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Issue 31 - Highland training

Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007

 

This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Highland training

In the final part of our series looking at how you can get around Scotland by train, Mark Nicholls makes Inverness his departure point

Inverness has for centuries been an historic and strategic meeting point, the place where the Highlands converge with the Lowlands.

The modern Inverness, created Scotland’s fifth city at the Millennium, is a thriving commercial centre with historic buildings, a castle and good road and rail links. It also sits on the River Ness (Loch Ness is not far away) and also at the head of the Caledonian Canal, which reaches across the width of Scotland.

Inverness Castle, dating from the 1830s, is now the setting of the Castle Garrison Encounter, a costume re-enactment of life for an 18th-century soldier, further out is the vast fortifications of Fort George, while a few minutes from Inverness, the National Trust for Scotland’s visitor centre at Culloden vividly tells the story of the defeat of the Jacobite forces led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.

Good for shopping, with a selection of pubs and restaurants, Inverness is perfect as a base for exploring the Highlands by train and provides a wonderful opportunity to experience another great national rail treasure in the United Kingdom, the Kyle of Lochalsh line.

Running from Dingwall to the Kyle of Lochalsh, it crosses sparsely populated, yet beautiful, terrain. If you have time, pause along the route, perhaps stopping off at the picturesque village of Plockton, famed for its mild climate and sheltered location.

The line opened in 1870 as far as Stromeferry and was extended to Kyle in 1895, through unforgiving countryside, rock cuttings and embankments. At the time, it was the most expensive railway ever built in the UK per mile.

However, it achieved its original aim – of linking Inverness to the Isle of Skye. There are regular boats over from the Kyle of Lochalsh to the island, but now there is also a road bridge linking Skye to the mainland.

Lochalsh is a pleasant harbour, while Skye is an island full of heritage and culture. There are visitor centres, castles and crofts accessible via a short bus ride such as the famous Eilean Donan castle on its rocky promontory, which makes it one of the most photographed castles in Scotland.

On Skye, the Museums of the Isles at Armadale Castle and the grounds at Dunvegan Castle are worth a visit.

Taking the route north out of Inverness, the line heads towards Thurso and Wick at the top of the British mainland and the country’s northernmost rail outposts.

Dingwall, a couple of stops and 30 minutes out of the Highland capital, owes its name to the Norwegian Vikings who ruled northern Scotland from about the end of the ninth century and it was also where Macbeth was born in 1005.

With a long history, there is an interesting Dingwall Heritage Trail to follow that can be walked within 90 minutes taking in Dingwall Townhouse, memorials, churches and the castle doocot, which dates from 1825 and was built from the stone of the town’s original castle.

The full journey time between Inverness and Thurso can be as long as four hours, as the track beyond winds its way through the great unspoiled countryside of Caithness and Sutherland, pausing at places such as Rogart, Brora and Helmsdale.

It passes Golspie for Dunrobin Caslte, which is the biggest house in the northern Highlands. It has 189 rooms with some dating back to the 14th century, along with superb formal gardens.

Along the coast are a number of heritage centres which tell the story of these northlands, of the local clans, and of the Viking influence. A variety of early archaeological sites particularly between Latheron and Wick include excellent examples such as the Grey Cairns of Camster, while north of Wick, the Northlands Viking Centre reveals the Scandinavian influences.

Wick and Thurso are the two main centres of the area, both with a good selection of shops.

There’s also Wick Heritage Museum, telling the story of the 19th-century herring boom that hit the town.

The coast between Wick and Thurso is spectacular and includes the village of John o’ Groats, the Duncansby Stacks, as well as Dunnet Head, which is the most northerly point on the British mainland. There are good views of Orkney all along the north coast.

Inland, the dominating feature is the Flow Country with its miles of interlaced pools and lochs, home to a unique community of plants and animals. Experience it at the RSPB Forsinard Peatland Reserve, just 40 minutes by train from Thurso, where there is a visitor centre close to the railway station.

There you can take guided walks and experience the sounds of the native bird-life, watch hen harriers as they rear their young, see merlins as they learn to fly.

Taking the train south from Inverness brings you to Aviemore.

Rebranded under the banner of Aviemore and the Cairngorms: The Natural Adventure, this is an area where beautiful landscape, traditional culture and varied wildlife work as a backdrop for the range of outdoor activities, tourist attractions and picturesque villages.

There is the Cairngorm Mountain ski resort and other activities include: fishing, shooting, quad-biking, mountain biking, sailing, canoeing, golf, viewing wildlife, hiking and walking, sightseeing and, of course, relaxing and socialising.

The 1.8km Cairngorm Railway takes skiers and sightseers up to the higher slopes to the Ptarmigan Restaurant, the highest restaurant in the UK at 3600 feet above sea level and the chance for a little shopping at the summit.

A short walk out of Aviemore is the Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre, a family-owned 8600-acre estate, and a gateway to the Cairngorms. It lies at the heart of Cairngorms National Park and is part of a proposed World Heritage Site with unique Caledonian Forest and designated wetlands.

For more bird and wildlife watching, Speyside Wildlife is an organisation that has become specialists in this area. You can see pine martens, animals from the same family as stoats and weasels, or book walks and tours tailored to meet visitor demand with a chance to view capercaillie, golden eagle, black grouse, and deer, mountain hare, pine martens and badgers along with other birds and mammals.

There are so many other sites to visit in the area too: Strathspey Steam Railway, locations made famous by the British television series Monarch of the Glen, or the Loch Insh Watersports Centre.

The railway from Inverness penetrates vast areas of sparsely populated terrain across the north of Scotland, but it is a great way of getting around and allows for leisurely travel through some of the country’s most spectacular, yet isolated, landscapes.

INFO
First ScotRail
www.firstscotrail.com or tel:+44 (0)8457 550 033 for tickets, timetables and more information.
The Highland Rover ticket allows for travel between Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Kyle of Lochalsh, Aberdeen and Aviemore at £65 for any four out of eight consecutive days travel and is valid on some coach and ferry services. However, you can check fares and plan individual journeys locally

Highlands tourism
www.visithighlands.com

Inverness
www.inverness-scotland.com

Dingwall
www.dingwall.org.uk

Skye and Lochalsh
www.skye.co.uk

Armadale Castle
Armadale Castle Gardens Museum of the Isles Armadale, Sleat, Isle of Skye IV45 8RS
Tel: +44 (0)1471 844 305 www.clandonald.com

Wick and Thurso
www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/ areawick

Wick Heritage Museum
Tel: +44 (0)1955 605 393
www.wickheritage.org

RSPB Forsinard Peatland Reserve: Fosinard Station, Sutherland
Tel: +44 (0) 1641 571 225 www.scotlandindex.net/rspb_main.htm

Dunrobin Castle
Tel: +44 (0)1408 633 177
www.gardensscotland.co.uk/dunrobin.html

Visit Aviemore
www.visitaviemore.com

Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre:
Tel: +44 (0)1479 812 345
www.rothiemurchus.net

Speyside Wildlife
Tel: +44(0)1479 812 498
www.speysidewildlife.co.uk

Cairngorms National Park
www.cairngorms.co.uk

Cairngorm Mountain
Tel: +44 (0)1479 861261 or www.cairngormmountain.com