437: Strathpeffer

OS Explorer map 437, Ben Wyvis & Strathpeffer: Dingwall – I do not own this map, and had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 3rd April 2022

Google maps location links: Peterborough, Edinburgh, Inverness, Clava Cairns, Eagle Stone

Regular readers will be well familiar with the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where my family has a holiday cottage. It’s featured on this blog before not just when I visited the local map areas, but also because, it being rather a long way from my Cambridge home, I usually take the journey up fairly slowly, stopping in interesting places along the way, which often become map visits of their own.

As you may have guessed, I came to this map area on just such a visit: a stop for an interesting place on the way up to Harris! This time, I was travelling up with my Cambridge friends Millicent, Erithacus and Vesper, to spend a week at the cottage together, and we’d decided to travel up by train to Inverness, and hire a car there to take over to Harris. I’d never done this before – I’ve previously either driven all the way up, or got to Inverness on a flight or using the sleeper train, but never ordinary daytime trains – so was excited about the trip!

The earlier journey

My friends and I departed from our Cambridge home at around 8:30am – Millicent having joined us there night before – getting into a taxi for the 45-minute ride to Peterborough station. We could have got on the trains at Cambridge North, our local station, instead of the taxi ride, but I chose the taxi option since it let us skip 2 changes of train, leave home a bit later, and wasn’t even that much more expensive since we were splitting the fare four ways. This taxi trip was more interesting than expected, with a very friendly chatty driver who not only told us about his various self-published books promoted on flyers in the taxi windows – one of which, from its title “Priest or Predator”, we were afraid might be questionable erotica, but to our comparative relief turned out to be non-ficton about abusive clergy – but also by the end of the trip had begun a little light evangelism.

Relaxing on the train!

At Peterborough, we got on an LNER train to Edinburgh, which we were excited about since we’d booked ourselves first-class tickets – it only increased the one-way fare from around £25 to £50, which didn’t seem too bad given that we’d be on the train for over three and a half hours and hopefully get a hot meal and several drinks, even alcoholic if we wanted them, included. We got on the train and settled into enjoying the journey, appreciating the spacious seats and generally rather swish surroundings, the Azumas being rather nice new trains – I much preferred our fabric seats to the leather ones I’ve once experienced in the first class section on LNER’s older trains. With one notable exception, it was a really great trip – the 6-hour drive to Edinburgh would take all day once breaks are accounted for and would leave me thoroughly tired out, but this way we could arrive at 1:30pm after a few hours of lounging admiring the views from a comfortable train, and still have the whole afternoon and evening ahead of us, and enough energy to take advantage of them. We didn’t even have to leave home particularly early!

Some train-window views

The aforementioned notable exception was that we, unfortunately got rather a disappointment when it came to the food: they were serving a hot breakfast when we got aboard, but we decided to forego it in favour of a hot lunch later on our journey. However, despite being assured by the relevant staff member that this was indeed an option, when it got around to lunchtime we were apologetically told that this service was a “breakfast train”, not a “lunch train”, so, breakfast-time being past, there was no longer any substantial food to be had. This was a pretty pathetic bit of customer service, but overall I still really enjoyed the journey, and was glad of our choice to go first class – at an extra £25, I wouldn’t do it every time, but I’m also confident this won’t be my last!

In Edinburgh (a city I’ve blogged about before), we checked into our accommodation for the night, which was interesting in that it was a proper flat with separate bedroom and lounge areas (with sofabed) and fully-equipped kitchen, but was inside a hotel, with options for getting breakfast and the like. It being past 2pm by then we were sorely in need of lunch, and so tramped over to the Greggs over the road to buy something, then sat down in Princes Street Gardens to eat it – it was a glorious sunny day, so we enjoyed lounging around on the grass with our lunch, with Edinburgh Castle looming above us!

In front of Edinburgh Castle

Now, I lied slightly just then when I referred to “our accommodation”: Millicent, Vesper and Erithacus had the afternoon and evening at leisure in Edinburgh before staying there that night, but I’d be staying that night in Inverness, which I’d get on a train to in the mid-afternoon. This was the result of a mildly inconvenient administrative error I’d made when booking the holiday – the plan had been for us all to stay in Edinburgh, get the morning train to Inverness, and collect our hire car at around lunchtime the next day. However, I found out a few days before our trip that I’d accidentlally booked our car hire to start on Monday instead – which wouldn’t be much use since we needed to drive over to get our ferry on Sunday evening! I therefore had to change our booking, however the place was closed on Sundays, so I had to collect on Saturday evening, hence the necessity of me travelling up early. After our lunch, we had a bit of a wander around the Old Town, and after an hour or so of that I left the others to it, and went back to the station to catch my train.

The rail service between Edinburgh and Inverness is generally, like most trains in Scotland, provided by Scotrail; however once a day in each direction, one of LNER’s London-Edinburgh services is extended all the way to Inverness, given the name Highland Chieftain, with the full London-Inverness journey taking around 8 hours. As you might have guessed, I ended up on the Chieftain that afternoon, which was a nice surprise!

My extremely bright B&B room in Inverness

In the end, despite it being the result of a plan going wrong, I rather enjoyed my night and morning alone in Inverness. The B&B I stayed in was fun, having a cheerful and chatty old lady host who provided a really nice cooked breakfast, and asked me to leave a positive review so that she could retire on a high (I was happy to oblige). The place seemed to have been decorated by someone who had the same taste in home decor as I do in socks, namely “the more bright colours and clashing patterns the better”, which I found quite endearing. My morning was filled with first pottering around some shops collecting items for our holiday, and then spending a relaxed hour or so in a café writing up some posts for this blog!

It was about 1:30pm when Erithacus, Vesper and Millicent arrived in Inverness. Our ferry to the Hebrides was scheduled to leave Ullapool, which is around an hour and a quarter’s drive from Inverness, at 6:30, so we had a good few hours in the meantime to fill with one of our favourite pastimes: visiting funny-shaped rocks! Well, not quite, but it must be admitted that when my friends and I find historical sites to visit in Scotland, they do often end up being of the inscribed stone/stone circle/cairns/grave slabs variety rather often. And so it was that we drove off to visit the Clava Cairns, a really rather impressive complex of prehistoric burial cairns and standing stones a little way to the east of Inverness.

This map area

Following the Clava Cairns, we made one more stop before heading over to Ullapool to catch our ferry which, as you may have guessed, brought me to this new map area! Specifically, this stop brought us to the village of Strathpeffer, to go to see the Eagle Stone, a lone Pictish stone. I was rather excited about this – one hears a lot about the Picts studying early medieval British history, though admittedly mainly what one hears is how little we know about them, and Pictish stones are one of the main things they left behind.

The stone is pretty easy to get to, standing just a little way up a public footpath from the centre of Strathpeffer, in a field with rather dramatic views down the valley. We were surprised by how clear the eagle carving is – I couldn’t have told you it’s an eagle rather than some other bird, admittedly, but there was no squinting required at all to see the designs. There was a sign advertising something called the Highland Pictish Trail, which looked rather interesting – a long-distance trail connecting together various Pictish sites. That would be fun to do some of one day!

A view down the valley from the Eagle Stone

And.. that was it, really! After taking a look at the stone, we tramped back to the car, went to Ullapool and, after some waiting around, got our ferry. After that, we had a lovely week on Harris!

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