Thursday, 6 August 2009

Day 25 - Scotland East Coast - From Thurso to Inverness - Dunrobin Castle - Hundreds of dead African animals, and some fantastic live ones

The weather continues to hold. And I got sunburnt today (the weather gods' revenge on my previous complaints), while watching a falconry display at Dunrobin Castle, between Thurso and Inverness. The 13th century castle has been amended and extended, so that today it is more of a very large, grand and ornate manor house.But the spirit of the castle still persists, given it's imposing height and architecture, position on a steep hill, and fantastic gardens. It was one of the highlights of my trip. Do yourself a favour, and go see it.

But the undoubted highlight is the display of falconer Andy Hughes and his birds of prey on the lower lawns of the castle. He gives a superb exhibition with his hawk, falcon and barn owl. Displayed in succession, each bird's characteristics and behaviour comes to the fore. Andy moves between the audience, and the birds fly low over their heads, and sometimes - in the owl's case - land on someone's head.

But the birds are wild. They simply allow Andy to feed them on an ask-and-reward system. So each time they fly back to Andy's hand, he gives them a piece of raw chicken. However, if he stopped feeding them, they'd happily fly off and find their own food.

You get to see the birds right up close, and Andy's knowledge is extensive, and he puts on a great show as well. You will be thoroughly entertained and educated. A must-do. Please don't miss it, so find out more at the Dunrobin Castle website. Also in his ranks, but not displayed to our audience today, are other birds such as the golden eagle, which can be viewed in the garden as well on their open-air perches.

Also at Dunrobin Castle is the museum of the Earl of Sutherland's hunting exploits in the 19th century in Africa. Be prepared for some disturbing viewing. There are hundreds of stuffed heads of once proud and beautiful African animals...from giraffe, to elephants, to buffalo, to the smallest animal and the largest. It's not for everyone, but it is a shocking reminder of how precious the remaining populations of wild animals are.

I then moved on to Inverness, and couldn't find any accommodation (it was the first night I hadn't planned in advance). During peak holiday season, make sure you don't make the same mistake. I eventually looked up on, and found a spot overlooking Loch Ness, about 20 minutes inland from Inverness. Craigdarroch has great views of the loch - rooms are very spacious and comfortable. The food needs some attentions (my Thai Curry was rice and sauce - for £13!), but it may have been a one-off mishap. But it's a very relaxed atmosphere for such a grand building and location, and the South African owners keep a convivial bar where guests can carouse until the late hours.

Dunrobin Castle on the way from Thurso to Inverness. Click for a full screen version.

Dunrobin's museum of dead African animals, shot by the Earl of Sutherland during the 19th Century. If you're an animal lover, this might be too much for you.

Andy Hughes gives a superb "falconry" display at Dunrobin, which shouldn't be missed. He demonstrates various birds' (including the above barn owl) behaviourial characteristics, in a highly entertaining and educating display. Don't miss it!


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