A Travel Guide:
From it's strategic position on the west bank of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle's ruins steep in Scottish history and remain a sensory feast for today's visitors, who flock to this ruin at a rate only surpassed by Edinburgh and Stirling Castles. Just a 30 minute drive down from Inverness and on the way to Fort George, Isle of Skye, or Oban, it leaves little excuse to be ignored. Let me give you some details to both entice your visit and help you understand this castle's place in Scottish history.
Getting To Urquhart Castle
While the ruins are not in town the the aforementioned castles, it is easily accessible by rental car. The road from Inverness does get narrow at points and holds curves featuring stone walls and embankments right up against the road, but it wasn't as tight as some other roads I've driven in Scotland. Just know you'll have a couple of "oh crap" moments when you round a curve with a speeding resident passing you by (especially if you're used to driving on the right side of the road).
Don't sweat trying to get a picture of the castle from a distance, there are plenty of great views once you pay your admission.
The Urquhart Castle Experience
I was there on a busy Easter holiday weekend and the parking was pretty tight. The lot is above the Visitor's Center and as you walk in and pay your fee or show them your Historic Scotland Explorer Pass, you'll be fed some history almost immediately. You'll find some artist renderings of the men who had influence over the castle's history including Sir Andrew De Moray, Sir Alan Durward, and Sir John Grant. More on them in a moment. Also, you can watch a short film to get acclimated, or head right for the castle ruin as I did.
Once outside, there is a gradual walk downhill but it is no where near as challenging as Dunnottar Castle's walk. The view of Loch Ness and the hills of the Great Glen will be more than enough to distract you. I had a beautiful sunny day, but I can imagine this place is pretty moody when the storm clouds roll in over the loch. And no, I did not spot Nessy!
Want to play king of the hill like we used to when we were kids? This castle will definitely afford you that opportunity. I made my way over to the motte, a hill situated to the southwest of the castle, and took in the view over the castle. Grant's Tower and the Great Hall are both available to explore and this is one of the largest grounds for a castle in Scotland, so plenty to explore.
As you leave, you will again go through the very large gift shop. If you're looking for touristy trinkets from Scotland or a bottle of Scotch, you can find both here - including an Urquhart Castle branded whisky.
History of Urquhart Castle
There is little doubt that this hillside's spectacular view was also an ideal spot for a fort. There is speculation that a Pict nobleman named Emchath held this ground in the 5th Century and researchers found evidence of a medieval fort built sometime after that. In the 13th Century Sir Alan Durward most likely built the original castle. In 1296, at the beginning of the Scottish Wars of Independence, Edward I of England and his forces took the castle, but the Scots took it back a year later under the leadership of Sir Andrew de Moray, a Scottish hero who would later succumb to wounds received while fighting along side William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Edward I aka Longshanks would return to take the castle a second time and the English held control for a couple more years before the Scots retrieved it again and turned it into a royal residence.
Later it would enter one of it's most turbulent periods passing between Clan Grant and Clan MacDonald, and then by the 18th Century the castle was left to decay. The state would come to rescue it in the 20th Century.
An Urquhart Story: The Lords of the Isles
Out of the Middle Ages came a mighty chiefdom known as the Lord of the Isles. At their height, they were the third most powerful landowning entity in Britain after Scotland and the Kings of England. Coming from both Viking and Gaelic traditions, these scrappy warriors dominated over the western islands off the Scottish coast including Isle of Skye, Islay, and sections all the way down to present day Campbeltown in the Kintyre Peninsula.
In 1462, John MacDonald II Lord of the Isles, only 10 years after finally securing the permanent land grants for Urquhart, made a calculated decision to side with Edward IV of England in a plan to conquer Scotland. But Edward IV and England soon were distracted from the plan by internal conflict in the War of the Roses. When King James IV of Scotland discovered the plot against his kingdom he seized the lands held by Clan MacDonald Lord of the Isles including Castle Urquhart.
The mighty had fallen, but they would not give up without a fight. Successive MacDonald's did their best to raid and regain the castle, which they did several times, ending finally in 1545 with the Great Raid (the "MacDonald's takeaway menu" on the informational signage above is priceless!). The title Lord of the Isles was absorbed by Scotland and later Great Britain. Today it is reserved for the eldest son and heir apparent to the crown - thus the current Lord of the Isles is England's Prince Charles.
Planning Your Visit
You'll find a nice cafe and a lovely view right on the property. There is also a little town nearby called Drumnadrochit with a B&B and some nice food opportunities as well. Otherwise, Inverness is just a 30 minute drive up the road. It would be very easy to make a day of Fort William and Castle Urquhart and to do some exploration of Loch Ness. Spend some extra time and see if you have better luck spotting The Loch Ness Monster. And if you have it, you can use your Historic Scotland Explorer Pass to gain entrance or the fee was £12 when I visited. Have fun exploring!
As for me, on to Eilean Donan Castle and the Isle of Skye!