Thursday, 5 March 2015

Days 5-6: Fort William/Mallaig - 4-5 March 2015

As there was no train connection from Inverness to Fort William, we had to take a coach down the highly scenic but winding A82, leaving both of us feeling a bit the worse for wear after a bout of travel sickness on the way down. We took a taxi with all our bags to the accommodation, which sadly was not up to par and so we spent around an hour trying to find somewhere else to stay. Luckily, we managed to find a vacancy for two nights in a lovely guesthouse with twin room and breakfast (plus bath) for a fairly reasonable fee given the last minute nature of the request.

Park in the centre of Fort William with  Glen Nevis behind.
Prior to moving our bags across to the new place, we had a drink in the Corpach Hotel (in the village where we were staying), which was run by an elderly couple in their late 70's/early 80's. The place was dreadfully dated, being very much stuck in the 1940's in terms of decor and furnishings, and really looked like nothing had changed since then - the dining rooms and bedrooms which the owner showed us were set up exactly as they might have been then, and seemed to have been expecting guests for many years.

Inside the Nevis Mountainsport centre.
Despite this, the coal fire in the drinking area was very welcome, and there was something genuinely touching about the couple who ran it's determination to keep going and the community spirit present as they sat there discussing things with a neighbour and the dog at their feet in front of the fire. One could easily have imagined oneself as having gone back in time, and there was definitely a lingering feeling of faded glory of another time about the place. Local workmen were reportedly in residence, with a cook on hand of 25 years employment to make homecooked dishes for them at the end of a days work - I left feeling strangely sad but contented for the experience of having witnessed this.

Map of the route to Mallaig
The next morning we had a nice breakfast before heading into town for a brief meander along the high street and it's few shops before taking the train to Mallaig, known more popularly as the West Highland Railway and for being the most scenic railway journey in Britain.

Glenfinnan Station, home to the famous viaduct featured in the Harry Potter films.
Sadly, the mist and rain of the day meant many views were obscured to say the least, although it was possible to get a feel for how the route would be in summer, with spectacularly high narrow waterfalls cascading down into the valley from the mountainous peaks above. It was with some amusement that I listened to the formal announcement by the train guard for us 'ladies and gentlemen' to please take out our cameras for the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, which would not yield any spectacular pictures today. I settled for buying a postcard at the end of the line, with a mental note to come back later in the year when the weather improves!

View of Mallaig Harbour area.
Our end destination was Mallaig, one road in, one road out, and the last area of settlement before ferries across to Skye and the Hebrides etc. This really is as remote as it gets here in this part of Western Scotland. Mallaig itself was wet and windy, consisting of little more than a harbour, a pub, several coffee shops, a restaurant and a couple of gift and bookstores.

Couple of postcards as a memento of my journey.
Still, it had everything needed by the weary traveller (since most people are just passing through to or from the islands). We ate in a licensed restaurant, enjoying a delightful Cullen Skink (delicious fish soup with salmon, cod, vegetables and crusty bread) as well as a thoroughly non-Scottish beef bourguignon with dumplings, which was simply delicious. Mum had a glass of wine, while I had a cheeky but highly affordable (at £2) dram of whisky, served properly with ice and water as you would expect in these parts.

Mountain pass view from the train to Glasgow
After eating we perused the few gift shops (me buying a CD celebrating artists from a local Highland music festival and some Scottish tablet) and Mum getting a little colourful dog teddy with Mum on it as an early mother's day present. We then headed back to wait in the train station for the 16.05 back to Fort William, which had not moved since we arrived - always an interesting aspect of train journeys in rural places, and very different to the hustle and bustle of train stations in England I visit on a regular basis!

Highland dog on a windy station in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs national park.
Sadly tomorrow we head back down to Edinburgh via Glasgow and home on Saturday, but I feel this has generally been a very successful trip in which I have experienced more Scottish cultural life and activities than previously (particularly the Whisky tastings). I now need to return again at some point with a view to taking some whisky distillery tours and doing more active things like walking and cycling and getting out to the Islands. As a rest and relaxation holiday though, I couldn't wish for more, and will certainly be back sooner next time (certainly in less than 3 years!). Alba gu braith (Scotland forever)!

P.s. Good to see Celtic lose to St Johnstone after Aberdeen's 4-0 drubbing at the weekend ;)

Days 3-4: Inverness - 2-3 March 2015

It was as we were travelling by train to Inverness that I began to feel really excited and as if I was really on holiday, as it was almost three years since I had last been up this way (hard to believe), when I had taken a trip with some classmates from uni. For me Inverness was the place furthest north I would visit on this trip, and the last bastion of 'commercial' life before the Highlands proper to the north and west, and home to the legendary Ross County football club (based in Dingwall) - possibly the subject of many a joke by the locals.

The cosy living area in Bazpackers Hostel.
We were to stay in Bazpackers Hostel in Inverness, which although strangely named is actually very cosy and welcoming, based in a Georgian townhouse with roaring coal fire, cosy conservatory and excellent views over the river and castle from our twin room upstairs. We arrived to very sunny and mild conditions, so while Mum had a rest I went out for a wander and to do a few shops, returning with some whisky-flavoured fudge from Orkney and two bottles of beer from a local Scottish brewery in the Cairngorm mountains. By the time I returned to our accommodation the weather had changed completely and it had begun to snow!

Scottish Saltire flag on Inverness castle
We ate that night in the Castle Tavern restaurant right next to the hostel, where I thoroughly enjoyed neeps 'n tatties (potatoes and swede) topped with haggis in a whisky cream sauce. I also had a cheeky dram of whisky, chosen from the very useful whisky menu and served in a proper dram with ice and water - highly enjoyable. It was definitely my mission to take home a bottle of real Scottish single malt before I went home.

View from the room
By the time we got up the next day the snow had really started to come down and settled, making for some excellent photos. We walked (or rather slipped) into town for some lunch and proper shopping where I bought a real Scottish tartan scarf from a local mill and a Scots dictionary to impress my friends on my next visit! We had decided to eat in our lodgings this night and spend some quiet time in the cosy living areas of the hostel (rightly voted Inverness's best) before getting ready for our coach to Fort William the next day.

Inverness High Street
Link to days 5-6:

Days 1-2: Aberdeen, Scotland - 28 February-1 March

As it had been a while since I last visited the 'real' Scotland, as I call it, and I had had a desire for some time to revisit some of my old favourite haunts from when I studied in Aberdeen from 2011-12, I decided to take a week off work to have time out and some quiet time in northern Scotland. My first port of call would be Aberdeen for old time's sake and to catch up with friends, followed by a 2 day sojourn in Inverness, then a couple of days in Fort William before returning back home via Edinburgh, where we would spend the final night before heading back 'south' to England.

Close-up view of Marischal College in Aberdeen.
I had decided to invite my Mum along, as I had shown Dad most of the places we were going before, but had never ventured beyond Aberdeen with my Mum. We arrived in Aberdeen to windy and rainy, but otherwise mild, conditions. We were to stay in the Ibis on Shiprow, not the most cultural choice, but well located, clean and friendly. As we didn't arrive until 4pm, having stopped for lunch in Edinburgh, we got a few goodies/supplies from Sainsburys and ate dinner in the hotel restaurant before settling in for the night.

The Lemon Tree cultural and arts centre in Aberdeen.
The following day we did a spot of shopping on Union street following a better than expected hotel breakfast and took a pleasant walk via the soon to be obscured Marischal College. This building unfortunately is soon to be the sight of a new commercial development comprising hotels, shops and eating facilities, and is largely against the wishes of Aberdeen residents, who would prefer a civic space, and it has to be said that the building is well suited to such a development.

View of Castle Gate in Aberdeen.
As it was Sunday not much seemed to be happening in Aberdeen, and we didn't really have time to go to Old Aberdeen or the beach. Still, I had a very pleasant catchup with some badminton buddies at our old haunt The Bobbin in the evening, where we failed heroically at the pub quiz as The Three Racketeers - scoring 1/10 in the last round after one of our number deserted us. Still we didn't hang around too long afterwards before I headed back to pack for our train to Inverness the following morning, and my friend to study (probably) ;).

Link to days 3-4: