Sunday, 12 November 2017

Strathpeffer. A Return Visit.

                                               ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
The reason I didn't want to do Cnoc Mor in the last post, apart from having done it before and having only limited views due to tree cover, was that I wanted to visit the unique village that is Strathpeffer. In 50 years of exploring Scotland's towns and villages I can report that there is not another place in the country like it. That's not true for England, as Strathpeffer resembles many towns and villages in the Lake District and other hilly, wooded scenic areas south of the border. Gardens, woodland, and architecture wise- it's slightly similar to a Highland Bearsden or maybe rural Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire, but with many more grand hotels. It's these massive buildings that dominate the slopes rising above the main street and give Strathpeffer its unique feel.
It is, in short, a 'golden bubble' that has little in common with any of the surrounding towns and villages, even Contin or Dingwall a few miles away. The reason for this discrepancy is its history as Scotland's major spa town in the Highlands. In fact such was its popularity that during the Victorian era it was a rival for any English or Alpine health resort and celebrities and middle class visitors alike flocked here in there thousands once the railway made easy access viable. Even today that Victorian legacy hangs heavy over this alpine feel village, surrounded and sheltered by high wooded ridges climbing above it.

This is where black mage and mountaineer Aleister Crowley met serial flirt and recently married then widowed Rose Kelly around 1903. Crowley was of course in full highland dress and cut a dashing figure in his kilt and tartans, even though he probably didn't have a drop of Scottish blood in him but like most Victorian's under their esteemed Queen's influence at nearby Balmoral, the newly cleared Highlands of Scotland were there for the taking as an early theme and game park where they could dress up and party. As Crowley had recently acquired Boleskine House and landscaped grounds near Loch Ness he had taken to calling himself -The Laird of Boleskine, Aleister MacGregor, even in letters to friends ... a practice that continues to this day in many parts of Scotland I've noticed- even if its a newly installed hotel manager from the English Midlands in a highland castle on the outskirts of Glasgow. "The new 'Laird of Glen Gurgle' welcomes visitors to his home." .....all part of the tourist trade.

Rose was there with her mother for 'the cure' by sampling the famous mineral springs, the average diet of rich Victorians being suicidal and unhealthy large portions of meat and offal every day with often six or seven courses when entertaining guests.  Even the puddings and starters were meat based with little in the way of veg or fruit. No wonder they felt ill and bloated and rushed here in their droves to taste what was reputed to be the most sulphurous springs in Britain-  smelly spring water straight from Satan's kitchen. Hydropathic hotels or in reality 'water torture buildings' were all the rage as well from the 1880s until fading out around the 1940s- a similar time period to here for peak popularity. Victorian society, for respectable women at least, was very formal and straight laced with a rigid set of rules to follow. The only pleasure they seemed to get was sipping sulphurous water or blasting themselves with freezing cold jets in unheated rooms from every conceivable angle as 'health cures.' No wonder so many died young. Even when ill they would stake them out on the lawns in hospital beds in mid winter, even young children barely able to crawl, to enjoy the dubious benefits of fresh clean air... windows left open at night of course, in all seasons, to 'purify' fevers in the wards. If anyone tried to run away they were fully encased in plaster as a deterrent.

It turned out the recently widowed Rose had a fever of her own and had not been very good at keeping herself pure in thought and was now being pursued by two ardent suitors she had agreed to marry. Both of them unaware of each other but soon to find out.

Crowley's brilliant solution was to snatch her away from any rivals that same day and marry her himself. Today's society might well label him bipolar or borderline personality disorder as he was often prone to impulsive behaviour. He'd only just met her and she him so maybe they were well matched in temperament... or maybe not... as it didn't last.
Famous writers, thinkers, artists, explorers, and society fashion icons all rubbed shoulders in this large Highland village and even today you can still feel that rarefied atmosphere lingering on. Eminent doctors and Illuminati of the time praised its tonic waters and health giving properties. Anything that smells bad must be very good for you! Although Alex is pretty good himself at going places as long as he gets his hill first I knew he had no interest in exploring this place in any detail as we'd already been to the village shop for food and once we climbed the hill we'd be heading for home without delay.
That meant I had around an hour on my own to visit some old haunts I hadn't seen properly for 20 odd years. I first visited Strathpeffer in my teens with my parents during the Glasgow Fair Fortnight, two weeks of driving around the Scottish Highlands in the first or second car our family ever owned. Driving west in July always meant rain and mist hanging over the mountains (no change there at all) and Torridon was just the usual blur of wind and rain... but day trips walking around this village were sparking, sunny and enjoyably warm with cloudless blue skies... and no midges worth noticing.  Memory bubbles that never dim. I did come back several times after that and also stayed in a caravan on the Black Isle for a summer... and it never rained.. or never seemed to for weeks at a time. Golden days in a golden bubble... hence my desire to return here. Apparently, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had the same early experience- a wet rubbish holiday on the west coast but friends in Deeside having eternal sunshine that same trip... so they purchased what would become Balmoral Castle in the mid 1850s and set the ball rolling for the conquest of the Highlands we still see today. In fact its still ongoing and probably always will, this time in rural England in a more subtle and less violent displacement, with villages there losing pubs, post offices, shops, local schools and banks at an alarming rate in a modern version of the clearances; families and lower income locals forced to move out as each desirable village slowly becomes an upmarket commuter town for those who can afford to live there with shopping, banking, and socializing now carried out mostly online. As the new arrivals use cars to get around, loss making bus services are cut, exacerbating the problem in the countryside as anyone without their own transport is stuffed. (A situation highlighted today on Countryfile.)
The old railway station. I've still got a hand carved leather belt I bought here in a drawer somewhere... been close to throwing it out a few times then saved it at the last minute. It was made here in a craft shop specializing in leather work goods for someone else, with a carved name on it plus elaborate flower patterns in lifelike colours. It's lasted longer in my care than any relationship I've had :o)        or maybe......    :o ( Wah!!! is more appropriate.  At least I ended up with the belt as a consolation prize.....and I've always liked it as a piece of art as well as a belt. Unlike a tattoo there's no need to alter the name to something else.
The railway to here lasted from the 1880s until the 1940s, coinciding with peak popularity but they still manage to fill the numerous hotels here somehow... enough to keep them open anyway. Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Micheal Buble, Neil Diamond and various others were advertised appearing at one but only as tribute nights. I went to one recently in Glasgow featuring my own taste in music and had a great time- £17 for an excellent night instead of £100 plus for the real thing- amazing value and actually better in this instance than the star in question would have been. More on that in a later post.)
St Anne's round tower church.
Another hotel in Strathpeffer. Like most Scottish villages, apart from the lovely period scenery there is not much to do here except for some cracking walks in the surrounding locality but it is a good base for touring the Highlands if you don't want to stay in busy Inverness itself with a better chance at sunshine than the west coast. It has a unique atmosphere all its own and I loved my time here.. then and today.
In autumn it is a special place and I've not seen such a variety of vivid hues anywhere else this year.
A time bubble.
I can see how many folk would want to travel abroad however... not only for the sun, the heat, but also for cheapness. Any holidays we took in Scotland during the Glasgow Fair were always expensive undertakings, even in a no frills caravan and we never stayed anywhere posh but it was more money in the 1970s for two weeks here in a B and B than two weeks in budget bargain basement accommodation in Spain today. Another reason why folk prefer the sun.
Another view of Castle Leod near Strathpeffer.
Period house beside the train station.

And a step further back in time for anyone who enjoys nostalgia for past decades. A likable family go back to the Victorian period and their ability to leave modern living behind completely, makes this excellent BBC series work. The same family, The Robshaws, did the 1950s to the present day in another series I enjoyed more as I obviously lived through that time period as a child so identified with it fully but both are informative and highly entertaining. Filled in the gaps by showing how technological innovations often changed lifestyles overnight, then as now, which I'd never realized happened so fast before watching this.  I believe some full episodes are still available to watch on You Tube or BBC i Player...  So this is just a trailer.


Anabel Marsh said...

Lovely autumn colours.

Linda W. said...

Beautiful little town - and I love the fall colors surrounding it! Interesting history too.

Neil said...

Strathpeffer, a throwback to another age, I always think.

Rosemary said...

Strathpeffer looks a delightful town surrounded by magnificent countryside.
Strange coincidence that we have both mentioned sulphorous 'supposedly' health giving waters this week.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Anabel,
According to some UK bloggers its been patchy this year for autumn colours but Strathpeffer was exceptional for the variety of hues.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Linda W,
That's one thing about blogging is that I learn new things myself about each area I visit. Probably the same for everyone.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Neil,
Certainly nothing like it in an inland setting. Got to be a lot of high-points to bag in the surrounding lesser hills I'd imagine, like the wooded one featured above Contin in the post. I fancied that one myself.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Rosemary,
It's a lovely place but you win the prize for spa towns down there with 20 odd still going strong and another 20 former spa resorts, just in England alone. Apparently, Rothesay, Creiff, Bridge of Allan and Moffat were also Scottish spa towns at one time but that may have been more in the hydropathic hotel line rather than drinking spring water from underground wells. Shows you what a widespread craze it was then.

Carol said...

Definitely way cheaper to holiday abroad! We go to the Black Isle or Beauly a lot (or we did when I could walk and was still visiting Scotland) from Glen Affric when the weather was dreish. We could easily have added Strathpeffer and should have I think.

I think Aleister Crowley was either mad or bad rather than bi-polar - my money's on the 2nd! Didn't know he ever married though.

And those rich Victorians certainly did have a terrible diet - I never knew how they survived it! Sulphur water doesn't really taste of anything much to me though, I think it's just the smell which is horrid rather than the taste. We have a well in Bolton Abbey woods near us

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Carol,
Never tasted them myself in Strathpeffer as I never fancied it although the original pump room is still open. After doing some online research the wells do vary in taste, depending on sulpher levels present and other minerals plus individuals taste preferences. I've corrected the post accordingly to leave out foul tasting as that was a presumption on my part. Seemingly Harrogate has similar levels, if not more intense, but not sampled them either to find out if they taste of anything.

Anonymous said...

Most of my visits to the Highlands involved mountains but as a whole I always found the towns we drove through to be grey and miserable on the whole (notable exceptions for Ullapool and Moffat which I quite liked. Strathpeffer looks quite out place compared to the other towns. Never been as it was just off the main road to the NW mountains

blueskyscotland said...

Spot on Andy,
Apart from a few places here and there- Oban, Linlithgow,Pitlochry, Dunkeld, South Queensferry, Falkland and Callander to name the others I can think of offhand that are interesting for tourist visits most villages and towns (Fort William for one) could do more in the tourist department by at least painting some of the houses in bright colours. It works for Ireland and Scandinavia and they have similar cloudy, cold, grey climates and overcast skies. Maybe it all boils down to money but we squander millions on other projects no problem and it would not cost much if community backed and driven.