My name is Colin Baird and I love travelling in Scotland, my home country, on a bicycle. My dream is to see all of Scotland by bike. Many people cycle around the world or across a continent and blog about one-off adventures. My approach is different as I want to explore one country in-depth and this is not a one-off trip- I keep on exploring..
This is an exciting account of James McLaren's attempt to beat the world record for the fastest cycle across Europe. The journey begins in Ufa, Russia and proceeds through 9 countries to reach the coast in Portugal. The focus of the book is the incredible human effort required to undertake this feat. It is a race against time so there is little insight into the culture and people of the countries, but you feel like you are right there with James. His fast paced and personable writing style draws you into this world of emotion, physical pain and sheer joy.
The book begins with a great opening that perfectly captures the nerves at the start of such a journey:
"What am I doing? I thought to myself, as I sat in a room on the ninth floor in a nice hotel in Ufa, Russia, staring at my bike all boxed-up in cardboard."
From that moment I was hooked on this book, wanting to find out how this journey will progress, what will happen along the way and if James will beat the record.
Chapter two is where we learn of James' background, his life in Devon, his interest in cycling and why he wanted to attempt the record. There is nothing particular unusual here and I found it the least interesting part of the book; I was desperate to get stuck into the record attempt. Likewise, I was keen to get past chapter three which is about James' training regime, although it does give you a good idea of the amount of effort that is required to embark upon such a project.
What made me really warm to James and to care about his journey was his honesty about the highs and lows. There is no ego here and you just get the impression of a normal guy wanting to do something amazing with his life. He knows that a month long cycle trip is insignificant compared to what many sports people have done, but he choose it as something that he thought was personally achievable. He had read about the previous record and the daily mileage was something that he felt he was capable of exceeding.
The relentless pace of 8 or 9 hours cycling each day, broken only with short rest stops to eat and then sleep at night, made it difficult to put the book down. I found myself routing for James and wanting him to reach his daily target of 120 miles. At the end of each day's cycling the book displays a statistics summary showing the mileage and average speed. I was cheering inside when the daily target was exceeded on particularly challenging days and James has quite a few of these. In particular, his journey across Poland was marred with horrendous knee pain.
I found it fascinating to read about the logistics of a trip like this. For example, although James travels with a tent it is sometimes a dilemma for him to choose the tent or a hotel for a night. The advantage of hotels is that it saves time in the morning as there is no need to pack up the tent and gear and allows an opportunity to dry out soaking wet clothes using a hairdryer. However, the disadvantage is that hotels can restrict the route and mean that James might have to stop short of his mileage target. The record attempt requires meticulous record keeping, such as photos, stats from a cycle computer, a log book and witness signatures. Despite being exhausted in the evening James must spend time on this paperwork. Food is simply fuel on this journey, so you will learn nothing of the wonderful foods of Europe. Fast food, kebabs and whatever can be found in petrol stations end up being a mainstay of James' diet, although he does describe the joy of French patisserie.
I liked the inclusion of James' photographs of the journey, appearing every few pages- camping spots, hotel rooms, the open road. They add to the pace of the book, brief impressions of places, just passing through, life on the road.
With a record attempt it inevitably means that there is simply no time to enjoy the sites of the countries that James powers through. There are very few encounters with local people; this is very much a solo affair. There are some short interactions with other cyclists. There are some descriptions of pretty towns and scenery, but nothing very detailed. If you are looking for more of a cycle travelogue you will not find it here, but that's not what this book is about. If you have ever wondered about taking on a long distance cycling record then this book will give you a very honest account of what it involves and it is no vacation, that's for sure!
I really enjoyed this book and if you would like to buy it on Amazon just click on the image below:
These days it is easier than ever before to pack up your life, pack in your job and take to the road long-term. With so many ways to make a living on the road, and so many adventures out there calling, you might be thinking about making the leap. If you’re wondering where to start with your planning for a long-term travel lifestyle, let’s have a look at the basics:
Keep accommodation costs low Accommodation is likely to be your greatest expense as a long-term traveller. Unless you plan on camping every night - which can be great fun at first but, believe me, can get tiring quite quickly - you will need to think about cost-effective ways to find a bed for the night. Youth hostels and backpacker hostels provide good budget options, and in Scotland you can always aim for an uninhabited bothy in the wilds, but these traditional travellers choices are far from your only options. Peer-to-peer accommodation platforms such as Airbnb or Couchsurfing offer very affordable alternatives, and can lead you to find new friendships and local insider knowledge for your destination
Pack smart and travel light When on the road for extended periods, particularly if you are cycling, carrying your gear can quickly become the bane of your life. Those extra items, that seemed indispensable when you first packed your bags, will soon become nothing but dead weight. You might like the idea of having three books to choose from when you come to wind down at the end of the day, but why not pack smart and carry a Kindle instead to save your back? A wooly jumper might seem a good idea for the great outdoors, but when its wet and weighs a ton you will wish you’d invested in one of those lightweight jerseys and a waterproof jacket. The moral of the story is: think in grams. Small differences in weight will make a big difference to your enjoyment of the journey so be bold and carry only what you can’t live without.
Stay safe and get protected If you are planning to be on the road long-term, your gear and your body are your greatest assets. Make sure that both are protected by investing in specialist safety gear for your chosen activities and ensuring you have decent, comprehensive insurance cover. Protective equipment might range from a simple head net to keep the midges off all the way to the top of the range cycle helmet and hiking boots. When it comes to choosing insurance, look carefully at the small print so you know which activities and equipment are covered. If the worst does happen, experts advise that you have the emergency numbers on speed dial to report any damage or theft as quickly as possible. This will give you the best possible chance to claim cover for your lost or damaged items.
It's hard to believe that this peaceful loch and mountain setting was once a place where cannonballs were made to fight Napolean's armies. The Bonawe Iron Furnace operated from 1753 to 1876 in scenic Argyll. You can explore the remains of the site as well as spending a bit of time in Taynuilt, including the marvelous Robin's Nest tearoom.
How to Get to Taynuilt Take a train to Taynuilt on the Glasgow to Oban line. It's two stops before Oban, about 2 hours 40 minutes from Glasgow.
Taynuilt station has a backdrop of mountains and a vintage signal box on the platform. Flower boxes fixed to the fence posts are an explosion of colour.
Once my train pulled away there was silence, not even birdsong. Only when I bent down to sort something on my bike did I hear a trickle from a stream. It took me by surprise after the constant noise of the train's diesel engine for over 2 hours to be suddenly deposited into this tranquility. It took my city-exposed senses a while to adjust to this.
Flower boxes at Taynuilt station
After a long train journey I was in need of a cafe stop and Taynuilt has the wonderful Robin's Nest tearoom. The blackboard proudly states 'all the baking done in the tearoom kitchen.'
Blackboard of Robin's Nest Tearoom in Taynuilt.
Robin's Nest Tearoom Inside there are not that many tables and several had reserved signs on them. I heard a local say "the church hasn't come in yet", and I wondered if, being a Sunday, this is where the congregation came for post-worship coffee. The interior is traditional with pine furniture and local artwork on display. I overhead a conversation about a giant salmon that someone had caught in a nearby river. A poster on the wall stated that there was a £1950 jackpot in the Village Hall lotto.
I ordered the butternut squash soup which tasted sweet and delicious. No wonder this place is so popular when the food is this good- I was told I might have to share my table and all the customers were being given a time when they needed to vacate their table by. My coffee cake, decorated with coffee beans, was also superb.
A Walk Around Taynuilt Although a small village Taynuilt has a good selection of shops, including a Post Office, butcher, grocer and hairdresser. It doesn't take long to see everything, but it is very pleasant to stroll and there is a photogenic garden next to the red phone box.
Taynuilt with the Post Office and butchers
The Post Office in Taynuilt
The red phone box in Taynuilt
How to Get to Bonawe Iron Furnace It is just under one mile from Taynuilt station to Bonawe Iron Furnace, about 7 minutes on a bicycle or a 20 minute walk. The route is mainly on a very quiet B-road where you are unlikely to be troubled by vehicles.
Exploring Bonawe Iron Furnace What surprised me about the site is how extensive it is. I had imagined just one building with the remnants of a furnace inside, but there are multiple buildings that are spread over an area that requires a decent amount of walking to cover. Two of the largest buildings were used to store charcoal. They are enormous inside, giving a good impression of the massive quantity of charcoal that was required to make iron.
Inside one of the charcoal storehouses at Bonawe
The supply of charcoal is the reason why there is an iron furnace in this remote location. The operation had been set up by an English company based in Cumbria. The wood supplies had been exhausted in that region and the company knew that the forests of Argyll would provide what they needed. It made business sense to transport the raw ore by boat to Argyll where there was plenty of oak and birch trees to make it into iron.
One of the buildings at Bonawe Iron Furnace
Another resource that was required in large quantity at Bonawe was water. A waterwheel powered the bellows that were used in the smelting process. The water came from the River Awe.
The Furnace building at Bonawe Iron Furnace
The Furnace building at Bonawe Iron Furnace
The site is so tranquil and tidy, with neat grass lawns, and this makes it difficult to imagine what it was like when over 600 people once worked here. A small number of the workers were from Cumbria, but most were recruited locally and were Gaelic speakers. Most of the staff were employed seasonally, in the summer, to cut down trees and fire the wood to make charcoal.
Bonawe Iron Furnace building
The wages were poor and some of it paid in oatmeal, ale or whisky. The furnacemen worked 12-hour shifts, so it was no surprise that excessive drinking took place.
It was technological advances that made Bonawe redundant. Iron could be made cheaper elsewhere and the place shut down. in 1876. What you see today is a collection of stone, industrial buildings set within gorgeous scenery. It has been tamed by the beauty of the landscape, the noise and grim working conditions no more.
A view of the buildings at Bonawe Iron Furnace, looking towards some houses and the hills
A view of hills and a smart house from Bonawe Iron Furnace
After my visit to Bonawe I made the short cycle to the old pier where the the iron ore was landed after its journey from Cumbria. The pier is overgrown with a thick layer of grass. I walked its length and could smell salt in the air. Loch Etive was calm with some kayakers enjoying a paddle. The surrounding hills were lush with trees. The sun was out and the whole place was ideal for sitting and relaxing.
The Bonawe Iron Furnace pier where iron ore was landed
If you are looking for inspiration of where to go mountain biking in the UK then you have to check out this list. There are some great routes on this list, including 3 in Scotland- Torridon, Lairig Ghuru and Stob Ban.
Cycling technology can be used to measure your metrics, guide you on your route and much more. Photo by Pebble Technology // CC BY-SA 1.0
Traditional cyclists may opt out of using too much technology, yet there’s no denying that it’s useful for both safety and performance. Cycling gadgets can help you to understand your own vitals, optimize your bike and your output and motivate you to ride to the best of your ability. Even if you are trying to keep the weight down on your lovely carbon fibre bike, the odd bit of extra gear is barely noticeable, especially given that a lot of the gear is designed to be exceptionally lightweight. Let’s take a look at a few recommendations.
Cycling Apps There’s an app for everything these days and cycling is no different. There’s plenty of choice here. Strava is easily the most popular, with around 11 million workouts uploaded per week and 8.5 billion kilometres clocked in 2018. It’s free to download the basic version. It measures stuff like speed, distance, heart rate, power and cadence.
Strava also records your routes (if you want it to), so that you can share them with the growing community. You can find nearby routes and races and try to beat other user’s times, or your own personal bests. The premium version has additional features, such as fitness and training plans and live beacon.
It doesn’t have to be Strava, there are plenty of others that could work for you. For many casual riders, a cycling app will be pretty much all you need for basic metrics.
Cycling Computers Cycling computers are the technological bread and butter for competitive cyclists, whilst hobbyists and casual riders will also see the benefits of getting a less expensive model. A decent cycling computer will be your faithful companion and trusty interface, be it a on day trip with friends, or a serious Scottish cycling sportif. Top and bottom of it is, you will get much more out of a dedicated cycling computer than you will an app, with full tracking, metrics and insights available for all of your rides. With a top-end model like the Garmin Edge 1030, you can send pre-written messages to other riders in your group, connect to your smartphone to see notifications and get directions via GPS. The 20 hour battery life lasts long enough that it's unlikely you will be caught out and left lost or confused. A decent cycling computer can keep you out of trouble on a long distance route.
Metrics and Measurements Serious competitors and sports coaches also take measurements and metrics seriously. The big change recently is that technology has made it much easier and more accurate to take vital measurements and performance data, as well as helping to make sense of it using meaningful analysis.
Sports coach and poker player, Wen Sime uses a heartrate monitor to ensure optimal decision-making. Cyclists also use a heartrate monitor to check on their own safety and to record intervals. There are also performance metrics that can be measured using hardware such as power meters to measure torque and effectiveness, and cadence meters to measure speed and efficiency.
To make the most out of a pro-level cycling computer, you can link it up with your metrics and measurements hardware. In any case, competitive cyclists or those looking to best themselves can use the data gathered to make changes to their own training and performance, and also to tweak their bike for optimal performance. Smarter Helmets and Lights
Every cyclist needs a helmet and lights… just how ‘smart’ they are is up to you. Photo by unknown // CC0 1.0
Helmets and lights are essential pieces of safety technology in their own right. Every cyclist should own a decent helmet for protection; and equip their bikes with plenty of lights and indicators to negate risks of incompetency from drivers on the road.
Smart helmets can now offer even more safety, with extra LED lights and indicators. Some even have the ability to detect when an accident has happened and can send GPS co-ordinates to loved ones or the emergency services. The Livall BH60SE helmet is packed full of additional features, such as hands-free calls and music.
LED lights can perform similar functions, shining more brightly at junctions, detecting accidents and sending messages to contacts. The most advanced lights send a visual warning to your cycling computer alerting you to when traffic is coming up the rear.
It’s up to you how much cycling technology you use in your own life. Some will love it, but others may enjoy getting away from all of that when they go on a cycle through the quiet Scottish countryside. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it can be useful for both casual and competitive riders alike.
This thirteenth century mass of formidable stone once guarded the sea approach to the heart of Scotland. One of Scotland's most famous historical figures, Flora McDonald, was imprisoned here. It was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1308. Dunstaffnage Castle is around 5 miles north of Oban. A cycle route, mostly on dedicated bike paths, makes it easy to visit.
How to Get Here Glasgow to Oban takes around 3 hours by train.
Leaving the station you head north along the Corran Esplanade with the bay on your left side. This road can be very busy, but once you reach the roundabout it gets quieter. This roundabout is only 0.5 mile (3 minute cycle) from the station, so you could just walk and push the bike if you prefer.
Oban's Esplanade. It can be a busy road for cycling, but you can always push your bike along the pavement to the point where the roads get quieter
After the roundabout continue to follow the bay. You will pass a line of grand Victorian villas, many of which are hotels and guest houses. There might be the occasional car, but it is otherwise quiet.
The view of the coastline is magnificent. You can see the islands of Lismore, Mull and Morven. This is also a great place from where to watch the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries departing and arriving.
The road towards Ganavan Sands in Oban has wonderful coastal views and at this spot you can grab a bench to soak up the vista
A Calmac ferry making its approach to Oban
On a curve of the bay you will see the ruins of Dunollie Castle peeking up from a hillside surrounded by thick woods. If you have taken a ferry to Oban this castle is one of the most notable landmarks to be seen as you glide towards the harbour.
The castle is the ancestral home of the Clan MacDougall and it can be visited, along with a museum and cafe. If you like the bagpipes then coincide your visit with the times that they have piper playing. I stopped here for lunch on the way back- a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich, sitting outside in the sun.
The outside cafe of Dunollie Castle. A great place for a lunch stop
Alongside the road there is an incredible piece of rock called the Dog Stone. It looks like it should be in the sea, instead of stranded on a piece of grass with trees growing out the top of it. 12,000 years ago this had been surrounded by sea and its weathered shape is the result of centuries of wave action. In the Ice Age the area around the rock was forced upwards by tectonic forces and became part of the land.
That's the scientific explanation of this stone, but there is a much more interesting legend. The rock was where the Celtic warrior, Fingal, tied up his dog. The dog, Bran, was tied with a massive chain that wore away the base of the stone as he paced about and struggled to get free. Apparently you can still hear a dog howling in this location!
The Dog Stone, Oban
The road leads to Ganavan Sands, which is Oban's beach and about 2.4 miles from the train station.
Ganavan Sands, near Oban
It is at the beach that you will find a dedicated tarmac cycle path. This takes you north to Dunbeg. It starts with a steep hill.
The cycle path leaving Ganavan Sands
The steep hill near the beginning of the cycle path between Ganavan Sands and Dunbeg
The path is only about 1 and a quarter miles long, but it is superb for avoiding the busy A85. Taking this A-road to reach the castle would be a horrible nightmare and if it wasn't for this cycle path I don't think I would have tried it.
Although a short distance the path winds its way through a variety of woodland and moorland that is rich in wildlife. Here, among oak, birch and hazel trees red squirrels, tawny owls and roe deer live.
A woodland section of the cycle path between Ganavan Sands and Dunbeg
There is a bench called the "Heartbeat Seat" alongside the cycle path. This is a great spot to take a rest and take in the view.
The Heartbeat Seat on the cycle path between Ganavan Sands and Dunbeg
The cycle path ends in a housing estate of Dunbeg village. You make your way through the estate to reach Kirk Road which takes you to the castle.
A close up of the natural rock that Dunstaffnage Castle sits upon
Dunstaffnage is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. The mass of stone wall is incredible, deliberately constructed to be impregnable to protect this strategic location.
The castle has a base of natural rock that looks almost unreal because it is surrounded by flat ground. I love the way that the building has been moulded to fit onto this rock. By the way, this rock is 400 million years old, so the thirteenth century castle is a mere youngster in comparison.
Inside Dunstaffnage Castle
The brief history of this place is that it was built by Duncan MacDougall, Lord of Lorn. In 1308 the castle was beseiged by Robert the Bruce. It was later granted to the Campbells by James III in the 1460s. The most famous person to be associated with the castle is Flora MacDonald. She helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. She dressed him up as a woman and took him in a boat to the Island of Skye. Flora was later arrested and brought to Dunstaffnage for a few days prior to being sent to the Tower of London.
Inside The Gatehouse of Dunstaffnage Castle
Entry to the castle is by means of a steep staircase. Inside is mainly a ruin with The Gatehouse being the only intact building. There is not much to see apart from fireplaces and a well. This is a place to let your imagination have a bit of a workout. Think of a Great Hall where the Lord and Lady of Lorn feasted on the finest food and wine, attended to by servants, with a roaring fire and tapestries hung on the walls. The Great Hall was also a court where justice for the local area was dispensed.
The well at Dunstaffnage Castle
A pigeon at Dunstaffnage Castle
Spiral staircase in Dunstaffnage Castle
An arrow slit in Dunstaffnage Castle
The best thing about the castle interior is that you can walk along the walls where the views over the bay are stunning. There are several boats moored here and I could hear their rigging gently blowing in the wind.
The view of Dunstaffnage Bay from Dunstaffnage Castle
The view from Dunstaffnage Castle
Even better, once you leave the castle you will find paths through the woods behind the castle that take you to pebble beaches and gorgeous views of the coast and islands.
Incredible views from the shore at Dunstaffnage Castle
Views from the shore of Dunstaffnage Castle
Also in the grounds you will find the ruins of Dunstaffnage Chapel, built in the early 1200s.
Window details on Dunstaffnage Chapel
Dunstaffnage might not be the largest and most interesting of Scottish castles, but there are few castles that have such an incredible mass of defensive wall. The coastal location is stunning. The cycle path makes it easy to visit and the short distance makes it ideal as something to do if you are waiting for a train or ferry in Oban. There is an entry fee and you can find current prices and opening hours on the Historic Environment Scotland website.
If you’re planning a multi-day tour around Scotland, you’ll need to think ahead and get prepared. Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world to cycle around, but the terrain can be tricky, and the weather unpredictable.
With that in mind, here’s a list of absolute essentials you need to take. Things to take on a Scottish cycle tour
Repair kit. Before you leave, it’s well worth making sure you know some basic bicycle maintenance. If you’re going cycling on rough ground, for example, you’re at greater risk of getting a puncture, so knowing how to repair it is a necessity. Invest in a good repair kit to take with you.
Padded shorts. If you’re planning on cycling non-stop around Scotland, padded shorts are vital. Even on the easiest roads, your backside can take a bit of a beating; and if you’re bumping down a steep descent, you’ll appreciate the cushioning!
Map. Whatever you do, don’t rely on your phone. While phone maps can be really useful, technological devices have a habit of losing signal or running out of battery. You don’t want to be stranded in the Highlands without any means of finding your way to the nearest village or town.
Waterproofs and bin-liners. When you come to Scotland, you’ll need to be prepared for a bit of rain, not to mention wind and possibly snow. A waterproof layer is a wise idea, and preferably something to cover your face while you’re cycling along. Also, remember to take something to cover your rucksack with – a humble bin-liner does the job nicely, but make sure you secure it properly.
A well-researched list. You’ll be doing a lot of hard physical work on this trip, and as such, you’ll want to have a list of places to sleep, and great eateries to enjoy a solid meal. There are plenty of great guesthouses and independent hotels in Scotland (some with fantastic views of lochs or craggy mountains), and some first-class restaurants and cafes.
First aid kit. If you’re careful, it’s unlikely that you’ll come off your bike. But in unfamiliar, challenging terrain, it is a possibility. Always make sure you have a first aid kit with you; even a small wound in the wrong place can put a dampener on your trip.
Smarter clothes. If you’re planning to go out and about in the evenings, remember to pack some non-cycling clothes too; though nothing too bulky, as you don’t want to weigh yourself down. Some easy-to-pack personal grooming items are advisable too, like shampoo and a bottle of Bleu de Chanel, or whatever aftershave takes your fancy.
Food and water. Carrying enough water is an absolute must – dehydration while cycling can be a serious problem. Hopefully, your rucksack will have pockets or loops to store your water-bottles – if not, look for a belt with water-bottle holders attached. It’s also a good idea to pack ample high-energy snacks too, just in case your journey takes longer than you’d planned.
Ceilings that will take your breath away. A room slept in by Bonnie Prince Charlie. One of the largest collections of family portraits in Scotland. A vintage toy collection. Home baking in a traditional tea room. This is the Thirlestane Castle experience. It is located on the outskirts of Lauder in the Scottish Borders. A 6 mile cycle from Stow station on the Borders Railway is the best way to reach the castle.
How to get there Take the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Stow (45 minutes). The approach into Stow is one of the prettiest sections of this railway line with views of the Gala Water and the church, Saint Mary of Wedale, dominating the village. When I arrived nobody got off or on the train. This feels like a very rural place and yet it is only a short distance from the bustle of Edinburgh.
Stow train station with the Saint Mary of Wedale church in the background
Stow's original 1848 station building survives. It is not currently in use, but I read of exciting plans to turn it into a bistro and cycle hire business.
Stow station building
Leaving the station you should cross the bridge that goes over the Gala Water.
Bridge over the Gala Water at Stow
As you make your way through the village it is impossible not to be charmed by it. Idyllic, tranquil, pretty- these are the sort of words that spring to mind. There is not much to see in the village. There is a Post Office and a cafe and that's about it.
To get to Thirlestane Castle you take the B6362. Beware! It begins with a 15% ascent as soon as you leave the village. The road curves upwards and enters woodland. It is a lot of work to reach the top, but you are rewarded with great views over Stow.
Views over Stow from the B6362
When the road levels off you are in a world of lush countryside. There are fields, copses of trees, undulating hills, livestock, birdsong and even Heather moor. This road is only about 5 miles, but has an incredible variety of scenery. It was also very quiet during my cycle with hardly any other road users. This turned out to be a perfect place to find solitude within a short train ride of Edinburgh.
The B6362 between Stow and Lauder in the Scottish Borders
Sign on the B6362
Farm sign on the B6362
The B6362 between Stow and Lauder
Views from the road between Stow and Lauder
I came across sheep walking on the road at one point:
Sheep on the B6362
The descent into Lauder was magnificent. I hardly used the pedals and just sat there and rolled along with the horizon of hills unfolding before me.
The B6362 between Stow and Lauder
When you arrive into Lauder take a right turn along the high street which is also the A68. The castle is only 1 mile away, so although this is a main road you are not on it for very long and there is a pavement if you feel the road is too busy. During my visit the traffic was fairly light.
The gates into Thirlestane Castle
The gates into the castle grounds are guarded by a pair of proud stone eagles. The panorama of the castle is imposing. It makes you wonder what riches await inside.
The doorway into the castle appears more Georgian country house than medieval castle with its Doric pilasters and sash and cash windows. This reflects the many alterations and additions that the building has undergone.
Entrance to Thirlestane Castle
Thirlestane can be dated back to the late sixteenth century when it was a fortified keep. In 1670 the 2nd Earl of Lauderdale's vision was for the castle to be turned into a palace- he employed the architect William Bruce to make this a reality. This explains the different architectural styles that you can see today.
The oldest part of Thirlestane Castle looks more like your 'classic' castle
The oldest part of Thirlestane Castle
Tearoom After the hill climb to get here my first priority was to restore my energy levels. I ordered a Colombian filter coffee and raspberry and chocolate tray bake in the tea room. There was a gently ticking clock and show tunes on a radio. The wooden dresser had cakes stands with the names of the cakes handwritten on card. The windows looked out to the grounds where sheep strolled and ate grass.
The woman working in the tearoom was impressed that I had cycled the hilly road. "Hat's off to you," she said and made the gesture of removing a hat. She had not thought of the Borders Railway opening up access to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle and said it was "clever" using train and bike to come here.
Tearoom at Thirlestane Castle
Explore the Castle You tour the castle on your own, but there are guides in the rooms who have incredible knowledge about the place.
Look out for the windows cut into the original keep walls. The thickness of these 13 foot walls is easily seen and it must have taken a lot of work to make these window holes.
Chiming clocks was about the only sound inside the house. I loved the Billiards Room with its enormous windows to let the light flood in. There are lovely brass oil lamps that had been converted to electricity. The room has an unusual screen decorated with salmon flies that were probably used to catch fish on the River Tweed.
On the theme of fish I read about a path across the Lammermuir Hills to Dunbar called Herring Road. It got its name because of an occasion where the Duke of Lauderdale ordered a messenger to collect herring for dinner. It was 50 miles by foot to Dunbar and the messenger made it back in time for dinner!
Thirlestane Castle with the stairs up to the front door
I passed through the library that had books on law, politics and religion. There was a massive family bible on a gilded stand, dated 1772.
I made my way up the spiral staircase that has more of those lovely gas lanterns that I spotted earlier in the Billiards Room.
Thirlestane is the family home of the Maitlands who still occupy the castle today. John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale was made a Duke by Charles II. There is a charter conferring this on the wall of the Duke's Room. He was the Secretary of State of Scotland, so the most influential man in Scotland at this time.
This power is clearly in evidence when the Duke diverted labour from Holyrood Palace to work on his plaster ceilings. They took around 4 years to complete and date from around 1670. It is these ceilings in the upstairs rooms that are the standout feature of Thirlestane. In a room that had been used by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 the ceiling features three dimensional foliage and lions that appear to gallop out of the roof.
An urn at Thirlestane Castle
My favourite room was the drawing room. The plaster work features musical instruments and 4 eagles. The guide in this room informed me that one of the eagles had previously fallen off, but was restored. He also showed me a wall panel that concealed a secret staircase.
In the Grand Bed Chamber there is 1870s wallpaper in perfect condition. The guide pointed out that it has traces of arsenic in it, a normal component of wallpaper from this era. "Don't rub your finger on it and lick it!"
Lion crest on the wall of Thirlestane Castle
The dinning room has one of the largest family portrait collections in Scotland. There was a curious object in this room- a Butler's Chair. This was used when someone was eating on their own and it did not make sense to use the huge dinning table. They could sit here and be served with a tray that slots into the chair. This room also has a ram's head snuff mill with a Cairngorm gemstone found only in Scotland.
The children's nursery rooms have wonderful toys from the Edwardian and Victorian era, including a Noah's Ark with individually carved wooden animals. Toys from this time were not mass produced and passed from generation to generation.
The gardens at Thirlestane Castle
Gardens and Grounds I was surprised at how small the grounds and gardens are compared to other grand houses. They are very pretty. There is a short woodland walk with wildflowers and birdsong.
Small and beautiful flowers in the grounds of Thirlestane Castle
The grounds of Thirlestane Castle
A Stroll Around Lauder Lauder is an attractive town with a long street lined with characterful cottages of different sizes and ages.
Cottages in Lauder
Black Bull Hotel, Lauder
Lauder Town Hall
Soup and Art I stopped in the Fat Cat Gallery thjat showcases the work of Scottish Borders artists. It's a great place to browse and there is also a cafe where I took the window seat that had a beautiful natural wood table. I ordered the carrot and courgette soup. It came with salad and crusty bread. I couldn't resist trying the chocolate and oranage jaffa cake. The food was delicious and the friendly ambiance made me want to linger.
I leafed through some magazines and an interesting book about local history, Through Time and Place. It told an interesting WWII story when there was a call for people to lend their dogs to the army to use them as guard dogs at military prisons. The author had loaned his dog, Tweed, who was given a military serial number and he received regular written reports of how well Tweed was doing.
Fat Cat Gallery in Lauder
Chocolate and jaffa orange cake at the Fat Cat Gallery in Lauder
More Cake! I went into the bakery and asked about one of the cakes. The baker said, "It's pure sugar! Are you in need?" Admittedly I wasn't, based on what I had already consumed in the course of this blog, but I would put it aside for tomorrow. "Macaroon, melt in the mouth." I can confirm that this was a very accurate description.
Macaroon from Lauder bakery
The return cycle to Stow meant the tough ascent, but once it leveled out the tranquil countryside was the most perfect place to ride a bike. The castle, the bike ride and the pretty town make for a brilliant day trip from Edinburgh.
There is an entry fee to Thirlestane Castle. Current charges and opening hours can be found on the castle website
For more ideas of places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Borders page.
The four abbeys in the Scottish Borders are one of Scotland's greatest collections of historical ruins. These are evocative places, full of history and architectural wonder. It is difficult to choose a favourite, but go and see them all and enjoy! They are linked by a walking route and a cycling route, so it is easy to plan an adventure to visit them.
1. Melrose Abbey In terms of scale and architectural wonder Melrose is my favourite of the 4 abbeys. Famously, the abbey is the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at. The quality of the stone sculpture is mesmerising and there is even a carving of a pig playing bagpipes.
Melrose is one of the easiest abbeys to get to. The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line stops at Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh). From there it is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there. Melrose itself is one of my favourite towns in Scotland and you can read my guide to what there is to see and do.
2. Dryburgh Abbey If you like your abbeys to have tranquil, woodland settings then Dryburgh should be top of your list. The abbey is situated in a gorgeous little enclave with the River Tweed flowing by and a great selection of nearby attractions, including a suspension bridge and a giant William Wallace statue. This peaceful location makes it easy to imagine a canon's life of devotion and nothing to interupt this.
The abbey is renowned as the burial place of Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most famous novelists. Earl Haig, the commander of British forces for part of the First World War, is also buried here. Although the abbey is a ruin there is a lot that has survived. The immense size of the windows and doorways is awe-inspiring and the quality of the stone carving incredible.
3. Kelso Abbey On first impressions this is the least impressive of the abbeys because a lot less has survived- it suffered a devastating attack from English invaders in 1545. It does not have the scale of Melrose or Jedburgh, but in its day this was the richest and the oldest of the 4 abbeys with spectacular Romanesque architecture. The remains of the great doorway are finely carved. It is also in the centre of Kelso, which makes for an impressive centrepiece in the town.
Looking up at Kelso Abbey
Impressive stone carving on Kelso Abbey
You can use National Cycle Network Route One to reach Kelso. It is 11.5 miles from Dryburgh Abbey.
4. Jedburgh Abbey Built by King David I in the 12th century Jedburgh is perhaps the most photogenic of the abbeys. The scale and lavishness of the architecture is much more obvious than the other abbeys because it is really just the roof that is missing. A spiral staircase leading to a balcony viewpoint provides a marvelous vista of the nave and the fine stone construction. The abbey sits on high ground over a river and the view of it from the other side of the river is particularly impressive. If you can arrive into Jedburgh this way it means that the abbey suddenly comes into your view and you are going to think, if not say, 'wow'.
The balcony view of Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey is the furthest to reach by bicycle. The 4 Abbeys cycle route links Jedburgh to Melrose and this route is about 20 miles. It is not a direct route as it avoids busy roads. If you are planning to visit all of the abbeys then the 4 Abbeys cycle route is 55 miles and quite challenging, but can be done in one day. However, I recommend taking longer as this allows for much more time to spend enjoying the abbeys.
Kelso Abbey is free to visit and there is an entry fee to visit the other three. All of the Abbeys are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and their website has current entry fees and opening hours.
For a special treat Fonab Castle is one of Scotland's finest luxury hotels. It is located on the banks of Loch Faskally in Pitlochry, Perthshire. The lochside views are hard to beat, especially if you select a room with a loch view balcony. Enjoy innovative cuisine using many Scottish ingredients and select a gin or whisky from the extensive bar menu.
Rooms The hotel has a choice of 9 different room types. There are rooms inside the castle, in the modern extension attached to the castle and in the lodge buildings which are a short walk from the castle. If you are looking for a loch view room then most of these are in the modern extension and the lodge buildings, rather than in the castle itself. I found it difficult to decide if I wanted a room with castle features or a room with loch views.
Room with a View As my stay was a special occasion I booked a loch view hotel room, located in the modern extension attached to the castle. This has a balcony overlooking Loch Faskally and Ben Vrackie. The balcony was my favourite place during my stay. We were blessed with good weather so I was able to sit out here for many hours.
View of Loch Faskally from the balcony of a loch view room in Fonab Castle
Fonab Castle. View from loch view room - YouTube
Not much happens here and that is the delight of this hotel's location. There might be the occasional fisherman on a boat. Pheasants sometimes appear on the lawn. You can watch the mist slowly covering Ben Vrackie's snowy cap. The loch sometimes has ripples and sometimes it is completely still and reflects the surrounding hills and trees on its surface.
Balcony view at Fonab Castle
Coffee on the balcony at Fonab Castle
The style of the rooms is modern and elegant. A Scottish touch in the design comes in the form of the Tweed sofa and the Tweed cushions. Everything in the room is immaculate and high quality.
Loch view room at Fonab Castle
The bed in a loch view room at Fonab Castle
A card on the bed lists the choice of pillows that you can request- duck, goose, memory foam, head & neck support and back support. The bed was luxurious and provided the most perfect deep sleep. Inside the closet there are slippers and dressing gowns that have the Fonab Castle logo.
Choice of pillows at Fonab Castle
The room has a Nespresso coffee machine and one of my favourite things to do was to sit out on the balcony with a morning coffee. Another Scottish touch is the Tunnock's tea cakes supplied with the coffee facility. These are one of Scotland's most famous sweet treats- a chocolate, marshmallow and biscuit concoction that is truly addictive.
Nespresso coffee machine and Tunnock's tea cakes at Fonab Castle
The room is also supplied with a copy of Scottish Field and a wine magazine, Decanter.
A copy of Scottish Field is provided in the rooms of Fonab Castle
There is a shower, but no bath, in this room. Toiletries are from Thierry Mugler. The shower cabinet is massive and the water pressure perfect for a long, luxury soak.
Thierry Mugler toiletries
I loved the antler coat hooks on the back of the bathroom door:
Antler coathooks on the bathroom door in Fonab Castle
Castle History Fonab is very much a mixture of the old and the new. This is clearly seen in this photo where the glass and wood modern wing is seen to the right of the castle.
Fonab Castle with its modern extension
The stairwell is where you can find the most interesting fusion of these two architectural eras. The stone walls of the castle turrets can be found alongside modern chandeliers and polished wood floors.
Modern chandeliers on the stairwell of Fonab Castle Hotel
The old and the new. Fonab Castle's original stone walls have been incorporated into the moder extension
The castle is made of red sandstone from Dumfrieshire. It was built in 1892 by Lieutenant Colonel George Sandeman. His family had made their money from cotton manufacturing and importing wine, sherry and Port from Spain and Portugal. The Sandeman name lives on in the present hotel- it is the name of the fine dining restaurant. This is located within the castle in a room full of original features, like fire places and wood paneling. Sandeman port also features in the well stocked bar.
Sandemans Fine Dining restaurant in Fonab Castle
The original entrance to Fonab Castle is no longer in use. The hotel entrance is via the modern extension
During the First World War Fonab Castle served as a Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers and there is a plaque marking this occasion.
The plaque that records Fonab Castle's life as a WW1 auxillary hospital
Afternoon Tea The Lounge Bar is the venue for this delightful experience. This room has loch views through floor to ceiling windows. Choose a chesterfield sofa with tweed coverings or a leather chair. There is a tartan carpet, but this room is definitely more modern than traditional with the chrome tables and a wine cellar behind a viewing window at one end of the room.
The afternoon tea can be upgraded with gin or champagne. The fizz is from Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house.
The Lounge Bar with its magnificent views at Fonab Castle
Having afternoon tea in the Lounge Bar of Fonab Castle
Ruinart Champagne at Fonab Castle
On this special occassion it was the champagne afternoon tea that I had booked. The choice of teas is excellent and I can thoroughly recommend the Fonab Blend. It has a wonderful vanilla and coconut taste. I was going to have a go at describing it, but the menu description does it so much better:
Afternoon tea at Fonab is not your usual cucumber sandwiches and scones on a teird stand. They have their own unique take on the tradition. It begins with an oyster with champagne foam. The oyster was coated in batter and the foam is one of those things you could quite easily eat a lot more of. The oyster shell was resting on a sprinkling of salt.
The oyster with champagne foam- Fonab Castle afternoon tea
Next up was the beetroot macaroon and truffle croquet. The beetroot dish was particularly amazing as the sweet vegetable flavour worked really well in the format of melt-in-mouth macaroon. I loved that the croquet was served on a small log to give it that connection to the countryside outside the window.
Beetroot macaroon- part of the afternoon tea at Fonab Castle
Truffle croquet at Fonab Castle
After we were finished with these delights our server arrived with a trio of small dishes. There were smoked celeriac and onion, crab beignet and chicken and foie gras, although we asked not to have the foie gras. All three were delicious.
The smoked salmon sandwich arrived on one of those beautiful tree trunks. This was a triumph of a sandwich with delicate slices of cucumber, a thick slice of salmon topped with globes of lemon mayonnaise and some herring roe. The Salmon is smoked on-site, using beech briquettes and hickory smoking chips and this gives it a lovely flavour.
Smoked salmon sandwich at Fonab Castle's afternoon tea
Finally comes the cake stand with the warm fluffy scones and the jam and cream to spread all over them. The scones were on the bottom layer of a modern and elegant stand and on the top there was a delightful selection of cakes, including a macaroon and a lemon meringue tart.
Afternoon tea at Fonab Castle
A close up of the macaroon and lemon meringue pie at Fonab Castle's afternoon tea
vMy favourite of the cakes was the coffee layer cake. It was so moist and creamy. There was also a dark chocolate window box filled with mousse and cherry pieces- sensational.
Walks in the grounds Fonab Castle is right next to the paths alongside Loch Faskally, so there is easy access to the great outdoors. From the Lounge Bar you can see the staircase leading down to the loch. At the bottom of this stair you can turn right to head into Pitlochry via the Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre, or turn left for a pleasant walk along the shore of the loch.
Loch Faskally, Pitlochry
The walk is through woods with sections where you are right next to the water. Despite the close proximity to the busy A9 this is still a peaceful place of moss covered tree trunks, birdsong and the scent of pine.
Loch Faskally walk in Pitlochry
A stream feeding into Loch Faskally
Spa and Swimming Pool Fonab boasts a 15 metre pool and a jacuzzi, located in a separate building a few steps from the castle. This is not a place for serious exercise as the pool is not deep and is kept at a warm temperature. Gentle, relaxing swimming is the order of the day.
Swimming pool at Fonab Castle. Image taken from Alpharooms.
There are also steam rooms and a sauna. Spa treatments include facials, manicures and massages.
Dinner There is a choice of two restaurants at Fonab. There is Sandemans Fine Dining, a 3 AA Rosette award-wining restaurant located in the castle part of the hotel. There is also the Fonab Brasserie in the newer part of the hotel with the loch views. This is where I ate. The starter of West Coast crab lasagna was delicious with the moist crab meat working so well with the fresh pasta and the broth.
The crab lasagna at Fonab Castle
For the main course the sea bass with fennel, sea herbs and smoked herring roe looked beautiful and tasted superb. My partner had the fillet steak. The beef is aged for 28 days and this enhanced the flavour.
Sea bass with fennel at Fonab Castle
For dessert I had the Scottish snowball. It was intriguing to find this on the menu as a snowball is something you would normally find in a high street bakery, not in the restaurant of a 5-star hotel. It was a refined version of this Scottish classic cake. Raspberry jam, coconut and crumbly biscuit are the main components and it was absolutely divine.
The Scottish snowball dessert at Fonab Castle
To accompany dinner there is an impressive selection of wines. If wine is your thing you will be in heaven at Fonab. The benefit of having a sommelier working in a hotel is clear to see- the wine menu reads like poetry and everything sounds amazing. Even the wines with the lower price point tasted like the best I have ever had.
Whisky and Gin Bar Fonab is rightly proud of its huge selection of gins and whisky. The bottles are displayed in enormous cabinets, so you can have a good look at what is on offer. The gin cabinet is on the central staircase so you must pass it every time that you come this way. If you are bewildered by the choice the bar staff are on hand to help. If you are selecting a gin they will listen to what you like, what flavours you enjoy and then make a recommendation.
All of the staff at Fonab were friendly and pleasant. They made you feel relaxed and cared for.
The whisky cabinet at Fonab Castle
Breakfast A choice of juices, smoothie or a Bloody Mary kicks off breakfast. You can then choose from a selection of three continental options. These are beautifully presented on a tiered stand that brings a touch of elegance to breakfast. A bit like an afternoon tea, served in the morning. It is a really lovely touch to present breakfast in this way. Our selection was the granola with yoghurt and lemon curd, the pastries and a selection of Scottish cheeses. All of it was superb, particularly the tart lemon curd.
Continental breakfast at Fonab Castle
For my cooked breakfast I selected the French toast with maple syrup and bacon. Delicious and perfectly cooked.
French toast at Fonab Castle
How to Get Here Fonab Castle is located about 1.2 miles from Pitlcohry train station. If you are cycling from the station the route on my map avoids busy roads.
The hotel offers a free pick-up from the station. During my visit I used this service as the bicycle was at home and we had a lot of luggage. They sent a BMW with leather interior; a nice bit of luxury for our arrival. It is at odds with my sustainable transport beliefs, but I think it is okay as a one-off when I am using train and bicycle on all of my other journeys.
Fonab Castle's BMW used for station pick-ups. In the background you can see one of the dining pods. These can be rented to have your meal inside and offer a unique, private dining experience
It is not cheap to stay at Fonab Castle, but if you are looking to splash out on luxury in the Scottish countryside this is the place to be. The lochside location is the standout attraction and when you combine this with excellent service, a spa, fine dining and an impressively stocked bar it makes Fonab a prime candidate for a luxury Scotland experience. It is advisable to book direct with Fonab Castle for the best deals. They often have seasonal packages and if you can avoid peak summer times and weekends you can find a good deal.
Other Castle Hotels Further north in Dornoch you will find Dornoch Castle Hotel. Read my review.