Paranoid that our three-year-old daughter Phoebe would miss her friends and toys on our family holiday to Scotland, we tried to enthuse her by telling her that it would be like her favourite story, Going On A Bear Hunt. Did she, we asked, want to go on an amazing adventure to a place in another country where there was a huge monster called Nessie? (With hindsight, I might have over-thought this: all she said was ‘Will there be pens there, Dad?’)
Scotland is famous for many things: its beautiful heather-clad countryside in August, the majesty of Royal Deeside (home to Balmoral), moody ruined castles in the Borders region, and the warmth of Glasgow and rich history of Edinburgh. But I’d take a small town with two slightly cheesy exhibitions dedicated to world’s the last remaining, although probably non-existent, monster every time.
Loch Ness and more particularly the town of Drumnadrochit that has grown up on its banks is unlike anything else in Scotland and possibly the world (save maybe Roswell in the States, where they believe – or pretend to believe, for the tourism it generates – that an alien spaceship crashed in 1947). But whereas in Roswell the X-Files style nuttiness is slightly intimidating (we drove through in 2001 and met a man who claimed his father had helped dissect alien bodies), at Loch Ness the atmosphere is of the British kind – eccentric, jokey and much more about buying cuddly Nessie toys and caps saying ‘I saw the beast’.
There are two main rival attractions in Drumnadrochit. At the Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Centre, seven themed rooms uncover the truth behind the legend of the monster, from its roots in Gaelic myth to present-day ‘sightings’ and the disappointing theory that it might all be a sturgeon of above-average weight. The narrator grandly states, ‘You must be naturalist and detective, judge and jury,’ but I was too preoccupied with my role as strict father to Phoebe, who, fairly uninterested in “that large fish”, was intent on clambering over a model of a sonar submersible. But it was a great outing, the only real downside being that it was often too dark to find Chocolate Gems in the depths of our day-bag to keep one-year-old Charlie quiet as pseudo-scientists with large moustaches hilariously debated thermo-climes and other gobbledegook.
The Original Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre down the road is basically one corridor of interesting photos culminating in a nice sit-down in a mini-cinema showing a Nessie movie on a loop. Modern interest in Nessie dates from the 1934 publication of RK Wilson’s photograph of Nessie’s neck (now known to be a hoax) and the 1961 incident when dozens of hotel guests saw a pair of humps cruise almost 1km along the loch. Despite several hi-tech sonar surveys failing to produce evidence (believers say the monster hides in a cave to escape detection), the legend lives on.
Your homework done, go spotting on the loch – although more fun than looking for the beast is looking for the nutty spotters. The best place is Urquhart Castle, with clear views of the loch (restricted by undergrowth on the A82, especially in summer). Here you’ll see Nessie-hunters jostling for the best positions up the castle’s old Grant Tower, telephoto lenses poised. A fun game is to listen out for them during their snatched sandwich breaks nattering to each other excitedly about Operation Deepscan and the Dinsdale film. You can annoy them if you want (and we did) by saying very loudly to your kids, ‘Don’t be silly-billies – they proved it was a giant sturgeon years ago.’ My wife, who actually half-believes, brought binoculars, but after a fruitless five-minute search a suggestion of a buttered scone in the café was all it took to make her abandon her quest.
When you tire of staring at bearded men in anoraks trying to make international names for themselves, there are other family outings in the area, including The Clansman Centre in nearby Fort Augustus, where our daughter dressed up as a 17th-century clanswoman (with the addition of a Percy Pig sweet stain on her face). Also worth trying are the Highland & Rare Breeds Croft over the road, nearby Culloden Battlefield and the beautiful beach at Nairn. In Inverness, Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop, Leakey’s, is a treat to browse in – and, if your children ask, yes, there are also plenty of pens here.
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