Here I am once again just a couple of days before flying to Scotland for another deep dive of wandering and wondering. This Friday my dad and I fly to Glasgow and begin a two-week jaunt through Argyll & Bute! I have traveled through the region on several occasions over the years but never focused on it, so I’m really happy to rectify that. It’s always exciting to see Scotland at different times of the year, too, and autumn on the west coast ought to be interesting especially given the recent spate of fading hurricanes that have lashed the area.
The impetus for this trip stems from my growing interest of Kilmartin Glen. Kilmartin Glen occupies a region of Argyll between Kintyre and Oban, and it has the most important concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains on mainland Scotland. I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of mainland Scotland, and this is really saying something.
With Kilmartin Glen in mind, I began building out a trip with a visit there as the centerpiece. Argyll & Bute stands in southwest Scotland composed of a series of massive peninsulas created by lengthy, deep sea lochs stretching out of the Firth of Clyde. The isle of Bute made a sensible starting point close as it is to Glasgow. It’s a small island and one I’ve never visited. From there I could ferry to the Cowal Peninsula and see Dunoon and great sweeps of Argyll’s “secret coast.” Then it’s an easy journey to the Kintyre Peninsula. I could finally spend time in Campbeltown, visit Springbank distillery, and soak in the coastlines.
The trip would wrap with a series of days in Kilmartin Glen, the heart of Argyll, from where I could explore in many directions: Oban, Jura, and that shredded coastline of innumerable fingers reaching into the sea. This was the seat of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riada. We’ll wind down the journey in Glasgow with a day immersed in Glasgow’s exuberant culture.
There will be a couple weeks’ quiet here while I’m traveling, but you can follow along with my adventures on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook in the interim.
I find myself reflecting on Traveling Savage now. I created this site almost nine years ago to lever me out of a rut and propel me toward an imagined brighter future. It has accomplished that goal. One cannot travel around Scotland (or anywhere) mostly solo for close to a decade and not see oneself more clearly. My Picture This posts have catalogued this journey the best, even if they’re somewhat opaque. I’m so grateful to have and to have had the opportunity to get under Scotland’s skin, and my own, for that’s what this has been.
I’m happy to have you along for the ride. Until I return,
This last May, after many years of traveling across Scotland, I finally managed to visit Dundee. Dundee is Scotland’s fourth-largest city after Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, and anchors Angus along the Firth of Tay. Dundee rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution and became famous for its ship-building and jute production. As industry waned Dundee entered a down-turn, and for a long time the city wasn’t really on the radar of Scotland’s tourists.
That’s all changing.
Over the last 20 years, Dundee has begun the march into modernity and now boasts several high-profile attractions, including the new V&A Museum and the RSS Discovery, and a thriving, young, educated population at the forefront of modern industries such as video game design. I’ll be writing much more about Dundee in the months ahead, but whenever I visit a city for the first time I always try to get a sense of its history first. For that I turn to walking tours.
I was keyed into DD Tours by Dundee PR treasure Jennie Patterson. DD Tours are Stewart and Louise, a couple of amazing Dundonian amateur historians who ran a website called Dark Dundee for several years before offering walking tours recounting Dundee’s darkest moments. Earlier this year they expanded their walking tour offerings to include perhaps less grim yet still fun and engaging jaunts around the city.
My experience with Stewart and Louise coincided with a brilliant blue-sky evening in early May as we gathered for the Dead Centre tour, which focuses on disease, death, executions, and body-snatching in the heart of Dundee. Nothing like a corpse’s clammy embrace for a welcome!
The Howff marked the starting point of the tour. This burial ground stands in the heart of Dundee and was granted by none other than Mary, Queen of Scots. Here Stewart and Louise regaled us with sordid tales of cholera and grave robbers. Dundee had some particularly nasty water and the cholera spread quickly through houses and neighborhoods. The graveyards, cemeteries, and burial grounds filled up equally fast, perhaps making the jobs of grave robbers easier than anticipated. The pay was decent, but the work was back-breaking, gruesome, and dangerous. Police and disease were real deterrents.
We took our time in the Howff as Stewart and Louise played off each other with practiced expertise. Their discerning eye for the gory bits of Dundee’s history unspooled among the sun-dappled gravestones and sheltering trees with panache and zeal, the laughs and cringes keeping us warm on this chilly day. I wandered amongst the headstones and learned more than a thing or two thanks to my guides. If you’ve ever been to an older graveyard you’ll certainly see some graves with stone slabs laying flat over the grave. This was a tactic used to deter potential grave robbers from stealing the dearly departed. Yikes!
As we wended our way out of the Howff from beneath blossoming trees and the setting sun, it was interesting to hear that burial grounds often rose in height with extended usage. Yeah, uh, that’s disturbing. Don’t think too hard about what lies beneath the Howff’s emerald grasses.
The tour continued a short way through the center of Dundee to the city square, making the total walking distance of the tour negligible and easy. In the city square Stewart and Louise pointed out old stones and plaques from earlier versions of Dundee’s city center, including connections to Vikings who most certainly settled here long ago.
DD Tours’s Dead Centre walking tour was an enjoyable hour in the center of Dundee with Stewart and Louise. It was a real pleasure get an inside and historical look at Dundee from these friendly Dundonians. Parsing Stewart’s accent was also fun!
Dundee is on the rise and DD Tours are a great entry point for any visitor. Come check it out!
Disclosure: DD Tours provided me with a complimentary Dead Centre tour. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.
My last exploration of Scotland included dedicated time in Aberdeenshire, and I was swiftly reminded how incredible the countryside is at juxtaposing ancient history with pastoral farmland and pasture. That might sound like a weird thing to exclaim as “incredible,” but I’m from Wisconsin where our farm fields only have other farm fields between them. In Aberdeenshire, dozens — more than a hundred even — standing stones and stone circles have stood the test of time as the environment changed all around. Now, sites like South Ythsie stand on grassy hills, in the corners of farms, and alongside roads, and among the most majestic of such artifacts is the subject of today’s missive: The Maiden Stone.
This wonderful sculptured stone stands near Chapel of Garioch on a backroad just off the A96 between Inverurie and Huntly in northeastern Scotland. This road meanders between pastures and forested hedges before the striking eminence of the Maiden Stone appears incongruously adjacent the road. If you didn’t know any better, you might zip by with the fleeting thought that you’d just seen a dinosaur. A small parking area is supplied to make visiting the stone easy. I was the only soul when I stopped on a sunny May day.
The Maiden Stone is a 3m-tall slab of red granite, one of the tallest such stones in existence, inscribed with traditional Pictish symbols and Christian iconography. This artistic composition aids in dating the stone to sometime after AD 700 when the Picts had begun converting to Christianity, and prevailing thought is that it was carved during the AD 800s.
It appears that all four sides of the stone were carved, though time and weather have taken their toll. Still, the east or “back” side of the stone remains in remarkable condition with four panels featuring a centaur and other animals, a Pictish beast, a Z-rod design, and a mirror and comb above a small Ogham inscription (Ogham is the written “stick” language of the druids). This is where the Pictish mystique waxes — we don’t understand what many of these symbols represent. We call them names like “Z-rod,” “mirror,” and “comb,” but these are ancient carvings viewed through a modern lens and our naming conventions may be completely off base.
The “front” or west side of the Maiden Stone is considerably more weathered and more Christian. A figure that could be Jesus or a saint like Columba stands above a Celtic cross between two sea monsters. Intricate scroll- and knotwork surround the cross and lie beneath it, but the carvings here are heavily eroded and difficult to discern in all but the most perfect light. The narrow north and south sides have carved knotwork but suffer from erosion as well.
As is true with so many monuments from the Iron Age and Dark Ages, the Maiden Stone is swathed in folklore and mystery. The stone has likely had many names over the centuries with the Maiden Stone and Drumdurno Stone only being the most recent. The legend of the Maiden Stone is tied to the daughter of the laird of Balquhain who made a bet with a stranger (never a good idea) that she could bake a bannock faster than he could build a road to the top of Bennachie, the highest local hill. If she lost, the stranger received her hand in marriage. It’s not clear what happened if she won because she didn’t — the stranger was the Devil himself. He finished the road and claimed his prize, but the maiden ran and prayed to be saved. And saved she was by God, who turned her into stone (?). The great notch in the Maiden Stone is where the Devil grabbed her shoulder as she ran.
Aberdeenshire is rich with Pictish history. The nearby Mither Tap was the site of a Pictish hillfort, and perhaps here at the site of the Maiden Stone important missionary or other religious work occurred. We may never know, but the symbology of the Picts remains consistent on the extant monuments, tantalizingly close to revealing its secrets. I believe the Pictish Rosetta Stone is out there, and I look forward to the day when we begin to understand these enigmatic artisans.
Until then, swing through Aberdeenshire and marvel at ancient monuments like the Maiden Stone.
The Angus coastline is a crimson stroke of reddish sands and sandstone cliffs running from Montrose in the north all the way south to Dundee. Here you’ll find some of Scotland’s prettiest beaches and most striking cliffs, and Lunan Bay rules as king of the Angus coast. Wedged between Montrose and Arbroath, Lunan Bay exists where the red-tinted Lunan Water reaches the North Sea, a wide swath of beautiful beach that has been recognized as the best beach in Scotland. The ruins of Red Castle loom over the beach’s south end, and this conjunction of history, beauty, and relaxation exemplifies Scotland’s penchant for satisfying a multitude of interests at once.
Lunan Bay is an easy visit from the scenic A92 running north between Arbroath and Montrose. Make for the village of Lunan and then follow signs to the beach where a parking area leads to a boardwalk crossing the dunes.
The terminus of the boardwalk provides a nice informational board and a view of the beach and coastline north and south. A hustle down the sandy embankment leads you right onto the firm red beach. I wandered along the tide line beach-combing for tumbled quartz and keeping my eyes peeled for agates while couples passed with their dogs joyfully bounding into the surf. The day was windy, overcast, and cool, and yet still a great place to inhale the soul of Angus and contemplate the meaning of life or the next meal, whichever you prefer.
Lunan Bay’s position on Scotland’s east coast, facing Scandinavia, meant it was destined to see vikings from the east. The earliest recorded structure along Lunan Bay was built by King William the Lion in the late 12th century to repel these marauders. This structure was probably built on the promontory overlooking the beach, where the current ruins of Red Castle now stand, since the sheltered nature of Lunan Bay makes an obvious entry to eastern Scotland and a fine place to beach longships.
The southern terminus of Lunan Bay’s beach is the Lunan Water which squiggles into the sea. From the riverbanks you can’t miss the ruins of Red Castle towering overhead, but note that you cannot reach the ruins from the beach. It’s a fool’s errand attempting to climb up the hillside, but the view of the ruins from below is fantastic.
To reach Red Castle’s ruins you must return to Lunan and turn left on the unnamed country road. Less than a minute later you’ll pass into a partly forested stretch with a narrow pull-off area. Across the street you’ll see a path leading to a gate, which then continues further uphill. Follow this onto the grassy hilltop above Lunan Bay.
The beaten path leads to the reddish, weather-worn remains of Red Castle. This is a secretive, majestic approach to a little-known ruin, and I prize such finds. What remains of Red Castle are the tower and enceinte, both of which are only partially there. As I approached the red sandstone keep I realized this is the best view of Lunan Bay, which makes perfect sense when you consider this was meant to be a defensible position against viking incursions.
Bits of the tower’s crenellations and battlements remain, and there’s a small door yet in the curtain wall, but this is a castle in a dire state of disrepair. Red Castle passed into the hands of the Balliol and Bruce families, both with outsized impressions on Scottish history. In the 16th century, a falling out between Lady Beaton and James Gray led to a full Covenanters’ siege of the castle that lasted two years and ultimately led to its ruin. The castle never recovered and began its inevitable decline.
I explored Red Castle alone and pondered the ancestry research I’d done several years ago in Edinburgh. There was a Red Castle in my lineage, but the records stated it was found near Inverness, and indeed there is a Redcastle near Bunchrew House. My grandmother was born in Arbroath, however, and I can’t help but wonder if isn’t this Red Castle to which history binds me.
Lunan Bay is a wonderful place in eastern Angus to relax, enjoy a picnic, beach comb, and soak in the views. Together with the ruins of Red Castle you’ve got a great morning or afternoon sorted that dovetails nicely with a visit to Arbroath Abbey or Montrose town.