The Torridon


The low, moaning drone hummed through the glass of our hotel room in Inverness, immediately bringing an ironic smile to my lips. “It can’t be,” I mused to the boy, the name I affectionately refer to my partner with. “It can’t be bagpipes. Can it?”
Wandering over the tartan carpet to the sash window with tartan curtains overlooking the sashaying River Ness, I looked out only to see that, yes, there was a tartan clad man, wielding a tartan fringed bagpipe, playing a high-pitched tartany tune.
“They must have come out for our arrival,” replied the boy.
Here I was, landed in Scotland for but a mere wisp of time, and there was a bagpiper. It all seemed too twee to be true.

But true it was. After a few ballads to the crystal clear water floating by (seriously, no strange body parts or mucky, murky water like the Thames floats through the River Ness) the man ceased piping and wandered, no doubt, into a tartan interior elsewhere. When finally I stopped giggling at the ridiculous predictability of it all, I began to take in the surroundings, such as the beautifully lit-up Inverness castle across the water, and spend a few minutes stretching after the long journey north.

That afternoon we had set out from good old bustling Londontown – nine and a half hours later we finally pulled into Inverness, having had both a “person under the train” and line track closures delay our way. Ah, the joys of travelling.

Luckily, we had 21st century inventions (such as the laptop, iPad, iPod, Kindle and many, many Apps) to entertain us. How they did it in the old days, I’ll never know. Unfortunately for us, the only offering in the first class East Coast train compartment for food on a weekend is a selection of rather ghastly sandwiches and some, less ghastly and rather addictive, crisps. By hour seven we’d turned to the Scotch samples I’d brought, having both given up the idea that the electronic playthings accompanying us would ever get us through the tedium.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a train journey. The problem is, I tend to over-romanticise the whole thing. For weeks before, I’d been going on and on about how romantic the scenery would be, how romantic dinner on a train would be, how romantic the idea of a relaxing train trip would be. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the dramatic scenery, it was too dark to see much and there was definitely no cushy dinner. Add in a bolshy 12-year old who kicked the boy out of his seat due to a ticket confusion, and you have a decidedly unromantic experience. Sitting across from a pre-teen for hours on end tends to take any EM Forster, epic journey notions out of a trip. At least the seats were comfy. But I do wish children wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near where I’m sitting. Sorry – I’m not child-friendly.

Therefore, after nearly ten hours of travel when the boy asked me if I’d be hungry or like to do anything, I said that as long as it didn’t involve sandwiches or children, I’d be happy. We settled on alcohol. One realises there’s little relevance to food by a certain hour of the evening and I had definitely passed that point.

A wander around (a rather drunken streeted) Inverness later, we managed to escape the onslaught of Primark heels, skirts and clutches, and arrive at the very cosy real ale pub, the Castle Tavern. I recommend a visit: it’s far enough away from the town centre to miss the horridly drunken 17 year olds with fake ID and offers up a fair selection of rather tasty ales that will help you through your evening.

The next morning, I opened the curtains of our room at the Columba Hotel to discover a much more subdued and welcoming landscape. Gone were the revellers of the night before and, in their wobbly place, lay a quaint sunny town, basking in the glow of an early spring day.

Inverness is a fantastically pleasant place. Situated 160 miles north of Edinburgh, with the River Ness running through it, cobbled streets with quaint shops, a castle (which doubles as the local courthouse) and lots of tartan, it makes a great stop-off before continuing on your way to the more “rural” parts of north-western Scotland.

Our hotel was one of a few situated along Ness Walk, on the western side of the river. While the rooms are big, the beds comfy and the view unbeatable, I’d skip out on breakfast. Hoping for a sweet B&B offering, we were instead greeted by lukewarm beans, floppy eggs and the most puzzled look I’ve ever received when asking for condiments. Ketchup was not the done thing it would seem. Unless by my accent she thought I said condoms. Which would potentially explain the confusion.

Escaping out into the fresh air, we sauntered along the walk before coming back to grab our bags – we were headed westwards and couldn’t wait. Like the train journey, I had played up the romantic idea of Scotland so heavily that I was worried my expectations would never live up to reality. Luckily, I was wrong.

Driving south along the B852 from Inverness will take you along the eastern side of Loch Ness – the less touristy route and by far the more beautiful. Stretching up through the hills along candy ribbon roads flowing up and down, up and down through heavily forested landscapes, you’ll catch breathtaking views of the Loch. From this side, you get to climb first and then look down on dear Nessie giving you a better angle from which to potentially view the Monster. The route is circuitous and if, like us, you were aiming to head west, you’ll have to drive most of the way around the other side of the Loch (a further 26 miles) to get back to the A862, which will take you back on track. But, trust me, it’s worthwhile. If you have time, stop for a tea and touristy visit to Drumnadrochit, where the Loch Ness Centre is to learn more about Miss Nessie and her monstery ways. A visit to ruined 13th century Urquhart Castle is also recommended.

As we were short on time we opted out of a stop. The overly dramatic scenery of rocky terrain continued as we drove further west, winding our way around loch after sparkling loch. Frequently, the boy and I stepped out of the car to take pictures – despite not wanting to seem touristy it’s almost impossible not to in such an inspiring landscape.

Finally, the penultimate turn arrived and Loch Torridon, a 15 mile long lake plunged between mountains, greeted our eyes. “We’re almost there,” I said to the boy, bouncing in my seat and setting aside any more “map reading” duties.

There referred to The Torridon, our home for the evening and the place I was expecting to be the highlight of the trip. Voted the Scottish Hotel of the Year 2011, the 4* Torridon is situated within 58 acres of land at the edge of the loch. Upon entering through the large gates and inching down the gravelled drive, one can understand why it is so heralded. The red brick hotel rises as if from nowhere, on one side a huge turret with a gold-rimmed clock facing outwards to the loch, on the other soaring peaked roofs. It’s as if you suddenly stumble out of the wilderness of northern Scotland onto a secret place that you never expected you’d get a key to – a fairytale castle waiting for your arrival.

The grounds comprise large gardens (including a kitchen garden which supplies much of the greenery for the meals in the AA three Rosette restaurant) and another smaller Inn with a comfy, cosy pub, perfect after a long walk in the rain. Dopey, shaggy Highland cattle munch on hay (not realising they will, at some point, become dinner) while muddy trails await the adventurous. Out front, the manicured lawn would insert magically into an early 20th century film, where children with dickie bows and flapper tennis dresses would play badminton while their too-slim, cigarette quaffing mother tut-tutted them for “playing too roughly” on the pitch.

Upon arrival, we stepped in from the mizzle and were instantly greeted with warm affection and a roaring, sparking fire. Dark panelled walls kept the more “classic” feel of a Scottish hotel alive, while streamlined yet warming accents of gold, cream and beige in the sitting rooms made it modernised. The hotel’s 18 bedrooms perfectly straddle the line between contemporary and classic as well, with giant beds, colourful accents, and roll top baths that one can soak in while taking in the mountainous scenery.

Ours was opulently plush – a large bay window framed the stunning scenery and two grey lounge chairs made for the ultimate spot to sit. There were biscuits and tea waiting and a green and grey bed that was so oversized even a princess would be lost in it.

After settling in, guests are given tea or coffee in the drawing room. As the boy and I sat back in the oversized dark leather chairs watching the steamy mist slide across the loch, it felt like a moment of perfection. The Torridon also boasts an incredible selection of whiskies in its bar and a fair choice of gins to boot. Six shelves tower in a circumference of the red-panelled room, while chess sets wait pre-set to lure you into a tipsy battle.

After a long, warming soak in the claw-footed, roll-top bath, the boy and I headed to dinner where an even longer, more pleasurable meal awaited. Hats off to chef Bruno Birckbeck’s culinary skills, which included a picture-perfect meal comprising daintily dressed lobster ravioli, succulent guinea fowl on a bed of lentils and the most flawless sea bass I’ve ever tasted. It was so good, I finished by declaring my desire to have the chef teach me how he could get it so perfect, a task which he agreed happily to do (and which I unfortunately missed the chance of taking him up on the following morning due to a confusion over road closures). It was the little details that made it all so right: fresh daffodils from the garden adorned the tables instead of flown-in flowers; staff were there to answer questions before we’d thought to think of them; and every need was met, including our request to have our cheese board in the drawing room so we could engage in a chess battle. Not an eye was blinked, despite it likely being a slight inconvenience to the team.

While the fire crackled in the next-door room, and the boy and I sat back with our cheese and chess, I realised I had finally found the romanticism I was after in Scotland.

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Read part two of Alwynne’s Scottish adventure…


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