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Sustainable Tourism Scotland

It’s that time of year when travellers are about to descend on Scotland en masse. Peak season. All in the industry have been revelling in this wee chunk of the planet getting worldwide recognition as a must-visit, bucket-list, incomparable destination. Great stuff. But, with stereotypical Scottish caution, I present a spanner for the works.

The environment is our most priceless possession. I choose ‘possession’, because it belongs to all of us. With that comes responsibility, and that applies as much to travellers as it does to residents. While there has been an unprecedented surge in exposés and awareness-raising campaigns recently, I’m now throwing my hat in to see if there’s anything I can do to help the little corner I’ve dedicated myself to. This is the part where I need your support.

So get your credit card out and….just kidding. All I ask is that you read on.

Things for us all to keep in mind….Over-Tourism

This is becoming a worldwide issue with hot-spots across the globe breaking under the strain of too many people at the same time. Big cities like Barcelona, Venice, Rome and many more are stunning ancient capitals that can hold large numbers but were simply not built to be descended upon without limits. Not to mention very specific sites like Petra, Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China. Ancient relics are at great risk.

In Scotland, this problem is primarily restricted to Edinburgh, Skye, parts of the North Coast 500 and parts of the Loch Ness area. The impact fluctuates between problematic and disastrous as the lack of facilities, infrastructure and controlling causes chaos. Fights by the roadside at the Fairy Pools; car parking free for alls in otherwise stunning, serene rural spots; hoteliers being asked if they will let people sleep on their lobby floors as there’s nowhere else available; litter bins overflowing; residents’ privacy being wiped out; non-locals, sensing a business opportunity, setting up low quality second home accommodation and charging scandalous rental prices; locals being completely priced out of the property market and being forced away; the necessity of an imminent tourist tax; chronic traffic congestion…..

Some gentle suggestions:

  • Is it possible for you to avoid coming to the above places in July and August? I appreciate that many travellers will be restricted by school holidays, but many will not. A word to the wise – the weather is generally better in the shoulder seasons, you’ll likely have better accommodation choices open to you and the midges are less nightmareish. So it’s quite likely to be in your own best interests too….
  • Do you need to go to these places at all? If you’ve never been before that’s one thing, but if you’re a repeat visitor could you not consider other options? Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee instead of Edinburgh. The North East 250 instead of the North Coast 500? The Outer Hebrides, Mull, Arran, Islay, Orkney, the Cairngorms instead of Skye? Scotland is utterly packed with quality outdoor destinations and the over-crowded ones are not necessarily the best. And I’m not just saying that.
  • Please don’t go to the Devil’s Pulpit (just north of Glasgow) in busy season. It simply can’t cope and is in danger of being completely ruined irreparably.
  • Don’t go somewhere primarily because of ‘Instagrammability’. Come on people, please. Go somewhere for an experience, blaze your own trail and make your own memories. Standing in a line of people queuing for your Instagram ‘hero shot’ is surely about as depressingly unauthentic as it gets.

I certainly do my best to be a responsible marketer and keep my promotion of all of the above ‘at risk’ places to a minimum. Some others do too. But it’s not enough, not by a long shot. The responsibility lies – with all that work in tourism – to promote sensibly and thoughtfully and not aim for the quick wins that are driving numbers to the same old spots. Spots that are struggling badly to handle demand.

This is Orkney… This is Mull… This is Harris…Recycling and Waste

I enjoy a good rant about bins. Tenement life in Glasgow sees me cursing under my breath on a regular basis when I, like the good citizen, take my various bins down to the back close only to see that, yet again, the bins remain unemptied and overflowing. I’ll give the bins a good, feckin’ ragin’ kick (that’ll teach them) and trudge back homeward, with all my rubbish, tae think again.

The shortcomings of the collectors aside, however, we all have a responsibility to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we can. Blatant dropping of litter is an abomination and merits a night in the cells but, assuming that that’s pretty clear, the bigger challenge comes when recycling is involved. With our bloated public sector, things do seem to vary from region to region and lack standardisation, but this website allows you to search for all you need based on the relevant council/local authority that you’re visiting.

Usual bin guide:

  • Green bins are general waste
  • Blue is plastic/paper/cardboard
  • Grey is food waste
  • Brown is garden waste – a composter basically
  • Glass bins are separate again and will say very clearly on them at recycling points

But the rules here are understandably frustrating – precisely what can go in each bin can sometimes be ambiguous, particularly regarding plastic. Even us locals get confused. For example, if in the Highlands, this is what can go in your blue bin up there.

A very obvious free tip by the way, no charge. The tap water in Scotland is quite possibly the best in the world. You don’t need to be buying the bottled stuff. Save money, reduce plastic. Win at life.

Being an ‘Aware’ TravellerThese are Annoying….Drones

Coming from a commercial drone pilot, it’ll likely not astonish to learn that I’m a bit pernickety about drone flying behaviour. Foaming at the mouth rabid actually.

One absolute bampot on Harris the other week sent his drone 1.5 kilometres away from him to put it over one of the outlying islands. Well chuffed with himself so he was.

Stupid. Dangerous. Selfish. Illegal.

The cheeky idiot was completely oblivious to the issue, not to mention my death stare. Seeing it drop squarely into the ocean would have been the very definition of karma, but would hardly have been fair on the sea life. The rules on this are (for the most part) crystal clear, here’s a few of the basics for the hobbyist flyers out there:

  • You must always be within Visual Line of Sight of your drone ie. you need to be able to physically see it all times. It’s not difficult you know.
  • Never fly it more than 500 metres away from yourself, or above 400 feet in height (unless you have specific permission from the CAA). The further away you go the less control you have and flyaways do happen. In such instances you have zero control of your drone and it’ll keep flying on its own accord until the battery dies and it comes dropping out of the sky. I’ll let your imagination picture how that could potentially go.
  • Always be aware of the weather (never fly in rain or anything more than light wind) and have permission from any relevant landowners of your take-off and landing spots.
  • Never fly within 50 metres of a person, building, car, busy road, animal or any other obvious hazard unless they are under your immediate control. Common sense, not to mention good manners. A drone flying at speed into an ancient castle could damage it forever, could kill a human and could cause a car to crash. It’s not hyperbole.
  • Don’t fly in restricted airspace, the consequences here can very easily be catastrophically lethal. This includes anywhere near airports of any description, and any built-up areas. Forget flying in cities and towns, just forget it.

Campervans

Some campervanners have an increasingly large amount to answer for in the Highlands and Islands. Locals will grumble endlessly that they come in, bulldoze their way to the best spots, gobble up facilities and space and give next to nothing back to local economies and the environment. The criticisms:

  • The owners bring all their own food, shopping only in supermarkets and spend nothing in the rural areas that they are taking advantage of.
  • They take up a huge amount of space. Parking on roadsides (often illegally), devastating scenic vistas and scaring off wildlife.
  • The people controlling them can’t drive. Struck dumb by the prospect of reversing on single track roads they freeze at the wheel, causing congestion, erosion and road rage for those that can actually drive. Given the lack of motorways up north the pace of travel for everyone on the roads is slowed massively – not a big problem if slower vehicles are small in number but when they make up a big percentage of total traffic, no-one is going anywhere fast.
  • Outrage caused by the casual dumping of human waste by roadsides, in public toilets and worse. This waste is often chemical as well.

These criticisms certainly do not apply to all users, only a minority. If you are a campervan/motorhome user, all that I, and most others, will ever ask is that you are aware of the potential seriousness of the above and act accordingly. For all road drivers:

Respect other drivers by pulling over now and then if you’re causing a pile up behind you; practice reversing somewhere safe until confident; don’t park illegally; don’t dump illegally; respect that locals have lives to live; respect the environment (it’s the only one we have) and try, please try, to give something back financially to the places that you are visiting. That’s the only way that tourism works for the economy.

As someone who road trips in the Highlands regularly, all of the above requests come off the back of personal, often horrified, experience. I have campervanned before and it’s good fun. I’ve promoted them before too. But, no longer. I can, unfortunately, no longer in good conscience continue to encourage them as a mode of holidaying, thanks to a. the sheer number of them now in the popular locations and b. the selfish behaviour of a few bad eggs.

Moving On…

Now that we’re all good travellers and are going to green heaven, park the above to-dos and focus on having a great time in Scotland. It’s an amazing country, truly. It’ll find a place in your soul and may never leave.

But, probably the two biggest assets we have here are our naturally beautiful landscapes and our ancient, superbly maintained, history. Both are fragile. Both need a concerted effort to prevent them slipping into decline. And both can be preserved by considering all of the above and being honest enough with ourselves to assess whether we can do just a little bit more when we travel.

Enjoy Scotland, and let Scotland enjoy you.

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The post Looking after Scotland appeared first on Travels with a Kilt.

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Scottish Island Holidays – Much More Than They Seem

I’m going to attempt to venture down a road I’ve not been seen on for a while. The writer’s road. Necessity has seen me focus on ‘blogging’ in recent years – an increasingly difficult thing to define, hence the inverteds. It’s been fun, I enjoy it for the most part, but it’s unquestionably different from proper writing. The focus is on being useful. Producing text that gives people what they want to know in a digestible and, ideally, fun fashion. But, in so doing, I’ve realised that I’m missing a lot of the beneath-the-surface emotions that come when you’re doing something you love, travelling Scotland in my case. It’s time to go on a Scottish island holiday, with a difference.

I’ve chosen the ideal subject matter to assist, the Outer Hebrides. Scotland’s first line of defence against the Atlantic, I love these islands. I have done all my days. I’m on my first trip to see them this year and am unrestricted by the need to hit any marketing targets or factor in partnerships. It’s travel for the love of it and it’s time to let the real emotions come to the fore.

A Difficult Transition

There’s no disguising it, it’s a miserable day. I spend so much time talking up Scotland that I sometimes forget to relay the sentiment that it can be crap at times too. It’s hammering down and has been for pretty much the duration of the 5-hour drive to the north of Skye. It’s June, and my crest has been rapidly falling since Loch Lomond. The repetitive swishing of the window wipers at full speed has left me numbed to what would usually be a stunner of a drive. I sit there hunched over the wheel glowering at the increasingly irritating driving incompetence of the motorhome-armed halfwit ahead of me.

There has to be some sort of quota on how many of these things are allowed into the Highlands per month? I’ll sign that petition.

A pleading, hope-seeking glance at the forecast tells me that tomorrow looks surprisingly glorious – presumably because, after today, there is simply no rain left.

Somewhere between forever and an eternity I arrive at Uig for the ferry crossing to Tarbert. I’m never quite sure how I feel about the big Calmac ferries, the temperature of my sentiment varies with my mood. Oftentimes I come bouncing onto the things, excited at the prospect of the absolute magic of imminent Scottish island holidays. Today, the barometer has lodged itself firmly at sullen. The irritating, overpowering whiff of spilled diesel, car fumes and grumpy jostling of sodden passengers is far from welcome as we head indoors. The wind howls outside, it’s going to be a choppy crossing.

Car smells are soon replaced by an odd mixture of fish and pasty emanating from the kitchen. Those beef olives look good. But weren’t they the chaps that made me violently ill a while back? Play it safe, today’s not one of those days. Exercise some of that famous Scottish dourness, lad, it’s in your blood. My stomach stays empty.

Time for a look around. The cargo demographic varies dramatically. Lots of pensioners already munching away (how did they beat me up the stairs?), a few downtrodden-looking parents presumably questioning the logic of that brilliant staycation plan for 2019. A societally oblivious hipster influencer (I’m not really one of these people, am I?) is making a nonsense of himself taking pictures of everything that moves, as well as everything that isn’t. Not a smile to be seen anywhere.

But then, something happens. One of the friendly Calmac staff has recruited the assistance of a wee boy, clearly taking the trip with his mum. He’s bouncing around merrily assisting with the collection of empty trays. Aware of the suddenly instrumental cog he has become in the running of this vessel, the wee guy is grinning ear to ear. Aside from the influencer, who I fear is beyond help, everyone else’s face has undergone a total transformation as all eyes follow him around the room encouragingly. We’re in the middle of The Minch on a vile day where reasons to be cheerful are not in abundance and the wee man has flicked the switch. That’s all it took.

You’re a miserable pain in the arse sometimes Scotland, but I’m never mad at you for long.

The Other Side

I don’t just want to gush about how wonderful the Outer Hebrides are, listing all the things you’ve GOT TO DO in order not to have wasted your trip. I’ve done that plenty over the years and that’s not what this piece is all about. This trip sees me staying with a friend, a born and bred local crofter of the Isle of Harris, who’s knowledge and character are completely invaluable.

This is how to get to know a place. Speak to a genuine local. In cities you can pretty much get away with defining a local as anyone who currently lives there but, with the Isles, long experience is everything. His input over the duration of this trip keep the blogger firmly back in Glasgow.

We’re so insignificant. These islands revel in showing us that. From the times of the Vikings and Iron Age Celts humans have been coming here, doubtless wowed by the coastlines and the twinkling captivation of immaculate beaches and turquoise waters. Countless generations of resident crofters have tended sheep, chasing them around ever-more challenging corners of the landscape in search of the best conditions. If you listen hard enough, you can still hear Gaelic echoing around the glens.

Even the name Outer Hebrides suggests something way out there, remote and adrift. And, in Harris particularly, I find that our planet’s makers have decided to have quite a bit of fun.

The islands take an absolute battering from the weather, particularly in winter when days can be brutal, but offer an utterly idyllic, overpoweringly generous invite on a warm sunny day. I’ve explored South Harris in depth many times in recent years and it’s where everyone heads for their Scottish island holidays in these parts, for obvious reasons. I say everyone, you’ll probably still be able to find space for your beach towel. North Harris, contrastingly, is strewn in lunar-like rock that makes for land lacking in fertility and, on the face of it, quite uninviting in comparison to the vibrant, sweeping beaches of its neighbour. Only a philistine would call this landscape bland though.

This is where to go for the best walking on the islands and the hills of North Harris can very quickly consume you. I was joined on my wanders this visit by Archie, my friends’ wonderful Collie, who bops along wolfishly as I explore deeper into the wilderness. The heather is thick just now. These are not walking trails with paths and signs – only crofters and particularly determined fellow hikers will ever have traversed this terrain. Soggy mud hides within the thick roughness of the heather and you’ll maybe glimpse the odd rodent scurry away from your unexpected and unwelcome visit. Don’t be surprised to see eagles hovering above, vulture-like and increasingly ominous. Deer too, majestically roaming these geology-loaded landscapes. And sheep, it wouldn’t be the islands without sheep.

It is entirely other-worldly here. When you spend a whole day switched off from mankind and free of interference, you may as well be exploring a new planet. A planet with the taste of salt in the air and opportunity in every direction. The colours change as day turns to night. Come the end of the day, I’ve got that childlike, tantrummy frustration at having to come away from it. It’s still light (at 10pm), can’t I have half an hour longer….

The Hearach (folk from Harris) rely on their surroundings in a very holistic way. This is the land of Harris Tweed and Harris Gin, with whisky on the way. The drink calls on a local workforce, local ingredients and an island passion that stands it separate from a busy pack. Harris Tweed is a product filled with love, deep focus and the reflections of the weaver. History plays its part in it all too as these are the islands of standing stones, imposing brochs and even relic Viking chess pieces. Mystery, survival and ingenuity at play, then and now.

A confusing mix of emotions are to be expected – stern yet sensational, forbidding yet alluring. I, and others, have said it plenty. These islands are unique. Nowhere else in the world comes to mind when searching for a comparison, and that’s a rare thing.

What Travel Gives

With this trip, I wanted to remind myself of some things. I’m not to hurry travel. This was the reason I stopped travel writing internationally some years ago, I wasn’t delving deeply enough. How can you, when you’re bouncing about from A to B, barely skimming the surface of a place and doing it a great injustice? No, I wanted to get under the skin of Scotland. Being extremely Scottish and having spent almost my whole life here, that’s perhaps an odd thing to say. I’ve done it I think, but perhaps recently I’ve been more aware of the need to burrow even deeper.

I operate day-to-day in a world of box ticking, marketing targets and the need for constant content creation. There is much soullessness. It’s a space saturated to a dangerous level, burdened further by the negative side of social media and the ever-more demoralising search for ‘Instagrammabilty’. I’ve always been fairly good at keeping a wall between myself and much of the nonsense, but it’s impossible to ignore completely. The frustrations, the anger even sometimes….and the relentlessness of its constant dynamism can leave my head in a frenetic spin.

But shhh, you mustn’t hurry in the Outer Hebrides. It’s rude.

Even just a few days in Harris, returning to an area that I know well, but will never know well enough, gives me that much needed reflection space. As for these islands, I hope to have convinced some to view them not as a destination, not even as somewhere to relax and unwind, but as a place to immerse yourself in. Take a lonely wander in the North Harris hills, get a little lost and feel that slight panic that you don’t know exactly where you are. Stand under the shadow of a 5000-year-old standing stone, closing off your perimeter senses. Walk on an empty beach, stop, and drop down to put your palm fully on the sand. Close your eyes.

When you’ve done all that, come back to this little corner of the interweb and tell me all about it.

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Road Tripping Through Aberdeenshire and the Cairngorms National Park

It’s that typically lovely time of year in Scotland, May, when most in-the-know travellers descend on our outdoors in search of midge-free zones and almost predictably calm weather. Time then for the first Scotlanders campaign of the year as we take on one of the most epic drives in the land, the North East 250. Splitting the giant into four, we unearth the best things to do in Aberdeenshire, the Cairngorms, Speyside and the east coastline in another frantic weekend of activity. For my contribution, I’ve locked gaze with the southern stretch of the route – that tumbles through the rigours of the Cairngorms but lands soft, in the gently welcoming landscapes of Aberdeenshire. A journey of extremes awaits.

The Cairngorms

This is my third trip of the year to Britain’s largest National Park, and I was a frequent visitor last year as well. This recent immersion has brought on probably my single favourite thing about travelling – destination authority. That feeling, no, that knowledge, that you’ve come to really understand a place on a much deeper level than previously. The satisfaction that you’ve taken on board more than just a fleeting, surface-skimming appreciation of what makes a place tick and what lies deeper within.

Key to nudging my emotional attachment up a level has been the work I’ve been doing on the VisitScotland podcast (coming very soon) and, particularly, my reading of Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’. There’s possibly never been a more emotionally charged depiction of an area than her work (written during the Second World War) which broadcasts a local’s love for Aberdeenshire’s landscapes with a depth of unparalleled descriptive detail. More about that in the podcast though, stay tuned.

Bottom line, the Cairngorms is raw, inhospitable Scotland at its most magnificent. Sub-arctic landscapes that are home to 5 of the 6 highest peaks in Britain, barren terrain that few species can handle and, naturally, vistas to die for. At its most severe, you’re facing a Winter Is Here scene from Game of Thrones that even whisky won’t thaw. And there’s the appeal.

Where to head

Approaching the western and southern limits of Aberdeenshire at Glenshee, travelling over the superbly named Snow Roads, you’ll pass into ski-ing territory. A route that is often impassable in full-on winter conditions, this is when gentle Perthshire is left behind and the ears start to pop.

Perhaps the best ease-yourself-in place to head is the Mar Lodge Estate. All the rugged stuff will tease you plenty, but this is first and foremost a nature conservation spot. Straightforward (and more challenging) walks begin and end at the Linn of Dee car park as opportunities in Glen Lui present themselves between armies of Scots pine trees. The estate encompasses a massive 29,000 hectares and holds 15 Munros within its grasp. This handy map shows some of the low-level walking options and, even on a very tight schedule, I managed to fit in combinations of all three.

A doze of Highland human history is always called for, even in such nature-heavy areas. As we start to approach the riches of Aberdeenshire’s castle country, Braemar Castle pops up to say hello. A robust, turreted tower, the structure goes back to 1628 and has been home to the Clan Farquharson since the mid-1700s. Community owned and staffed by a wonderful team of volunteers, it’s a must for Scottish castle fans. A Jacobite thread weaves its way into its past as government forces were based here during the 1745 rebellion. It had previously been burned in 1689 by Jacobites, precisely to prevent such a circumstance.

Where to Eat and Stay

I encourage total immersion. Braemar village is a picturesque wee place, ideal for a food stop or a base for further exploration. Go full Scottish with salmon and haggis at the majestic Fife Arms Hotel where the regal side to Highland charm calls invitingly. To sleep, Cairngorm Lodges further west was the perfect way to doze off in comfort amid the pines, merging seamlessly with the overpowering environment that surrounds you.

Heading East – Things to do in Aberdeenshire

As I prepare to leave the National Park, I take advantage of a glorious early – very early – Sunday morning with a poke about Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve. Park up at the Burn o’Vat Visitor Centre where you’ll have access to all the practical info you’ll need. As with Mar Lodge, various trails lie before you.

Then there were castles. You can’t possibly review the best things to do in Aberdeenshire without locking firmly onto its plethora of castles. If Braemar had the rugged, weather-beaten appeal of a Highland fortress, those historic sites closer to Aberdeen boast something different. Wealth, in a word. Aberdeenshire has long been among the richest of Scotland’s regions, with its generous farmlands and, more recently, access to the North Sea’s treasure. Going hand in hand with that come some of Scotland’s most impressive and opulent homes, estates and ancient clan strongholds.

The Castle Trail

Everything from the extravagant Royal base at Balmoral to the barely-there, freaky ruins of New Slains Castle await in Aberdeenshire. But my itinerary on this campaign kept within a close-knit geography to include Craigievar, Crathes and Drum.

Craigievar Castle

That a place as immaculately, impossibly quaint as Craigievar exists in real life is of endless wonder. Set in luscious farmlands, surrounded by sprawling trees and coloured pink it’s hard to think of what more it could do. Finally being able to set the drone loose here (with permission, always get permission) was the icing on the cake of a beautiful day. A seven-storey Baronial structure dating back to the 17th Century, today it holds notable works of art and retains a domestic feel. Not one built for defence, the interior will have changed little since it was visited by Queen Victoria herself in 1879. It is also believed to have been the inspiration for the iconic Disney castle. A coveted claim to fantasy fame indeed.

Crathes Castle

With the clock ticking on, I charged ahead to Crathes Castle. Similar in external appearance to Craigievar, Crathes dates back a little further to the late 1500s. Set on vast grounds (a once-upon-a-time gift from Robert the Bruce no less) it’s regarded as one of the finest things to do in Aberdeenshire for families. Beautiful estates call out for exploration and picnicking, while the gardens ignite the senses.

Owned by the Burnett family, the castle was another to avoid all historical conflict as the family shrewdly and diplomatically managed to avoid ever upsetting anyone. A truly astonishing achievement in Scottish history.

Drum Castle

Then there was Drum. A fitting close to a head-spinning weekend of digital activity, I’ve always been a fan of this place’s story. By now on the outskirts of the Granite City, the 400+ acre estate is just about the city dwellers’ closest opportunity for a rural escape.

The east is dominated by a robust medieval tower house, the surrounding extension came into being in subsequent centuries. Resident here were the Irvine family, supporters of the Jacobite cause, and it was the 17th earl that holds the most dramatic legacy of Drum’s past. Following the catastrophic defeat at Culloden, he was forced to hide within the castle while the government forces went door to door in the Highlands hunting down survivors. As for today’s visitor experience, the most impactful room by far is the library, a stunningly alluring space where silence rules.

Drum can also boast some of the friendliest staff I’ve encountered in my castle trails and, as with all National Trust for Scotland properties, take advantage of the guided tours.

Glen Tanar

But you don’t need a castle to have an estate, and Aberdeenshire is heaving with possibilities for nature lovers that don’t necessarily want to take on the big peaks. A prime example of a working Highland estate is the fabulous Glen Tanar, on the eastern limits of the National Park. Producing vast quantities of timber and home to farming livestock, this 25,000-acre playground is also very much open to tourism. A wedding venue and potential luxury base for self-catering visitors, there’s any number of routes to outdoor entertainment.

Wildlife roam free in these parts and deer, eagles, red squirrels and more can be spotted. There’s also beautiful Highland Cows and horses sparring for your attention.

Where to Eat and Sleep

For this stretch from the Cairngorms to Aberdeen, amenities remain at a premium in a land of big open spaces and winding country roads. A great option for lunch though is the Potarch Café and Restaurant, offering good value, high-end pub grub with country charm.

On arrival into Aberdeen I was fortunate to be based at the outstanding Maryculter House Hotel on the outskirts of town. A beautiful building set on the banks of the River Dee, lavishly furnished and offering absolutely top-drawer food this is one I’d recommend in a heartbeat. They’re tough going, these campaigns, and finishing up with a great feed and comfy bed is all any traveller can ask for.

More from the North East 250

As with many Scotlanders campaigns, the idea for the NE250 was to cover a big area in a short time. Joining me on this campaign were David who took on the western stretch up into Speyside, Sonja covering the east Aberdeenshire coastline and Kim, videoing her way along the northern coast. You can have a look at what they got up to very soon (links will be added here) and we’ll also be merging our experiences onto a video for our YouTube channel.

Hopefully we’ve collectively shown off the best things to do in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Speyside and the Cairngorms through our adventures. As unique as it is diverse, as serene as it is chilling and as melancholic as it is fantastical, it’s a road trip of epic proportions.

Disclaimer

This road trip was completed in paid partnership with the North East 250. While my stays and food stops were suggested and I was invited as a guest, my recommendations above are based solely on my having had an excellent experience at each and every one of them. As ever, nothing makes it into this blog unless my industry experience tells me it’s something that could be of value to you good people. I ate well, slept well and travelled well….as I’m sure you can tell.

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Hopping on the Ferry to Bute

It’s May, the heating is still on. Political and economic uncertainty hang in the air. It’s been a slightly timid start to the season for the tourism industry. Nobody seems quite ready to say a firm goodbye to winter just yet. Never has a jolly to the Scottish islands seemed more called for and it’s high time I caught the ferry to Bute.

I have to hold my hands up and admit that it has been many years since my last visit to the Isle of Bute. A sorry state of affairs that I’ve been looking forward to rectifying, it is evidence that even travel fanatics like me too often overlook what is within immediate grasp. But with longer days now guaranteed, this most accessible of isles is suddenly very much in the cross hairs. Blissfully located adrift of Argyll’s claw-like peninsulas in the Firth of Clyde, the sea air is calling.

The Beaches

I’m trying to think of sandy beaches closer to Glasgow than Bute’s. Our mainland south west coast is quite limited, the great mainland beaches are much further north. Largs and Great Cumbrae maybe? There’s East Lothian’s offerings away on the other side of the country (around 90 minutes away via the boring M8). Arran requires a longer ferry crossing….

Which leaves Bute! My pick for the best sandy beaches closest to Glasgow. There, I’ve said it. A 45-minute drive to Wemyss Bay, a 30-minute ferry to Bute and a short drive from Rothesay to Bute’s west coast, and there you go. You’ll have the sand between your toes in no time.

On arrival, there’s multiple options. West does tend to be best where beaches are concerned and the huge bays of Ettrick and Scalpsie will grapple to be your first port of call. Both provide superb views over to the Isle of Arran and its big jagged peaks. Both ease effortlessly between the waves and the gentle surrounding farmland. And both are, more often than not, empty.

A day trip to Bute probably won’t allow you ample time to do justice to the island’s north, but be sure not to miss the south. Kilchattan Bay is a must for a stroll as you strain to identify the seabirds big and small that are joining you. My trip this month saw a sea eagle, peregrine falcons and oyster catchers aplenty. Dolphins even made an appearance on the ferry to Bute crossing.

Mount Stuart

Easily one of the most visually impressive buildings in the country, Mount Stuart is the single biggest attraction on the island. Set in the midst of gigantic grounds, its imposing, slightly Gothic exterior is trumped by a lavishly opulent core. Grand Italian marble, vibrant artwork, its own immaculate chapel and even a ceiling of stars combine to leave visitors in total awe of this island treasure-trove.

Stunning as the building is today, it would have been even more so in Victorian times. This is believed to be the first home in the world to boast an indoor swimming pool and Scotland’s first to have a telephone system, electric light and even a passenger lift! All is owed to the big thinking of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, a philanthropist, magnate and aristocrat who was born here at his family seat, and prospered in the 1800s. Prospered may be putting it mildly….he was believed to be the richest man in the world. His passion for architecture, travel and even astrology are evident throughout this magnificent building.

Be sure to walk the vast grounds and gardens, as much of the 300 acres as you can manage. You’ll see everything from huge open coastal views to greenhouses consumed by tropical plant life. With the bizarre influence of the warming Gulf Stream very much in evidence around the island, the exotic allure is at its strongest here. The fact the heating is still on at home is temporarily forgotten.

While Mount Stuart has its own Visitor Centre and operates guided tours, the process is confusing so I suggest calling ahead (or visiting their website) and confirming which tour you want to go on ahead of time. There is a Mary Queen of Scots exhibit going on over the course of the 2019 season as well but the rules for getting into that are even more bizarre, so be sure to get this clarified in advance as well.

Further Historical Attractions

On arrival from the ferry into Rothesay, you are a matter of feet away from one of Scotland’s most picturesque castles. 13th Century Rothesay Castle was the residence for the Stuart kings and remains as one of only two of our castles to boast an impressive moat.

The Vikings twice besieged the castle in its early years at a time when raids by manic, bearded, axe-wielding nutters from across the North Sea were pretty much run of the mill on the Scottish islands. These days it’s just Glaswegians. Conflict here continued during the Wars of Independence when the castle was seized from the English by Robert the Bruce in 1311. When the war ended, Rothesay Castle gradually established itself as a favourite spot for the next generations of the Bruce’s family. So began the tradition of honouring the heir to the throne of Scotland with the title ‘Duke of Rothesay’ (held currently by Prince Charles).

Following centuries saw better days and the castle took on its now distinctively circular plan and formidable defensive installations. A nasty combination of Oliver Cromwell and the Argyll Campbells, though, saw the castle reduced to ruin in the 17th Century, before restoration in the 19th brought back this beauty from the rubble.

Outside of the big two above, Bute is not overflowing with attractions as such. It’s more about the beaches and the relaxed pace. But one other historical site is definitely worth a big mention, St Blane’s Chapel. Hidden away inland in the island’s south, its origins go back as far as the AD 500s and there’s a mystique about the ruins to this day. In the 12th and 13th Centuries, after the Vikings had wrecked the place and gone, St Blane’s became a place of renewed Christian serenity. Its opportune placement in a sheltered hollow still allows for wonderful south and west-facing views over the coast and provide the cherry on top.

Bute does also boast what would be a superb standing stone site, Kingarth. Set amidst a roadside forested area, the surrounding trees have been cut down to leave the site undeniably sullied.

All in a day’s work

With a renewed sense of optimism that the industry can shake itself awake and that I can soon start reducing my domestic energy bills, I jump back aboard the ferry. Home in time for dinner. Hint of a tan there too I notice in the car mirror. Quite how I’ve not managed to fit in a day trip to Bute in recent years is beyond me, but don’t let yourself make the same mistake….

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Glasgow to Islay Flights, with a Difference

It’s been several years since my last jolly over to Scotland’s whisky island. A dismal effort on my part. Home to some of the very biggest brands in the drinks industry and a completely unique island economy, it’s among the most fascinating jewels we’ve got to offer. But, me being me, I’m always on the lookout for alternative ways of doing things and I’ve long fancied trying this journey from the air. Ferry travel (from Oban or Kennacraig) would be the default course of action here, but Glasgow to Islay flights were not something I’d looked into before. Specifically, hopping aboard a private plane to whisk me over to Whiskyland in less than an hour….

The Glasgow to Islay Flight

I was invited to experience this somewhat unorthodox journey by Wingly, a group that pair up local pilots – and small aircraft – with travellers keen on taking to the skies. The aircraft in this case holds a maximum of 4 people and was piloted by the wonderful Allan, who merges his many years of aviation experience with a proud passion for air travel. He skilfully navigated through some high winds and merrily chatted over the myriad of coastal land formations below. It feels hands-on. Everyone helps push the plane out of the hangar, you’re in close-quarters and the experience is entirely immersive. Therein lies the appeal – this is a much more personal experience than the sardine-packed, ultra-controlled conventions of typical air travel.

Although calling itself ‘Glasgow’ Prestwick, in truth Ayrshire’s airfield is around a 40-minute drive away from the city. But, given that it is hardly used by anyone outside the military these days, you’ll be on board quicker than anything you’d face at Glasgow International. No passport control, no queues, just straight from car to aircraft. There are multiple flight route options which should be discussed with your pilot, but Islay Airport can be reached in well under an hour of flying time from Prestwick.

From the air you’ll cross over the Ayrshire coast, the Isles of Bute and Arran, the Kintyre Peninsula and little Gigha before landing. You’ll get superb views over to the distinctive Paps of Jura and to Colonsay. Looking north you’ll spot Mull and maybe even the promise of the Outer Hebrides on a clear day. This Glasgow to Islay flight will completely change your perspective of the west coast, even if you do claim to know these lands well. It’s always a bit of a slog getting to the Hebrides (there’s no escaping it and that’s part of the experience) but having this lot almost literally in the palm of your hand was like nothing I’d ever encountered before.

The Distilleries

Islay has nine distilleries spread nicely across the island. That concentration is quite simply obscene and only Speyside in the north east of mainland Scotland can compete. It feels a little like there are almost as many distilleries as homes and it’s a glorious headscratcher that some of the most recognised brands in the world come from this remote and tranquil land. Each and every one of the whisky houses has their own personality, not just in their produce but within their walls too. Truly, you’ll never completely know Scotland until you’ve got your head around the workings of our amazing distilleries.

The Big Three, The Holy Trinity, The Triumvirate.

Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are the titans that rule Islay’s south coast. Virtual next-field neighbours, they all enjoy a waterside setting and a confident aura. They’re sexy and they know it.

Let’s start with the exteriors. The distilleries themselves each have their own booming sea-facing wall branding. Not just for Instagram purposes, this was to let ships know which distillery they were actually unloading at.

Let your mind go a bit here. In an image that would have inspired R.L. Stevenson, stormy coastal landings on Islay would have, in times past, concluded with that faint wall lettering just about visible through thick drizzle. Destination reached, can you feel the relief from all on board?

Within, the production process may be very similar for all distilleries, but those magic individual ingredients make all the difference. The water source, the mighty stills themselves, the casks (barrels)…all combine to give the unique end product that is adored and cherished by drinkers across the globe. Their drams are liquid peat in their early years, with more subtle flavours creeping in as they get older. For some it is instant thunderbolt love, for others sheer horror and flabbergasted confusion. Wonderful, indeed.

Recommendations:

Ardbeg – start with the 10-year-old. For me there is no finer introduction to smoky, peaty whisky. You’ll know very quickly whether this stuff is the start of a Casablanca moment, or never to be flirted with again.

Lagavulin – got to be the 16-year-old, an ever-present on my shelf at home. A sensory explosion of all the tasting notes you’d expect and more. If you’re at the Distillery, look into a tour involving a tasting of the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition too.

Laphroaig – I love the Quarter Cask, whereby smaller casks have been used in the maturation process to intensify the flavours. The unapologetically medicinal aromas of the young stuff will kill or cure for sure, but this guy is much more rounded.

These three are all within walking distance of each other, with a helpfully-created walkway separating them for those under the influence. Which, frankly, you’d better be otherwise you’re not doing Islay right!

The Complete Day Out

Unlike several of its island competitors that are jostling for your attention, Islay is not all sumptuous beaches and rugged mountains. Much of the inland terrain delivers bland vistas of endless peat bogs that, on the face of it at least, aren’t the most inviting. But that misty, inhospitable atmosphere is some powerful stuff and Islay does the ‘quintessentially Scottish’ thing with bravado. It’s not somewhere I could spend weeks exploring in the way that I could on Mull or the Outer Hebrides, but that does tee it up as the ideal day-trip candidate.

While it is possible to make your flying trip one-way, that wasn’t what I was after. Especially as a repeat visitor, I was more in pursuit of the experience than for an extended trip. Get up, jump in the car, straight onto a plane, flight, land, do stuff, return. My experience allowed for around 5 hours on Islay and I was back home in Glasgow for dinner. Nowhere near enough time to take on the whole island, but plenty to fit in a visit to several distilleries and get a taste of the coastline as well.

Taxis or car hire are available from the airport and don’t worry too much about getting from terminal 1 to terminal 23 – they like to keep things simple on the Scottish islands. There are regular commercial flights from both Edinburgh and Glasgow to Islay, but this personal experience is way more fun.

Take it from me, you’ll not forget it in a hurry.

Disclaimer

Although invited to participate in a flight with Wingly, I selected a route (Glasgow to Islay flights were something I’ve long been curious about) and planned an itinerary that I felt would resonate most helpfully for you good people. My endorsement of this as a great way to realise something pretty unique is based on having a straightforward process, a great pilot and a fantastic experience that presented Islay to me in a wholly new way compared to previous visits.

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Loch Lomond Walks and Exploring the National Park

I’ve been feeling a bit cabin feverey lately. It’s the time of year when I’m always consumed with things like event speaking during Scottish Tourism Month, blog trip planning and strategic prioritising for which direction I want to swing my work this year. The result is spending my time almost entirely in towns and cities meeting people, digitally analysing just about everything and stroking my beard in perpetually deep contemplation. Added to the fact that spring has had multiple false starts already and I’m absolutely aching for the outdoors. The mountains, and some Loch Lomond walks, are calling.

I’ve been out to the Loch at least half a dozen times this year already for the short trip, quick fixes that my type require to ride out the last of the winter. You see, it’s just there. Sat delightfully to the north west of Glasgow, you’ve barely left the city limits before the fresh air and Highland promise hits you and all is very quickly well again. So, for those looking to dip the toe with some springtime exploration, or those making comprehensive Highland plans for the summer, here’s a few options to mull over…..

Ben Lomond

Ask the majority of Munro baggers out there where their hill-going adventures began and a huge chunk will nostalgically reflect on novice wanders up ‘Glasgow’s Mountain’. Straightforward throughout and without the faff required for more remote peaks, this will provide the confidence to trigger an imminent mountain addiction.

The Ben completely dominates the Loch in that ‘I’m-watching-you-young-man’ manner that I’ve come to love. As a mountain, I think it’s best appreciated from the western side of the water looking over but, to get to know Loch Lomond as a whole, you’ll never do finer than from the summit. Long and narrow with a smattering of little islands as decoration, it’s not been bonnie all these years for nothing.

The easiest place to start is Rowardennan car park and follow your nose for a relaxed 5-hour round trip. A joy on a sunny day, it is very exposed on the incline so dress appropriately for wind and rain if Scotland’s weather gods are in their usual mood. For something a bit more challenging, rope in the Ptarmigan ridge on either the up or down to form a more interesting circuit.

Ben Vorlich

While Ben Lomond is a campfire favourite, known to all, the Loch’s other Munro holds much less renown. Strange really, given that it is just as accessible and probably even more rewarding. My first hike of the spring sees me take on Ben Vorlich (not to be confused with the hill of the same name in Perthshire).

Locals will be familiar with this guy but you’ll do well to hear a non-Scottish accent on this climb as it’s managed to quietly avoid radar detection for the most part. There are a few ways to tackle him but I opted for the western approach from the rear, overlooking the Loch Sloy reservoir. It’s tough going, this. Perhaps it was the remnants of winter rust, or the daft amount of photography gear I was carrying, but the steepness of the clamber had me digging deeper than usual over this 5.5-hour round trip. The rewards are all around though as the denseness of the Southern Highland limits start to take shape.

Expect glorious views from the ridge south over the Loch and its pointy Ben. Every other direction holds a riot of peaks of all shapes and sizes. Although technically one of the Arrochar Alps, I view Ben Vorlich as separate to the others and the bridge point between Loch Lomond and the start of Argyll. Combined with its slightly bigger brother, these two Loch Lomond walks will leave you on much closer terms with the National Park.

Further Loch Lomond Walks in the Vicinity

There are literally dozens of options for walking in the National Park, which was Scotland’s first by the way. Conic Hill, if you don’t mind the crowds, is the pick of the bunch on the eastern shore to the south of Ben Lomond. It’ll give you a better look over those little islets than its neighbour and is another great one for building early confidence.

For the west, I’d nudge you towards the Luss Hills, where the crowds are non-existent. Despite the immediate proximity to little Luss that can barely hold the droves that stop off here between destinations, very few of them bother to actually leave the village. Rub your hands with devilish glee and break from the mould.

Further north, the other Arrochar Alps beckon while The Trossachs are calling to the east. Both areas are densely rural, resplendent in the summer seasons and home to all sorts of wildlife. You could literally spend a fortnight’s holiday just exploring around here, it has that much to offer.

Getting Off-Road

A new venture that I’ve recently become aware of offers a superb alternative approach to exploration of Loch Lomond. 4×4 Adventures Scotland provide off-road driving north of Luss for those with both a passion for thrills and for unearthing the hidden secrets of Highland glens. Taking routes that even the most seasoned local experts will never have traversed, their sturdy fleet takes passengers to superb unspoilt vantage points over both Loch Lomond and Loch Long to the further west.

Should you wish you can even get behind the wheel yourself! Tough but thrilling, I became aware that my jaw had locked itself into something between a strained grimace and a gleeful grin throughout. Under the expert supervision of a lovely team of local guys, these are the kinds of businesses I love to recommend. First class Scottish service offering something unique, innovative and fuelled by passion.

Although I was invited to experience a day on the hills with 4×4 Adventures Scotland, this endorsement is entirely justified based on a great day out doing something I’d never tried before and that was a huge amount of fun.

And for something more relaxed….

While the Park is inescapably about the outdoors, there are some tucked away historical powerhouses too. This is Rob Roy territory of course and you can still visit the defiant MacGregor’s grave in Balquhidder.

Or there’s the serenely beautiful Inchmahome Priory, islanded on the Lake of Menteith. These spiritual ruins are reminiscent of Loch Leven Castle, Inchcolm Island and even Iona in their presence and setting. A young Mary, Queen of Scots was sent here in 1547 for safekeeping during the ‘Rough Wooing’ being overseen by Henry VIII. Robert the Bruce was also a repeat visitor, presumably chilling out between scraps with the English.

A quick update on where I’ve been hiding

Although I have been extremely quiet these last few weeks on the blog front, big things are afoot. I will imminently be able to announce the details of a new podcast series as well as some new, carefully selected, partnerships and campaigns coming up in 2019. The former will be my primary focus for the next month or two and the latter will see me repeatedly hitting plenty of fabulous locations including the Inner Hebrides, the North East and Southern Scotland over the tourism season.

I can promise that Scotland shan’t disappoint.

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10 Days on the Road Well Travelled

It’s that time of year when enquiries start coming in from the well-prepared travellers out there as to how to plan their perfect trip to Scotland. I’m going to have to close my eyes, cover my ears and grind my way through this a bit I’ll be honest. A big part of my job is opening up all of Scotland to travellers and shining some spotlight on the oft-forgotten spots. I veer away from the best-known, over-promoted locations where I can. But, keeping my international travels in mind, I know that sometimes there are places you simply must see on any given trip. A 10 day Scotland itinerary seems to be the most common timeframe that comes in, so here’s my thoughts on how to get the most out of my homeland in that – appallingly – limited time.

I’m also making some assumptions with the below itinerary. Namely that this is your first visit to Scotland, that the thought of missing Skye and Loch Ness is unthinkable and that you’ll be moving at a pretty relentless pace. That you’ll want a variety of things in there including plenty of culture, history, Highland landscapes and a distillery or two. I’m also assuming you will be driving your own vehicle, the Highlands are pretty much impossible to do justice to otherwise. But if you are a repeat visitor, are looking for a fairly relaxing holiday and want to explore off the beaten path, IGNORE THIS COMPLETELY and instead dig deeper into this website.

10 Day Scotland ItineraryDays 1 and 2 – Edinburgh

Let’s say you’ve flown in to the capital to keep things simple. I think it needs a minimum of 2 days and there are countless options here. Some of my recommended big hitters include:

  • Edinburgh Castle
  • Real Mary Kings Close
  • Scotch Whisky Experience
  • National Museum of Scotland
  • A walk up Arthur’s Seat (or Calton Hill for something easier)
  • Climb to the top of the Scott Monument
  • Water of Leith walkway and a wander into Dean Village

Edinburgh city centre is pretty easy to get around on foot, the alternative is by bus. You can delay hiring a car until you are ready to leave the city.

Day 3 – Dundee

I’m really chuffed that I feel the need to include Dundee on a 10 day Scotland itinerary, even one as ruthless as this. The City of Discovery has long been simmering quietly on an increasingly cultural footing, but there’s no question that the new V&A Museum of Design has kicked things up a level. Allow a couple of hours for the V&A, be sure to pop into Discovery Point next door and also to Verdant Works. The latter is an outstanding tribute to the city’s harsh industrial past, specifically its status as the jute capital of the world.

Day 4 – The Drive to Inverness

Your first foray into the Highlands starts with the drive through Perthshire and this is where the landscape teasing begins. Time is tight within this timeframe but the ideally located Hermitage – or alternatively Killiecrankie a little further north – offer the perfect motorway stop to stretch the legs and appreciate the magnificence of these densely wooded landscapes. Allow around 90 minutes for this break.

Before you know it, you’ll have crept into the western Cairngorms further north. One of the best whisky distilleries of them all, Dalwhinnie, is another helpfully placed roadside stop here. Driver kits are available for those behind the wheel and what they do with their whisky-chocolate pairings is genius. Allow around 90 minutes for a tour and a tasting.

The final stop I advise for today is Culloden. Perhaps the most poignantly atmospheric battlefield you’ll ever visit, this was the scene of the last major land battle in Britain and the calamitous end point for the Jacobite cause. Outlander fans wouldn’t dream of missing this place but I think every history fan simply must find space for it over your 10 days. The Visitor Centre and desolate battlefield moor itself require a couple of hours.

Day 5 – Inverness to Skye

Having spent the night in or around Inverness, head south first of all to Loch Ness. Scots do not understand the fuss about our most famous loch, it’s a long way from being our most attractive. But I’ve had enough conversations with first time visitors to realise that there’s no getting around this one, so here it is. In its defence, Urquhart Castle on the lochside is a stunner and this is where I’d head. Allow around an hour for a nosey.

Continue south and, once you reach Invergarry, head west to Skye. The island is seamlessly accessed by bridge but you’ll probably want another castle stop at the famous Eilean Donan on the mainland en route. Once you are on Skye, seek out accommodation in or near pretty Portree. Just be advised that you’ll have to book several months in advance.

Day 6 – Skye

Aside from being overrun in peak season, and not far off the rest of the year, Skye wrestles with Assynt for me in the running for Scotland’s most jaw-dropping landscapes. Fitting all of these into one day is impossible, so pick 2 or 3 and make sure your camera memory card is empty:

  • Old Man of Storr – viewable from the roadside or as part of a 4-hour return hike to the summit
  • The Quiraing (best viewed from the Uig to Staffin road)
  • Fairy Pools
  • Talisker Distillery
  • Elgol – take a boat trip to Loch Coruisk
  • Neist Point – the spectacular view and walk to the lighthouse

Days 7 and 8 – The Outer Hebrides

Hmmm. Yes, this lot were always going to make it on to the 10 day itinerary. I’m making no apologies. What you actually get up to here depends a lot on your interests, but the beaches will feature prominently. Last year I was immersing myself in outdoors activities like kayaking and coasteering, the year before was more about hiking. While there’s a lot to see, the simplest course of action is to focus on Harris and Lewis. The former is all about landscapes and beaches, the latter more on history. Callanish Standing Stones, Dun Carloway and Gearrannan Blackhouse Village are the obvious, excellent historic Lewis attractions. As for South Harris’ beaches, Luskentyre, Scarista and Hushinish are my favourites.

Your ferry from Uig, will come in and out of Tarbert, Harris’ ‘capital’. This gives you an ideal opportunity to purchase some Harris Tweed and pop into the shiny new Harris Distillery, source of the gin that has taken the industry by storm.

Day 9 – Drive back to Glasgow

Today is a long journey, ending a trip that’s been full of them! If you’re still with me, get the ferry back to Skye and begin the 5 hour drive back to the bright city lights. Stops along the route are countless but allow at least half an hour for Glen Coe. This is hillwalking heaven and countless routes are open to you, but time will of course be tight. Another logical stop is Loch Lomond, and pretty Luss is the popular pit-stop ahead of the final stretch back to the city. You’ll get a great perspective of Scotland’s second most famous loch from the pier, including the sulking mound of Ben Lomond.

You’ll arrive just in time for a Glasgow curry!

Day 10 – Glasgow

My home city is a fitting end and deserves to be lauded with the same affection that travellers have for Edinburgh. It’s great to have seen Glasgow’s numbers on the rise in recent years and folk are seeing it as a wonderful accompaniment and source of comparison to the capital. Culture, architecture, nightlife and shopping are the city’s key assets. Give this lot plenty of consideration, and be sure to get to the West End if nothing else:

  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
  • Glasgow University campus
  • Glasgow Cathedral
  • Gallery of Modern Art
  • Botanic Gardens
  • The Riverside Musuem
  • Clydeside Distillery (if you’ve not had enough whisky yet)

Glasgow’s iconic Subway is the ideal way of getting around between the major sites and the city’s many green spaces will chill you out after this busy itinerary.

For departure, you will likely either be heading out of Glasgow Airport or Edinburgh (a regular bus leaves directly from Buchannan Street station to Edinburgh Airport).

Time of Year to Visit

I’ve made a job out of showing that Scotland is a year-round destination. Even in the depths of winter, my travels this year to the likes of the Isle of Mull have underlined that I think. That said, and based on my initial assumptions above, the best months to come are generally May, June, September and October. Climate change keeps increasingly messing with weather systems and upsetting normal expectations but those are usually the best weather-wise. The dreaded midges are not at their peak, days are long and fellow tourist numbers are much less challenging.

Summary

I’ve been twitching throughout this article. As a Scot, it goes against my entire focus and criminally misses out so many great spots that deserve your attention. But the truth is Scotland is a big wee country. It is completely impossible to cover it in one trip, regardless of how long, and you can only do so much. There’s no mention in this 10-day Scotland itinerary for Southern Scotland, for the North East, the Inner Hebrides or even the North Coast 500. Disgraceful, I know. My only excuse is that you’d send me hate mail if I’d pushed you any harder – these are your holidays after all.

But we have covered several magnificent ruins; the best Glen of them all; our most famous lochs; maybe the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever see; our best standing stone site and our most complimentary cities. You’ll have poked around a couple of the classiest distilleries and sampled plenty of local seafood. Obviously if you have more time, spread out your journey a bit and you’ll enjoy it all the better. If you have less, the Outer Hebrides chunk may be beyond you.

If 10 days it is, you’ll be shattered but you’ll have a full understanding of what brilliantly diverse Scotland is all about. Enjoy the journey.

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Castles near Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

One of the undisputed iconic images of Scotland, it sits looking very chuffed with itself atop Castle Rock, bejewelling the crown of one of the world’s prettiest city centres. But it’s not the only show in town. Ruins are strewn across Central Scotland and there are numerous alternative castles near Edinburgh to satisfy even the most insatiable of history hunters. Sticking just within The Lothians, see what you think of this hit-list.

Edinburgh and MidlothianCraigmillar Castle

In 2018 I now realise that I found myself at this guy on 3 separate occasions (I didn’t visit Edinburgh Castle at all incidentally). Even for me that’s rare and says much about its growing status in Scottish tourism. Its role on-screen is the single biggest reason for this of course and it’s been a feature in both the Outlander and Outlaw King Scotlanders campaigns from recent times.

While its manufactured status as Ardsmuir Prison and the Bruce Castle may have piqued your initial interest, its genuine story is engrossing too. The interior remains an impressively deep labyrinth that brings out the hide-and-seek enthusiast in us all. Dating from the 14th Century, it was never a place for thunderous sieges but did receive a visit from herself, Mary Queen of Scots, while she was recovering from childbirth. Is it even really a castle if Mary hasn’t popped in at some point? Not as far as this blog post is concerned.

Still within Edinburgh herself, you’ll find it in the south-east outskirts of the city. The views from the ramparts see the capital spreading in front of you and I guarantee you’ll find this a much more intimate experience than its big sister on the horizon. It is in an excellent state of repair (another part of its appeal for the cameras) and the vantage point from the south is particularly strong on the visuals.

Crichton Castle

Barely a stone’s throw from Edinburgh, this rural relic makes for the ideal escape. Set amid Midlothian’s seemingly remote country landscapes, it also has one of the most impressive approaches (from the north) of all of our castles. Photographers will delight with the view from the roadside and the loneliness of the fortress gives it its own powerful presence. Birds of prey outnumber humans as the desolate surroundings bring unavoidable comparisons with Hermitage Castle in the Borders.

Built in 1400, it grew with the powerful Crichton family before passing to the even more prominent Bothwells. The 4th Earl was of course husband to Mary Queen of Scots and Mary was a repeat visitor here as well. It was a doomed marriage and ultimately led to the Queen’s legendary downfall.

The ruin is within 15 miles of Edinburgh’s city centre and is ideal territory for cyclists and horse riders. Signs of modern life are at an extreme minimum, enjoy.

East LothianTantallon Castle

While I’ve never quite worked up the fortitude to boldly proclaim any Scottish castle to be my absolute favourite, I’ve also never been shy about placing Tantallon in my top five. There is something undeniably magnificent about clifftop castles and only Dunnottar can really match this guy in the coastal drama department.

Another from the 14th Century, it was the last medieval curtain wall castle to be built here and endured a bit of a blasting from the siege engines in its time. Historic Scotland themselves call Tantallon ‘the last truly great castle built in Scotland’. Belonging to the Douglas family, it took a doing in 1491, 1528 and 1651 in particular, with the Douglases perennially keen on upsetting the powers that be from the south. The rogues.

Although by no means a secret now, most visitors will miss a golden opportunity for the best vantage point. Seacliff Beach is another loved by the cameras and appeared in both of Scotland’s aforementioned recent movie titans. Looking up at the ruins from the rocky waterline makes for one of my favourite vistas in Scotland. Of all the castles near Edinburgh, this one requires the furthest hike and is about 45 minutes away by car. Worth every bit of it though.

Dirleton Castle

I feel a little sorry for Dirleton. It’s near-neighbour Tantallon dominates my historical thoughts in these parts….but if Dirleton was almost anywhere else it would be right up there in my mind’s eye. A truly magnificent ruin that has all of the atmospherics and brooding rage that I’m after, all it is missing is a cliff.

The 13th Century fortress was one of many north of the border to change hands several times as the English and Scots duelled in the Wars of Independence. As one of the most robust castles near Edinburgh, it’s hardly surprising that it was in high demand. Its imposing walls show the scars of centuries’ worth of brutal conflict. Oliver Cromwell’s 1650 siege was the most savage and defenders were left hanging from the castle walls with the kind of brutality that we’d expect from Gregor Clegane’s Lannister mob in Game of Thrones.

A walk through the main gate, imagining fear and fury pouring down on you from the ramparts, is a must. Once inside take half an hour to explore the nooks and crannies thoroughly, there is much to set your mind racing. Pit prisons, massive kitchen spaces and drafty bed chambers await. The surrounding gardens will provide you with the perfect tranquil contrast and do ask the staff if Andrew Spratt is around for one of his fabulous re-enactments on-site. Kids and adults alike will love his chat on medieval attire and behaviourisms. You’ll find Dirleton just a few minutes inland from North Berwick and the East Lothian coast.

The excellent Hailes Castle is a further East Lothian option for those that can’t get enough.

West LothianLinlithgow Palace

Very much a Palace more than a castle, but it ticks every box and more for what us modern-day ruin-seekers are after. Perched picturesquely aside Linlithgow Loch and within easy reach of the population centres of Central Scotland, it’s not hard to appreciate what its strategic importance would have been in centuries past.

It was a base for Edward I’s forces in the Wars of Independence, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobites were here, Mary was actually born here in 1542 and it stood as a long-standing retreat for the Royal House of Stewart. A convenient home from home when city life got too much, they would have converged on the Palace’s opportunities for a life of leisure with some enthusiasm I imagine. Cromwell’s destructive efforts and a devastating fire in 1746 brought its rich dynasty to an end however, and it was to never fully recover.

I’d love to see Linlithgow Palace get an upgrade. It’s a hollow shell of what it clearly once was and funding sent its way over recent decades has been limited. Were it to be shown as much love as an Edinburgh Castle or a Stirling Castle, I’m quite sure it would be rewarded in visitor numbers. As it is, it’s got the atmosphere, the scale, the grandeur and the charisma of a titan and is still one of Scotland’s most impressive structures.

Blackness Castle

Why is it that school trips live so long in the memory? It doesn’t seem to matter how much time passes, I bet everyone can recall at least one school trip from their youth. Among my most prominent was wee me’s visit to Blackness Castle in Primary School. Even now, I vividly remember how grim I found the place. Draftily plopped on the banks of the River Forth and with a dark soul of an appearance, it really is a brute.

A 15th Century residence, it was built for the powerful Crichton family, the same ones from above. Although its intentions were as a home fit for a lord, it ended up also serving as a state prison and artillery depot. ‘The ship that never sailed’ it is called, with its intriguing shape best appreciated from above. A tough nut to crack, guess who showed up in 1650 with siege guns to leave it permanently damaged?

In a recurring theme for the castles near Edinburgh, Blackness has shot to renewed interest with starring roles in all three of Outlander, Outlaw King and Mary Queen of Scots in recent times as its once largely forgotten status has been stratospherically revived, in terms of visitor numbers anyway. With a completely different feel to majestic Linlithgow Palace, these two put West Lothian firmly on the history hunter’s map.

Nearby Hopetoun House (and its outlying Midhope ‘Lallybroch’ Castle) are other castles of a different kind in the area.

Which Castle is for you?

A visit to Scotland without a castle on your itinerary seems glaringly incomplete. I’m simply not having it. Who does castles better than Scotland? None of these castles near Edinburgh occupy the big-hitter tourism status of the likes of Eilean Donan, Stirling, Dunnottar or Urquhart, but they are all fast closing the gap. Film tourism is doing its thing and bringing them into the spotlight. Whether as day trips from the capital or as part of extended sojourns around Scotland, their secrets are just begging to be explored.

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Winter Walking in Scotland

It’s an interesting time of year in Scotland. Winter has thus far been pretty stable but forecasts are wildly inconsistent and finding opportune weather for outdoor adventures is no small ask. Serious hiking trail enthusiasts love snow-covered peaks and relish getting the crampons on but, for most, we’ll lean towards those that don’t pose too much of a challenge. Faced with limited light, the majority of Scotland’s population will poke about the easy options in the cental and southern areas. With that in mind, here’s some picks to help locals and visitors stay active with some winter walking in Scotland as we ride out the rest of the chilly season…

The Luss Hills, Loch Lomond

Ben Lomond (and the seemingly even more popular Conic Hill) would have been obvious additions to this list, but I’m going to nudge you to the western side of the water and these lovelies. Much quieter than ‘Glasgow’s Mountain’, they are a series of mounds that offer a healthy doze of exertion as part of a horseshoe route. The views over the Loch are glorious. To the north, the Arrochar Alps are teasingly appealing. The hills to the west towards Helensburgh are vastly dense (seemingly ridiculous given the short distance from the city). And you may well have all of this to yourself.

Park up just off the main A82 and allow around 4 hours for the walk itself. The terrain is varied but straightforward for the most part and is particularly suited to snow walking on bright, sunny days.

The Trossachs

Options, options, options. Ohhh, where to start in The Trossachs. Well, everyone goes to Ben A’an of course, a ridiculously rewarding peak that requires next-to-no exertion. But if congested peaks are not your thing, you’ll want to cast your net wider. Another popular one is Ben Ledi, a luscious walk in summer that is very much on my to-do in winter conditions. It’s a mess of peaks from the summit with Perthshire, the Lothians, Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire and Argyll all squabbling for attention.

My favourite though is probably Ben Venue. Ben A’an’s neighbour across Loch Katrine, my preference may have been swayed by the glorious summer weather I had when taking it on last year, but it would sparkle in winter too. It’ll very likely be low levels of traffic that accompany you and you’ll see soon enough why this area is where Scotland’s tourism industry was really born. Pioneering minds like Sir Walter Scott waxed lyrical about this highly forested, vibrantly green region and its welcoming alternative to city pollution. The hike takes around 5 hours return and should be done at a relaxed pace, with plenty of time to explore the stunted summit. As a Glasgow boy, this is day trip heaven.

The Campsie Fells

These guys have long been the quick-fire escape for Glasgow-folk, and with good reason. The pick of the bunch is Dumgoyne, a very steep volcanic plug at the western end of the series.  Many will be happy to catch their breath atop the mound and return but, for those keen on more, keep heading north east to rope in the Earl’s Seat. The latter involves a much more gradual ascent across rough, often boggy, terrain but turns it into a half-day’s hiking. Sprawling views to the north, and south to human Scotland, are your reward.

Start as near to the fabulous Glengoyne Distillery as you can (even better, finish your day with a tour and try the 18-year-old) and allow 4 hours return. Nearby you can also find the super-popular ‘Whangie’ walk which is a more family-friendly alternative to Dumgoyne.

The Pentlands, Midlothian

Edinburgh’s Hills are steep yet rolling, compact yet vast and offer the capital’s population a hilariously convenient plethora of walking routes that are traversable year-round. Aside from an interesting perspective over the city, the views over the Forth to Fife and east to the flatlands of East Lothian are superb.

I’d advise diving straight in and heading to the highest point, Scald Law. There’s a fabulous circuit route that starts at the Flotterstone Ranger Centre car park and encompasses Turnhouse Hill, Carnethy Hill and peaking at Scald Law. The views throughout on a clear day will likely have these guys on your repeat list and a reservoir-side walk back completes a 4-hour circuit. Steep in places, the route is very clear throughout and you’ll almost certainly have some company along the way.

The Ochil Hills, Central Scotland

I’ve been a gigantic fan of these mounds since I was a wee boy and Central Belters have no idea how fortunate they are to have them on their doorstep. The best place to start is Dollar Glen (park up in Dollar itself), home to the superbly-set Castle Campbell, and the glen’s neighbouring peaks can be attacked in either direction. While the promise of views over the Glen might understandably nudge you west, I’d actually head east from the castle and you’ll quickly leave everyone behind. Hill jump your way as far as Seamab (overlooking the pretty village of Muckhart) and begin your descent. From Muckhart take a combination of main road and back roads back west to Dollar.

Eildon Hills, Melrose

Particularly useful for east coasters in central or southern Scotland, these beauties were a long-term favourite of local boy Sir Walter Scott and remain supremely beautiful little mounds in otherwise low-lying terrain. Used by the Romans as a fort and once the site of an ancient civilisation called the Selgovae around 2000 years ago, they hold plenty of mythical legend too. Another local, Thomas the Rhymer, is said to have spent years here, in Elfland no less, at the request of a fairy queen.

The three heather-strewn hills can be targeted individually or as a triple treat, the latter taking around 4 hours to complete and starting and finishing in Melrose itself. You will inter-mingle with parts of the long-running St Cuthbert’s Way and the trails are pretty obvious throughout. My visit this winter was met with deep mist so apologies for the lack of visual support but, trust me, it’s a lovely trail and ideal for dog-walkers and families as well. Reserve a couple of hours for Melrose itself too, with its famously beautiful Abbey that holds the heart of Robert the Bruce.

Meall na Tarmachan, Perthshire

As soon as you creep into Perthshire (or Argyll in the west) you’re suddenly dealing with the start of what can become an addictive mission to explore the Highlands. While everything starts getting much taller, Perthshire is still home to the straightforward peaks that are ideal for early Munro-baggers. Ben Lawers is the most obvious and well-trodden starting point, followed by Schiehallion. But it’s this chap that trumps them for me and was my birthday hike this winter.

Just taking on the peak on its own results in a 4-hour round trip from the handy car park (shared with Ben Lawers), if light allows you can also extend it to cover the full ridge as part of a 7-hour circuit. Resplendent with a winter coat on, Munro debutants could do much worse…..

Merely a taste of what outdoor treats there are for us, winter is, in an odd way, perfectly suited for hikers. Now, I’m not saying we should all charge to the north west Highlands and get lost in mountain ranges in potentially lethal conditions, but these guys are all pretty easy year-round. I can’t imagine a visit to Scotland being complete without a walk of some sort – these ones won’t let you down.

Gear

I don’t provide a huge amount of coverage when it comes to gear, but every now and then something groovy comes along. A water bottle that filters and purifies pretty much anything caught my eye. When in the outdoors, especially over multi-day hikes, you’re going to run out of water from the tap. While you can never be sure of the drinkability of the water sources you stumble across, this guy can remove all doubt.

Although I was gifted this water bottle to test out its usefulness, I can confirm that it works a treat.

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The post Scotland’s Hiking Trails for Winter Walking appeared first on Travels with a Kilt.

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Things to do in Lanarkshire

Key to all that I do as a travel blogger is my absolute focus on fuelling Scotland’s tourism industry. I want to see a country that puts tourism at the genuine heart of its economy in the way that other nations I’ve visited have done. And, based on the last couple of years’ visitor numbers in particular, this is currently being achieved with emphatic success. However, having scored with the core aim of convincing people to come to Scotland en masse (and convincing locals to more fully appreciate what’s on their doorstep), the next tier of challenges awaits. Principally, this is going to involve spreading the love throughout the year and across the whole nation. With that, let me introduce you to some of the top things to do in Lanarkshire and a look at areas that haven’t had as much attention as they perhaps should….

The Castles

Even the most enthusiastic of castle hunters out there may be unaware that one of the best, and most historically wealthy, castles in the land lives in Lanarkshire. Bothwell Castle is in many ways my version of the perfect ruin. It is powerfully and practically structured, beautifully set and rich in a war-littered backstory that covered Scotland’s most fascinating historical chapters.

Plopped on the banks of the mighty River Clyde and glowing angry red under the sun, the 13th Century ruin struggles manfully to stay standing and I can’t ever recall seeing it without scaffolding. It has a distinctive, massive donjon (keep) to the west and would have made for a fortress that leant itself to defence. And it certainly had need of these defences as siege after siege came calling soon after its construction. Bothwell Castle changed hands several times during the Wars of Independence and Edward’s forces seemed to like using it as a base of operations. Aymer de Valence (the easy-to-loathe bald guy and Warden of Scotland in Outlaw King) had his true base of operations here.

Further south, Craignethan Castle is set in an extremely rural spot where birds of prey have us lot firmly outnumbered. Built as an artillery fortification in the 16th Century, in reality it came too late to the show to see much conflict.

The Outdoors

One of the most spectacular natural sights in Central Scotland is to be found within a short distance of New Lanark, the walk to the Falls of Clyde. An astonishing waterfall at Corra Linn marks the end point for most as the Clyde tumbles in stages down 84 feet into a rough gorge that forms a natural amphitheatre. Highland Perthshire sprang to mind several times for me during this walk as the rawness of the landscapes, the thick bodies of trees and the drama and racket of the omnipresent Clyde engrossed throughout.

In North Lanarkshire meanwhile, there are several routes that offer teasers to the more-celebrated walks in the Southern Highlands. Tomtain is a low-adrenaline, high-impact stroll north of Kilsyth that presents stunning panoramas to the Ochil Hills in the east, Perthshire to the direct north and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs to the west. To the south, man-made Scotland spreads in front of you and it seems just daft that this kind of solitude is achievable within 25 minutes of Glasgow. I had total isolation on a crisp, sunny winter’s day, underlining once again the truth depth of Scotland’s magic.

The Culture

New Lanark leads the line in authenticity when it comes to appreciating the 18th Century impact of industrial growth that powered local and national economies. A timelessly quaint mill village, it provides a thoughtfully-presented window into the hazardous but community-dominated lives of local mill workers. I’ve covered mills before in my travels, most memorably those used for jute production in Dundee, and they delivered a tough way of life to employees of all ages during the Industrial Revolution. Children played a particularly relevant role in cotton mills such as these and mill girl Annie’s commentary is a nice touch on the tour.

New Lanark is more than just a museum and provides a holistic look at the all-consuming nature of the work. Staff would have lived more or less on-site in the village, the neighbouring school classrooms remain to this day and village stores were on-hand too. Allow half a day to do it justice.

With heavy industry in mind, Summerlee Museum in Coatbridge stands as a tribute to one of Scotland’s most important ironworks. Opened in 1836 and lasting almost a century in production, the mechanical sounds, sights and smells are almost tangible within. In its heyday, Coatbridge became known as the ‘Iron Burgh’ of Scotland before demand for steel overtook it in the late-19th Century and decline became inevitable. The remains of the blast furnaces and neighbouring building structures can be observed from the viewing platform. There are also steam locomotives and a tramline on-site.

The Relics The Mausoleum

One of the most fascinating historical buildings in Scotland resides in the busy town of Hamilton, in the form of its distinctive Mausoleum. The private tomb of the powerful Hamilton family, the oddly shaped relic gives just a hint of insight into the lofty view that certain members of the family had of themselves. Constructed in the mid-19th Century, it was created within the grounds of the now-departed Hamilton Palace by order of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton.

Today, the crypt (where 17 members were laid to rest in coffins) holds a chilling aura and the kind of presence you’d expect within ancient Egyptian pyramids or subterranean catacombs. The central tomb will whisk you off to Rome and steal your breath as you stare up and up and up at the vast room consuming you. Alexander was interred here – in an Egyptian sarcophagus no less – in a scene fit for a pharaoh or emperor. It’s all in the details though and, clearly caught up in his sense of self-importance, he’d overlooked the fact that his sarcophagus was created for someone much shorter than his 6-foot plus frame. Various theories exist as to how his legs would have to have been ‘rearranged’….

Until recently, this room held the longest recorded echo within a man-made structure in the world (18 seconds). Its whispering walls will allow you to have perfectly audible conversations with someone on the other side of the room, 30 metres away. A true miracle of sound. Which would have been even more impressive had the stunningly intricate original doors (image above) not been replaced by wooden ones!

Access to the interior is by guided tour only, more details can be found here. Tours are conducted by Peter, and a more enthusiastic and knowledgeable local you’ll struggle to find.

The Wall

The Antonine Wall is one of Central Scotland’s oldest remaining relics. I say ‘remaining’ quite loosely – precious little still exists in truth – and provides an important nod to the role of the Romans in European history. Almost 2000 years ago, Roman legions stormed across the continent, displaying an unprecedented level of military organisation and strength. Their strategically-conceived plans came unstuck in unconquerable Scotland, however, when the terrain, climate and psychotic ferocity (in my mind anyway) of the locals left them with the conclusion that the easiest thing to do was build a massive wall to keep them locked in.

Both Hadrian’s and Antonine’s Wall were early feats of military construction that have inspired stories even within the likes of Game of Thrones and the latter ran for 40 miles across Central Scotland, was 3 metres high and 5 metres wide. North Lanarkshire and its neighbouring regions can be explored at length for barely-there signs of ancient history, with this map picking out the various highlights.

Abandoned Lanarkshire

Cambusnethan Priory was the derelict ruin that really sparked my fascination with these characters last year. Impossibly eerie and dread-enshrining, it’s the very definition of haunted house and yet it seems to hold a non-threatening poignancy at the same time. Built in 1820 for the Lockhart family, it saw service as a hotel, restaurant and mock-medieval banqueting hall – but has lain abandoned for decades. Although the interior is inaccessible, you can walk safely around the perimeter of the ruin and fully drink in its story.

My three days exploring the best things to do in Lanarkshire hopefully show the huge diversity on offer in an area well lived-in, but so little explored. History of all kinds, countless opportunities to escape the bustle of city and commuter life and the odd bizarre local story all add up. While it may have been fuelled on heavy industry in centuries gone, tourism and curiosity can be Lanarkshire’s next chapter. Happy exploring!

Disclaimer

I was invited to explore both North and South Lanarkshire by the body responsible for promoting the regions, VisitLanarkshire. My recommendations above are based purely on my very recent personal experiences on the road. Like every single region in Scotland, I believe that it has a huge amount to offer tourists and locals alike and would not recommend it to you good people otherwise.

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The post Off the Beaten Tourism Path in Lanarkshire appeared first on Travels with a Kilt.

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