Today we bookended one of the most touristy destinations in all of Scotland with two slices of more local culture. We started our day at the Scottish Highland Games in nearby Newtonmore, followed that with a visit to Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart, and closed things out back in Nethy Bridge at the remains of one of the oldest castles in Scotland, Castle Roy (11th century).
As for local culture, both the Highland Games and Castle Roy certainly fit the bill. We didn’t know the Highland Games were happening nearby until we saw a sign yesterday while driving. The games go on all summer, with the venue moving from town to town, and today was the day for Newtonmore.
The activities are a mix of athletics (hammer throw, high jump, trail runs, shotput, etc.), cultural activities (traditional Scottish dancing, bagpipes, children’s games), music, carnival rides, and the Scottish equivalent of funnel cakes and candy. It’s hard to go wrong with any of that.
As one might expect, the Highland Games are a very big deal to the host communities, in particular the athletic events. We were likely the only Americans (or at least among the few) in attendance today, and we appreciated the opportunity to experience something truly local.
The mix of athletics with music (especially bagpipes) and dancing is certainly unique–but we walked away from the Games thinking more about how alike our cultures really are. There were carnival rides, adults enjoying family outings, kids that dropped ice cream cones and burst into tears, kids that were all smiles after getting replacement cones–pretty much what you might see in a lot of places in the US.
Next, we were off to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, where we went from being the only Americans to being the only Americans that had attended the Scottish Highland Games that day (?), quite the trade.
As for Loch Ness, it gained its fame in part through the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, which dates to 1933 (at least). Regardless of the veracity of that tail, we’d heard that the Loch was beautiful and that Urquhart Castle was interesting (it is, and it is). And when you combine an historic castle (1200s) with a beautiful Loch and the story of a mysterious sea serpent, you apparently have a recipe for a giant gift shop and an overflowing parking lot.
The Loch is loved well beyond Scotland. And much of the Loch’s draw has to be that it’s hard to prove to a skeptical public that something doesn’t exist (and how ironic is that?!). Another thing that humans seem to share across cultures is that we thrive on the mystery of the unknown, whether it’s Nessie, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or Souzz’s personal favorite, Champ, the sea serpent that is reported to prowl Vermont’s Lake Champlain.
Monster or not, the sheer beauty of the Loch and Urquhart Castle are not to be discounted (and yes, I really did just type “monster or not”), And it’s a reminder that touristy things are sometimes touristy for multiple reasons. And we don’t know what’s under the surface, either.
We closed out our day at Castle Roy, an 11th century fortress built by the Clan Comyn in Nethy Bridge, and we were delighted to find that we were the only people there. While Castle Roy is not nearly as dramatic or famous as Urquhart, it is a special place in its own right, and it reinforced to us that Scotland is a land of many different kinds of experiences.
We didn’t expect to see Nessie today, but just yesterday we hadn’t expected to go to the Highland Games or Castle Roy. That’s a pretty good day of discovery.