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Cairngorms

Started: 2014-06-01 21:00:46

Submitted: 2014-06-01 22:54:57

Visibility: World-readable

Wednesday, 21st May: in which the intrepid narrator visits the Scottish mountain town of Aviemore and feels right at home

For our last day in Inverness, I had planned to drive all the way across the highlands to Fort William to ride the Jacobite Steam Train, a heritage rail train running excursions to the town of Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. This train, especially the large viaduct, was used in the Harry Potter movies as the transport to and from Hogwarts. I didn't book tickets in advance, since I wasn't exactly sure what we'd be up to when we reached the highlands, and by the time I tried to get tickets they were no longer available on short notice. (When discussing it with Kiesa, to avoid getting Calvin's hopes up too high for something that might not actually happen, I called it "the Harry Potter conveyance", since he has no idea who Harry Potter is but does know exactly what trains are. We'll have to come back and ride the Jacobite Steam Train once he knows who Harry Potter is.)

Rain outside the hotel window in Inverness
Rain outside the hotel window in Inverness

As a consolation prize, I decided to ride on the Strathspey Steam Railway, a shorter (and therefore cheaper) steam excursion train much closer to Inverness, and generally closer to other things I was interested in seeing. When we awoke it was raining, and it continued raining as we ate breakfast and set out, but as we drove south on the A9 out of Inverness and began climbing into the mountains the weather began to clear. The A9 is the main road link between Inverness (and the Scottish highlands) and the rest of Scotland, and it was the the largest road I'd driven on yet. Heading out of Inverness it was a dual carriageway (two lanes in each direction, separated by a median with a modern cable barrier), and as we climbed it went back and forth between four lanes and two lanes.

Rainy car park through a rental car windscreen
Rainy car park through a rental car windscreen

By the time we reached Aviemore the rain had stopped, but the clouds persisted. We found the steam railway and found it mobbed by a large group disgorging from a set of tour buses. I found the line for walk-up tickets (their online ordering was broken, preventing me from booking in advance) and bought our tickets. The tour groups occupied the last four or five coaches of the train, but there was enough space in the first coach for us to get tickets for the train.

Calvin boards the Strathspey Steam Railway carriage
Calvin boards the Strathspey Steam Railway carriage

The excursion train was operating using standard mid-twentieth-century coaches as operated by British Rail. Soon after we found our seats the train began moving, rolling down the single-track branch line toward Boat of Garten, pulled by a diminutive 0-6-0 tender engine built in 1899. We quickly left the small town of Aviemore and rolled into the surrounding countryside. We were in a broad valley along the River Spey, alternating between woodland and grassy moors.

Strathspey Steam Railway #828 takes on water
Strathspey Steam Railway #828 takes on water

The train stopped at Boat of Garten (which got its name from the short-lived ferry crossing the River Spey before a bridge was built) and Calvin and I got out to look at the engine, taking on water before continuing our journey. Calvin did not appreciate the loud noises that the engine made as it rested, and quickly retreated to the coach to continue our journey.

Calvin and Kiesa look out the window of the Strathspey Steam Railway at the Scottish countryside
Calvin and Kiesa look out the window of the Strathspey Steam Railway at the Scottish countryside

We continued down the track to Broomhill, the terminus of the short excursion train. Here the engine decoupled from the front of the train and passed us to be coupled to the back of the train to pull us back to Aviemore, reversing direction without turning any of the stock. Calvin and I got out to look at the engine again, before returning to our seats to await the ride back. I enjoyed the steam excursion ride, but I'm happy to live in the twenty-first century where steam trains are excursions, and we have diesel and electric locomotives and multiple units pulling trains in regular service (not to mention jet aircraft to bring me to Scotland in the first place).

Strathspey Steam Railway terminus
Strathspey Steam Railway terminus

When we returned to Aviemore, we set out in search of lunch. Walking through the town it felt just like a Colorado mountain town, nestled between scenic mountains (never mind that it was barely 1000 feet high) with tourists wandering in and out of the outdoor gear stores next to souvenir shops, and I felt immediately at home.

We ate at Mountain Cafe, an excellent cafe on the second story of an outdoor gear shop. Not everything was vegetarian, but most of the menu could be easily made vegetarian, and there were clearly-marked icons for vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, and wheat-free. Calvin ordered breakfast, and Kiesa and I each got a red lentil burger that was very good, but also quite substantial.

I found a post office to buy a stamp (97 pence) to post a postcard to Calvin's class. (Calvin dictated the text to Kiesa, rather than trying to write it himself, so that the text would actually be legible when it reached his classroom.) We returned to the car to drive to CairnGorm Mountain, a large ski area by Scottish standards with a funicular railway running to the 3,500-foot summit. We bought tickets for the funicular and boarded the car to the summit. The funicular was two cars attached on either end of a long cable that ran up a track climbing steeply up the side of the mountain, functionally identical to Hong Kong's Peak Tram. The cars counter-balance each other, except for the weight of the passengers. The track was single-track except for a small passing loop in the middle.

Calvin and Kiesa ride the funicular railway at CairnGorm Mountain
Calvin and Kiesa ride the funicular railway at CairnGorm Mountain

When we reached the top, we disembarked and found the outdoor observation area to look out at the mountains. Here the treeline was in the neighborhood of 500 meters -- less than 2000 feet, and well below even the ski area's base. (I'm used to Colorado's treeline, at around 11,000 feet.) The mountains lacked height but made up for it in snow and ruggedness -- mountaineers trained in Scotland went on to conquer the world's highest peaks. The clouds had partially cleared, and most of the mountains I could see had technical routes hidden in their craggy faces, even though one could walk up the other side.

Mountain lodge at CairnGorm Mountain
Mountain lodge at CairnGorm Mountain

The ski area wouldn't actually let us walk out on the mountain itself for fear of damaging the delicate tundra, so there was only so much we could really do at the top. After looking out at the view for a while (it appeared that we might have been able to see most of Scotland on a clear day) we rode the funicular down the mountain, packing ourselves into a funicular car that seemed to be packed entirely with pensioners.

Funicular railway at CairnGorm Mountain
Funicular railway at CairnGorm Mountain

We drove down the mountain, past Aviemore, and headed down the A9 to Kingussie to the Highland Folk Museum. This was a large outdoor museum where buildings from around the highlands had been moved or recreated to show how people lived in the highlands from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Calvin gravitated to the playground, and Kiesa watched him there until she could convince him to see the rest of the museum. I wandered around the buildings, including an old schoolhouse where Calvin got to try (badly) writing with a dip pen, using the inkwell built into the wooden desk. We saw a joinery (woodshop), a small lumber mill (used to cut wood found on an estate for use on that estate), and an entire eighteenth-century village recreated on the far end of the museum grounds. Here we saw a collection of thatched-roof huts with a smoky cooking fire in the middle and small sleeping boxes where six people would sleep to conserve warmth, sitting up to mitigate the respiratory ailments they developed breathing smoke all day long. (I couldn't help wonder how they managed to propagate the species when they were sleeping six people in a tiny box.) And this was the rich man's house, who was educated and could read and write in English and Gaelic. (The poor man's house was in the ditch below.)

Calvin tries to write with a dip pen
Calvin tries to write with a dip pen

By this time the museum was closing at 17:30. We made our way back to the exit and headed back to Inverness along the A9. On one of the dual carriageway sections, I noticed a puff of smoke a hundred meters ahead, which put me on guard, then I saw a tire detached from its wheel rolling all on its own and a Porsche running on its rim as it was pulling off. I didn't know that tires would roll on their own outside of Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

As we approached Inverness, the rain started again. I needed to drop the rental car off that night, since we had a train out of Inverness at 07:55, and I didn't want to take the time to go back to the hotel and eat supper before dropping the car off (as I had originally thought I might do), so we headed straight for the airport, stopping at a Tesco gas station to buy 27.22 liters of diesel for £36.45, or 7.2 gallons for US$61.24, at US$8.51 per gallon. (Americans wail and gnash their teeth when petrol gasoline hits US$4/gallon. We have no idea how good we have it.)

Inverness airport was officially open until 21:00, but when we arrived around 19:00 it was practically deserted. There was one guy at my rental car desk who took my key. There were no taxis anywhere near the taxi rack in front of the airport, so I called the number posted on the small shelter for Inverness Taxis and asked for a car to pick me up. ("Did you just come in on a flight?" the guy asked dubiously; "No," I said, "I just dropped off my rental car.") In less than a minute another independent taxi drove up, so I called back to cancel the taxi and we got a ride from a talkative Romanian driver who's been in Inverness for two years.

For supper we went back to La Tortilla Asesina for more tapas, then returned to our room to pack before leaving on our train early the next morning.

For more photos on Wednesday 21st May, see Photos on 2014-05-21. For Kiesa's parallel account, see Scotland – Day 7.

Everyone I'm sure, knows that when something goes wrong somewhere,
anywhere, anytime it is automatically SCOTT'S FAULT. Your dog ran away?
SCOTT'S FAULT. Your car won't start? SCOTT'S FAULT. Your power got
shut off because you forgot to mail the check? Yep, once again, SCOTT'S
FAULT. It is very similar to the "six degrees of separation" theory.
Somehow everything can be tied back to Scott.
- Renee Galvin, 25 October 2000