Are you waiting for “Shetland” Season 5? Will it ever come to Netflix? Need a Shetland fix in the mean time? Here it is, the next installment in my own Shetland saga! This one covers the island of Unst, and the adventure of getting there from Lerwick.
Unst is the UK’s northernmost inhabited island. How far north is that, you ask? Well, Unst lies at the same latitude as Bergen, Norway, or for my American friends: Anchorage, Alaska. They do get snow here but not much, as the climate is North Atlantic maritime, meaning lots of rain and very fierce winds. Very!
The Unst adventure is brewing
So, why go to this remote spot? Same reason all explorers do what they do: curiosity about what’s around the next bend, what’s at the end of the path, never mind what happened to that cat! These treks are about adventure, and man’s innate desire for knowledge about the world around them. Oh: and Unst has a Distillery and a Brewery too, so there is that…
Fly the ferries
To get to Unst, you need 2 ferries: from Mainland to the island of Yell, drive across, and then Yell to Unst. The ferry service in all of Shetland is frequent and good, but can be quite busy in summer. Might be best to book in advance, especially if you bring a vehicle. My trip was in November, so chancing it worked just fine.
Today was going to be a long day, so I started out early, driving up north from my base in Lerwick to the Toft Ferry Terminal. My compliments to the Shetland Islands Council on keeping their awesome ferry system operational year-round!
Fun fact: the Shetland Crest and motto is displayed on the ferries. The text comes from old Icelandic and means as much as “By law shall the land be built up”.
Jimmy Perez helped me wait
Waiting in the car for the ferry, I read some more in “Cold Earth”, the 7th Ann Cleeves Shetland book about Detective Jimmy Perez, see my second Shetland blog. I had it on my Nook, a handy way to carry lots of reading materials on long trips, yet keep the backpack weight down.
The ferry takes maybe 20 minutes to get to Ulsta on Yell. It’s a neat island, and I wish I’d had time to explore it further. Alas, my schedule rebelled, as it was already loaded up quite heavily, so perhaps on a next trip. I just drove across to the Gutcher Ferry Terminal on Yell’s northeast side: so small, it’s not even a hamlet!
A practically perfect place to pop in for a pastry, pie or a peek at proper pre- or post-prandials production! The small town of Pitlochry is exactly halfway between Edinburgh and Inverness at a mere hour and a half from either. Sitting pretty along the River Tummel, Pitlochry makes for a lovely stop on this much-traveled route, or even a stay for a night or two.
Just south of the spectacular Cairngorms, Pitlochry boasts a lovely and walkable although busy centre. The main road A924 runs right through town, with the name changing from Perth Road to Atholl Road coming in from the south.
Along this main street, Pitlochry has lots of little shops and also a few hotels, several good B&Bs a little further out and a Castle hotel right across the River, with a pedestrian bridge. And right in the centre, our favorite spot for lunch: Hettie’s Tearooms, open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon teas until about 5pm. Check out their incredible menus with scrumptious pastries, soups, sandwiches, vegan and glutenfree options.
Pitlochry has a thousand years of history, with the oldest section of Moulin going back a millennium indeed. Today’s Victorian look is no coincidence, as serious development into a more tourism-oriented resort town was stimulated by Queen Victoria’s visit in the 1840s.
Ditch the driving
Pitlochry became quite accessible in the second half of the 1800s when the railroad arrived. Today, Pitlochry Station is less than 2 hours non-stop from Edinburgh or Inverness on the Highland Main Line. Don’t like left-side driving? Take the train! The station is right in the centre, near Fisher’s Hotel, so you can do a visit or stay even without a car.
Did I mention Pitlochry is small?
Pitlochry is governed by Perthshire’s Perth & Kinross council, and has a population of less than 3,000. But, add thousands of visitors in the main season, April through September!
Power from the Glens
A huge dam in the Tummel generates hydro-electric power. Pitlochry’s population was against this big project at first, but by now it has grown into one of the main tourist attractions. The famous Salmon Ladder bypasses the dam safely, and is about 1,000 feet long. You can visit and see thousands of salmon swim upstream in an underwater viewing facility.
Operated by Scottish Hydro-Electric, the flood control engineering is very impressive, preventing ongoing disasters in the eastern Tay valley. Their motto in Scots Gaelic is “Neart nan Glean”which means as much as “Power from the Glens”. No, their head honcho is not the “Monarch of the Glen” but a regular CEO. It Glenbogle’s the mind…
Also in town: two distilleries! Now there’s a reason to stay a day or two.
The Blair Whisky Project
Just a bit south on Atholl Road, Blair Atholl Distillery is pretty with its vines, barrels and flowerbeds. Blair Atholl Distillery is part of Bell’s and the large UK group Diageo these days, also see my blogs on Skye and whisk(e)y.
The Blair tour is nice and informative. There’s also the inevitable shop, accessible to all, plus it’s easy to get to.
A bit harder to get to, but one of my favorite Scots distilleries: Edradour. It sits about two miles outside of town on small and narrow country roads. There’s also a footpath. Edradour claims to be the smallest traditional distillery in Scotland – although nearby Strathearn Distillery begs to differ.
Don’t blow a casket
Be that as it may, Edradour is really small: the distilling staff consists of like three guys, and they produce less than 20 caskets a week. I like my dram and this is good stuff! But it isn’t widely available: glad I bought a bottle.
Doesn’t it irk you when you’re on a great trip, but completely missed something fantastic? It happens a lot, and Urquhart Castle is such a spot. Driving southwest from Inverness along Loch Ness on the A82, it comes up quickly, after half an hour, at Drumnadrochit. You’re up on the road but the Castle sits low, right on Loch Ness. And if you miss it: this is not an easy road to do a U-turn on… trust me on that!
U-turns aside, the secret is out. Today, Urquhart is one of the three most visited Castles in Scotland, with the other 2 being Edinburgh and Stirling.
Get down with it
So, how does a visit work? Pull into the Car Park – plenty spots including 9 “accessible” ones as the Americans say – and you’ll wonder what’s next. How do you get to Urquhart? Well, the interesting bit starts right here: the Visitor Centre sits under the parking area!
The easy way is to use the lift/elevator down and then buy your tickets. Note that the Centre also has a restaurant and gift shop on the same underground level, for now or afterwards. Then walk the rather steep path down to the large Urquhart Castle complex that sits right on Loch Ness, part of Scotland’s Great Glen.
Route cause for traffic
By the way, the route along Urquhart is one of the most popular in the Highlands, with Loch Ness possibly the most famous name in all of Scotland, justified or not… The Loch stretches between Inverness and Fort Augustus. The A82 runs along the north side and there are no bridges. If, for example, you want to visit the Highland Folk Museum on the other side in Newtonmore, you’ll need to drive around it, and that takes a long time.
Ness is more
Fun fact: did you know that Loch Ness is only one part of The Great Glen? While Loch Ness is about 23 miles long, the Great Glen stretches over 60 miles from Inverness all the way to Fort William and consists of some 8 lochs, connected by rivers. The Caledonian Canal makes use of this, with man-made waterways in between. And for the outdoorsy crowd: in 2002, the Great Glen Way opened, a 79-mile long-distance route for bikers and ramblers. You can also canoe or kayak it – but there’ll be a lot of portaging required!
Another fun fact: deep secrets! Loch Ness holds more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined! This is due to the fact that Loch Ness is incredibly deep. And we all know what might be lurking in those depths …
Urquhart origins: from Picts to Present
Third-most visited Urquhart is actually also one of Scotland’s largest castles – in area, that is. Urquhart’s early origins are a bit murky, as befits a Loch where it’s hard to see anything swimming around… There is quite a body of research with theories about Pictish kings and noblemen, and even Saint Columba visiting. We get a first undisputed and well-documented reference for the year 1296: King Edward I of England takes Urquhart as the Wars of Independence bust loose.
Bruce up on your history
Over the following centuries, Urquhart was taken by Robert the Bruce (King of Scots and the real “Braveheart”), went to Clan Grant, was attacked by Clan MacDonald and Clan Cameron, got bounced back and forth between the Scots and English, but was oddly ignored by Oliver Cromwell in the mid 1600s.
It blows the mind
Urquhart was partly blown up by the English in the late 1600s to prevent it being used by the Jacobites. It fell into disrepair over the subsequent centuries until it was handed over to the state in 1913. Today, Historic Environment Scotland maintains and manages Urquhart Castle as a “scheduled monument”, a UK designation for protected sites or buildings.
What’s in your bailiwick?
The Castle complex consists of 2 main areas, the Upper and Nether Bailey. Enter the complex over the old drawbridge to the Gatehouse and look left for Grant Tower. At 5 storeys high, this “keep” or main tower house was the tallest structure at Urquhart.
… I ever seen? The wistful 1963 country song “Abilene” popped in my head walking around Aberdeen. OK, so maybe “prettiest town” is over the top – for both towns! – but Aberdeen is full of treasures, some obvious, some hidden. I bet that after your own visit, you’ll hear that song in your head and get a bit wistful too, remembering good times in the Granite City!
I’d been to Aberdeen before and can confirm it’s not known for fantastic weather. Once, traveling around Scotland by train longer ago than I care to remember, I got stuck for an extra 2 days, as a snowstorm shut down all rail – in April! Today though, I lucked out with a cool, crisp and clear day in Aberdeen – even sunshine, and that in mid November!
I mentally thanked the weather gods for smiling on me, as this was going to be a long day outdoors. How long? Well, I had some 16 hours to kill in between an early morning arrival on the Northlink ferry from Shetland and a midnight departure on the Caledonian Sleeper to London. Pretty neat though, like getting 2 days for the price of one, and no lodging cost.
On track for storage
The docks are conveniently across from Union Square with its attached Aberdeen Central Station. I walked off the ferry and made my way over. The larger UK Railway Stations have “Left Luggage” offices and I aimed to store my backpack until my midnight train departure. Tip: make sure you check the Left Luggage closing hours: you don’t want to miss the cutoff to get your bags back!
The Left Luggage staffer was a true local older Aberdonian. He was in the mood for a chat; my good fortune, as he had several great tips to enhance my walkabout. I went with his recommendations and saw things I’d otherwise have missed. Can’t beat local advice!
Name that toon
Fun fact: the Granite City isn’t Aberdeen’s only nickname. Per Ian Rankin’s crime novel “Black and Blue” in the awesome Inspector Rebus series (see my Rankin’ Edinburgh blog), it’s also “Furry Boots Toon”. Because it so cold you have to wear furry boots? Nope. Read it out loud and think locals asking you “Furry boots are ye from?”
Fittie on foot
Left Luggage Guy’s first recommendation was “Fittie”. As he explained it, the official name of this neat old section of town is “Footdee” – but everyone pronounces it as “Fittie”. They even put “Fittie” on their business signs and such. Fittie is an old fishing village, quirky and colorful, lots of seafaring history, and old links to Scandinavia. These days, Fittie is a protected conservation area.
With a spring in my step after getting rid of that heavy backpack, I set off and walked back along the Port. Aberdeen in general is pedestrian-friendly with sidewalks in most places, from narrow to wide enough for a family side by side. This area though was old and narrow, so I couldn’t avoid a bit of street walking. But, hardly any traffic this early, so all good. Walking east, it’s about a mile and a half from Union Square to Fittie and the coast.
Approaching Fittie, I turned from Waterloo Quay onto Wellington Street, where I noticed one of those signs: the “Fittie Bar”. As it was early am, it was not open yet, so I can’t give you the insider’s scoop on them.
Lovely lanes and cool cottages
Turning right on York Street, I entered Fittie proper and rambled along the narrow lanes. The old houses and cottages were built in as sheltered a manner as possible, to shield from the usually serious North Sea winds and rains. Today’s residents clearly take pride in using color, wall decorations and displays, and the like.
OK, that “AAA” is a bit of a stretch! It’s meant to indicate Saint Andrews, the Cliffs of Arbroath and the East Aquhorthies Stone Circle. But hey, life is short and blog titles should be too!
More than must-sees
If you have a bit of time, not just rushing between the “official” must-sees in Scotland (and there are many), the East Coast boasts several treasures. Some are well known, such as Saint Andrews, but I popped by 2 lesser-known spots you might enjoy. Here is the scoop on that “Scottish AAA” I did in early November.
Cobblestone charm of St Andrews
Who hasn’t heard of the “Home of Golf”? Saint Andrews is famous the world over for its courses and competitions. It’s only an hour and a half driving from Edinburgh, along a pretty route. Cross the Firth of Forth at Queensferry on the easy M90 Motorway and then take either the first option east on the A92 or else a bit more inland on the A91.
Tip for “Outlander” fans: make a stop at Falkland enroute! This pretty town is “Inverness” in the TV series, see a previous blog. It only adds a few minutes to the drive.
Going beyond golf
Golf may be the big claim to fame for Saint Andrews, but did you know the town itself is quite lovely? It’s not large, with a population under 20,000, yet it has neat old architecture, interesting shops and quite a few restaurants. Plus the ruins of the largest Cathedral in Scotland. I enjoyed a modest walk around, and once again was lucky with the November weather: cool, crisp and sunny.
Fun fact: wondering why little Saint Andrews has several “ports”? Ahh, well, these ports have nothing to do with ships, boats, harbors or water. The word “port” here is Scots Lowlands for “town gate”! Want another one? The University of Saint Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland.
Arbroath and the Cliffs
Arbroath is less than an hour more up along the coast, crossing the River Tay towards Dundee. No crocodiles in this river by the way… Being a hiker and walker, this spot had been on my wish list for years and this was my chance. Coming in from Edinburgh in a rental car, I drove through the town and parked at the sizeable carpark near the Cliffs.
Against the wind
Arbroath Cliffs coast
The Cliff Path goes a ways up north along the coast and, literally, the Cliffs edge. The weather was sunny still, but very windy. Not unexpected along the North Sea coast of course. Birds wheeling and fighting the winds, waves pounding the rocks, walkers huddling into their gear – very few of them!
Heed the warning signs! Walkers have been blown off in several instances, or fell while trying to climb down and up. Don’t become a “Cliffhanger” – it hardly ever ends well!
Fun fact: ever try the “Arbroath Smokie”? It’s seriously smoked haddock. Legend has it that the smokie was discovered by accident long ago, when a shop storing barrels of salted fish burned down and rescuers discovered that the salvaged fish tasted delicious! Another explanation is that the Smokie has Scandinavian roots, not unlikely in Scotland. Either way, the European Union granted the Arbroath Smokie “Protected Food Name” status!
Peat fires, chickens, thatched roofs, tartan weavers – and Outlander film sites! The Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore is easy to miss: blink while zipping along the A9 between Pitlochry and Inverness and you’ll deprive yourself of a fascinating peek into the Scots past.
A wee bit of history
In the mid 1930s, Dr. Isabel Grant started her Highland Folk Museum on the Isle of Iona. Calling it “Am Fasgadh” (Gaelic for “The Shelter”), her collection soon outgrew the space and she moved to an old church in Inverness-shire for a few years. Further growth made her move again, and in 1944 Dr. Grant re-opened on a 3-acre site with outdoor space in Kingussie. In the early 1980s the Highland Council enthusiastically took over, with drastic expansion plans. They obtained a huge 80+ acre site for the Museum in nearby Newtonmore, proudly showing Scots roots and “living history” for the 1700s-1900s period.
Fun fact: how’s one to know the correct pronunciation of anything Scots? Ask the locals! Stop for tea or a pint somewhere and strike up a chat. Kingussie is pronounced “King-YOU-see”. You see?
Highland Folk Museum visitor basics
Once you do find the Museum, things get easy. Plenty of free parking, and the entrance fee? None! Of course, donations are always welcome. The Museum has a large Teashop/deli-type restaurant too, if you need some fortification before walking. Pick up a map at the entrance, so you’ll know where you are – and when!
A tale of two sections
The site is a mile wide and roughly divided into two sections. Looking from the entrance in the middle, the left side consists of two parts: on the far side, a working farm (crofting) village area, and near the middle a collection of relocated historic buildings.
The left-side buildings stretch back as far as the 1700s. There’s a schoolhouse, an Outer Hebrides “Black House”, and crafts people sheds and ateliers, from tailor to clockmaker.
The “Tweed Cottage” was especially neat inside. Ever heard of “Harris Tweed”? It’s not made by a Mr. Harris but rather originates on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides (see my “Ferry Tales” blog on how to get there). The cottage has a loom, collections of yarns and other materials, and finished tartan and tweed products.
The section to the right of the entrance is a bit of a walk – which felt great after sitting in the car for several hours! Plus it’s healthy, especially since I couldn’t resist wolfing down a nice pastry with my cuppa…
Follow the easy paths through the forested Pinewoods part and you’ll arrive at the “living history” area known as The Township. Re-enactment actors abound, showing you the world of the 1700s and beyond, from weaver to blacksmith to tacksman.
A taxing life
Fun fact: no, “tacksman” is not a funky Scots spelling for the dreaded English “tax man”! A tacksman is someone leasing his land – his “tack” – from the land-owning Laird. The tacksman was often related to the Laird and the lease could go for generations. The plot was typically substantial and a tacksman had the right to sub-lease out parcels to other tenants, called cotters or cottars. The Township has examples of housing for tacksman and cottar.
Hammer time in the Township
Approaching the Township from the Pinewoods, you’ll appreciate how real it feels. Smoke rises from chimneys, chickens run around clucking, the blacksmith’s hammering fills the air.
Villagers walk around, greeting each other, and welcoming you with a friendly chat. They’ll tell you all about who they are, what they do, and what their lives are like. This far corner of the Highland Folk Museum does not feel like a museum at all: here, the past is real.
Now, before you get any ideas: the actors are in character and they like it that way. It’s best not to waste your and their time by trying to trip them up or be funny: enjoy the moment and respect their craft! After all, they’re volunteers and do this largely for you. It’s a unique form of education and if you want to reward them and the Highland Folk Museum’s admirable efforts, remember the Donations Box at the entrance!
For peat’s sake
Check out the craftsmanship of the village buildings: they’re constructed like the originals, with thatched roofs, dark inside, fires burning using real peat. Step inside and wonder how on earth they could breathe with all that smoke!
Coming in from our modern central heating era, you may not have experienced peat. I grew up in a peat-rich area and remember the very distinct and strong smell. Peat smoke will get into your clothes for sure – a treat for whisky aficionados like myself, as it smells like a nice Islay-type peat-distilled dram!
But it’s not exactly healthy air, and while the warmth was pleasant, I was happy to boogie back outside rather quickly, and breathe the cool and fresh November pine woods air. On to the kiln barn, sawmill and then walk back!
Did you spot Jamie or Claire? Dougal? The Highland Folk Museum became “MacKenzie Village” for the famous “Outlander” series. In Season 1, episode 5 called “Rent”, Clan Chief Colum sent Jamie, Claire and Dougal to MacKenzie Village to collect rents. We spotted some information in the Teashop: some of the Highland Folk Museum’s volunteers had bit parts as extras!
The Sleeper Agent was on a mission. He wasn’t a double-oh so, no life or death stuff but still, he wanted to fly under the radar. Incognito. No Travel Agent credentials. No special treatment. Keep the mission as non-Agent travelers can expect to experience it themselves.
No fly zone
Wait; did I say “fly”? Fuggedaboudit! How about rail? The Agent traveled overnight by train, on the Caledonian Sleeper and his mission succeeded! Aberdeen to London, combining transportation and lodging in one fell swoop.
A well-trained traveler
I’d come up on the daytime Virgin Train to Edinburgh a week earlier. Trains are so enjoyable between England and Scotland, especially in the comfort of first class. Downtown London to downtown Edinburgh in under 5 hours, just about every hour. It’s spacious, comfortable, relaxed and even offers nice views.
Try that with a plane: it’s another fuggedaboudit. You have to spend time and money getting to and from an airport. Deal with huge hordes of fellow travelers. Insane “Security” lines; 3-hour airline check-in periods wasting your precious vacation time – and pay to check bags!
The dark night
After a dose of Scots adventures, I was heading back to London. Fun as the day train up was, overnight trains are a different kettle of fish.
There’s an air of adventure, of romance, a sense of times past, when travel was special. And overnights are practical too: unless you want to see the scenery, night trains provide a great combination of transportation and lodging.
Euston, we do not have a problem
I’d traveled on the overnight train from Glasgow to London before and loved it. This time, my Scots trip ended in Aberdeen, where I boarded the Caledonian Sleeper late in the evening.
The Sleeper travels to London’s Euston Station, an easy 10 minute walk from St. Pancras Station, home of the Eurostar: handy if you’re traveling on to Paris and the like.
Milling about an Aberdeen Mall
Aberdeen’s Central Station is situated in the large Union Square Mall: see my upcoming Aberdeen blog. The Caledonian Sleeper departs at about a quarter to ten, so you have time to shop around here. Note their relatively early closing time of 7pm though!
Fortunately, their restaurants and cinema stay open longer. You can have a nice dinner or drinks or even catch a movie while awaiting the whistle. There’s also lodging available if that fits your needs: Jurys Inn, right inside the Mall.
Booking and budget
The Caledonian Sleeper can be booked a year out and provides options for any budget. At present, they offer Sleeper Seats, Twin rooms and First Class singles. I had booked the latter, a nice little cabin with A/C (not needed in November), toiletries, a sleep pack, and a desk with built-in hidden sink.
Sleeper ensuites coming soon
My cabin was not ensuite, but at least close to the restroom at the end of the carriage. Caledonian Sleeper is upgrading their product though. The Guardian newspaper reported that some 75 new carriages are entering service right around now, offering ensuite (private bathroom) cabins, double bed options, WiFi and hotel-style keycards.
A “News You Can Use” blog this time. Many of our Scotland clients ask: “After our Edinburgh hotel stay, we need to pick up a car at Hertz’s City location. Where and how do we do that?” I did this myself last November and thought I’d write it up. That way, a simple Blog link will make it easy for ye, route and pictures included!
Recommended in Auld Reeky
Over the decades I’ve stayed in a bunch of Edinburgh hotels, in Old and New Town, from self-catering to luxury and many in between. Check out my previous Rankin & Rebus blog with some hotel names and walking tips. My personal favorite these days is Old Town’s Hotel du Vin and Bistro, aka the HdV.
No car, no worries
The Hotel du Vin sits at 11 Bristo Place, a stone’s throw from Greyfriar’s Kirk and the adorable Greyfriar’s Bobby statue. A quieter spot, yet just a short walk from Grassmarket, the Castle and the Royal Mile.
The HdV does not offer parking but has a reduced rate deal with a nearby lot. Still, who wants a car in town anyway? It costs money, causes stress even for experienced left-side drivers and is basically useless.
No one’s just a number
Rooms at the HdV do not have numbers, but individual names! My “Taittinger” had a nice larger and very comfortable bed, a sitting area and a humongous walk-in rain shower! Plus a claw-footed standalone tub, and a desk with a very welcome Nespresso setup.
The Hotel du Vin has a high quality restaurant too. I enjoyed an excellent dinner after a long day of travel, and a very tasty breakfast early the next morning. Locally sourced farm-fresh ingredients, and well prepared.
For a hotel with “Vin” in its name, the HdV has an amazing whisky focus! Remember the Scots spell it without the “e”; see my recent whisk(e)y blog. The bar selection could keep you sampling for years! I had a nice 12 year old Auchentoshan, one of my fave Lowlands.
In vino (and uisge) veritas
Note the neat (pun intended) whisky wall displays around the hotel in the lobby and along the entry walk and other walls. And of course, there are some wine-themed ones as well, as befits a Hotel du Vin.
There’s a “uisge-beatha” (Gaelic for Water of Life) whisky room and, for the cigar aficionados, a walk-in humidor in the patio: the “Cigar Bothy”. That’s definitely not for me but it does look nice.