Archive for the ‘Scotland 2015’ Category



River Ness from Inverness Castle

I only had a few hours in Inverness – I wish I’d had longer – but in the event I had just the late evening of the day I arrived and the following morning. I filled the time as best I could by exploring, and the weather was good – a wonderful evening the first day, and at least dry until just before I left the day after.

Inverness itself is a small town, but it’s termed a city. In truth, like a number of Scottish towns, it has facilities that you wouldn’t expect in a town of that size in England. This is probably because towns are few and far between once you get above the Highland line, and what towns there are have to provide city-level services and facilities for people from a wide area. Inverness in particular is regarded as the capital of the Highlands, and many roads lead to it. It’s a centre of local government, commerce and education. It’s also a place where the Gaelic language is held in high regard, and a proportion of the local population speak Gaelic as their first language. The city centre itself is quite handsome with a number of old Victorian buildings as well as some less handsome 60s/70s concrete boxes. But Inverness Castle still stands proudly above the town. Dating from 1836 it replaced an earlier structure, and it’s still in use as the Sheriff Court.

The glory of the town, however, is the River Ness. The city centre sits on one bank, while on the opposite bank are a number of grand Victorian mansions, most of which have been repurposed as hotels. Spanning the river are several bridges – within the bounds of the city itself there are three, two for traffic and one pedestrian-only. Then going up-river there are river-side paths on both sides, and I believe these can be followed for long distances. Just a mile or so upriver are the Ness islands, and the paths cross these so they can be explored. Just a further short distance upstream the river runs alongside the Caledonian Canal – they both emerge from the northern end of Loch Ness some miles further south. I walked up the river to that point then diverted to the canal and walked along the tow-path back towards the town. The canal ends in a large basin where many boats are moored, and then exits to the estuary and on to the sea. After walking as far as the basin and at least looking at the estuary, it was then just a short walk back into the city and my hotel.

I rounded off my morning with a visit to the Inverness Museum. This was informative and interesting, with a lot if local information about the area and the highland people. It also had a good cafe where I had a large and tasty sandwich before heading back to the hotel to collect my bag and then heading for the train. Hopefully I’ll visit to Inverness some day.

My next train ride would not be in the luxury of first class on an HST – it was back to standard class on a ScotRail Turbostar to Glasgow Queen Street. Still, the views out of the windows were spectacular, at least as far as Perth, and I was looking forward to visiting Glasgow. It’s a city I’ve passed through several times (mainly on the M8 on the way to the western highlands) but have not visited before now.

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For various reasons I’ve always wanted to do a train ride to the north of Scotland. Specifically, ever since I first heard of it I’ve wanted to travel on the Highland Chieftain. This train follows one of the longest routes in the UK – London Kings Cross to Inverness, taking around 8 hours. Between London and Edinburgh it’s timed pretty quickly, but north of Edinburgh it turns into more of a local train and stops at lots of places. It takes more than three hours for the stretch from Edinburgh to Inverness, in fact.

There’s a bit of history to this service. In the bad/good old days of Sectorisation, InterCity ran all of the Inter City trains in Scotland. Trains between Edinburgh and Glasgow weren’t regarded as InterCity trains, nor were any trains originating in Scotland that went purely to other Scottish cities, e.g. Glasgow to Aberdeen; they were all run by the ScotRail sector. Chris Green, then head of ScotRail, eventually got agreement that ScotRail would take over one InterCity journey each way per day – the single train (each way) that was timetabled between Kings Cross and Inverness. So a couple of HST sets (this was still in the days before electrification to the ECML) were re-liveried in ScotRail livery and dedicated to this service – one journey each day – and the service was named “The Highland Chieftain”. Apparently the HST depot at Polmadie kept them especially sick & span, and they were as far as possible staffed with Scots. These staff were very aware that this was ScotRail’s showcase service, so apparently service and catering standards were very high. Thanks to the quick timing between London and Edinburgh, the standard of service, and the extension into the Highlands, the Highland Chieftain came to be regarded as at least the equal of the Flying Scotsman as a way of travelling by train between London and Scotland.

Fast forward 25 years or more and the service is now run by Virgin East Coast trains. It’s still an HST – as a through service to Inverness it goes beyond the reach of the wires. It’s still called The Highland Chieftain, and I also got the feeling that some of the old ethos still hangs on, at least in First Class. Yes, First Class; thanks to advance booking and a senior railcard, the cost of a first class single ticket from York to Inverness wasn’t too outrageous.

I have to say, it’s a very civilised way to travel. It’s certainly more comfortable; three seats across the carriage makes lot of difference, and there’s extra fore-and-aft space as well. And of course there are all the First Class extras. During the six hours I was on the train I had the following, gratis:

  • a ‘New York Deli’ beef & mustard sandwich with crisps and a slice of cake;
  • a Goat’s Cheese and Caramelised Onion tart with a side salad, and another slice of cake;
  • a packet of crisps, to keep me going;
  • three cups of tea at various points along the journey;
  • three small bottles of sparkling mineral water;
  • a large – easily 250ml – glass of perfectly palatable red wine; and
  • a miniature of Famous Grouse.

There was a very happy atmosphere in my part of the train during the last couple of hours of the journey, and of course the highland scenery just added to it. All in all I didn’t need anything to eat after arriving at Inverness at just after 8pm.

And then there was Inverness. I’d never been there before and didn’t really know anything about it; it was simply the destination for this train ride. What would I think of it?

(All pictures were taken with my iPhone from my seat on the train.)

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