorn is Scotland’s national animal (officially!). Pretty cool huh? Even cooler that people from Inverness actually read this post…) 

The bus station was a little more promising as it was a short little building surrounded by low-standing stone structures. And yet, I wasn’t quite convinced. I had heard Inverness was still very much a medieval city but…I could have heard wrong.

Grabbing our stuff, Kristen and I headed out in the direction of our hostel, basically around the corner from the bus station. Upon rounding the corner I was immediately comforted. I could glimpse, off to our left, the cobblestone streets of the old city and I knew we were in the right place.

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The Map of Inverness

The hostel was clean, the host welcoming, and the haunting tones of a tin-flute floated in from an adjacent room (we learnt later it was one of the employees playing) lending an old-world feel to the admittedly modern hostel. I no longer felt any doubts about our decision to visit this place.And yet, as if the universe felt I still needed convincing, as Kristen and I stepped out the doors to explore the old city a little before heading to bed…Inverness promptly proceeded to steal my heart.

The town’s medieval streets curve gracefully through the city centre, almost mimicking the River Ness on which Inverness is situated, intersecting at wide corners with no traffic control other than a few signs cautioning drivers to yield to pedestrians. Not that the old-city is busy enough to make crossing the street a harrowing affair.

It’s hard to escape the town’s long and violent history while making ones way through its curved and ancient streets. It seems like its people spent the entire Middle Ages fighting fires as various people and armies attacked the city again and again. And yet, the city continued to prosper after each disaster. I don’t know who its patron saint is, but he or she is doing a damn good job.

The violent history of Inverness has inspired many an artist over the centuries, but probably none more famous than Shakespeare himself. As I mentioned above, rumour has is that is was in this castle in 1040 That Macbeth murdered Duncan, thus setting off a sequence of events that would lead to his downfall, at least according to the Bard. Historians disagree on the historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s work, as well they should, but anyone who has spent an evening walking around the misty river-side paths of the Highland Capital can attest to the haunting atmosphere that abounds. In the chill hours of dusk, when one looks up at the imposing Inverness Castle on the hill, a murder most foul (full disclosure – that’s a quote from Hamlet) does not seem so inconceivable.

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Haunting…No?

In my opinion, Shakespeare chose the perfect place to set his dark scene as the town also has a history of divided loyalties, as does much of Scotland. I could pick any of dozens of examples to illustrate how this beautiful little town is the perfect manifestation of fair is foul and foul is fair, but I think none better illustrates the town’s more unattractive historical moments than the Mary Queen of Scots incident (which, incidentally, happened before Shakespeare had written the play. Coincidence?): 

Useless Historical Fact # 8

In 1562, during a time of political upheaval in Scotland (although, if we’re being honest, has there ever been a time of political stability in that proud country), Mary Queen of Scots arrived at the castle gates only to find them shut against her. Now, this may not seem like a big deal – just turn around and find someone more hospitable to sleep, right? Well, remember, at the time there was open warfare between the Catholics and the Protestants in Scotland (where have we heard this before…). Elizabeth had recently been crowned the Protestant Queen of England (in 1558), and Mary was returning to Scotland from France as the only legitimate Catholic heir to James V’s long-contested throne. Therefore, standing outside a locked castle, retinue or no, was not the safest position for Mary to be in while faction warfare raged around her. Realising their Queen was vulnerable, supporters from throughout the North of Scotland, but especially Clan Munro and Clan Fraser (of Outlander-fame) rallied around her and laid siege to the castle, taking it successfully for their Queen – thus ensuring their own rewards while simultaneously condemning the Governor who had shut her out in the first place to death. Though the current castle was only build in 1836, on the site of the original, looking up at those dizzyingly tall walls atop already heightened grounds, I understood why such a position would be desirable in the middle of brutal clan and religious based warfare. I wouldn’t want to be caught at a disadvantage with a bunch of bloodthirsty highlanders running around.

Who doesn’t love a good royal-intrigue story? By the time Kristen and I were enjoying a well-earned pint to the lovely sounds of a local session group (by far one of the best parts of hanging out in Celtic pubs), I couldn’t wait to explore the town during the day to see what it had to offer. The history already had me hooked but it was the promise of a long walk along the banks of the famed River Ness that had me vibrating with excitement.

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The irresistible beauty that is the River Ness

Little did I know, the next day would feature a witch’s watery grave – the discovery of which (ha) gave me the most violent shivers of the trip.

By the pricking of my thumbs

Something wicked this way comes

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