Plans to upgrade visitor facilities at Urquhart Castle have put the castle’s caretakers at odds with the wishes of the nearby townspeople.
On the shores of Loch Ness, on the outskirts of the little village of Drumnadrochit, stands Urquhart Castle, a favourite perch for thousands of inquisitive visitors hoping to catch sight of the famous Loch Ness Monster. At the castle’s well-used visitor centre, some major renovations are scheduled to take place, but, surprisingly, local villagers aren’t at all pleased with the idea.
Visitors come to this area with the Monster of Loch Ness, not the castle, uppermost in their minds. And while most tourists will never see ‘Nessie’ in the flesh (some would say she’s not there to be seen), those who visit Drumnadrochit will likely be left speechless by the area’s breathtaking beauty. From the mountain peaks to the glens, from the farmhouses to the loch, the endless verdant vista is one of nearly unspoilt natural beauty. Whether sparkling in the sunlight or shrouded in grey cloud cover and mist, it’s a photographer’s dream.
The castle’s ruins lie at the water’s edge, about two miles north of the village. They are indeed ruins–barely a single room remains intact, let alone an entire building, at the historic site. Currently, visitors must reach the castle by car or tour coach. The car park can accommodate 40 cars and four coaches. From there, visitors trek down the steep bank of the hill to the castle.
Historic Scotland plans to expand these modest facilities into a car park that will accommodate 12 coaches, four caravans, and 118 cars. A new business centre will include a restaurant, audiovisual display, and a larger souvenir shop. ‘That will be built into the hillside, but not much of it is going to be seen,’ says Trevor Briggs, a staffer at the Castle, ‘only the frontage and it will be composed of red sandstone screened by trees. It will have approved access for disabled people.’
Not everyone is pleased with the planned expansion. Mikko Takala, a local computer programmer, has launched a campaign on the Internet’s World-Wide Web to oppose further development near the loch . The site, called ‘Nessie on the Net’, can be found at http://www.lochness.co.uk. Besides articles on the planned ‘improvements’, the site also includes a petition, aimed at preventing Historic Scotland from proceeding with the renovations.
According to Takala, ‘The Castle is already under attack.’ Last summer, visitors arriving at the castle found a rather disappointing blemish amid the ruins, in the shape of a dull green prefabricated gift shop. Takala alleges that ‘during the dawn hours, with no one about to see them, Historic Scotland ordered a helicopter to airlift a monstrous porta-cabin over the heads of the local community and right into the middle of the delicate and sensitive Castle grounds.’ Historic Scotland described the building as temporary, pending the completion of the new visitor centre, but then moved it to a more out-of-the-way location in July, following the unfavourable local reaction.
George Edwards, another leading opponent of the redevelopment of the castle, wages his campaign in his own forum. He works for The Original Loch Ness Exhibition and Hotel, providing visitors with a lengthy bit of patter about the loch and its monster.
On the day I went out onto the loch with George, the heavily overcast sky and choppy water enhanced the experience. The loch, heavily laden with peat, is normally so black that tourists swimming just under the surface can hardly see their hand in front of their face.
The nearly black water and the grey skies combine to create a matte-black velvet water surface that produces a variety of strange visual effects. At least twice during the hour or so the trip took, I would have sworn I’d seen a monster out of the corner of my eye.
Edwards has had his share of sightings, as have many of the locals. Edwards has started a petition that he asks tourists to sign in opposition to the development plans. In just a few months he has collected some 1,500 signatures.
The tiny village of Drumnadrochit provides a home to two major tourist attractions (and many smaller ones) based on Nessie: The Official Loch Ness Exhibition and The Original Loch Ness Exhibition. Neither is aptly named, says Takala. The ‘Official’ exhibition is unsanctioned by any state or local government agency, and the ‘Original’ exhibition came into being some six years after the ‘Official’ one. Competition between the two is fierce.
‘The Official Centre takes a natural history view of the area for its theme,’ says director Adrian Shine, as well as ‘getting into the history of the legend and the searches for the monster. It stresses science and natural history, showing the things that have been learned about the place itself. There’s no other exhibition in Britain about the workings of a huge lake and Loch Ness is the country’s largest.’
Unlike the Original Exhibition, which Shine says is concerned purely with searches for the monster, the Official Centre tries to take the Nessie debate back to its origins, before it became the subject of media hype, and to focus on what type of animal might exist in this sort of environment. ‘The bottom line,’ he continues, ‘is that it’s a very good interpretive vehicle for an environmental exhibition, and it is the environment that people come here for. The only justification for a visitor attraction is to reveal things which can not be seen within the environment itself. We’re not trying to duplicate Scottish scenery within the exhibition, but we will attempt to reveal the hidden elements of that environment–the underwater environment.’
Despite different approaches to the whole Nessie phenomenon, the owners of both exhibitions vehemently oppose Historic Scotland’s plans. ‘The new development would destroy the castle’s historic aspect,’ Robert Bremner, son of the Official exhibition’s owner, says.
His father suggests an alternative site for development of the tourist centre. ‘We would clear the land and perhaps have benches and a picnic area, and provide toilet facilities,’ Bremner told me as we visited the hilltop site. ‘The car park would be farther away from the castle this way. And we’re not going to charge people for coming up here and using the facilities and enjoying the view.’
The view from this site, called Strone (pronounced Stroon), about a quarter of a mile above the castle and overlooking it, surpasses all others I saw during my visit. It stretches over the surrounding glens and right up the length and breadth of Loch Ness towards Inverness.
Alastair MacPherson, local artist and proprietor of The Art Gallery in Drumnadrochit, told me of another partially implemented remedy for the overcrowded car parking facility–a car park in the village that the locals have just recently enlarged at their own expense. He cites plans to start a shuttle bus service to take tourists to the castle from there. The car park lies directly across from the village green with its plethora of gift shops (including The Art Gallery) and tea rooms and just down the road from the two exhibition centres.
Along with concern over the environmental impact of the new visitor facilities goes a great deal of local discontent over the fees charged for admittance. At £3.00 per person, Urquhart Castle is the third most expensive of Historic Scotland’s tourist sites. Only Stirling and Edinburgh Castles, which are not only intact, but also lavishly decorated, are more expensive, charging £3.50 and £5.50 per adult respectively. ‘It’s clear that Loch Ness itself is the true draw,’ Shine says, adding that the castle essentially provides a convenient observation point for visitors–and an opportunity for profit for Historic Scotland.
The possibility that Historic Scotland will become a direct competitor in the ‘Nessie market’ appears to offend the Drumnadrochans more than its announced aim of promoting only the castle. Shine heads the Loch Ness Project, ‘a scientific exercise concerned with the exploration of Loch Ness in all its natural aspects. This includes its natural history, biology, geology.’ Over breakfast in The Official Loch Ness Exhibition and Hotel café he said, ‘Historic Scotland were very happy to link their destiny with the Loch Ness exploration.’
Shine claims Historic Scotland intended the new centre to be a home for ‘Project Urquhart’, a scheme headed by a UK journalist who wrote a book about Nessie. ‘The Project’s intent appears to be the promotion of the myth,’ says Shine. ‘Historic Scotland had said that all their interpretation was to be restricted solely to the castle. They said this at least twice at public meetings and then had to admit that they were actually hosting Project Urquhart. Historic Scotland has now given me a cast-iron guarantee, again in public, that they are not going to include the Loch Ness theme.’
‘Because you now have to pay money to stop there,’ Shine continued, ‘you have to stay longer in order to go down to the castle. Previously, most people only took in the view or snapped a few snapshots. Clearly the castle has its part to play in the local situation, and the local people have always recognized that, but it only became popular as a place for tourists to stop when they built a car-park. It never had any great prominence before that.’
Robert J McIlwraith, Historic Scotland’s North Regional Director of Properties, denies having any hidden motives. ‘Our plans for the castle are truly all about servicing it. At the moment we have very basic, very rudimentary facilities,’ he told me as we walked down the footpath towards the castle.
‘We have here an international site; not one that’s just important to Drumnadrochit. It’s much more than that, it’s important in terms of Highland tourism and Scottish tourism. It’s the third most-visited ancient monument in Scotland, the other two being Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. Historic Scotland has invested heavily in both of those and continues to do so. Yet here, we have the major monument in the north of Scotland, relatively untouched.
‘We’re now in the fortunate position of having secured the backing of Historic Scotland to put in major improvements here to visitor facilities,’ he continues, taking a seat on one of the shaded park benches along the pathway ‘so we can provide the kind of welcome we want to give the visitors. We get visitors from all over the world, they come to the third most important site in Scotland and what do they get? They get a car park that’s too small and so more than likely they’re going to be waved on because it’s full. Tour buses can’t get in because it’s choked solid. Many people arrive here and are bitterly disappointed because they can’t get into the facility. For those people who do get here, what have they got? Rudimentary facilities; the interpretation of the castle is small scale.’
McIlwraith described what the plan will offer. ‘The new centre will have space set aside for educational visits; for example, an audiovisual display. Right now we don’t even have a television set. It will be built around the history of the castle–its importance in the Great Glen, its strategic importance, and the life and times of the people here. We want to explain to visitors how these people lived and one way to do that is through a good audio-visual experience, which can even be linked into school curriculums.
‘We’re very conscious of the fact that we need to build underground as much as possible, so we don’t impact the landscape. It’s been a great problem for us.’
The £2.5 million scheme ‘certainly won’t be a Disneyland-type theme park,’ McIlwraith assured me. ‘There’s no question of that. That’s absolutely the last thing we would become involved in.’
The development plans are the result of an engineering-design competition Historic Scotland ran several years ago. The agency asked five design consultants in the north of Scotland to put forward ideas for the car park and visitor centre. ‘The winner of that competition was picked by an independent panel of experts in various fields,’ McIlwraith says.
‘The design that won that competition is the one we’re running with today. It has been fine-tuned since then by taking on board comments from local people and our neighbours down the road, following two public meetings. This plan was the one that won by far and away the most support.’
As for Takala’s petition, which has been on the Net since at least early April, it has received about 2,100 signatures. Some 45 per cent oppose changes to the castle and its car park, another 44 per cent oppose changes to the castle and want the shuttle bus service. Only 5% favour the new car park at the castle but no other changes to the site. Only 1.3% favour Historic Scotland’s plans.
So, as they say in the British media, the case continues.