Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Scottish Hols–Inverness to Skye mainly by rail

Today was to be an early start, we were going to Skye. The Main part of the journey was by rail from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh (straight of the foaming loch).  We were then going to get on a coach and drive onto the island of Skye – although there is now a bridge between the mainland and the island, so does it still count as an island?  We weren’t all that clear quite what we were going to do – it was a bit of a magical mystery tour.
It was suggested that we might get a taxi up to the station – there was a slight hill but the hotel was only 0.3miles from the station. Mind you the skies had been clear  overnight and there was frost about. The metal railings were covered in bobbles of ice.
Whilst it was cold it was also still and it was quite pleasant walking to the station. The first part of the journey was to cross the River Ness – steaming away. I took this picture mid-way across the bridge.

River Ness steaming after an overnight frost, Inverness

This time our train journey was a regular scheduled diesel train, although we had seat bookings so there was no real rush to get on the train, nor did we have to take our bags as this was a round trip and we would be staying in Inverness again.  The last time I was in Inverness was nearly ten years ago.  Having cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) to get home I was going to catch a train from Wick to Inverness and then from Inverness to Cambridge. The organisers of the LEJOG instead offered us a lift in their van to Inverness which thinking about it now is probably a bit of a shame as we missed what would have been an interesting trip.

Although it was cold the air was clear and although there was a bit of mist about it added some atmosphere before the sun burnt it off.  As we headed out of Inbhir Nis (keep up now I will be testing you) we had fantastic views across Beauly Firth (Large sea bay, strait or smaller inlet depending upon where you are) to the north. Even more fortunately our randomly allocated seats had us on the scenic side of the train as well.
The carriages were warm, there was no condensation on the inside of the windows and the outside of our window was also clean and they were quite large windows. Oh the joys of somewhat more modern technology.  So I had a go at taking moving pictures or rather pictures whilst moving. The only slight problem was that this modern train was a bit quicker than the Steam train and so it was harder to avoid motion blur. This picture is Beauly Firth – with a bit of speed blur at the bottom of the picture. Here is a cycle ride around Beauly Firth that pops up on a search.

Beauly Firth

As we headed out of Inbhir Nis you could see that it had been a cold night the fields were covered in frost. It wasn’t until I had got back that I checked the actual route we took. So I am not quite sure where we were when some of these pictures were taken. I reckon if I’d been running the tour I would have handed out little route guides for each of the trips pointing out things to see and a few facts. This was going to be another coast, pastures, mountains and lochs tour.

Frozen Fields and misty mountains

Here in Cambridge the bales of hay (straw actually – I think) have long been taken away and stacked. Clearly either time runs more slowly in Scotland or the Summer was a little later up North. As you can see although there is mist about there was also some blue sky. Somewhere along the way we crossed over the River Beauly (must be the Scottish spelling of Beaulieu!)  headed north through Muir of Ord (Muir – moor) and stopped briefly at Dingwall. This station serves both the Far North Line (the northernmost railway in Britain) and the Kyle of Lochalsh Line. Both lines were on the list of Beeching cuts but protesters saved the day (well lines). We were heading along the Kyle of Lochalsh Line, which was a good job because we were planning on visiting the Kyle of Lochalsh – it is mainly a single-track line. We then headed east again.

Here is a link to one of the organisations that saved the line – Friends of the Kyle Line.
Bales in the fields along the Kyle of Lochalsh Line

I think it is Loch Kishorn – but I am guessing based on a quick look at the map. Although a quick search for images shows this one, that looks similar so I might actually be right.

Loch Kishorn

As I mentioned Skye used to be an island  – but they built a bridge – this one. I have been to Skye before, many years ago, but not since they built the bridge.  I think I was expecting something a little grander than this, it does make its mark on the view – but I would imagine it has been useful for those living on the Isle of Sky. At this point we got off the train and onto a coach in order to drive onto the Island.

The bridge was started in 1992 and opened in 1995 as funded under the Private Finance Initiative. The original estimate was £15million, it was estimated to have been £25m when it was finished.  A round trip toll on the bridge was £11.40 and was very unpopular leading to protests and a prolonged non-payment campaign, with 500 non-payers arrested and 130 convicted. On 21st December 2004 after the creation of the Scottish Parliament the bridge was purchased for ~£27m and the tolls  ceased immediately.
So there it is a 500m bridge with a history despite its recent construction.

The Skye bridge

We all knew that the plan was to take a train journey to the Kyle of Lochalsh and then to transfer to a coach to drive onto Skye. What was less clear was quite what would we be doing on Skye.  It seems that if you have a tour party then the thing to do is take them to the big smoke or whatever qualifies as the big smoke and let them wile away a bit of time eating. So we did, in fact we had gotten quite good at sussing out interesting restaurants and then as soon as we get off the train/coach we beat the rush, which wasn’t that hard to do with our tour group and bag a table.
Having been up here for so long I am practically a local so I confidently ordered some local beer to drink with my scampi and chips only to find that it was off- so no Mull beer for me – although I did stick with something local from the Hebridean Brewery Company.  It was nice but stronger than I would normally want a lunchtime tipple to be at 4.8%ABV.
Mind you the Terror of Tobermory was 4.6% from the Isle of Mull Brewing Company.

A little bit about Skye or Eilean a’ Cheo as Wikipedia shows it, it is the largest and most northerly of the Inner Hebridean Islands, with a  population of a little under 10,000.
The big smoke on Skye is Portree – with its colourful houses along the harbour. It is also the home of a professional Quidditch team – the Pride of Portree (for Harry Potter fans.)

Portree

I rather like the colourful houses you see in one or two of the Scottish coastal towns.  On the whole Scottish houses seem built to endure rather than be pretty.

Portree Harbour

Although Skye is a relatively small island the mountains were still quite spectacular – with proper pointy shapes and real snow. They are known as The Cuillins and are claimed to be the only place in the UK where you can enjoy sheer jagged rawness. (There are some good ointments available if you do enjoy it though.)

The Cuillins on Skye – proper pointy mountains

We stopped almost as soon as we were out of the town for a photo-opportunity in the car park of a hotel. The Scots have a reputation for being thrifty – except perhaps when visiting the local bar.  Here is that thriftiness in operation.  Although a new bridge had been built for the larger traffic there is no point in removing a perfectly good smaller bridge – you never know when it might come in handy.

Parallel bridges on Skye – I’ll take the high bridge and…

Once again we set off down the road – only whereas some of us were expecting we might be going to Dunvegan Castle we didn’t turn down that road we carried on back to the Kyle of Lochalsh.  The link to Dunvegan Castle suggests that any visit to the Isle of Skye would be incomplete without a visit to the castle. It turned out that we were going to a castle – but one on the mainland. The castle blurb indicates that it was closed for the season on the 15th October – we visited Skye on the 17th October – that explains our incomplete visit then.

Now I’d just like to make it clear that Portree did have public conveniences that were perfectly ok, indeed the restaurants also had such facilities, Scotland might be a little behind the times, but not that far.  Even our coach had a toilet on board. But for some reason we ended up stopping less than a mile down the road at a ferry stop which had a Public toilet. What’s more quite a few people used it – as there was only one “ladies” as you can imagine it wasted a bit of time. Fortunately for me there was the Raasay Ferry coming in along Loch Sligachan which provided some visual and photographic interest. I now have about two hundred pictures of this ferry, zoomed in, zoomed out and zoomed somewhere in the middle, zoomed upside down. Fortunately for you dear readers I have only included this one. It is the MV Loch Striven if you look close enough. The ferry terminal on Skye for this ferry is of course the location of the toilets – visit this link  for a look at them.

MV Loch Striven – the Raasay Ferry – Loch Sligachan

This is the castle we visited – Eilean Donan Castle, apparently one of the most highly photographed in Scotland. (I’ve just seen it in an advert.) The only downside was that we had only 30 minutes and so it would be barely worth visiting it. Well if we hadn’t wasted so much time earlier we could easily have had an hour and a half to look around. Still nothing ventured nothing gained – using those same skills that ensure we got into restaurants ahead of the masses we decided we’d have a whistle-stop tour and shot off to the ticket office. It turned out that only four of our tour felt up to galloping around the castle, the rest meandered around the car park feeling a little disgruntled.

Eilean Donan Castle

Castles in Scotland are either in ruins or been rebuilt in fairly modern times and this was no exception. It was reopened in 1932 after 20 years of toil. It was a nice castle though and despite having to tour it at speed we visited all there was to see including dungeons, kitchen, well and the Keep.

Towards the end we did find ourselves getting a little lost with very narrow passages that seemed to lead nowhere. The trouble is we were catching the train back and so the coach needed to get us back onto the platform in time or we would miss the train and then there probably wouldn’t be another for a week, alright, maybe a slight exaggeration.

What I hadn’t realised is that castle has one of only two left-handed spiral staircases in Britain as the reigning King wielded his sword with his left hand. Indeed wouldn’t all right-minded people wish to wield their swords with their left hands – I know I would/do.

If you would like to take a tour then here is a virtual one it isn’t brilliant but it will give you an idea..

The castle certainly had a commanding view – Loch Duich – one of the three lochs in view.

Loch Duich from Eilean Donan Castle

Loch Alsh another of the three lochs in view.

Loch Alsh from Eilean Donan Castle

And finally the slightly oddly named Loch Long – it isn’t that Long – it is actually Ship Lake as “Long” is the Gaelic for ship.

Loch Long from Eilean Donan Castle

Before getting back on the train there was time for one more picture of the bridge. Now you might wonder why there are no more pictures of the journey back. Had my camera batteries run flat you might wonder. No, the answer is a simple one – given the time of year and the lateness in the day it pretty soon got too dark to see anything.

Skye Bridge

Tomorrow we were heading back to Edinburgh.

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