The precious city of Inverness, dubbed the “Gateway to the Highlands,” sits on the Northeastern coast, right where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth. Considered the largest city of the Highlands, its population is just under 49,000 people, which gives some insight into the quaint charm that my first stop in Scotland had to offer.
I wasn’t supposed to go to Inverness originally. When I booked my flights, I decided to arrive in Aberdeen and spend my first two nights there. However, upon purchase of Rick Steves’ Scotland Guidebook, (an author that I would recommend to anyone), I noted that Aberdeen wasn’t anywhere to be found. While I’m all for visiting places that aren’t necessarily tourist destinations, Aberdeen’s lack of mention in the guide’s 500-ish pages caused me to think that there were better things to see in my short time in Scotland.
So I dropped the book, binding side up, on to my kitchen floor. It landed splayed out, a few pages slightly crushed, but open to a definitive chapter. I picked up the book and saw “Inverness” across the subheading of the page. Upon further research, I discovered that the city was only a two hour train ride from Aberdeen, where I had already booked my unalterable flight. Fate had spoken. Inverness it was.
Fast forward a month, and I’m staring out the window of the ScotRail car, fresh off of the plane. The farmlands are stitched together in random fashion, like a drunken patchwork quilt. The heavy cloud coverage casts a solemn dim over the vast greenery, seemingly appropriate for the locale, so often advertised as overcast and endearingly gloomy. My ears are pressure-clogged beyond proper hearing, I smell slightly of sweat and stale deodorant, my hair has that very travel-specific slick sheen, and I probably look like I’ve seen better days. But the hot peppermint tea steaming in front of me soothes the exhausted ache in my head, the throaty accents drift through the air in wafts of an intimate conversation a few seats ahead of me, and my contentedness with present circumstances far outweighs my plight.
Obviously. Because I’m in freaking Scotland.
My absurdly large backpack and I make our way to the King’s Highway Hotel for a shower and a long nap. The inevitable head cold had been lurking right around the corner since I got on the plane in Boston, so my first major exposure to Scottish culture and history was in the form of a drug store run once I woke up. Fun fact; the UK offers more over-the-counter medications than the USA does, and everything is MUCH cheaper. However, medicines are also named differently. Make sure to shop for medicine by its active ingredient instead of by its brand name, or otherwise you will end up completely lost and probably buying the wrong thing.
I venture across the River Ness for dinner at The Kitchen Brasserie. As I nestle into a table for two while the server takes away the second place setting, I declare it time to get comfortable eating alone. After all, I have 8 more dinners to go. Sweet potato and pepper bisque arrives first, followed by Scottish salmon with snap peas.
Throughout the trip, I would find that every server and bartender gets a sympathetic twinkle in their eye and embellishes their smile with added warmth when waiting on a solo diner. I tried not to mind it, and instead took the extra attention at face value and reciprocated their kindness. As a waitress, I have learned to respect the solo diner, and not act as if they need my company or extra attention. The stereotype of “the date that didn’t show up” or “the person who was left out of everyone else’s plans” is a far cry from most peoples’ reasons for dining alone, and we should learn to not assume that either one of those scenarios is the case.
Good UK head cold drugs and 12 hours of sleep have me feeling like a superhero the next morning. Coffee and a salmon arugula croissant from Church Street’s Coffee Affair fuel the long day I have ahead of me. Leakey’s Book Shop is a must-see first stop. Two charmingly messy open-air floors of secondhand books, connected by a spiral staircase, overwhelms some visitors, but excites others. I would certainly consider myself a part of the excited population, only further drawn in by the wood-fired stove in the middle of the store and the collections of vintage prints and maps, also for sale. I acquire an old copy of Hamish Brown’s Hamish’s Groats End Walk, an account of his north-to-south trek across the UK with his border collie, who adorns the front cover. I have to make a purchase and leave, or else I would spend my entire day in there.
The Old High Church sits about ten steps down the street from Leakey’s, with an inviting entrance and beautifully maintained architecture. This is the oldest church in Inverness, and has served the Highlander population for centuries. If visiting hours apply, stop in and admire the old clan flags that hang from the ceiling and read some of the memorials on the walls. Finish up with a walk through the eerily beautiful cemetery.
The sun has miraculously come out, and a long walk down the River Ness is in order. I stay on the castle side, and stroll for about a half a mile, admiring the homes and bed and breakfasts built along the water. The war memorial and accompanying garden stand proudly, across the street from the River Walk, donning the names of the Highlanders who committed their lives to the various wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.
I slowly work my way back towards the castle, which is hard to miss no matter where in the city you find yourself. Admission is 5 GBP, which is mainly to climb the observation deck and get the beautiful 360-degree view of the city. The photo-op is definitely worth the price, and you get an almost unobstructed view of Loch Ness, the Black Isle, and Ben Wyvis (on a clear day) as well.
My stomach growls as I descend the stairs, and I declare it time for sustenance. The Glenalbyn Bar sits just across the River Ness, and claims to be the oldest pub in Inverness. They don’t offer a food menu, but Karen the bartender whips me up the best ham, cheese and onion toasty ever consumed, which I wash down with a pint of Guinness. Three old locals are the only other bar patrons, and I thoroughly enjoy witnessing first-hand the thickly accented banter passed between them and Karen, who handles their good-humored yet crass comments like a champ.
A walk through the Inverness Cathedral and some serious souvenir shopping make up the rest of my afternoon. I return to the King’s Highway to freshen up for my dinner at The Mustard Seed Restaurant, the parent restaurant to the Kitchen Brasserie from the night before. This special spot is considered one of Inverness’ best, and understandably so. Fresh local ingredients and creative recipes should definitely cost more than they do at this upscale yet cozy eatery. Two glasses of rioja, beet salad and vegetable risotto are made complete with a trip to the gelato shop down the street from my hotel.
The final hoorah of my stay in Inverness takes the form of a two-story live music pub named Hootenanny. It had caught my eye from the moment I walked past it en route to my hotel, and I knew I needed to visit. Walking into a bar by oneself is a little scary, but this place welcomes me with open arms. The large room is packed with people, all watching a trio playing traditional Scottish music. Red paint and newspaper cover the walls, and Black Isle Brewery’s Porter tastes like an ice-cold alcoholic mocha. I lean against the bar and watch the musicians, trying to look totally casual in my aloneness. I eventually meet a young couple from Denver, and the three of us find a table and spend three hours telling stories and clapping for the band.
At around 11:00, it occurs to me that I don’t want to be hungover on the train, so I wish my new friends the best and make my way back to the hotel. I re-pack my backpack, new sweater and other souvenirs included, and I settle into bed, ready to catch the early train to Edinburgh the next morning and see what else this cheerful country has to offer.
What I Did That Worked:
I didn’t stick to a rigid plan. As was so in the other Scottish cities I visited, there is something interesting and culturally significant to see around every corner. Practice mindful meaningful meandering, and go into shops and restaurants that draw you in. Mark down two or three must-sees in your guidebook, and work those in along the way. I wasn’t planning on eating a sandwich with old guys in an old little bar, but I did it anyway.
I adapted to my health issues by doing proper research. Mucinex and Sudafed in the United States do not go by the same names in the UK. I could have guessed I was going to get sick, and I could have packed all the USA meds, but I checked and found that there were plenty of drug stores in Inverness before I left. Researching active ingredients in USA versus UK meds will allow you to solve the problem once you arrive to the destination. The lower prices will also allow you to save money.
I left a little bit of room in my bag for souvenirs. I know myself quite well, and part of that is knowing how much I like to shop. Gifts for the whole family and a shot glass for the apartment are a must on these kinds of trips, so I made sure that I would have room to carry everything by leaving a little room in my backpack.
What I Could Have Done Differently:
I could have bought the guidebook first and booked the flights second. By making the flight decisions first and flying into Aberdeen, I added a 2-hour train ride to my travels that wouldn’t have been necessary, since Inverness has an airport too. This isn’t a huge deal, since early-booked trains are quite cheap, but those were 2 hours that I could have spent napping in my hotel. I should have just listened to all the Pinterest articles I read and accepted the necessity of a trip to Inverness in the first place.