But back to the beginning, Inverness (was it really only a week ago?). D has family in Inverness and visits regularly, but for some reason I had never been before last October. A terrible omission on my part because it's a brilliant base to explore the highlands from, as well as being a city with a very definite charm of its own.
Inverness town centre (it has an epic sort of industrial estate just outside the town that I guess services most of the Highlands and Islands with everything from aga's to a new tractor) is quite small, and a little bit shabby, though there are signs of rejuvenation, which makes it easy to explore. I'd love to take the overnight sleeper there one day. I haven't because every time I've looked it costs 4 times what my flights have, and that's before I've got down to London to catch it - but what a perfect way to arrive. From my point of view the principle retail attraction is Leakey's bookshop. It's a huge secondhand treasure trove in an old church with a massive log burning stove to keep the cold at bay. There's also an excellent Waterstones for more browsing, and Wood Winters wine merchant (handily opposite Leakey's for souvenirs in the form of whisky or gin. The Royal Highland hotel (station hotel?) next to the train station comes complete with tartan carpets and stags heads on the wall and feels positively Edwardian - the tea and scones are excellent. There is more than this to Inverness but so far that's kept me more than busy enough.
Snow on the hills, I love these colours.
The best thing about Inverness though is how many great places are not that far away. Last year we went to Skye for lunch - it's a couple of hours drive through beautiful scenery, over to Speyside to investigate some distilleries (we just hit the edge of it and still managed to see 5), to Cromarty for another lunch - it's a really charming fishing village. Culloden battle field, which is worth a look because it's a pivotal episode in Scottish history, and one that still casts a shadow.*
This time we went to Ullapool - more excellent little bookshops, stunning scenery, and a really good lunch. Tomatin distillery (we like distilleries, we don't always buy anything or go on a tour, but they make for a good general destination). We also took the funicular railway to the top of Cairngorm. Which was the first time I'd ever been on a mountain (so quite exciting). It was really bloody cold - which you can expect in a sub arctic environment, and beautiful. It's a desperately fragile environment so the railway is a good way to see something of the mountain without doing it any damage. And that was my 2.5 days in and around Inverness, it's possibilities are far from exhausted.
*I'm not entirely comfortable with how the National Trust for Scotland interpret this event, especially it's aftermath. The government (English) was not magnanimous in victory, reprisals against the highland clans were brutal, and nothing justifies what happened - but I think a better effort at explaining why the government was so determined the '45 would be the last uprising would be helpful.