Urquhart Castle stands on a stubby peninsula projecting a short distance into Loch Ness where it turns the corner into Urquhart Bay. This places it some two miles south east of Drumnadrochit and about fifteen miles south of Inverness. The castle is in the care of Historic Scotland and is consistently among their top ten most popular attractions. Which is hardly surprising to anyone who has visited: this really is a "must see" castle.
As a romantic ruin, Urquhart Castle must be the envy of romantic ruins the world over. It's not just that its intriguing shape reflects the irregular outcrop of rock on which it was built. And it's not just that for the last millennium or more this site has been the key that unlocks the major route through the Highlands. What really makes Urquhart Castle the definitive romantic ruin is the possibility that the 600 foot deep waters surrounding it on three sides may suddenly ripple, then part, as something completely unknown to science emerges to confound a sceptical world.
Nessie may or may not exist. But the possibility that she does provides a powerful draw to the visitors who flock to the area year after year. And although Loch Ness has roads on both sides, access to the lochside is surprisingly limited, and the views from the A82 are often restricted by trees, especially in summer. As a result, Urquhart Castle's good access to the loch, and good views across and along it, only add to its popularity.
The castle saw the opening of a superb new visitor centre in 2002, involving large new car and coach parks being built discreetly into the slopes below the main A82. The visitor centre itself is buried beneath the lower car park and largely hidden from the world, save for the face that overlooks the castle and loch below.
Admission is via the circular structure in the car park, and from here you descend by steps or lift to the visitor centre below. This comprises three main areas. Most obvious is the shop, which straddles the main route to the viewing terrace and path to the castle. Off to one side is an interesting exhibition about the castle, which includes a large model that you should really look at before visiting the castle itself. Here, too, is an audio visual theatre. On the other side, and surprisingly easy to overlook, is the large cafe, which in summer can open out through glass doors onto the terrace in front.
Once through the visitor centre you descend by steps or a sloped path in a dogleg to the castle itself. In the angle of the path half way down is a recreation of a wooden trebuchet, a fine example of a truly formidable siege weapon from the days before cannons.
You can think of Urquhart Castle as being build in a sort of "B" shape. You approach from the straight side of the "B", and the gatehouse is offset slightly to the left or north of the centre of the site. Beyond it is the lowest and narrowest part of the castle, complete with the water gate which would have allowed the occupants access to a pier. More than once during its troubled history the castle held out because it could be resupplied by ship.
From this central part of the castle, the ground rises in both directions. To the southern end, the highest part of the castle is the summit or upper bailey, commanding extensive views. At the other end of the castle lies the Grant Tower, once the five storey hub of the castle capable of being defended even if the rest of the castle fell to whoever wanted ownership at the time. The remains of numerous other buildings still add interest. The largest range is on the loch side of the castle towards the tower end. This would have accommodated the kitchens and great hall. On the low hill in the centre of this end of the castle are foundations which once probably supported a chapel.
The Grant Tower is by far the best preserved part of the castle, and extends from the vaulted cellars up to the original wallhead and gable. Better still, visitors can explore the various levels, via a very narrow spiral staircase that can become congested at times, and enjoy the views south over the castle and east and north over Loch Ness.
Opinions differ as to whether Urquhart Castle was originally the site of a Pictish fort visited by St Columba in 597, but there was certainly a Pictish settlement in the area at the time. The first real evidence of anything recognisable as a castle dates back to the years following 1230, when Alexander II crushed a revolt in Moray, to the north, and decided to defend this strategic route through the highlands.
In 1297 the castle was in English hands loyal to Edward I; and survived a night assault by the Scots. To no avail, because by 1303 it was again in Scots hands and under siege by the English, to whom it fell. Later it featured among a handful of castles keeping alive Robert the Bruce's claim to the Scottish Crown.
By the 1390s the focus of conflict had switched. Now it was the Scottish Crown trying to defend itself against incursions from the Macdonalds, the Lords of the Isles, from the west. And again Urquhart Castle was pivotal, with ownership moving back and forth between the two sides for a further 150 years.
The complex interplay of Scottish history led to further conflict around Urquhart Castle in 1513, and in 1545 it was besieged and subsequently plundered by the western clans. Repairs followed, but the castle fell into decline, playing little part in the Civil War in the 1640s. In 1689 Urquhart Castle saw its last action, when a small garrison supporting the new Protestant monarchy of William and Mary held off a much larger Jacobite force. The garrison later left, blowing up much of the castle as they did so; and signs of this can still be seen around the gatehouse. Its main role since has been to serve the local community as a convenient quarry, which explains why so much of the structure has gone.
As a place to visit, Urquhart Castle makes a fascinating half day out. There are many castles in Scotland that are more complete, and some that are larger. But there are few with quite such a turbulent history, and even fewer located in such beautiful surroundings. And in no other do you have the chance, however faint, of taking a photograph that proves that dinosaurs are not, after all, extinct...