City tours give a whole new insight
ALAN Pearson was just about to portray the bloody battle of Culloden when out of the corner of my eye a scene of real carnage was being played out.
Our group of four European backpackers and an Invernessian had been led to the Flora MacDonald statue at Inverness Castle where our guide was going to tell us about the brutal 1746 conflict.
But we were distracted by the sight of a seagull swooping down to attack a defenceless baby rabbit and attempting to tear it to pieces. Two of my fellow walkers had turned chalk white.
Seconds later and the incident resembled a scene from “Watership Down” as two adult rabbits came racing out of the bushes to chase the seagull away from the injured bunny in a daring act of heroism. It did not work. The seagull returned to finish the job off and the backpacker couple ran over in a futile bid to save the rabbit.
Back to the main show and how the inexperienced 26-year-old tour guide managed to retain his composure I did not know.
We learned the ins and outs of the quashed Jacobite uprising and the ramifications for the Highland people at that time, which was neatly linked with the castle’s history.
It was only the second week of Mr Pearson’s new tours after he quit his job as a construction project manager to join his brother Gordon’s company WOW Scotland which has been offering guided walking and hiking tours across the Highlands for a year.
The brothers, born and bred Invernessians, had promised local stories and anecdotes gleaned from their family and friends and own experiences of growing up.
Having swotted up on the city’s history, Alan Pearson had an easygoing conservational style when he got into his stride and the red-haired former Inverness Royal Academy pupil was dressed in a purple kilt.
The tour took in some of the expected landmarks but it was very different from Happy Tours in both the delivery and content. We were taught how to speak Invernessian in a five-minute beginner’s class, which amused the tourists no end as well as the locals.
The tight corner on Castle Street outside the Town House was renamed “Fraser’s Corner” in the Pearson family, we learned, on account of his grandfather failing his driving test in 1955 by crashing into a horse and cart. Mr Pearson himself also crashed his car at the same spot in 2003, so it had been renamed again by the family.
The history of Eden Court and the more recent past with the multi-million plus refurbishment, which Mr Pearson worked on, was also documented.The story behind the construction of Inverness Cathedral and the workers’ tribute to a stricken horse, which had been pivotal to the construction, was memorable.
Mr Pearson also told us about the surfing prospects on a nearby part of the Ness and a tale of friend having to swim his way out of trouble after a punch landed him in the water.
The Nessie story was given outside The Inverness Courier’s former premises on Bank Street where the newspaper caused headlines around the world in 1933 after the Loch Ness monster’s sighting and Mr Pearson brushed off some heckling from some well-oiled passers by.
At the Old High Church, the tale of the Jacobite headstones and prison and the story behind the clock’s nightly chiming at 8pm were also given before a stroll through the Old Town.
THE kilted Cameron Ross has become a well kent figure in the city centre during the last four years, sauntering about with a trail of tourists in his wake.
The former railway worker must have worn out several pairs of brogues given that he offers three daily tours of the city plus a special crime themed jaunt at night, 365 days a year.
There is no Happy Tours city centre premises — the website tells potential customers to look out for “the man in the kilt” outside the tourist information centre at Castle Wynd. Now, that is confident self-promotion.
But he was bang on the money, because one of the first sights my companion and I picked out as we came up a bustling Church Street at lunchtime was the tartan clad six-footer holding court.
We greet him and a trio of Antipodeans who also paid for the one-hour tour.
It was readily apparent that our guide has the gift of the gab and an effortless, warm and easygoing manner and thoroughly enjoyed bantering with his customers.
As the company name suggests, humour and fun was the principal objective, complemented with historical stories. But we were told by Mr Ross that exhaustive details, times and dates of historic events would not be provided by our confident host who said “anybody could do that.”
Instead, entertainment was the name of the game and one that the Dundonian, who has lived in Inverness for 30 years, was skilled at.
He teaches some Gaelic phrases and how to speak like the locals in pronouncing words like “loch” by hawking the throat.
Inverness’s beginnings, the Pictish past, market and prison were recounted. The story of the British Government’s cabinet meeting at the Town House in 1921 because of the Irish troubles was documented. Did you know that prime minister David Lloyd George at that time was suffering from toothache on his Highland holiday so had to come in for treatment to Inverness before getting down to business? I did not, proving that insights like that can offer something different for city residents as well as tourists.
The other walking tour — the Pearson brothers —clad in their WOW Scotland jackets, are gently chided by Mr Ross as they walk past.
“Have you boys not got work to go to?” he hollers good naturedly at the competition.
The tale behind the biblical verses printed on the building opposite the Town House, involving drunken town councillors, was intriguing. Up we went to Inverness Castle, past the city’s “American Embassy” (the McDonald’s restaurant).
Bruce the Australian wanted to film Mr Ross in his kilt but he refused unless the tourist’s wife joined him and he then proceeded to grab the shocked woman for an impromptu Highland fling much to the amusement of everybody.
Bruce was then jokingly mocked by Mr Ross for failing to capture the moment on camera, which became a recurring theme. The stories behind the castle, which was first built in the Crown’s district, was then told with details about a hapless French suicide bomber also provided.
The highlight of the tour then followed — the view west over the city from the castle.
Chatting effortlessly for much of the tour the experienced guide knew when to hush — always the good sign of an expert commentator, they say — and let the pictures do the talking.
“Just breathe that in and look,” he said.
The three Australians did and gushed in their appreciation, so did the two locals. Going about your everyday business in Inverness you often take for granted what is round about you. A spectacular sight.
Several sandbags sitting against a fence were laughingly described by Mr Ross as the £6 million River Ness flood defence plan conjured up by the council. He also pointed out the world famous “Inverness Beach” to us, a slither of shoreline on the other side of the Ness.
We marched down to Ness Bank Church, the new resting place of the Three Graces, and then crossed the river where we came to the “drug dealer’s” home on Ness Walk — we discovered the 19th centurytale of Alexander Ross, his links to the opium trade and Strathness House.
Our final stop was Inverness Cathedral where Mr Ross delivered the final act.
Happy Tours and WOW Scotland tours are markedly different and both entertaining jaunts in their own right.
Cameron Ross is a born entertainer and knows exactly what to give his audience, while Alan Pearson packed an amazing amount of information into 90 minutes, interspersed with the anecdotes which were personal to him.
Inverness Museum is to controversially shut in the winter in a council cost cutting measure and there has been criticism of the dearth of visitor attractions in the city centre. The Culloden Battlefield Centre, Fort George, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle are all out of town.
So these tours undoubtedly offer more value for the city’s visitors and bring to life the history in an unstuffy and entertaining manner.
Happy Tours — £10 for one hour at 10 am, 1pm and 3pm. WOW Scotland — £6 for 90 minutes at 8pm.