The following reminiscences were contributed by Ken Lowson in November 2016.
In 1973 I started a two-year catering course at the then Technical College in Dundee. Part of the course was to spend the summer months between the years working in a hotel to gain experience. Not sure now how I chose Strathpeffer but in May 1974 I was on the station platform in Dingwall. How to get to The Highland Hotel was my first challenge; being a student there was no money for a taxi and no idea where or when to get a bus. I got directions to the road to Ullapool and hitched a lift. It didn’t take long.
The first thing that strikes you at the bottom of the village is how imposing the hotel is. I reported to reception and was soon shown to where I was to spend the next 5 months living. My accommodation was in the hotel on the ground floor somewhere behind reception. I shared with another lad from Aberdeen. The girls all had accommodation on the first floor, (strictly out of bounds). There were a few lads in the hotel but most stayed in a house just across the road from the back of the hotel. Nearly all of the seasonal staff were from the Glasgow area, other than 3 Dutch staff who were employed as waiting staff. They had been employed to serve the few private guests at the hotel. The bulk of the customers then were coach parties. I remember there being up to five coaches a night. They were each called into the restaurant by their coach number.
First morning. Up at 6.30 ready to serve breakfast from 7.00am. The dining room was huge; it ran the full length of the hotel from front to back. The private guests were at the front of the hotel with the tables set to look out over the gardens. The rest of the dining room was for the coach parties, the drivers and some of the more high profile staff. It was manic, wave after wave of people being served: tea, coffee, toast, full Scottish breakfasts, kippers, cereal, more tea and coffee. Clear away and then get set up again. 9.30 it all stops. Only been working for two and a half hours and I want to go back to bed. All of the staff then have their own breakfast, relax and then get set for lunch. It was a good time to get to know the others in the waiting team.
There was a lady in charge of the dining room, can’t remember her name now but she lived in Dingwall and drove a little Mini. First morning after breakfast she asked me as the “new boy” if I would like to take Archie for a walk. I thought, bit of dog walking is bound to be better than setting up for lunch. I said yes and was introduced to Archie. Archie was the biggest heaviest Vacuum cleaner I had ever seen. I was then told to take Archie for a walk round the dining room, not missing any of the crumbs. I learned after that not to volunteer for anything.
Lunches were a much quieter affair with only a few coaches passing through and some private/chance customers who were looked after by the Dutch staff. On getting to know them, they had come over to spend the summer learning English and to see some of Scotland. They didn’t learn much from the Glaswegians!!
Dinners were from 6 through until 9.00pm. Three courses full silver service with tea and coffee served in the lounge afterwards.
There was usually some form of entertainment on in the evenings and there was also a show in the Pavilion a couple of times a week. One of the turns on the bill at the Pavilion was a mind reading act performed by a husband and wife act, Marina and Eddie, who stayed at the hotel for the summer. Having seen the act a few times and also seen them perform in the hotel we tried to figure out how they managed to do it. On stage he was blindfolded and she walked about the audience and would obtain an item from one of the guests. She would then ask him what she was holding. There would be a short discussion between the two and then he would tell her and the audience what the item was. It took us a while to gain their confidence and tell us how it was done. They used keywords in their conversation. People only carry a few regular items on their person and they had code words for each item and others for colours. So during the conversation they had the code words for the item and the colour would be given. Easy when you know how but very difficult to carry it off in a natural way.
We spent the rest of the evening after work in a bar or generally messing about. I think it was either in the Pavilion or the Brunstane up the hill behind the hotel. I am sure the owner then was visually impaired but could still play the piano.
The Pavilion - Looking back the Pavilion was a “chalk & cheese” building. One thing during the day and weekday evenings another total different place on a Friday & Saturday night. The week was a gentle place to have a snack during the day and in the evening some good Scottish entertainment. I had my first ice cream float there. (a glass of coke with a dollop of ice cream on the top). I also tried the spa water, never again. However at the weekends the building heaved with the sound of whatever band it was plus the disco. I remember the place always being packed but never any trouble.
On the summer equinox a large group of us met up after work with a group from the Ben Wyvis and together with suitable refreshments we went to the top of a hill somewhere near the Ben Wyvis to watch the sunrise.
I left before the end of the season as I had to return to college, but not long after my return someone told me that there was a Gala Dinner & Dance at the end of the season and that staff were needed for the event. The dining room looked great and the food totally different from the usual fare that had been served up all season. The hotel was filled with the great and the good from the locality and a fantastic time was had by all, including the staff.
I often think I would love to come back to Strathpeffer, to see the Highland Hotel, The Pavilion and to generally wander round the village having my memory jogged by the sights, but does time add a glossy sheen to the memories? I would hate to come back and be disappointed, however I don’t think I would. Maybe one day.
Strathpeffer certainly does have a certain something that once experienced never goes away. I hope those who live in the village appreciate it.