Exploring Easter Ross

By | Category: Travel destinations

heading towards Rogart

Visitors other than cyclists or those heading for the Orkney ferries rarely travel north of Inverness on the eastern side of Scotland. The lure of Loch Ness and the Western Isles is too strong. So is the visitor missing anything?

I travelled south on one of the daily Scot Rail train services from Golspie through Easter Ross to Inverness, to find out. As we left Golspie, the train clutched at a small strip of land between the water’s edge and cliffs before heading inland to Rogart and Lairg. It is scenic, quiet and seems to lose all the road traffic that accompanies the train because a bridge over Loch Fleet takes the lorries and cars on a short cut to Dornoch and Tain. For those of us the train, it’s a trip inland to five places before we get to Tain which takes almost an hour. I wonder how long the cars take?

At Rogart a square, hand painted wooden sign propped idly against the wall announces that accommodation is nearby. An old train coach and bus stand at the car park and greet a sole walker that gets off our train. He has told me that he plans to spend the next few hours walking to Lairg and picking up the next train in four hours’ time. Rather him than me. Too many hills for my liking but as I’ve got older, I’ve got lazier. As the train continues I consider that we could just as easily be in Cumbria or down south of Blair Atholl. There is more browned heather and I have made a mental note to return in the late spring when it should be more colourful.

Lairg is as far inland as we go: the line curls around to head back, once more to the North Sea. There are more wind turbines in the distance as we arrive at the station but it is the statue of a sheep (I couldn’t see quickly enough whether it was stone or wood) that welcomes us to a level crossing just before we enter Lairg. At last Luirg – the Gaelic – is recognisable as the name of this place.

pronoucing Tain in Gaelic

Baile Dhubhthaich in the early morning sunshine

Some others like Baile Dhubhthaich (which is Tain) have completely defeated me in either pronunciation or wondering why the name was so different from the name by which it is more usually known. How is that I can get my tongue around Welsh names but not this other variant of a Celtic language?
A castle looms over us as we reach Culrain. What wealthy laird lives here? Actually it’s a hostel called Carbisdale Castle and is run by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.

Through acre after acre of forest we trudge back to the sea and Ardgay. And trudging is what it seems like. The train seems to have realised it has gone out of its way and seems in no hurry to continue its travel. No one boards at Invershin so we barely slow. here is supposedly one of the sights I should see in the Autumn – salmon jumping the falls. ut for the moment, he place name still reminds me of some sort of rugby players’ ailment. You can imagine the sufferer calling to the referee and asking for the man with the wet sponge to come on and magically cure his invershin! Except that they don’t use wet sponges anymore. It’s all spray cans and physios!

Dornoch Firth in the early morning

Leaving our rugby ailment we sidle over a wide loch or is it a river? Down below more sheep dot the landscape as the Dornoch Firth accompanies us on the left hand side before we stop at Ardgay. Leaning over the fence at the station the placid firth reminds me just why I am here. Peace and quiet with just the landscape to enthuse over. In the old days a John Buchan novel would have Edward Leithin or Richard Hannay daydreaming over a salmon or sea trout lurking in the shade and how big it might be. To me it was just a place to sit and contemplate the woes of the universe, preferably with a beer in hand. For my wife however a window with the word chocolate emblazoned on it as we entered the station would have been more attractive. But why was it on a second storey window? And just one word? This journey was posing more and more questions!

around Ardgay

Like a child who knows it is being taken to the beach, the train seemed to travel at breakneck speed as it snaked by the widening firth on its way to Tain. Was I seeing more seabirds or more cows now? And where had the sheep gone to? And why with all this water was there only one boat in sight.
At Tain, a West Highland Terrier (is there no East Highland Terrier?) barked as the train pulled before we were greeted by another Scottish tradition – a golf course! But Tain is also linked to another Scottish tradition. Here, Glenmorangie has a centre where, over a day or two or perhaps a weekend, you can taste and learn about its many malts.

As we travelled south the land became pastoral, crops were grown rather than allowing animals to graze. Distant snow-capped mountains appeared again. As we sped through Invergordon, (Inbhirghordain in Gaelic – another obvious translation) the right hand side revealed the distillery hidden in a row of buildings. What you could see were hundreds and hundreds of casks stacked outside.

waving to us at Invergordon

But as we entered the station, hand painted figures gazed from the station building walls. In 1940’s style was a soldier and a boy with a saucepan stuck on his head. The boy was saluting whilst his unhappy mother hailed a soldier the other side of the exit who returned the wave. A tank blithely cut through swathes of flowers. A soldier was kissing his sweetheart whilst another at the platform end was craftily smoking a cigarette secure in the knowledge that he was out of eyesight.

troops heading for the train?

All this public art is part of the murals created to show the history of the town and the wider area. Now the town is known as the mural capital of the highland. Now they are a tourist attraction in their own right even to the extent that cruise ships visit here. As we left this war-time reminder, a more modern structure loomed over us. Was it a North sea oil terminal being built or refitted? Yes Invergordon – forever linked to the mutiny between the wars – is now better identified as a repair base for oil rigs.

From here it seemed as though the train was yearning to return home to Inverness for we fairly shot along. Down into Dingwall we rocked from side to side and my fingers hit far more wrong laptop keys than correct ones. My legs came dangerously closed to be drenched in the hot tea I had yet to drink. And when the train braked suddenly it was hard not to lean forward. We connected with the line from Kyle of Lochalsh and, for some reason given the speed we had torn along, sedately entered Dingwall as though the train wanted the town to acknowledge its presence.

repairing a rig

At many of the stations through which we went there was a sign proclaiming that we were on the national cycle network interchange between Inverness and John o’ Groats. You would need to be pretty fit to undertake that ride. Not just the 140 mile plus journey but the hills, the distances between stops and the solitude. But then you would be able to stop at some of the places that I didn’t visit like the falls at Invershin. And sit and watch the waters lapping the rocks as the sheep dotted on the hills.

Now there’s a thought for ScotRail. A daily, hop-on, hop-off ticket.

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