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Inverness and on up to the Orkney Islands

I always do this. I get so excited about a trip that I start doing research WAY in advance. We're not going to Scotland until September 2014. :)

Still, the general plan is to fly into Inverness then hire a car. Maybe spend a day in Inverness or the surrounding area and visit Castle Urqhart and Eilean Donan Castle. Then we'll go on up north and maybe visit Castle of Old Wick, and catch the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness and spend several days on the main island exploring neolithic sites and whatever else catches our fancy.

Then back down towards Inverness and perhaps a day or so there exploring castles to the east. This is all somewhat fluid at the moment but that's the general idea.

So for food, we'll want a small number of nice places to eat, maybe one really fancy one (but maybe not, things in Europe are so much more formal than here in New England...). My husband can't stand fish but I love it and want to have it. He's also not fond of gamey tasting meats, but loves beef, pork, and chicken (do they have turkeys up there?). He's ok with lamb/mutton depending on how it's prepared. So long as whatever place we're at has a reasonable non-fish option, he's happy for me to have fish. :D We are both very fond of cheese.

We always prefer going for local foods that we're not likely to get at home, or that might be way better than what we can get at home (for example, I can get ok Mexican food at home, but it doesn't hold a candle to Tex Mex I get in Texas, or anything I could get across the border into Mexico). So we tend to prefer eating along with the culture as much as we can.

Neither of us really drinks much (we don't really like the taste and our surgeon doesn't want us drinking alcohol anyway). Still, when I was in Italy we tried local wine and enjoyed it. I'm willing to consider trying a local potable that would be superior to whatever I could get here.

We are both large people. My husband is very large. So if a place you're recommending has small booths only for sitting, it'd be nice if you note it (if it occurs to you) so we can decide if it's worth chancing not fitting. Not a huge problem if you don't.

Another thing that has me wondering is about clothing in the restaurants and what's typical. We're from a very informal part of New England and my husband is even less formal than that. Because of his size, he finds most trousers to be terribly uncomfortable and he prefers shorts. He wears shorts even when it's 0-10C outside. Now one of the solutions I've come up with for this is to buy him a couple of nice kilts. But they are very much NOT Scottish kilts. They're made of a heavy cotton canvas material, in solid colors (a rich blue and a dark green). And some collarless shirts with lacing that dress him up, and a lovely kufi hat (he has to wear hats because he gets migraines within half an hour without one, his head gets cold). All this dresses him up nicely and I even took him to a formal night on a cruise in this and didn't have any problems.

Thing is, I don't know how well this will fly in Scotland. Since it's very much not a traditional kilt in any way. Will folks look down their noses or refuse service because he's wearing, say, cotton instead of wool, or a clearly American kilt versus a Scottish one? Should we not even try a fancy restaurant? Or at least, if you recommend one, maybe keep it to places you think wouldn't be all judgey about a fat American man with a kufi hat in a non-traditional kilt. :) (photos upon request ;) )

Anyway, thanks for making it this far through my long-winded post (I'm not the most concise writer out there). I'd appreciate any suggestions around the area we'll be visiting, or thoughts on what to look out for or search the web for. I appreciate your time. :)

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  1. I found Inverness to be disappointing, foodwise, when we were up there a couple of years back. That said, it's an excellent part of the country for fresh fish if you can find somewhere that can cook it properly. You'll be going at a time when our game season will be in full swing, so lots of lovely, local meats, like venison.

    Just looked in the Good Food Guide for any recommended places between Inverness and Scrabster. And there aren't any. The only ones listed in the whole area are Rocpool in Inverness (which is bound to be better than the three dinners we ate in the city ) and the Captain's Galley at Scrabster.

    I tend to disagree about the relative formalities of American-v- European restaurants. I regularly encounter (and discount) American ones where jackets are required yet there are no more than a large handful of places in the UK so old-fashioned as to still require them. I have no idea how your husband's proposed attire might be received - with humour, I suspect. It is one thing an American wearing a traditional kilt - I suspect such might be expected from tourists - but it another thing for a man to be wearing what sounds to be, effectively, a skirt. Kufis will be no surprise - or, at least, no surprise to anyone used to living near a Muslim or African community. Of course, such communities are pretty much non-existant in the Highlands.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      Humor I can take. :) Though I prefer it be good-natured rather than snarky, of course. We are a very unusual looking couple and most likely I'd be in a salwar kameez with a shiny jeweled bindi for any place we'd need to dress up for. So which person gets stared at more might be a bit of a competition.

      I wasn't sure how formal it is in the highlands, to be honest.

      Also, even if the food is adequate or competent, we're fine with that. Maybe just a list of places to utterly avoid would be helpful. ;) I'll do some more poking. Thanks for the thoughts, Harters! You've always been so helpful in the past. :)

      1. re: Morganna

        Two of the three in Inverness were run of the mill places which I didnt bother to write up and can't recall names (pizza & and an Indian).

        The other was Contrast Brasserie which was OK, even if the service was pretty piss poor - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/796867

        1. re: Harters

          Oh I'd searched for Inverness but had limited the date range to within the last year and a half! Thanks for sharing this.

    2. Can I carry your luggage?

      Please add hours to your estimated driving time. Adverse weather, farm vehicles, and enchanting shoppes and towns have always adversely effected my itinerary. But then, that is the reason I love going there.

      Good luck on the ferries.

      3 Replies
      1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

        I'm trying very hard to not be all "we have to be at Y by X time or THE WORLD WILL END" and instead enjoy the journey. It's not something I'm great at, but I'm learning. :)

        What's the best meal you've had up there, Indianriverfl? :)

        1. re: Morganna

          Scottish High Tea. Indulged in whenever we saw a sign outside a restaurant. It ensured you got something hot along with the lemon curd, scones, sandwiches, and various teas. I always get the fish.

          I have a nasty habit of staying on two lane highways and diverting to anything that a local tells me is a must see. As you will be there in the fall, please be on the lookout for salmon. And please don't be shy about having mutton. They are experts at tasty renditions.

          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

            Oh I won't hesitate on mutton AT ALL :) hope I can find some that my husband enjoys, too. :) I keep seeing oatcakes mentioned on menus, those sound grand, too. :)

      2. Morganna, it's been too many years since our last visit to Scotland so I am not going to recommend any particular restaurants. However, I do recall that the "Taste of Scotland" certification -- http://www.taste-of-scotland.com/ -- was a reasonably reliable indicator of good restaurants when traveling in off-the-beaten-path locations.

        1. We just came back from Scotland last weekend and as some others said: plan for much slower journeys than you would in North America! Roads are narrow, traffic is slow, and driving on the left side of the road makes you even slower! A 250 km can easily take 5 hours to drive, so plan accordingly, or, like us, you will not have time to stop and sightsee, because you will be running against the clock to make it to that night's accommodation. That said, Scotland is a great country! We stopped in Inverness for lunch and ate at Riverside http://www.riversiderestaurant.info/ (which unsurprisingly is by the river, and just off the high street). We both had the salmon gravlax (we love fish!), then the turbot, which was served on a bed of kale, with new potatoes. DH had the crème brûlée, and it was really nice. Food was beautifully presented, service was friendly and I would really recommend that place. Enjoy your trip! :)

          1. I live in California but have spent between 5 & 7 weeks in the Highlands for each of the past 10 years. Most of my time is spent in Dornoch, a lovely town about 45 miles north of Inverness.

            The Mustard Seed is probably the best of the "local" restaurants in Inverness.


            For "fine dining" in Inverness, the Albert Roux restaurant ("Chez Roux") at Rocpool Reserve is worth a try.


            The Boath House is also every good (Michelin starred), but it is 20-25 miles east of Inverness.

            If you visit the coastal town of Fortrose, on the Black Isle north of Inverness, the Anderson Pub serves good food.


            My favorite place in Dornoch is Luigi, which features a contemporary menu and excellent shellfish (scallops, mussels, langoustines).


            The Sutherland House is Dornoch is also good for dinner, but it serves more traditional, heartier Scottish fare.


            Further north, La Mirage in Helmsdale is a fish & chips place worth a visit, but it is not your typical f&c takeaway.


            Should you wish to visit a distlilery, I would recommend Glenmorangie, right off the A9 highway north of Tain, or Highland Park, in the Orkneys.

            Be aware that things can change (for the better or worse!) over the next 12 months.

            1. Orkney is not best for food despite it being famous for produce, the cafe at Skara Brae was an improvement on the old days and the Orkney Brewery eating hall is okay. The beers are fine but not the best Scotland has to offer despite its collection of awards. I don't go out for food when I visit. Can recommend the amazing natural landscape, Marwick Head is my favourite for the seabirds and try the John Rae museum. As a local tip - don't call it the Orkneys. Orkney or the Orkney Islands - I'm not being pedantic - the (sort of) locals I know wince! Have a wonderful time, its a special unique place and I adore it. Sorry I can't be more helpful.

              2 Replies
              1. re: orchidalbion

                Thanks for the tip!

                Also, thanks for all the other lovely postings! :) Wheeeee!

                1. re: Morganna

                  I will be in the Highlands the first 3 weeks of September. If anything new and/or interesting turns up, I will let you know.

                  Also note that the leading "ethnic" available in the area will likely be some form of Indian/Pakistani.

                  Should you travel to the west coast of the Highlands, the Kylescu Hotel in the wee village of Kylescu is well worth a visit. The menu there leans to seafood.


              2. You can find pictures of the interior of most every restaurant in existence these days by using the "Images" search feature of Google. You can see the spacing of the tables and you can often find snapshots when the restaurant is full, taken by customers, that shows how patrons are attired. So as you collect recommendations, or while you are on the road, you can look up pictures on the internet.

                1 Reply
                1. re: barberinibee

                  Oh goodness that's a brilliant idea! I'd never thought of that!!! :)

                2. I got married in Scotland in April. Our rings were made by a couple who live near Loch Ness ... after we picked up the rings we visited Urquhart Castle. The ringmakers suggested Fiddlers (in the village of Drumnadrochit) for lunch. Very casual and very pleasant ... give it a try.

                  1. Plane tickets are purchased, B&Bs are booked. I'm starting to wend my way through all the thoughtful suggestions here and building a list of places! I will most assuredly be reporting back in detail while we're traveling. :) I am VERY excited about Rocpool and Fiddlers! ;)

                    1. Here's a collection of articles on the food culture of Northern Scotland: http://food.list.co.uk/articles/north... - hopefully will whet your appetite!

                      I second whoever said that Orkney's surprisingly low on good eating places, despite the amazing produce they have there. But the one place I'd go back to is the wee caravan at the Brough of Birsay…great homemade soup and the absolute best Clootie Dumpling I've ever tasted.

                      I'd steer clear of kilts, to be honest, unless your husband particularly wants to wear them. Generally shorts would be acceptable in most places, and the kilt would probably make him stand out more than fit in. He'll definitely need his hat though - even in high summer, Orkney can be pretty breezy!

                      Hope you have a wonderful trip.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: bakinglady

                        Thanks, the articles they were interesting. The kilt isn't so much about fitting in or not standing out as it is about being the nicest, most comfortable clothing he has for dining out at a fancy dinner establishment. :)

                      2. I think you'll find things pretty relaxed in the highlands unless you go to a destination restaurant like Rocpool or Skibo (don't know if anyone can just go there). I also haven't seen many booths in restaurants or cafes, so you should be okay. I travel in the highlands for work a few times a year and would recommend the Pittentrail Inn in Rogart just a few miles off the A9 for a nice pub meal, but worth checking ahead to see if they're open. Also, for a quick coffee stop (the A9 is a long road), the Coffee bothy and Poppy's in Golspie have nice coffee and home baking.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: mcfenton

                          Thanks! When I'm having mushbrains at work, I sorbet my head by looking over various things where we're going. yesterday I was looking at restaurants in Kirkwall and saw Dil Se (indian), Helgi's (pub, I think), and uhm, Buster's Diner (american style diner? :) ). I was planning to ask about what folks thought of any of those.

                          We'll probably only go to one nice place that would prefer we be dressed up. I was thinking maybe somewhere in Inverness proper. :)

                        2. I am just back from my annual spring visit to the Highlands. We spent 4 weeks based in Dornoch.

                          As mentioned above, I did have a pretty good pub meal at the Pittentrail Inn, in Rogart off the A9 highway. The Coffee Bothy in "downtown" Golspie is also good for lunch or morning coffee.

                          Luigi in Dornoch continues to do a very good job. We also had a very good dinner at the Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch. The "Cullen Skink" risotto was oustanding.

                          One new place, which we did not go to, is The Birch Tree, just off the A9 5-10 miles north of Invergordon. So far, I have heard good things about it.

                          P.S. Skibo Castle, mentioned above, is a private club and you will not be able to dine there.

                          1. I hope you are all organized by now. I would not be stressed about where you eat and what you are wearing. We spent several weeks in northern scotland (Grampian) at one point and lunched at many lovely hotels and pub in our hiking clothes - some of the locals were a bit better dressed but others were very casual I dont think the standards of dress in Scotland differ much from New England, It is nice to look nice dining out in the evening but I really think a bindi is not needed!

                            Taste of Scotland is a pretty good source of info http://www.taste-of-scotland.com/inde...

                            Frankly you will be travelling through a very lightly populated area with very few eating options -many are at the hotels. I think you will be able to ask and obtain local recommendations. i dont remember a single booth on visits to Scotland

                            do report back!


                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jen kalb

                              Thanks for the reassurances! :) I'm so excited about this trip. I've been wanting to visit Scotland for so very long. We just wanted to be sure we'd tried things that Scotland does well that we're not likely to get at our home, and I think we'll be well-placed for that. :) I keep looking at street view in Google maps. Whenever work gets overwhelming, I'm off to street view. SO EXCITED. :D

                            2. Have a wonderful trip Morganna! We were in Scotland two years ago, including two days in Orkney, which was simply not enough time to do it justice! While we were there, we did not go high end in our dining, mostly eating in pubs and finding it convivial enough. As I recall, you don't drink, so I won't recommend the Orkney beers, though they are tasty. But don't avoid the pubs even if you don't drink. I think of them in some ways like the UK equivalent of the diner: ubiquitous, honest food that is typically locally owned. You might even be showing up on the day that they have their weekly session of traditional tunes.

                              There is a local cheese called Gribenster (sp?) which they fry up and serve with a tart sauce. There is a fair amount of seafood too, including some gorgeous fish chowders made with either fresh or smoked fish. We had some with a chunk of brown bread out of a food truck in a field above Stromness for the Queens 60th jubilee. You won't be there for that, but who knows if there is some other event in town that might merit driving the truck out? In Kirkwall we ate at a hotel across from the docks. It looked stodgy in a 1960's way with flocked wallpaper, but the food was solid, honest and not expensive. It was a lesson that what may strike you as "fancy" really isn't. Besides, all restaurants post their menus outside, so you can make a reasonable decision before walking inside.

                              I will risk making a non-food comment: many of the monuments at Orkney (the stone rings and some tombs) are not sites that get locked up at night. I'm talking about the free ones. I spent a lovely midnight at the Stones of Stenness watching the moon come up. This may loosen your visiting schedule around some of the major sites that take admission like Skara Brae and Maise Howe (which you TOTALLY want to go to if you are physically able enough. You need a reservation for this.)

                              Inverness was a town that bounced me out on my butt. Too large to conveniently find a parking place and too small to have mass transit. I can't help you there.

                              But we had some excellent Indian takeaway in Berriedale, on the way between Orkney and Inverness. I can't promise you the same 20-year-old couple having a heart-rending breakup as they argued through the town, though culminating with "Ah only luv yuuu!" I know you say that you want to eat with the local culture. Indian restaurants ARE part of the British culture.

                              Also, do not run out of gas! Small towns do not necessarily have a petrol station. A village that merits a mention on the map may consist of 6 houses. And I agree with everyone who mentions that travel time takes much longer over there. I almost missed the Orkney ferry because I had routed my way for miles on a "single-track" that the GPS thought I could drive at 55 mph. Ha! Have a great time!

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: thinks too much

                                I'm certainly hoping for some Indian food! We had some while visiting York four years ago, and it was lovely. Though the naan that was brought to our table was VAST, like table top sized!!!! Fortunately the friend who with us at the time has a hearty appetite. :) I've looked over some of the pubs in Kirkwall and I'm looking forward to that. We'll be just missing the science festival in Kirkwall this year, and there's not a lot of eventy type stuff happening, but there's a FOOD thing going on. :) There's a place that you can order pies from and I keep being tempted to buy some pies to be delivered to one of the B&Bs we're staying at, but my husband keeps saying I'm silly and we'll surely be able to find perfectly good pies in a pub or cafe or something. :)

                                We are fully prepared for driving to take a looong time. I've built a lot of padding into our schedule, and we only have a couple of things where timing will matter much (catching the ferry being one). I've heard about good places up from Inverness towards the ferry but I don't know if timing will work out for us to have a meal in one of 'em.

                                Getting more and more excited, by the time we're flying in, I'll burst. :)

                              2. We are back! What a great time we had. :)

                                The first stop we made on arrival at Inverness was Tesco, and the cold case therein. We got several cold meat pies, a scotch egg, a pork and egg Gala pie slice, and some sausage rolls. WHY are there NO sausage rolls in the US?? What the hell is wrong with us? It was cheap, filling, surprisingly tasty, and easy. We also bought Mackies crisps of various flavors. I actually liked the haggis and black pepper variety, but they were all pretty good (though I wasn't as fond of the flamebroiled angus flavor, it was sorta like BBQ chips here in the US and I'm not so fond of those).

                                Our landlady at the first B&B was gracious and gave us plates and cutlery so we could eat the food (we got in fairly late, she was starting to get worried :) ).

                                We spent two days in Invermoriston at the Kirkfield B&B. The breakfasts there were generous (photo) and filling though I have to say, what DO y'all use to make scrambled eggs? They were just plain dull, largely flavorless, squidgey, and a bit liquidy at every B&B we were at. :) I know I'm something of a scrambled egg visigoth because I don't like mine at all runny, I want them cooked... HARD. The fried or poached eggs were perfectly lovely, though. Also, this was the best bacon on the trip, she broiled it so the line of fat on the outside was lovely crisp. I love fried mushrooms and hers were delightful, as well. The food was (other than the scrambled eggs) enjoyable and a real bargain for the price of the stay. I wrote a review of the lodging in TripAdvisor, so check that out if you're interested in more about this lodging.

                                We had dinner the second night at the Glenmoriston Arms hotel and had to eat in the bar because we didn't have a booking. But that was fine, really. It was the same menu. I had the most amazing smoked haddock with a Parmesan cheese cream sauce served over potato. My husband loved his chicken and Spanish chorizo over pasta with a creamy/peppery sauce, too.

                                From Invermoriston we drove up about three hours and a bit to catch the ferry from Gill's Bay to St. Margaret's Hope. We at our lunch from the bread and red Leicester cheese we still had from our stop at Tesco (we had stocked up) at a nice little layby on the A9 with a picnic table and a gorgeous view (photo). We stayed at the Karrawa Guest House in Kirkwall for three nights, and had another round of wonderful breakfasts there. Each place was lovely about giving me hot cocoa instead of tea or coffee (my husband drinks juice), but these folks made with extra nice using milk instead of just water in the prep. So extra points for that. I will be writing up a review for that place in TripAdvisor, too, just haven't done it yet. We tried haggis and black pudding with our breakfasts here and I quite liked both of them.

                                We ate dinner two nights at the Kirkwall Hotel because it was so good the first night. Learned a valuable lesson. Order from the special menu, not their main menu. The first night we both ordered off the special menu. I had a braised lamb with potato gratin and my husband had a steak stuffed with haggis and cheese and wrapped with bacon. Both of these were wonderful, just perfect. We shared a Orkney fudge cheesecake for dessert, also completely delightful. Second night my husband ordered pork medallions in a stilton sauce off the special menu that he thought was great. I ordered the Orkney roast dinner with beef and lamb roast, yorkshire pudding, gravy, and roast potatoes. It was competent though a bit stodgy. The Yorkshire pudding was overcooked and that made me sad (I may have to do a roast this Sunday at home to make up for this ;) ). The gravy/glace was perfect and rich and yummy. The lamb was tender and not dry. The roast beef was dry and bland and crumbly. The potatoes were fairly crisply roasted on the outside but were missing something (maybe I just didn't salt them enough for my taste). This wasn't a BAD meal, it just wasn't to the same standard as the other three things we'd ordered is all. I wondered idly if maybe the main menu are the things they've been making for decades, and if they've maybe become a bit complacent about them. Even so, I still heartily recommend this place. They got us in (early) both nights even though we had no booking and the service was fine (some folks were warmer than others).

                                The third night we were knackered from all the driving and seeing of ruins we'd done, so we ordered food to be delivered from a local Italian place. The way it works is you call in the order to the restaurant, then they call a taxi to come pick up the food and deliver it. The driver pays the restaurant, then you pay the driver. So we had to pay cash but that turned out not to be a problem for us since we had some extra to use up anyway. The restaurant was Lucano and the food was competent though a little undersauced (I'd ordered extra bread in the hope of dipping it into sauce). It was fine and reasonably priced for what we got. My husband had spicy sausage in a red sauce and I had carbonara. We had to eat it down in the breakfast room (which was totally fine with us) and they graciously provided us with dishes and cutlery.

                                For lunches while we were going around we ate at the Skara Brae visitor center (fine, reasonably priced, filling), and again from the Tesco cold case (really like sausage rolls). The cold case at the Tesco in Inverness was more varied and tastier than the one in Kirkwall. :)

                                The last day we drove from Kirkwall to Nairn (via ferry) and it was a long trip. About four hours drive, and we stopped several times along the way to stretch legs. We got lured off the road into Lybster, a village where the signs promised of lunch and bathrooms but the only cafe was closed (apparently only open in late afternoon) so we ended up just finishing up the snacks and cold case foods we had left on a bench. Which was fine.

                                Dinner in Nairn was at The Bandstand. My husband had really been hoping to get a steak and ale pie, and while it was on the menu we'd seen, it was off the menu that night. He was very disappointed and ended up getting just a regular steak. Good but nothing special. I ordered venison medallions with a black pudding mash (black pudding mixed with mashed potatoes) that was really scrumptious.

                                Breakfast at the Glebe End B&B was more posh, but no less tasty and filling (though by that point something had upset my tummy, so I couldn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped). The mushrooms were whole instead of sliced, but still lovely tasty. The scrambled eggs were the same (by this time I was performing a scientific experiment and needed a large enough sample size for a statistically significant result, which was why I stubbornly ordered them again) :) I'll be doing a review of Glebe End on TripAdvisor, too. If you're interested.

                                That last photo is of my lamb rump and rack that I ordered at Bij de Nonnen in Zundert, Netherlands. We were spending the night in the area with friends before flying back from Amsterdam to Boston the next day (which broke up our travel nicely) and took our friends out to a fine local dining establishment. The food was really good but this was an incredibly expensive dinner ($163.17 for four adults, three who ordered only mains courses, one who ordered the three course surprise menu, and only one glass of wine was had, this is way more than we ever usually spend on meals. ;D ). Also, they tried to take our mag stripe credit card, but said it didn't work (I was standing there, I couldn't see it working) so our friend had to pay for it with her chip and pin card. Then we repaid her with paypal that night. Then found out upon returning home that they had, indeed, charged us for the meal, as well (it's currently in dispute). So the lesson there is be very careful if you can't get a chip and pin card when you're traveling in smaller towns, they don't know what to make of the mag stripe cards.

                                The food was really good, but I don't know that I'm pleased with the price we paid for it. I think we'd have been happier (and certainly would have gotten far faster service, it took over an hour to get our meals) at the local Shawarma place. Oh well, next time. :)