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A Hidden Highland Gem

The former spa town of Strathpeffer appears frozen in time, with exuberant
Victorian architecture and weekly Highland dancing in the square.


My first experience of Strathpeffer was early in 2005 when Catherine and I were looking for somewhere to get married. "The Spa Pavilion has been done up," a friend advised us. So off we went to have a look. "Done up" was hardly a fair description. A 2-million restoration programme (about $3 million), overseen by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, had transformed the 1881 Pavilion into a stunning venue with fantastic acoustics. Yes, we were told, they were just about to start using the building for weddings. We booked a date for that August... the 20th I think.

We had the service, reception and evening dance in the main hall, the impressive balcony dripping with garlands of flowers and looking really quite stunning. During the ceilidh Catherine and I slipped outside to enjoy the beautiful weather we had that day and were enthralled to see a pipe band marching up and down in the square opposite. Well, it's pretty good of the Pavilion to put this on for us, I said. Drawn by the excellent music we went across the road to join the already large crowd of locals and tourists.

Ah, stirring stuff. Who could not be moved by the skirl of the pipes, the heady beating of the drum and the sight of kilts swishing to and fro, as perfectly in time with each other as the notes played on the chanters? As a young man I played the pipes so I had some understanding of the challenges faced when performing outside (when the wind is blowing hard it goes down your drones and up your kilt, both of which can adversely affect playing!). It turned out that during the summer months the Strathpeffer Pipe Band plays in the square every Saturday evening. Apparently, they've not missed a performance in nearly 30 years -- that sort of dedication deserves recognition and explains why they are so good.

For a place with fewer than 1,500 residents, there's an awful lot to see, hear and experience in Strathpeffer. In its heyday it attracted the rich and famous -- Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, Emmeline Pankhurst (the British suffragette leader), plus a regular smattering of European royal families. Perhaps their modern day equivalent will start coming again, though EU regulations, unfortunately, prevent people from drinking the spa water, which was the original reason for the town coming into existence during the 19th century. Much of the town centre reflects the Victorian architecture of the time. The Upper Pump Room, next door to the Pavilion, is once more open to the public. Following its completion in 1839, people flocked to "take the waters" in the hope of curing an extraordinary variety of common ailments and, it has to be said, several that were not so common!

Today, it houses an exhibition about the history of the area and I went there to meet the "sweetie ladies," Maureen and Shirley, so called locally because in addition to running the exhibition they operate The Real Sweets & Gift Company from the premises.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Piping Hot Glasgow by Jim Gilchrist.

Click here to preview our column on Scotland In Music by Edward Scott Pearlman.

Click here to preview our column on the Highland Bagpipe by Gary West.

Click here to preview our reviews of Scottish Books.