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Tourism vs Nature - The sad story of Fairy Pools on Skye

I’m afraid that this is going to be a serious Blog about the serious subject of the environmental impact of tourism. This theme is prompted by a visit to the Isle of Skye, a place that I always try to visit out of season. By “out of season” I mean mid-October to March, but Skye is becoming so busy now that even in these months it seems to have a steady stream of visitors

A couple of years ago, I visited Skye in early April and was quite shocked at how busy the car parks were at the Old Man of Storr and the Kilt Rock. There literally weren’t any places left, cars were spilling out onto the main roads and grass verges were being chewed up into muddy ruts like scenes from a WW1 battlefield.

One of the things I wanted to check out on this road trip was the condition of the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle. Friends on Skye had warned me that there had been terrible issues with parking and some tourists had even resorted to fist fights over parking spaces. This problem has been addressed by the construction of a sizable car park which can hold up to 135 cars. However, I’m not sure if this will keep pace with demand as I visited at the end of March and the car park was almost half full. Unfortunately, the construction of the car park has required a sizable cutting to be made into the hillside and this is visible from quite a distance away.

The other issue with the Fairy Pools is the environmental damage that is being caused to the river banks by the trampling of vegetation. Around 200,000 people visit a year now and the impact of this is very evident. The river banks used to be covered with heather and the occasional small rowan or alder tree trying to take hold, but now large swathes of the ground have been churned up and nothing grows. As the ground becomes denuded, the soil starts to be washed away and it is just a matter of time until the river banks become barren.

Attempts have been made to control the erosion and a wide path has been constructed from the car park to the pools, a walk of ~20 minutes. But the path is in itself a bit of an eyesore as it is made from ugly grey hardcore and not from locally sourced stone. As a younger man, I used to help with the construction of footpaths in environmentally sensitive areas and I can see that the path to the Fairy Pools is more about the convenience of visitors than it is about ecology.

I suspect that most visitors won’t notice or care that much about the path or the erosion of the river banks as they won’t have known what it was like before. For me it was a saddening experience as I had first visited the Fairy Pools in 2006 on a still summer evening without another soul in sight. The contrast between the beauty of that first visit and the “theme park” feel that greeted me this time was a shock. I hope that there is a way they can reverse some of the damage and find a happier balance between tourism and environmentalism.
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Where’s the Craic - Live Music Pubs in Scotland

Before I go any further, I maybe need to explain what the meaning of “Craic” is. My dictionary defines it as a noun meaning: “enjoyable time spent with other people”. That’s quite an open definition, but it does encapsulate the essence of what the word means and what this blog is going to be about, which is a list of good pubs to have fun hanging out with locals and other visitors.

Regular readers of this Blog will know that we never like to proclaim anything as being the “Best such and such in Scotland” because everything is subjective. Any list that claims to be a definitive  “Top Ten” is fundamentally flawed by the diversity of people and their personal preferences. So we stress that this is just a list of friendly pubs that we like where you can let your hair down and enjoy the craic with the locals. If you know of better places then please let us know as we are always open to new suggestions.

Old Inn, Carbost, Isle of Skye - When we were initially setting up Secret Scotland, we had to do a lot of a touring on a tight budget as we had quit our jobs and were living off our savings. As a result, we often used bunkhouse accommodation so that we could save our pennies to spend on eating out as we needed to review restaurants. The bunkhouse at the Old Inn was our base for a week of exploring on Skye and during that time we got friendly with the staff and experienced a few lively nights in the bar. One of the part time bar staff, Farquhar MacDonald is also a very talented fiddler and part of the line up of the group Bramax who compose their own irreverent and very funny songs with a distinctly Scottish style. If you ever get the chance to see them live you should.

As you can see from this video, the bar at the Old Inn is a cosy place and if there is a band playing you have no choice but to join in. Wednesday night is usually traditional music night and Friday night is a “Jam” session where anything goes.

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Nevis Inn, Fort William - If you are climbing Ben Nevis and struggling to find motivation to haul your  ass to the summit, you can just think about how good that first pint of cold beer will taste when you get back to the Nevis Inn. The Nevis Inn is located in a 200 yr old barn building that has been sensitively restored to retain all its best features. It’s proximity to the Ben Nevis path ensures it's a popular stopping point for hikers and the Lochaber Mountain Rescue team.

The Inn is very rustic inside with sturdy wooden tables and benches, stone walls and the essential wood burning stove in a corner. It is an ideal space for a bit of ceilidh as the tables can be pushed aside to give you a generous dancefloor. And if you get carried away with the partying, there is a basic bunkhouse for crashing out. Tuesday nights are music session, but only during the months of April - October

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“The Boots Bar” Clachaig Inn, Glen Coe - The Clachaig Inn can trace its history as a watering hole as far back as the 18th century. The Inn has extended considerably over the years and much of this expansion has been driven by the need to cater for the many mountaineers and hill walkers that flock to Glen Coe for the challenge of its peaks and ridges. The “Boots Bar” is a 20th century addition to the hotel, but the interior design is full of character with lots of natural wood and walls made up from stacks of split logs as if ready to go on the fire. That maybe sounds weird, but it works really well and gives the place a really cozy feel.

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The Mishnish, Tobermory, Isle of Mull - The Mishnish Hotel is one of the brightly painted building that makes up the distinctive, you might even say “iconic”, shorefront of Tobermory. It’s the yellow building sandwiched between the bright red and blue ones. For a period, the hotel was painted black and it really spoilt the look of the waterfront so it’s good to see it back i yellow, even if it does mean it needs painted more often.

The Mishnish Hotel is a bit of an institution on Mull and it is a lively place during the Mull Music festival which takes place from the 25th - 29th April in 2019. Other pubs and venues also host live acts during the festival, but the Mishnish is the place that you really want to be for the atmosphere and crowd. It can get a bit boisterous on live music nights (which is most weekends), but the bar has “wee dookits” along the back wall where you can find a snug place to sit down if you prefer something calmer.

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Tiree Lodge Hotel, Isle of Tiree - Islanders are generally friendly people, but the people of Tiree always strike us as being especially friendly and the Tiree Music Festival is a great opportunity to experience this. Everyone on the island seems to be at the festival and there’s a wonderful sense of community. This same sense of community can be experienced in the Tiree Lodge Hotel which sits on the edge of the wonderful big sandy beach called Gott Bay. The hotel is a bit shabby inside, but this really doesn’t matter because it’s a pub where you go for the people. The best time to experience the atmosphere is on the Monday after the Tiree Music Festival has finished, for this is when the various bands get together and have an informal jamming session to wind down after the big event.

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Tiree Top Tips

When you tell people that you are going to Tiree, their first reaction is usually a slightly puzzled look followed by the question, “Where exactly is that?”. For sure, most Scots will have heard of Tiree and they’ll know it is an island on the west coast, but not many would be able to pinpoint it on a map and far fewer will have been there. The 3 ½ hour sailing is enough to deter most tourists, but the isolation of Tiree is also one of its best selling points.

If you are a bit of a “Townie”, accustomed to shopping centres, nightclubs and fast food franchises, you might arrive on Tiree and feel a bit like Robinson Crusoe coming to terms with life as a castaway. Make no mistake, Tiree is not a large island and it takes a special mindset and character to adapt to this type of island life. Fortunately, 650 people do enjoy the qualities of living full time on Tiree and they all seem to know one another. This community spirit is one of the island’s great charms.

So what should you do to occupy a week on an island of just 30 square miles with 2 grocery stores, 1 bank, 2 pubs and several hundred sheep. Actually, before we go any further, we should talk some more about the sheep as there is virtually nowhere on Tiree where you can go to escape them or their poop. As a result, it is traditional on Tiree that you remove your shoes before you go into anyone’s house. Fortunately, Tiree enjoys lots of fresh air from the Atlantic so the smells change frequently, but sometimes the alternative smell is rotting seaweed and we’re not sure which is preferable.

But we digress, here’s our “Top Tips” for things you should try to do whilst visiting Tiree:

Climb Ben Hough - When visiting somewhere new it’s always a good idea to climb somewhere high to get your bearings. In Paris, you might go up the Eiffel Tower, In Edinburgh you could climb Arthur’s Seat or go up to the Castle. On Tiree you can climb Ben Hough (all 119 metres of it) and this lets you see just about all of Tiree in one 360 degree sweep.

Carnan Mor is actually a slightly higher hill at 141 metres, but the summit of this hill is dominated by a large radar dome so your 360 degree is obstructed by a massive “Golf Ball” which can be seen from almost every part of Tiree.

Something that you’ll notice on Tiree is that almost every hill, even ones that are not much more than a bump, has the remnants of a WW2 military installation on it. During the war, Tiree with its outlying position on the edge of the North Atlantic, was a base for long range aircraft that would fly several hundred miles out to sea to gather meteorological intelligence for weather forecasts. The large WW2 airfield that once was home to long range B24 Liberators, is still an operating airport for the small passenger aircraft that operate a scheduled service between Tiree and Glasgow.

Explore Dun Mor Broch - Remains of Iron Age Brochs can be found all over Scotland and their condition varies tremendously. Mousa Broch on Shetland is the best example and is practically complete, but not all brochs have survived the centuries as successfully. This is often because the stone used to build these brochs was a good source of building materials and later generations steadily dismantled the Brochs for other purposes.

Dun Mor Broch has certainly lost a lot of its upper walls, but a good section of the lower stonework is in place and it is one of the better examples of a broch that you will find in the Southern Hebrides. Enough of the walls remain for you to be able to identify the “kennel” at the broch entrance where guard dogs would have been kept to attack strangers. There are also the first few steps of one of the inner staircases and you can still walk around the broch in the cavity space between the inner and outer walls.

Skerryvore Lighthouse Exhibition - The construction of this lighthouse in the mid 1800’s is a fascinating story and engineering achievement that, in terms of the challenges overcome, should be ranked alongside more famous structures like the Forth Rail Bridge. Skerryvore is the name of a reef that lies some 12 miles off Tiree and it claimed a large number of vessels and sailors lives before the construction of the lighthouse. If you climb to the higher ground of the headland at Hynish, you should (with the naked eye) be able to see the lighthouse on the horizon. What you are first likely to notice is not the lighthouse, but the large plumes of sea spray erupting over the reef. If you want to get closer to the reef, there are boat trips that sail from Tiree on a 2 hour round trip that visits the reef.

The lighthouse was designed by Alan Stevenson (uncle of the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson) and still holds the record as the tallest in Scotland. If you wanted a lighthouse built in the 1800’s, you went to the Stevenson family. The construction was started in 1838 and completed in 1844 for a cost of ~£100,000, which sounds like very good value to me.

Hynish on Tiree was the shore station for the construction project and most of the houses at Hynish are buildings that date from this period. One of the buildings hosts an exhibition which recounts the genuinely fascinating story of how the lighthouse came to be. There really is  material here for the making of a film as this was an engineering project conducted in the most extreme of environments. Amazingly, no lives were lost during the 6 years that it took to build the lighthouse.

Find your Favourite Beach - You are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches on Tiree and one of the first things you need to do is drive around the island to check them all out. The combination of breakers rolling in from the Atlantic and pristine beaches facing North, South, East and West, means that Tiree is a great destination for surfing and windsurfing. Balevulin bay seems to be the most popular beach for the surfers, but this is Scotland so a wetsuit is essential or you might wind up with hypothermia.

If you want a beach all to yourself, there is no problem with finding a quiet corner. Our favourite beach is at Port na Mistress at the north west tip of Tiree. It isn’t the largest stretch of sand, but it has lovely views towards the islands of Coll and Mull.

Golf with Sheep - We mentioned the omnipresent sheep earlier, so it is no surprise that they are one of the hazards you face when playing golf on Tiree. When an island only has 30 square miles of land, it would be very indulgent to set aside several thousand square metres just for playing golf. Pragmatism rules on Tiree and the sheep roam freely on the fairways, but a compromise had to be found for the Greens. The Tiree solution is to fence of the greens to ensure that your putting line isn’t impeded by a piece of sheep poop. It certainly keeps the sheep out, but it does require a very accurate chip shot to lob your ball over the fence without hitting the wire or a post.

Kirkapol Chapel - Just behind the Tiree Lodge Hotel, there is a farm track that leads a short distance to the ruins of two chapels. The buildings date from the 13th  and 14th century and have some noteworthy 15th century grave slabs with intricate carvings. One of the slabs is claimed to have the earliest known depiction of a claymore sword.

For the photographer seeking a moody shot, the silhouettes of the 2 chapels at Kirkapol can provide a haunting subject in the golden light of a Tiree sunset.

Seafood from the Tiree Lobster and Crab Van - In the car park just beside the bank in the main village of Scarinish you will find the Tiree Lobster and Crab van (more of a trailer actually). The van sells a great range of local fish and meat at competitive prices. For £10 we got 5 or 6 generous handfuls of fresh shrimps that we cooked and ate al fresco on the beach. If you don’t want to do any cooking, you can also buy ready to go lobster and dressed crab.

Natural Arches at Balephetrish - If you walk to the western end of the beach at Balephetrish Bay, you will come to small headland of rock where the rocks have been eroded by the waves in such a way that they now form a narrow bridge over a little inlet. The shape of the inlet creates a bit of a blowhole when the waves surge under the natural arch. If you don't mind getting wet, you can stand at the end of the inlet and judge for yourself if the seventh wave really is the biggest.

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"Backstreet Edinburgh" 

Edinburgh is a wonderful city to explore with lots of gems to be discovered in unexpected places. Whilst cities like Paris have beauty in their grand avenues and striking monuments, the beauty of Edinburgh is often to be found on a smaller scale and hidden away on a backstreet. 

Dean Village - Not such a secret as the other places on this list and it does get a mention in most guidebooks, however Dean Village doesn’t see much tourist traffic and is such a pretty place that we have to give it a mention here.

If you need to escape from the crowds, Dean village is a peaceful riverside refuge just a 15 - 20 minute walk from the bustle of Princes Street in the city centre. The village originates from the 11th century and was once home to a cluster of watermills that would have ground the grain grown by local farmers. Only one of the original mills remains, and that building was converted into residential flats in the 1970’s, but there is still a distinct “village” feeling to this Edinburgh suburb, The village ambience is enhanced by the the fact that you are  in a small valley that is largely hidden from the surrounding city by mature trees. The riverside setting is so peaceful that a family of otters have even taken up residence here.

Circus Lane - From Dean Village, you can follow the Water of Leith walkway downstream to Stockbridge where you find our next backstreet surprise. Stockbridge is one of the more affluent suburbs of Edinburgh and it boasts a great collection of restaurants and pubs with a very cosmopolitan vibe. It’s a good place to head if you want  a bit of nightlife, but it is also where you find one of the city’s prettiest streets.

Circus Lane was built in the first half of the 1800’s when the “New Town” was still expanding northwards from Queen Street Gardens. The cottages originally being stable blocks serving the wealthy families who were buying up the “Des-Res” properties in the New Town. Leap forward  200 years and it is now the stable blocks that are the “Des-Res” properties with some Circus Lane cottages commanding prices of £500K.

Bakehouse Close - I hesitated to include this in the list as Aurelia has just told me that this little alleyway on the Royal Mile was used in the filming of the “print shop” scene in  “Outlander” and is now getting a lot more attention from tourists. I have to admit, I’ve never watched the “Outlander” series and have no idea what the “print shop scene” is. Anyway, even if it is now part of the "Outlander" pilgimage trail, it is still a historically interesting place worth exploring.

If you walk down the Royal Mile from the castle towards Holyroodhouse Palace, you have lots of options to detour and explore rambling alleyways and narrow closes. It is easy to see how this part of Edinburgh inspired J.K. Rowling’s image of “Diagon Alley”. At the top end of the Royal Mile you will find that most of alleys are busy with people traversing from Princes Street to the Royal Mile, but as you venture down the Royal Mile it becomes less touristy and the side streets tend to be used much less as thoroughfares. As a result, most visitors overlook “Bakehouse Close” with its 16th century tenement and 17th century bakery.

Bakehouse Close is easy to find as it is located just beside the Museum of Edinburgh, which is a traditional style of museum with lots of exhibits in glass display cabinets, but well worth a visit in its own right. By the way, this picture of Bakehouse Close was taken by us in 2006, long before the “Outlander Effect" came to Scotland, so don’t expect it to be so quiet nowadays.

Barclay Viewforth Church - This is not so much of a back street location as thousands of people will drive past this building everyday, but unless you view the church from Bruntsfield Links you really won’t appreciate how quirky it is. The reason that we give the church a mention here is that we reckon it has to have given J.K.Rowling some ideas for her descriptions of Hogwarts School. As you can see from the picture below, Barclay Viewforth Church is a wonderfully over the top piece of Gothic architecture from the 1860’s.

The design of the church was not straightforward as it stands on quite a small plot of land and a conventional shaped church wouldn’t work with the footprint, As a result, architects were invited to compete for the best design and the winning design was done by a young architect, Frederick Pilkington, who had no previous church designs to his name. It wasn’t a universally popular choice and Frederick received so much criticism that he never repeated such a bold design again. However, fans of the Harry Potter movies will almost certainly be appreciative of the distinctive melee of towers, turrets and angular rooflines.

Dr Neil’s Garden - If you can’t be bothered to climb to the summit of Arthur’s Seat, you could instead take a gentler wander around the base of the hill to the sleepy suburb of Duddingston. There are several good reasons to make the effort to get here. First of all it has the excellent Sheep Heid Inn, which claims to have been established in 1360, although the existing building is not that old. Regardless of the accuracy of its claim to be the oldest pub in Scotland, it is a great wee pub with lots of character and the unusual attraction of a skittle / bowling alley that dates from Victorian times. Not far away from the pub is an 18th century building known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie's Cottage" as it was here that he met with his "Council of War" before the Battle of Prestonpans where the Jacobites thoroughly defeated the British Army in one of the first major battles of the 1745 Rebellion. It is more than likely that Charlie and quite a few of his Jacobite troops enjoyed the hospitality of the Sheep Heid Inn.

If you can pull yourselves away from the pub, you will find that Duddingston also has a charming little church that dates back to the 12th century and just beside the church is Dr Neil’s Garden. This garden is a special haven of tranquility that was created through the passion of Dr Nancy and Andrew Neil. This patch of land was just a piece of scrub ground until 1963 when Nancy and Andrew started an ambitious project to create this beautiful garden with help from some of their patients.

Thanks to the garden’s setting, with Duddingston loch to the west and Arthur’s seat glimpsed between the branches of mature conifers, you can easily imagine that you have been transported from Edinburgh to somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.

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My inspiration for this month’s Blog came from a recent visit to Aberdour Castle in Fife. This used to be one of those hidden gems of a castle that you could easily drive past without knowing that it existed, but if you stopped to explore you would be delighted by how many interesting features it has. I say “used to be”, because the “Outlander” effect has now come to Aberdour and it is no longer the overlooked corner that it was. That said, Aberdour is still relatively quiet when compared with places like Doune Castle which has become a big pull for “Outlander” fans looking to find Castle Leoch.

Aberdour, before its brief appearance in “Outlander” as a Benedictine Monastery, was better known as being one of the oldest standing castles in Scotland with sections dating back to the 1100’s. The castle also has a rare painted ceiling dating from the 1600’s and elegant terraced gardens. So there is lots here for the historical buff, but if you want to find interesting castles away from the crowds we’d recommend you consider the following:

Huntingtower Castle - It is surprising how relatively overlooked this very complete castle is given that it is just outside of Perth and stands so close to the busy A9 that so many tourists follow when heading north to Inverness and the Highlands. Huntingtower is actually formed from 2, originally separate, tower houses that were built around the 15th / 16th Century. The gap between the 2 towers was only 10 feet, so they linked the buildings with a centre section in the 17th Century. In estate agents terms, Huntingtower castle is what you might call “semi-detached”.  Like Aberdour, Huntingtower is one of the few places that retains an original painted ceiling. It also has some of its original painted plasterwork which is decorated with an unusual hexagonal pattern that creates a sort of 3D effect. Very avant garde for the 17th century.

One of the things that hampers the promotion of Huntingtower as a tourist attraction is the limited size of the car park and the narrow access lane to the castle. This is not a place that coach parties will be visiting unless the driver is very confident about his reversing skills. The castle has undergone some sensitive restoration work and, from the outside at least, looks like it could still be lived in as it is completely wind and water tight. It is so complete that it sometimes gets booked as a venue for weddings.

 

Elcho Castle - This is another hidden gem just a few miles east of Perth, but in a rural location that you’d only find if you set out looking for it. If you stumbled across Elcho castle without intending to find it, you would be very lost as it is located at the end of a side road that involves driving through the middle of a farmyard. The adventure of finding this castle all adds to its appeal and it’s one of the best value for money admission prices you’ll find.

If you are travelling with young children, Elcho castle will keep them entertained for quite a while as it is a Labyrinth of rooms and  spiral stairways with lots of “nooks & crannies” to hide in. In fact, there are so many stairways and permutations on how you get around the castle that it becomes a bit disorientating. You’ll soon find yourself entering a chamber from a different angle and wondering if you’ve been there before.

The other feature of this castle that captured our 7 year olds imagination was a game of “Find the Cludgie” (a “Scots” word for toilet). The owners of Elcho castle maybe suffered from incontinence issues as there are 9 water closets liberally scattered around the castle. The generous allocation of toilets was more likely intended to impress guests as it seems that Elcho was primarily used by the Wemyss family as a country get-a-way for entertaining important visitors. Mary Queen of Scots being among the famous VIPs to visit Elcho, but she did get around a lot and also made an appearance at Huntingtower Castle.

Tioram Castle - We’ve mentioned Tioram Castle in a previous Blog and it is a favourite place of ours. It is also a  place that Winston Churchill rated as “one of the most beautiful” that he knew. Up until 1998, it was possible to go inside the castle, but then it was deemed a”dangerous building” by the Highland Council and internal access has been prohibited ever since.

Interestingly, the owner of the castle wanted to restore the building to its original state, with the upper floors being used as a private residence whilst the lower levels would house a museum. Unfortunately, this expensive project has never progressed due to a dispute over public access to the building. The private developer wished to limit public access to ~8 weeks of the year, whilst Historic Scotland insisted that it should be accessible by the public all year round. We understand the reasoning on both sides of this argument, but it seems better to have the castle restored with limited access than to continue a stalemate situation where the preservation of the castle suffers. After all, Eilean Donan and Duart castle are both 20th century restoration jobs and they’ve become hugely important attractions for Scottish tourism.

If eventually restored, it will be the first time that the castle has had a roof on it since 1715. Allan, the 14th  Chief of the MacDonalds of Clanranald, recaptured the Clan castle from Government troops just before he set off to fight for the Jacobite cause in the 1715 Rebellion. He had a vision that he was going to die on this campaign and decided it was better to burn down his castle than risk it falling into the hands of the Government troops.

Skipness Castle - Tucked away at the north end of the Mull of Kintyre guarding the Kilbrannan Sound that lies between the Kintyre peninsula and the Isle of Arran, Skipness is a castle with an intriguing past that reflects some of the complexity of Scotland’s history. The castle is quite an impressive structure with a well preserved tower house in one corner and a large curtain wall forming a strong defensive enclosure. Like many castles, it grew in size from the 1200’s to the 1500’s and the different periods of construction interweave and overlay so it is hard to make out which parts date from when.

At the time of its construction, Skipness Castle stood in a part of Scotland that was controlled by Norway and its owners, Clan MacSween, sided with the Norwegian King Haakon when he decided to go to war against the Scots. This was a bad idea as the Scots kicked some Viking ass at the battle of Largs in 1263, Consequently, Clan MacSween found themselves out of favour and Clan MacDonald moved in. They made themselves comfy here for a couple of centuries, but then they got a big too big for their boots and and started to have disputes with the King of Scotland who set about bringing them down a peg or two. This resulted in the castle being taken over by the MacDonald’s main rivals, the Campbells, who had a knack of picking the winning side in a fight.

The Campbells bulit what is now the most complete part of the castle and that is the tower house which was extended upwards by them in 1500's. Interestingly, the tower house remained in use as servants' accommodation up until the 1800's when the Campbell family moved into their more comfortable country house next door.

The tower house has been partially restored with floors and a wooden staircase that takes you up through the several interior levels to a spiral staircase that leads out onto the parapet of the tower. From here you get great views over the Kilbrannan Sound towards the mountains of Arran and you can distinguish Lochranza village on Arran where the MacSweens built another castle to ensure their control of movements through the Kilbrannan Sound.

Innischonnel Castle - this castle stands on a little island close to the south / east shore of Loch Awe. It is a ruin, but from the outside, it looks almost complete if a bit overgrown with ivy and other vegetation. The impressive thing about this castle is the very neat masonry work which is particularly noticeable in the crisp edges of the corner stones.

The castle dates from the early 1300’s and is one of the first Clan Campbell strongholds on Loch Awe. Back in the 14th century, Loch Awe would have been an important highway through the Highlands when it was faster and safer to travel by boat than to follow trails through the woodlands surrounding the loch. An interesting part of Innischonnel’s history is that it was used by the Lords of Argyll as a sort of Alcatraz style jail for their prisoners.

The only way to get a close up view of Innischonnel is by boat, or from the twisty little B840 road along the shores of Loch Awe. Even if you do drive the B840, and it is a challenging little road, there’s a good chance you’ll still go past the castle without noticing it as it is hidden by trees and you only get the briefest glimpses. I do have some poor photos of the castle from the road, but I’ll add some better ones after our next trip.

In the meantime, here's a link to an aerial video of the castle.

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"Just Chilling in Scotland"

We’re having a heatwave... a tropical heat wave... yep, winter is over and the Thermometer has stayed over 20C for most of the last week of May. In Scottish terms… that is a “Heatwave”. Readers from some foreign climes may scoff at anyone considering 25C to be hot, but for most Scots that’s our upper operating temperature limit and anything hotter makes us feel a bit “crabbit” (short tempered).

At Secret Scotland HQ the problem is further compounded because the window is jammed shut and we have to work in a stuffy office whilst looking at the sunshine in the fields outside. Inevitably, this leads to a bit of daydreaming about places we could head off to for a chilling dip with a nice view and a cool beer. This is just a short list of some of the places that came to mind.

“Blue Pool” in Glen Rosa, Isle of Arran - This was our first choice, but it does involve a ferry ride and a wee hike to get to. On the upside, Glen Rosa is a bit of a sun trap and is angled in such a way that it is usually sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds. There are several good plunge pools along the River Rosa so you can usually find your own secluded wild “Jacuzzi”, but the pool that you really want to get to is the “Blue Pool”. It’s easy to identify as it has a distinctive large boulder sat next to it and the waters do have a very inviting bluish / green tint. The pool is deep enough that you can “bomb” into it and this is usually the best way to enter the water as it gets the shock over fast.

Falls of Pattack” near Laggan - These falls aren’t far from the A86 road that crosses the Highlands from Spean Bridge to Newtonmore, but you won’t find them unless you are looking for them. If you pull off the road at the Druim an Aird car park, you will only have a short walk through mature trees to find shady gorge where the River Pattack tumbles between large rock outcrops into a large pool that is wide enough to let you get some proper swimming exercise. Alternatively, you can spread your travel rug out around the edges of the pool and cool your bottles in the shallows. If you feel the need to work up a sweat before hitting the pools, there is a 3 mile circular path that climbs from the falls to the remote abandoned village of  Druim an Aird.

Falls of Truim” near  Dalwhinnie - The A9 is a road that we’re not big fans of. For sure, it is the quickest way to get from Edinburgh to Inverness, but it is a road that bypasses lots of great little places. As a result, the majority of tourists blast through a part of Scotland that has some hidden gems. So next time you’re stuck on the boring A9 approaching Dalwhinnie, you might want to consider a small detour to the Falls of Truim. Soon after exiting the A9 near Crubenmore, you can park up your car and walk down a side road to a sturdy 18th century stone arched bridge that crosses a deep pool above the “Falls of Truim”. The distance from the busy main road is only 200 metres, but the river runs through a gorge surrounded by trees so the sound of the modern world is drowned out by the crashing waters of the cascade. If you are lucky, and we have been on 2 occasions, you might even catch a glimpse of a wild salmon resting in the rock pool below the bridge.

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Grey Mare’s Tail” near Newton Stewart - This is not to be confused with the more famous “Grey Mare’s Tail” near Moffat. In terms of scale, this one near Newton Stewart is more of a Shetland Ponies tail whereas the waterfall near Moffat is really quite spectacular. What this place does have in its favour is a secluded spot with a nice deep pool. Depending on your levels of enthusiasm, you can take a longer attractive woodland trail to get to the waterfall, or you can do it via a short climb from the main car park on the A712 between New Galloway and Newton Stewart. The car park is easy to find as it is just between a Wild Goat Park enclosure and the distinctive hilltop monument that commemorates Alexander Murray. Murray started life as a shepherd, but went onto become a Professor of Oriental Languages at Edinburgh University.

If you do the longer circuit to the Grey Mare’s Tail, your route will take in Murray’s monument, some lovely sheltered woodland paths and a series of specially commissioned “art” projects.

“Allt Mor” at Kinloch Rannoch - The village of Kinloch Rannoch is a place that doesn’t see a lot of tourists passing through, but that’s not because it isn’t a pretty place. The scenery around this village is stunning and if you climb the hill behind the village you can look west across the open expanse of Rannoch Moor towards the peaks of the mountains that form the eastern entrance to Glen Coe. The reason why Kinloch Rannoch isn’t on many tourists’ “to do” lists is the fact that it is on a road to pretty much nowhere, unless you fancy coffee and cake at the Rannoch Rail Station Tearoom, which is actually a good enough reason to merit the detour.

From the centre of the village, where there is the very nice Dunalastair Hotel, you walk towards the village garage / petrol station and then take 1st left to walk up a gravel track which soons brings you to a large pool behind which is a large rocky outcrop that the Allt Mor river flows over in a series of rivulets. It would be an almost perfect setting for a skinny dip if it wasn’t also such a good location for midges too.  

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Scotland's Prettiest Villages

I’ll start this Blog with a disclaimer because you just know that whenever you create a list of the “best” anything you are going to get people complaining that you didn’t mention their favourites. So my disclaimer is that this list is just our choice of the prettiest villages in Scotland and yes, there are others that deserve a mention, but we probably didn’t mention them here because we simply didn’t have a picture that would do them justice.

To narrow down our list of contenders we decided that the villages couldn’t just be pretty, they also had to have a good pub in them. This is simply because we rate villages by the benchmark of how much we would want to live in them and having a good pub is something that is always on our checklist. Not that we are raging alcoholics, but a good pub always helps to build community spirit… no pun intended.

First on our list is Fortingall, which is also the smallest village in this list. There has been a settlement here for literally thousands of years and there is plenty of evidence of the previous inhabitants as they left behind stone circles, menhirs, cup marked stones and a medieval homestead. The most famous living inhabitant of the village is a gnarled old Yew tree which is estimated to be somewhere between 2000 - 3000 yrs old. In 1769 the tree was measured with a girth of over 56 feet. Unfortunately, Victorian souvenir hunters (the Victorians really weren’t great environmentalists) took away chunks of the tree so its branches are now propped up and it all looks a bit fragile. There is something quite intriguing about a tree that might have once given shelter to Roman soldiers and the setting is complemented by the quaint white walled church that is stands next door to.

The thing that makes Fortingall really stand out among Scottish villages is its cluster of thatch roofed cottages with beautifully maintained gardens. The phrase “Chocolate Box Cottage” certainly applies to the houses of Fortingall. It is almost too perfect to be real, and there’s a good reason for that. In 1885 the Glen Lyon estate, on which Fortingall stands, was bought by the very wealthy Sir Donald Currie. At that time, the village was a bit of an eyesore so Sir Donald employed a young architect to remodel the village in the fashionable “Arts & Crafts” style. The majority of the houses, including the excellent Fortingall Hotel, were all the result of this architectural exercise and it really is a gem. We guess it wasn’t Sir Donald’s plan, but he helped to create one of the most idyllic settings for a wedding in Scotland. You could get married in the pretty little church, have your wedding photos taken beside the ancient Yew and then retire to the Hotel for your wedding reception. Job done... if you’ve got the money!

Next up is a fairly obvious one, but it often surprises us that so many tourists head to Skye via the bridge and are unaware that a small detour could take them to Plockton, which is arguably the prettiest village in North -West Scotland. Plockton was established as a fishing village in the late 1700’s / early 1800’s by a local landlord. Like most Scottish landlords, his motives were not entirely altruistic as he was simultaneously evicting crofters to make way for sheep farming and then building them houses so they could work for him as herring fishermen. Regardless of his motives, he did pick an outstandingly beautiful spot for his venture and Plockton is a place that you really ought to visit if travelling to Skye.

The waterfront of Plockton is an attractive row of cottages with a couple of hotels, a few gift shops some excellent restaurants and a fringe of palm trees to give it that slightly exotic air. The only downside with Plockton is that it has become such a desirable place to visit that a large percentage of the houses have been bought out by wealthy folk from “down south” and the local people have been priced out of the market. On one visit to Plockton, I was waiting outside a telephone box and overheard some very posh “settlers” calling their friends to tell them that they “loved the village” and “looked forward to colonizing it”. Ach well… nowhere’s perfect.

If Plockton is the prettiest village in north west coast Scotland, then Cromarty might claim to being the prettiest village in the North East. I’m sure the residents of Pennan and Gardenstown would argue about this, but we’ve been in these villages on stormy winter days when the seas were threatening to wash the villages away. Cromarty village has conservation status and is a fine example of an 18th century burgh. A modern day visitor might find it hard to credit, but the sleepy harbour of Cromarty was once an important port servicing local industries that manufactured rope, linen, iron and beer. As a result, the village has some grand Georgian mansions that would have been home to its wealthy businessmen. But the real charm of Cromarty is to be found in the narrow side lanes lined with quirky little cottages. If you are interested, you can learn more about Cromarty in our Blog from August 2011.

Staying on the East coast, but heading south, you are spoilt for choice in the East Neuk of Fife where almost all the coastal villages are worthy of mention. This is a region that enjoyed prosperous trade with the low countries and this exposure to foreign cultures has had some influence on the architectural style of the houses here. A distinctive feature that is common to most of the buildings is their red tile roofs. This tradition started as the tiles were brought across to Fife as ballast in the ships that then sailed home carrying cargoes of Scottish fish, wool and linen. Picking a single village out as the prettiest is a hard choice, but Crail has the most photogenic harbour and its rambling network of narrow lanes that lead to and from the harbour are full of photo opportunities at every turn. The harbour isn’t just for show and a few small commercial fishing pots still operate from here. Indeed, there is a small shop down beside the harbour where you can buy fresh crab and lobster sandwiches. If you prefer, you can also pick a live lobster from their tank to take home to cook, but you might feel more inclined to set it free in the harbour. I’m sure the fishmonger wouldn’t mind so long as you pay him first.

No list of Scotland’s prettiest villages would be complete without a mention of Tobermory. This brightly coloured waterfront of houses huddled around a sheltered harbour has graced many a postcard and calendar. The colourful facades are actually a relatively new feature which started in the early 1960’s when the owner of the Mishnish Hotel decided to paint the building yellow. This then prompted his neighbours to go for equally garish shades of red and blue. Over the years, other neighbours have started to brighten up their properties with cheery, but more restrained shades. However, there is a cottage on a back street that is a very eye catching shade of "Irn-Bru" orange.

Our final choice is a place that you wouldn’t find if you weren’t already looking for it. Straiton is one of the hidden gems of Ayrshire and sits on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park in south west Scotland. The heart of the village dates from 1760 and consists of two neat rows of cottages. The village has conservation status so there are strict controls on any new developments and this has spared Straiton from some of the unsightly modern housing estates that have blighted so many other charming old villages around Scotland. A terrace of new houses was added some 30 years ago, but they have been sympathetically designed in such a way that the first time visitor would most likely assume them to be some 100 yrs older than they actually are. Although only 30 minutes drive from the busy market town of Ayr, Straiton retains a very rural and isolated feel. In fact, it’s almost like being in the Highlands.

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