Scotland #02 – Edinburgh to Strathpeffer
Scotland July 2022 - #02 Edinburgh to Strathpeffer
This travel-blog is for a trip we took to Scotland in July of 2022. Other than a few days on our own in Edinburgh at the beginning this was on a formal tour of the Scottish Highlands operated by RS (Road Scholar, www.roadscholar.org).
This installment covers our journey from Edinburgh to the village of Strathpeffer a bit north west of Inverness where we spent a few days at the Ben Wyvis Hotel.
Entire Trip map
Detail of our route from Edinburgh to Strathpeffer
This was one of 3 longer bus days of our tour. We’ve been on some trips where a long bus day was 7 or 8 driving hours but this was no where near that. According to Google Maps the straight through driving time from Edinburgh to our hotel in the tiny village of Strathpeffer is 3.5 hours so not really that bad considering that we made several stops along the way.
After leaving Edinburgh our tour headed north up the A90 motorway, stopping at various locations along the way.
Our destination this day was Strathpeffer. No, I’d never heard of it either but apparently it was quite the rage in the Victorian era. After the discovery of some nearby sulfur hot springs in the area, Strathpeffer became a very popular resort destination. People from all over the UK as well as Europe flocked to the spas in response to assurances that “taking the waters” would cure any number of ailments including gout, arthritis, and heart disease among others. To support the more and more tourists who flocked to the area for a typical 6 week “cure”, large hotels were built as well as a new hospital. In 1880 a pavilion was erected to provide a venue for entertainment. By 1862 a railway line to nearby Dingwall was completed and in 1865 a rail line from Dingwall to Strathpeffer was opened. Even though most of the facilities were taken over by the military in both world wars, the spa pressed on. But then in 1942 the hospital burned down and by the end of the century the Strathpeffer pavilion fell into disuse and was abandoned (but has since been restored as a new venue for the arts, weddings and other functions). However, even though the spa is no longer in use, a few of the grand old hotels are still in business – and one of those is the Ben Wyvis, where we stayed.
Ben Wyvis Hotel, Strathpeffer
Our first stop after getting through the Edinburgh suburbs was at Queensferry to see some bridges. This is a narrow (a bit over 1 mile) section of the poetically named Firth of Forth. A “firth” in Scotland is a small inlet of water, many times an estuary, but sometimes the word is used for other bodies of water. On the north side of this firth is the town of Jamestown in the council district (i.e. County) of Fife; and to the south is the town of Queensferry in the council district of West Lothian. This estuary, to the south of Fife, is fed by the river Forth and is called the Firth of Forth. Are you following this?
There are three bridges at Queensferry over the Firth of Forth collectively called the “Forth Bridges”. The first bridge is the Forth Bridge which is a cantilever railroad bridge built in 1890. It is considered as a symbol of Scotland, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The second bride is a highway suspension bridge; creatively named the Forth Road Bridge. This bridge was opened in 1964 with a span of 3300 feet between its two towers. At that time the span of the Forth Road Bridge was (fittingly) the fourth longest in the world and the longest outside of the United States. And lastly, the third Forth Bridge is the Queensferry Crossing which opened in 2017. This is a stunning cable-stay bridge using a three tower design and is the longest such structure in the world.
Queensferry Crossing- 01
Queensferry Crossing – 02 (from Forth Road Bridge)
After leaving Queensferry, we continued north on the A90 but transitioned to the A9 at Perth and continued north to Dunkeld. Dunkeld is a small village on the banks of the River Tay. This town is considered as being on the boundary between the Scottish Lowlands and the Scottish Highlands and is commonly considered (and labeled) “The gateway to the Scottish Highlands.”
Like many such villages it sprang up where a main road, in this case the main road into the highlands, hit a river that had to be forded. This many times resulted in a medieval traffic jam so to speak when the river was too high or the shallow section too crowded. This in turn encouraged the building of inn’s, bar’s and stores to cater to the folks stuck at the ford. Of course, later a ferry was put in which further slowed down traffic but at least you could now stay dry as you crossed – or as dry as is possible in rainy Scotland And, then in due course, a bridge replaced the ferry.
The current bridge was built by Thomas Telford and financed by the 4th Duke of Atholl. It was originally budgeted to cost 15,000 pounds but wound up costing 40,000. Well, the Duke was not amused by the cost overrun and to recoup some of that cost he set up a toll on the bridge. But, the toll didn’t sit well with the residents of the town and even though the citizens were considered to be a dutiful, law abiding, sensible and respectable set of folks, in 1868 they rioted forcoing the Duke to abolishe the tolls. This bridge was completed in 1809 making it over 200 years old as our guide mentioned as our bus headed toward the bridge. Wait, how heavy is a tour bus? Apparently a large tour bus is not too heavy for the 200+ year old bridge as we passed over it, twice, with no problem, no toll, and no riot.
Dunkeld is a sleepy little place that according to Wikipedia is considered to be a remarkably well-preserved example of a Scottish burgh of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Apparently around 20 of the houses in Dunkeld have been restored by the National Trust for Scotland.
Dunkeld main drag (Cathedral Street)
We didn’t spend a lot of time here but did do a bit of a walking tour to a couple of interesting places. The first was a quaint little square with the “Atholl Memorial Fountain” in the middle. This monument was financed by public subscription and built in 1866 to honor George Augustus Frederick John, 6th Duke of Atholl. The Duke’s claim to fame – and to the fountain – is that he brought piped water to the town relieving the locals from having to fetch water in a bucket from the river. I guess a water fountain is a fitting tribute – especially if you were the family member charged with fetching the water each day.
Near the fountain was one of those classic red British phone booths with a faded banner across the top reading “Leif Phone”. So I would guess it was requisitioned at some point from Leif (the waterfront area of Edinburgh). Of course it is now non functional and instead looks like it is being used as a storage locker for someone.
Classic Phone booth – now personal storage locker
We then moved on to the main Dunkeld attraction which is the Cathedral that is still in use (Church of Scotland denomination), albeit now just a church as no Bishop resides there. The construction of the cathedral was started in 1260 and completed in 1501, 240 years later. It was built on the former site of the Culdee Monastery of Dunkeld and many of the building stones from the monastery were used for the cathedral. Most of that original cathedral is now a ruin except for one end which has been kept up and is currently the ongoing church. Even though we were in Dunkeld on a late Sunday morning, they were gracious enough to let us in to tour the inside of their church even as the parishioners were filling the pews for services. It was quite a nice little church and one could still see the original walls of the cathedral.
Dunkeld Cathedral (ruined portion on right, currently in use part at left)
Interior of Dunkeld Cathedral
Open space park area in front of Dunkeld Cathedral
Climbing into the Scottish Highlands
The Scottish Highlands cover the entire Northwest half of Scotland. However, as the highest peaks in the Highlands are just over a whopping 4,000 feet, the term “Highlands” rings a bit hollow to folks living near mountain ranges that top 12,000 feet like the Alps, Himalayas, Rockies and Sierra’s. But, compared to the rest of the area, this area sports some of the tallest peaks in the British Isles.
There is no definitive boundary separating the Highlands from the Lowlands as each map you look at shows it differently. But, there is general consensus that the line is north of Dunkeld (which is north of Perth) and north of Sterling but just how far north of those cities is not consistent.
Moving into the highlands where the hills start to rise (Pitlochry)
Dirt road leading up into the mountains to off the beaten track farms and communities (Dalwhinnie Area)
The Highlands are quite different than the lowlands in many aspects beyond the mountainous topography. Throughout history the Highlands might well have been considered as a separate country altogether. Folks from the lowlands have historically feared the Highlanders as a bunch of uncivilized savage warriors with no morals whose only purpose in life is to rape and pillage. This was fine with the Highlanders as this wide spread fear kept Lowlanders from venturing into the Highlands at all, let alone with an eye for taking over some of their land. In essence the Highlanders just wanted to be left alone and were not at all interested in interacting with people outside the Highlands.
The Highlanders were quite happy living in isolation from the rest of the world for hundreds of years. But, of course, if you don’t pay attention to other countries (empires), they’ll pay attention to you. Around the first century AD, the Roman’s were making quite a name for themselves by conquering most of the known world and this included the islands now known as the British Isles. They started on the south coast of England and crept north subjugating everyone they came across and by 0120 AD had pretty much all of what is now England and Wales up to the current Scottish border under their control. The area north of this was called Caledonia and in order to protect themselves from raids from the Caledonian’s the Romans built the 73 mile long Hadrian’s Wall along what is for the most part the current border between Scotland and England. But the roams wanted more and twenty years later they built another wall further north called the Antonine Wall which is roughly at the border between the Scottish Lowlands the Scottish Highlands. I guess the more peaceable Lowlanders were fair game, but taking on those war like and fearsome Highlanders in the mountains was another matter altogether. So, the Roman’s built a wall to protect themselves from those Highlanders. The 39 mile long 2nd wall was a dirt and stone affair and marked the northern most extent of the Roman Empire. Even though this wall was 10 feet tall and 16 feet wide it probably had a wooden fence on top. But, just to be sure, they also dug deep ditch on the northern side.
No matter where you go in Scotland, one unifying feature is whisky, or more precisely Scotch Whisky. As of 2020 there were 134 distilleries operating in Scotland. It is most likely that whisky was introduced to Scotland from Ireland as there is evidence of Irish Whiskey dating back to 1405, which is nearly 100 years before it shows up in any Scottish context.
Originally Scotch was made from malted barley but commercial distilleries started switching over to wheat and rye in the late 18th century. Even though Scotch has been around for centuries the first known written mention of it is from a 1494 document where the Exchequer recorded that 8 bolls of malt had been given to Friar John Cor for the purpose of making “aqua vitae” (scotch) the prior year. It should be noted that “aqua vitae” is Latin for “water of life”. Eight bolls is enough to make around 1,500 bottles worth of scotch which implies that the Scotch making business was well established by that time.
All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels and the youngest whisky used in a batch must be aged at least three years. If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed-age whisky. A whisky without an age statement is known as a no age statement (NAS) whisky, the only guarantee being that all whisky contained in that bottle is at least three years old.
In the highlands (up to the 1820’s) Scotch was produced by a mix of legal and illegal operations. Most of the legal distilleries were owned by the wealthy land owners (duh) who also happened to be the Highland Magistrates. But, they turned a blind eye to the bootleg operations as most of those operations were conducted by their tenant farmers and the bootleg income was used to pay them rent. So, either way, they got the profits.
Starting in 1823 parliament started making changes that relaxed the requirements for legal distilleries while clamping down on the illegal ones. But one of the main things that boosted the popularity of Scotch was a shortage of wine, brandy, and cognac in France in the 1870’s and 1880’s. This was caused by an infestation of the phylloxera bug which destroyed many of the vines. By the 1890s, almost forty new distilleries had opened in Scotland to fill this void. The boom years continued until World War I and later, by the Great Depression.
On our drive up to the Inverness area we passed by the Dalwhinnie Distillery. This facility is the highest distillery in Scotland. So, now you know.
Dalwhinnie Distillery, near the town of Dalwhinnie
Highland Folk Museum
The Highland Folk Museum is the first open air museum in the UK having gotten its start in 1935 through the vision of Isabel F Grant (1887-1983). The museum has moved several times since its founding and is now near Newtonmore on an 80 acre site.
In the 1930’s, Isabel was worried that a way of Highland life, going back to the 1700’s was quickly being replaced by modern inventions and would soon be lost. So, basically on her own, she started visiting long held farms in the Highlands to try and rescue artifacts from a by gone era before they disappeared altogether. Her mode of operation was to visit these farms and get to know the owners a bit. She would then propose that they give her various items she noticed in and around the premises and in return she would replace them with their modern equivalent. The families were certain she was nuts. What? You’re going to give us a brand new electric washing machine if we give you this rickety old manual turn crank machine with hand wringer grandma used to use? Are you Crazy or something?
But, crazy she was not. Talk about a win/win proposition. Word got out that this crazy woman was collecting old junk and replacing it with new items and folks from near and wide were offering her all sorts of stuff. It wasn’t long before she ran out of room and had to look for larger storage facilities. Eventually she found a space where some of this collection could be displayed to the public. And, finally an open air museum idea took shape where they’d construct replicas of houses, mills, workshops and barns and then place the artifacts inside as they might have been at that time. Add to this a set of docents in period costume to tell visitors about life in that era and what you wind up with is the Highland Folk Museum.
The museum is basically in 4 sections along a 1 mile long walking path: Aultlaire croft (farm), Balameanach Middle Village, Pinewoods, and Baile Gean. The Aultlaire farm was the original farm which was on the new site and stems from the mid 1800’s. It includes 11 buildings, but some of them like a post office and store more rightly belong to a town. The Balameanach Middle Village contains 13 buildings which in addition to a 1 room school house also has several shop-craft buildings (weaver, clockmaker, carpenter, etc.). The Pinewoods is a forested area with 4 exhibits that would be more typical in a forested area than in a farming area. And lastly Baile Gean is a 1700’s village with 5 buildings.
Due to a major storm a few months before our visit, only the first 2 areas were open due to downed trees and washed out pathways so we weren’t able to see those areas.
Road sign possibly from the mid 1900’s
Highland Cottage with docent
Hielan Coo (Highland Cow)
The Hielan Coo (Highland Cow) is an ancient Scottish breed of cattle that originated in the Scottish Highlands and the Outer Hebrides Islands (just off Scotland). The ancestors of this breed were brought here a couple thousand years BC but the breed is strictly Scottish. The island variety is a bit smaller and they are black whereas the mainland variety is larger and is more of rust to reddish gold color. In a book of breeds published in 1885, both of these varieties were listed as a single breed. Now though, due to significant cross breeding, it is difficult to know which is which.
This breed is used mostly for beef. Both males and females have long horns, but nowhere near as long as a Texas Longhorn and, unlike in Texas, you don’t see posh cars driving around with sets of horns affixed to the front grille. But the main feature is how it has adapted to the frigid winters in Scotland. In the late fall, most breeds of cattle living in cold climates put on copious layers of fat which insulates them from the cold. However, the Hielan Coo has very little fat (making for leaner beef) and to make up for that as winter approaches they put on a very thick and shaggy coat of fur which keeps the cold out.
Hielan Coo (Highland Cow) at the Highland Folk Museum
Hielan Coo (Highland Cow) near Duirinish
A Bit of History I
In 1280 AD Scotland was doing quite well under King Alexander and seemed quite secure. He had 2 adult sons (an heir and a spare as they say) and a daughter who was married to the king of Norway. But things didn’t go too well for the Scottish monarchy. In 1281 the youngest son died. But that’s okay as he was only 2nd in line for the throne. But two years later, in 1283 the daughter died (grand daughter in Norway). But then in 1284 his eldest son died. So lacking a male heir Alex remarried with the thought of producing a new heir. But then on a dark and stormy night he decided to return to a battle that was going on a ways away. During the night he was separated from his entourage and the next morning they found his horse at the top of a cliff with Alexander dead at the bottom. So, they sent for his grand daughter to come from Norway to be Queen. But in route she took ill and died. So in the course of a hand full of years what had been a very secure royal succession totally fell apart.
Fourteen men – all relatives of one form or another - claimed the throne. So the lords asked Edward the 1st of England to help choose among them to be the next king. Edward was the powerful and successful, warrior king of Scotland’s archrival country who had recently attacked, defeated and occupied Wales. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out Edward choose the candidate who had the most legitimate claim to the throne – John Balliol. But this was only after John Balliol agreed that Edward would be “his superior” in all matters of state. Oops. Well, it wasn’t long before puppet Balliol (who gained the nickname of “the empty coat”) allowed English troops to be stationed in castles and towns throughout Scotland. Eventually this troubled John Balliol a bit but it wasn’t until he refused to send Scottish troop to fight the French on behalf of Edward that Edward sacked a Scottish town and killed most of the residents to show is displeasure. Edward boasted of this when he said, “It is a good day’s work when you rid yourself of shit.” Within a short period of time, Edward completely took over all of Scotland.
But it wasn’t the Aristocracy that fought back with their private army’s, it was the gentry. And out of the ranks rose the first of Scotland’s great hero’s, William Wallace of the movie “Braveheart” fame who led the first war of independence against England.
And, that’s where I’ll leave you for now.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the Road Scholar Guides)
Keywords: Blog, dan hartford photo, DanTravelBlog, dantravelblogscotland2022, Duke of Atholl, Dunkeld, Dunkeld Cathedral, Firth of Forth, Forth Bridge, Forth Bridges, Forth Road Bridge, Hielan Coo, Highland Cow, Highland Folk Museum, King Alexander, Queensferry Crossing Bridge, Scotch Whisky, Scotland, Scottish Highlands, Strathpeffer
Thanks for all your hard work on these Dan and your beautiful photography!
thanks, Dan - great photos. This area is on my list to get to, so it was nice to see your travels. So glad you and Ellen can still do it. My legs don't work very well anymore, so it is getting to be more of a challenge. Keep up the great travel narrations!
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