The hallway was dark. Although I am an admirer of gloom, there has to be some aesthetic beauty about it. In this building I could not see anything to admire. I decided not to be too concerned because I would be going to the mountains; there was plenty to oil the senses.
I have gone round those hills over three columns and I will go round them in my head for years to come. However, we were bound to the Strathpeffer Hotel for the week with its ill-matched wallpaper and a bar that looked like a social club of the 1970s, but without the atmosphere, and the cluttered walls, cabinets and sun room at the front.
Despite the décor, the village itself, we discovered on the second day, has managed to maintain some of its former elegance. I could not equate the handsome buildings with this small village until we discovered its hidden secret.
At the bottom of the hill, obscured from the road, is an elegant Victorian railway station. Trains no longer run along the track, now a long straight grass road to nowhere. The cream and claret-painted wooden station building now holds a wee café, some shops and a Museum of Childhood.
Until the mid-19th century, the village of Strathpeffer did not exist. Four farms covered the area and Castle Leod, home of the Earl of Cromartie. At the end of the 18th century a belief was growing that the water from the springs in Strathpeffer, when drunk, were easing and even aiding in the recovery of various ailments.
Parish minister Colin McKenzie and the estate manager for Cromartie Estates decided to fence off the main spring in 1977 to stop cattle polluting it. At this time, a Dr Munro of London wrote a treatise for the Royal Society about the healing powers of the water. However, it was when another doctor drank the waters and found relief from his arthritis that the process towards creating a spa village began.
In 1819 the first pump room was built and visitors paid two shillings a week to take the waters; poor people were allowed to drink free of charge. Ever-increasing numbers meant that the original Spa Hotel was not sufficient. In the 1840s, Lady Anne, Countess of Cromartie, inspired by spas on the Continent, encouraged the management takeover of the wells by Cromartie Estates.
Over the next four decades, several hotels and self-catering apartments were built to cope with the burgeoning visitors. Travel remained difficult, though – one coach a day left from Inverness and took three hours to reach Strathpeffer. In the 1880s the arrival of the railway once again saw visitor numbers increase.
The Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line went north of Strathpeffer, stopping at Achterneed; visitors still had to take a short horse bus journey to the spa. Eventually, in 1855, a branch line was built from Dingwall to Strathpeffer. By 1908, visitors could travel directly from London to Strathpeffer. In 1911 the Highland Railway Company opened the Highland Hotel.
The gaiety and elegance of the 1920s and 30s was overshadowed by the arrival of the Second World War. The large hotels were requisitioned for troops and despite the increased use of the railway station, this spa village died along with a generation of young men. Taking the waters of the springs now seemed frivolous; the concept now stained with the blood and destruction of warring nations.
Now, there is something sad about Strathpeffer. Perhaps this emotion was exaggerated by witnessing the countless unhealthy persons arriving on the bus holidays. Perhaps having to leave my mother in her weariness and heavily reduced mobility, while father and I roamed on the mountains cast an unpleasant veil.
One person brought light and laughter to my mother. Each day when dad and I returned we would all go and visit Margaret’s shop. In the village square Margaret has her shop window filled with relatively tasteful gifts that sparkle and gleam, vying for your attention. Mum liked to sit on the wee wooden seat by the till as I brought items over for her inspection.