After Orkney it was a comparatively hasty journey south, we headed first to Dunnet Head, the most Northerly point of Mainland Britain. It was strange to visit Dunnet Head after Orkney, as if we had stolen Dunnet Heads thunder by previously visiting a point further north. The day was bright and gusty and the heather was beginning to come out along with bright little orchid flowers.
The night’s destination was Tain, and we visited the Rockrose Gin Distillery, the Castle of Old Wick and Pultney Distillery along the way. The scenery changed greatly in that time, in contrast to the tree-less fields of Orkney and the tussocky fields around Dunnet, Tain was Paradise. We hadn’t realised how much we missed Trees!
In Tain we stayed with a lovely Emma Thompson doppelganger. She was fiercely opinionated about the recent Brexit vote results. She explained how a year on from the referendum of Scottish Independence there were still friendships lost through opposing opinions, but now, given the choice between the EU and UK her vote would be to leave the UK and stay in the EU, a “unity is strength” sentiment. This was a perspective I have since heard again, from a drunk old Scots accountant in a pub who was “European FIRRRST, Scottish SECOND and British THIRRRD” in his allegiances. It was welcome to have discussions with voters so passionate. By contrast we had sat in a café on Orkney and watched the results unfurl with great surprise and trepidation, but the rest of the café customers seemed disinterested.
The drive further south the following day was through pretty coastal farmland dotted with privately owned castles and lush estates. But the road was big and boring.
Fort George was our tourist destination for the day, fortified walls run 1 mile around the grounds of this military garrison still in use by the army today. The walls are topped by cannon and the view from them is spectacular – looking out over the Moray Firth we saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins!
The Fort was built to defend the government against any potential Jacobite uprisings after the failed 1745 rebellion which had culminated in the Battle of Culloden just a few miles away. There’s a historical interpreter who did a wee talk and show of weapons, but the maximum impact is really just from the scale of the place, by wandering around the multitude of barracks and offices you get an idea of the overwhelming force the crown put in place to tame the rebellious Scots.
Our home for the next couple of days was near Glenlivet, a small settlement with a very large whisky distillery of the same name. Glenlivet has something of a monopoly on the American market for Scotch – so its factory is appropriately on a grand scale. Just standing outside the barrel storehouse (where the whisky is left to mature) the smell was strong and sweet.
From Glenlivet we visited two castles and a falconry:
- Balvenie Castle has very little left; in fact our strongest memory of this castle was being chased around the crumbling remains of the kitchen by an irate oyster catcher which was dive bombing us to protect its wall top nest.
- Huntly was much more impressive, especially in the atmospheric torrential rain which greeted our arrival there. The chap manning the ticket booth took pity on me in my insubstantial ‘wet weather woolly hat’ and lent me a Walkers Shortbread umbrella. It was toting this big brolly that we pranced into the grand chambers of the castle – these are also open to the weather with streams of water cascading through the planks of a deck style floor above. The castle was six floors of dripping, carved rock. Ornate fireplaces stood in rooms which lacked both windowpanes and roofs. Below the castle were big dry cellars and the remains of a moat.
Between the two castles is a Falconry Centre, it was not immediately a nice place to visit as the birds all seemed bored and twitchy (I would be too were I tied to a perch all day). But as the demonstration got going and birds were given a chance to fly my distaste dwindled, the handler clearly loved and cared for the birds. We were shown a falcon which swooped and wiggled its tail, landing with deft precision on the falconers gloved hand. When the man asked who wanted to wear the glove and be a falcon perch I leapt at the chance! The bird was surprisingly light and I may as well have been a post for all it cared, as its attention was not on me but fixed on the falconer and his pieces of baby chicken.
The next bird was an eagle owl which had been hand raised and was fearless and friendly, so for the first time I was able to pat and hold an eagle owl, it didn’t seem to mind my ruffling its feathers. I even stroked the tufted ‘ears’ atop its head!
The star of the show though, was Bob the deer; as an uncooperative falcon sat obstinately on a fencepost, Bob wandered over and gave the small audience moist kisses and offered his velvet antlers for scratching.
The last stop before returning the rental car was Stirling Castle. The castle has had a great deal of work done to it in recent times, while this is wonderful as it means everything is now well preserved for future generations, it rather lacks any fodder for the imagination. Everything is a little too clean and new in appearance. But, do the guided tour and suddenly the history of the place takes centre stage, the turbulent past is thrilling and the tour guide was not just knowledgeable but a quick wit. We learnt about the kings and heroes, but also the restoration of the buildings after they had been used as army barracks. The Great Hall’s exterior is now painted in authentic ‘Kings Gold’ a colour which stands out against the surrounding sombre stone architecture of Stirling.
When we dropped off the car back in Glasgow we had completed 1700 miles (2735km) over 25 days.
Before leaving Scotland we had a few days in Edinburgh – my favourite city! We arrived to rain, grey skies and despite the early hour it was very close to dark. There were homeless people sat in puddles, the shops seemed run down and unattractively littered with torn posters and advertising. I had a moment of self-doubt – was this really the great city I remembered? However, further from Haymarket Station the suburbs changed and by the time we arrived at our accommodation (a lovely Georgian flat with thistles on the wall paper) I was convinced of Edinburgh’s charm again.
I didn’t even know Edinburgh had a canal, but over the next few days we came to know it very well as it was our quickest route to the old town. It was a peaceful sanctuary through the central suburbs and has on it a river boat café which possibly serves the best coffee in Edinburgh. The canal edge is also a very popular cycle path, each day we checked the cyclist counter and it was in the hundreds by mid-morning. We even saw a group of tandem riders all wearing matching knee-high tartan socks!
At the end of the canal is the modern city which in turn leads to Grassmarket and here the glorious view of the Castle is a backdrop to everything. It rises above the rest of the city crouched atop the rocky cliffs and gazes down the royal mile, still owning the town. Unless you have a particular interest in regimental history, or feel the need to see the Scottish crown jewels, it is not worth paying entry as the view from either the Grassmarket or Princes Street is the castles best angle.
The better castle for exploring is Craigmillar, known as ‘Edinburgh’s Other Castle’, it is as exciting to explore as Huntly. Despite being a ruin there are plenty of spiral staircases and nooks, some rooms are roofless while others even have window panes! The sun was shining and despite the scattered visitors it felt as though the castle was ours alone.
We happened to be in Edinburgh for the celebrations of the opening of the 5th Session of Scottish Parliament, down by Holyrood Palace were crowds watching Highland dancing girls perform. The crowd seemed waiting and expectant. Nearby were the sad remains of a pro Scottish independence ‘Vote YES’ camp with banners saying ‘End London Rule’.
The day was sunny so we left the festivities behind and trailed up Arthur’s Seat. The gentle green slopes at the foot change to steep bare rock at the top. During the climb the city is obscured by the surrounding hillside, it is at the top that the whole vista suddenly appears in front of you; the Castle dwarfed when viewed from this height, blends into the city.
These are the memories we have of Scotland; grand views, ancient castles and wild scenery. But while in Scotland there are also some tastes which are not to be missed –for a moment forget about the grand scenery and history, turn instead to Scotland’s incredible flavours; surprisingly the most ‘Scottish’ combination seems to be ginger and rhubarb (despite neither being a native of Scotland). There are of course also whisky and haggis, but Gin and vegetarian haggis seem to be gaining popularity too. Here are some of my personal favourites:
- Vegetarian Haggis: You don’t need to be vegetarian to enjoy this, I like traditional meaty haggis too – but the vegetarian one is possibly a winner! It is served in most pubs (particularly in cities) and is best with whisky sauce.
- Crowdie: a tasty Scottish version of cream cheese, a little harder to find on menus, but very good on a roast potato!
- Edinburgh Rhubarb and Ginger infused Gin liqueur: all the best flavours!
- Wooleys of Arran Oatcakes: We’ve tried a lot of oatcakes, these are the thickest and most satisfying.
- Crabbies Ginger Beer: available back home too – but made in Edinburgh!
- Mackays Rhubarb and ginger preserve: delicious on toast.
- Mackies of Scotland Haggis and cracked black pepper potato crisps: I checked and the locals also enjoy these (I was concerned they were just a tourist novelty!)
- Ginger Grouse Alcoholic Ginger Beer: surprisingly good and very warming drink containing Famous Grouse whisky.
Of course I cannot recommend Scottish brands without digressing and also recommending a visit to:
- Walker Slater: High end tailored wool clothing, in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket there are separate menswear and ladies wear stores. I was particularly enamoured with the ladies store as it is so rare to find elegantly tailored ladies coats equal to mens. I didnt buy anything, but as a designer it is an absolute treasure trove of ideas and a thrill to try things on!
And with that, we left Scotland (but don’t worry it wasn’t long before our return).