The Highland Museum of Childhood was closed… except, in a way, it wasn’t.
Standing on the platform of a re-invented Victorian railway station, I’d gone spinning through time down a black and white spiral to arrive in the pages of a hereto unknown Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis collaboration, Five go to the Iron Dragon’s Lair.
Victorian railway stations that have lost their raison d’être are often abject objects; depressing reminders of a golden era where to travel meant to explore and embrace, not simply as a reason to pick up a sun tan or another ‘I heart’ T-shirt without plunging even a hesitant toe into the cultural waters of some exotic destination.
It’s been a long, long time since roaring dragons huffed and puffed into Strathpeffer’s Victorian station, billowing excitedly; or the station’s platforms have resounded with the clip clop of elegant heels alighting onto concrete welcome mats; their owners in search of some Scottish spa town pampering.
But it hasn’t been abandoned to time. Strathpeffer Station in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, has evolved into a magical portal that stirs memories.
On a summer Sunday morning, there was no one else around. The lack of other humans enhanced the sensation that I’d stepped through the wardrobe.
The track that once welcomed smart visitors from as far afield as London (16 hours down the track), between 1885 and 1951, now looks more like a grassy bridleway. Like many railway stations, it enters a tunnel almost as soon as it leaves the station. But Strathpeffer’s isn’t man made and dangerously dark, it’s a tree tunnel; a welcoming glade that draws you in to another realm.
This reminder of a proud industrialised age has now become a nature trail; a reversal of purpose. There’s irony in those there hills.
Pulling out of the station on two legs I was met with a swathe of wild flowers including one that has enchanted me since they were first pointed out at my aunt’s farm; foxgloves.
Ever since that time, the mention of them always conjures up a dandy fox in breeches and a waistcoat browsing through the hedgerows in search of a pair of foxgloves that would fit his dainty paws perfectly.
The museum of childhood memories.
The Scottish Highlands boast a history that is so rich, mystical, colourful and violent that its legacy seemed to pervade the very air that surrounded me. I often think that Scotland feels different to anywhere else in the world. But maybe that’s because of my roots; possibly the wind whispers in my ear, gently sweeping the dust from long forgotten tales and teachings from my youth.
On this one short route, as well as having an historic start, the trail passes near to an Iron Age fort and small crofts that were given to soldiers returning from bloody campaigns in the 1700s.
My favourite slice of local history comes near the end of the trail courtesy of Castle Leod, the ancestral home to the Earls of Cromartie. Move over Lewis and Blyton, here comes Stevenson.
This arrogant Scottish castle is a symbol of the contrasting mix of warrior and artist sometimes found in the Scottish gene.
When originally built, like many Highland castles, there was no ground entrance. The constant feuds between clans meant you couldn’t trust someone from sneaking in and slitting your family’s throats in the dark of the night so entrances were built off the ground, reached only by easy-to-defend narrow steps.
The residents of Castle Leod were as flamboyant as Scotland’s history with some of the noble women given to jumping naked out of cakes or performing the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in front of the British monarchy.
The most compelling custodian was a fellow known as the ‘Tutor of Kintail’; a man who was feared almost as much as the Devil himself because of his ruthless subjugation of the Highlands. There’s a great story about the ‘Tutor’ being out riding alone when his path was blocked by a number of men from another clan. Without saying a word he dismounted, strode over to a large boulder and proceeded to sharpen his sword on the rock (think old school Clint Eastwood). It was an action that spoke much, much louder than words.
He was allowed to pass.
Life is much calmer now and there were no burly clansmen with drawn claymores to welcome my return to the outskirts of Strathpeffer, only more wild flowers and the promise of a pint of Tennent’s lager.
In the end I didn’t manage to visit the Highland Museum of Childhood… except, in a way, I did.
The Museum of Childhood is open from 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and from 2 to 5pm Sunday between 1st April and 31st October (entrance £2.50 adults, £1.50 children). There’s also a café at the railway station.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+