Today I’m going to share with you an eclectic mix of Victorian spa town in the Scottish Highlands and a dolphin spotting adventure on the Moray Firth.
Last Saturday after an early breakfast at our B&B near Portmahomack, we set off along the NC500 route between Tain and Dingwall to make the 34 mile journey to Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer lies a few miles west of Dingwall.
The village sits in a wide mountain valley or strath. Leafy, and surrounded by mountains it has the look of an Alpine village to it.
Arriving in Strathpeffer is like stepping back in time. The Victorians have left an instantly recognisable imprint on the architecture of the village. You half expect to see elegantly dressed ladies, strolling down the street on the arm of top hatted gents with mutton-chop whiskers.
The Victorian Station
When we arrived at the station a cute little shop called Embrace Gifts was just opening up for the day. Wafting from inside came a haunting tune that stopped me in my tracks. It was a dreamy sound of Celtic fiddles. I was drawn closer and a print outside the shop caught my eye. It was a swirly snow scene so atmospheric I’d have stepped into it if I could. It was of a favourite view of mine too – Glen Docherty looking towards Loch Maree. Impatient Mr G pulled me away, reminding me that I didn’t need any more pictures for the house. I could say the same about him and golf clubs!
We explored the small station which has been lovingly restored. It first opened in 1885 as a branch line from Dingwall, when Victorian spa breaks were all the rage. In its heyday trains arrived daily from London. The station closed in 1951 after two World Wars and the demise of the spa break. The sound of steam trains no longer rings through the air and the old railway line is now a quiet, green haven.
In need of some exercise, and to stretch the boy’s legs I reluctantly left the Victorian Station, but not before stopping to admire an intricately carved pillar telling the story of Scotland through the ages. Marauding Vikings, Celtic crosses and the smoking factories of the Industrial Revolution were all there. Mr G’s impatient face told me it was time for a walk!
Pictish Trail – the Eagle Stone
The first part of our walk was a short one uphill to see The Eagle Stone or Clach an Tiompain, one of the many Pictish gems to be found in this part of Scotland which now form The Pictish Trail. It dates to before the 7th century and features a carved eagle and patterned horseshoe design.
The stone is linked to the legend of the 17th century Brahan Seer, who is said to have been able to foresee the future. He prophesied that if the stone fell three times, then ships would be able to sail into Strathpeffer and tether themselves to the spot. The stone is thought to have fallen twice already, so let’s hope it’s now planted firmly in the ground.
The next part of our walk took us back into the village, then steeply uphill passing the odd house and farm building before climbing up a grassy hillside.
A short while later, we reached the Touchstone Maze. Based on an ancient labyrinth design, it’s a nod to our Neolithic ancestors who built the awe-inspiring stone monuments that leave us so intrigued today. It reminded me of the Hill O’ Many Stanes in Caithness, one of my favourite historical sites in Scotland.
The maze was built using the various rock types found in Scotland, some of which date back 3,000-million-years. It’s been cleverly constructed to align with the sun and moon, just as many of Scotland’s ancient stones do.
The Wee Dug had a great time exploring.
When I spotted a stone with a hole running though it I decided I needed to set the boy up for a photo opportunity, but how to get him to play along? Ah yes, that’s right beefy treats. They’ve been working like magic since 2012.
As we headed downhill we were treated to a great view of the village below. In the distance we could see Castle Leod peeping through the trees from its hillside position. This is MacKenzie territory and the castle is the ancestral seat of the Clan MacKenzie.
The Pump Room & Spa Exhibition
Back in the village we passed the Spa Pavilion and bandstand. Another elegant reminder of the Victorian era.
In the 1770s a sulphurous spring was discovered at Strathpeffer. The water was said to be beneficial in treating a whole host of health issues, from heart and kidney conditions to digestion and skin problems. The spring and unpolluted Highland air were pivotal in making the village one of the most popular spa towns in the whole of Europe.
Today, the Pump Room and Spa Exhibition are a must for visitors to Strathpeffer. They give a fascinating insight into the treatments once prescribed. The small museum and retro sweetie/gift shop is extremely dog friendly which got it a big thumbs up from us. The boy was delighted to be offered a biscuit on his way in and out.
The spa exhibition was fascinating and fun. Bath and healing waters seemed to be just what the doctor ordered – frequently. It couldn’t have been any further removed from today’s luxury spas. This was a spa of drinking water that stank of rotten eggs, and losing your dignity as you were winched into a gross, peat bath.
My favourite exhibit was Mrs Mitchell who arrived at the spa in 1905. It seems she lived the good life. Overweight, and suffering due to her life of excess, she was prescribed a course of peat baths and healing waters. The Wee Dug kept his head turned like a true gentleman, so as not to embarrass poor Mrs Mitchell further.
Before leaving, we stopped to reminisce over the retro sweeties. When I asked if they had any aniseed balls I saw Mr G bristle. Having been blessed with strong teeth I can crunch my way,loudly through a bag in record time. I was in luck too as they had some! Mr G looked crestfallen.
Lunch & the lure of lovely things!
We headed back to the Victorian Station to the coffee shop for our old favourite – a take-away lunch of soup and sandwiches. It was all really tasty, and the coconut & walnut slice we shared was amazing.
Next we were off on a dolphin spotting adventure in Inverness. Before we left I grabbed my rucksack and said I was just nipping to the loo. “With your purse?” Mr G enquired. “Mind your own business” I replied, as I hot-footed it out of the car and straight into Embrace Gifts, clutching the coveted print – ‘Biting wind painted a snowcoat down Glen Docherty’ by Scottish artist Lys Stevens.
Inside it was an oasis of calm and lovely things. I chatted to the owner Janice about the print and how I’d fallen in love with it. The Wee Dug snoozed on the floor, clearly lulled by the relaxing atmosphere. I kept meaning to ask about the Celtic fiddle music I’d heard earlier but got distracted as Janice and I blethered. I left clutching my print which had been lovingly wrapped in pink tissue paper and tied with a bow. And who should I bump into outside? No other than Mr G – I’d been caught red-handed on my illicit shopping mission.
Dolphin Spirit – Inverness
Our dolphin spotting adventure began at Inverness Marina. It’d been 20 years since either of us had seen a dolphin in the wild, so we were long overdue a sighting of Scotland’s most adorable sea creatures.
The boy loves a good boat trip and he queued patiently for our 90 minute cruise on Dolphin Sprit to begin.
He was obviously keen to get a good seat as he dragged me down the gangway to board at top speed.
While I was really keen to spot a dolphin again after so long, Mr G’s desire to spot one had become an obsession.
The boy settled into a comfortable spot and kept a keen eye on the horizon.
He looked right at home in the Skipper’s seat, scanning the water through binoculars to see if he could find his passengers some dolphins.
Sue was clearly a dab hand at spotting wildlife as we hadn’t been out for long when she spotted Cheeky Charlie larking around under the Kessock Bridge. I peered intently and there he was gliding through the water. Yay, my 20-year dolphin drought was over. Mr G was in his element. The crew of the Dolphin Spirit are so familiar with the dolphins who live in these waters that they can readily identify them and have even named some.
Charlie made three appearances during our cruise, but I was only quick enough to spot him once. After a 20-year wait I was happy with that.
We’re so blessed in Scotland with beautiful scenery and wonderful wildlife. It’s a real privilege to be able to see these magical creatures in the wild.
Even without dolphins our cruise would have been enjoyable. Sue gave an interesting commentary throughout, about the local area, places to visit and the wildlife of the Moray Firth. It was 90 minutes well spent, and even better the boy left a fully fledged Skipper!
Dinner – Morangie Hotel, Tain
We were hungry after so much fresh Highland air, so we headed to the dog friendly Morangie House Hotel on the outskirts of Tain for dinner.
We were welcomed like old friends and shown to a lovely sunny lounge.
Dinner was great. I had a delicious Thai chicken curry and Mr G had fish & chips, which were immediately promoted to first place on his top fish & chips in Scotland list! The boy was treated like royalty, and lapped up the compliments and ear scratches.
We finished our day with a walk on the beach at Portmahomack. Despite having been out for hours the boy mustered up enough energy for some fast running.
I’d like to end by thanking Janice at Embrace Gifts. She patiently trawled through her many iTunes to find the one I’d fallen in love with, after I still couldn’t get it out if my head two days after visiting. It was Allistrum’s March by The Gloaming.
I’d also like to thank the wonderful Dolphin Spirit, Inverness for treating the boy like an absolute rock star – you guys are awesome.
Until next time …………