We’re home from our Scottish trip, much too soon. We thoroughly enjoyed it, so much that I know that we’ll go back some time. Before we went away a friend of ours from Cardiff said “It’s very different – you’ll know straight away, as soon as you cross the border”. He was right of course – in the same way that I also know that I’m somewhere very different as soon as I cross the border into England! I don’t think Dave feels the same about that, because although he lives in Cardiff he’s English.
Seriously though – whether or not Scotland remains part of the UK or leaves at some point to go it alone, culturally and historically it is very much its own nation. We started our tour in Edinburgh, a vibrant capital city if ever there was one. Our apartment was neatly sandwiched between a branch of Patisserie Valerie and the café where J.K.Rowling warmed her toes whilst writing her first Harry Potter book. Our building was full of an enticing aroma of chocolate and vanilla – how could you not love that?Our very comfortable apartment, courtesy of Destiny Scotland
We spent two nights in the city then repacked our bags and caught a bus back to the park-and-ride where we’d left the car. From there we drove north to the Firth of Forth bridge, past the railway bridge to the right of us and on the left the on-going construction of a new bridge. Now we come to another example of my new art-form: photographs taken with a phone from the passenger seat of a moving car.The new bridge across the Firth of Forth
At this point we took a slight detour. Michael is used to my slightly strange requests and astonishingly very good at indulging me. Instead of driving west as we needed to, he obligingly turned the car in the opposite direction so that we could visit Kinghorn. I say visit Kinghorn but actually what I wanted to do was visit a monument. You all know it was too much to hope that there wouldn’t be any history…so here it comes.
In 1286 Alexander III was on the throne of Scotland. A popular, successful king, he had married and had two sons and a daughter. Exactly what he needed to do; unhappily his wife died – and so did all of his children. So despite doing everything a medieval monarch should, he was suddenly left without an heir. Once again Alexander did his duty, remarried and within six months got his young French wife pregnant. The country must have breathed a sigh of relief – this was no time for any instability or sign of weakness. To the south of Hadrian’s Wall the ruthless Edward Plantagenet was ready to pounce as he had four years earlier in Wales.
In March 1286 Alexander had been attending a meeting of his council of ministers in Edinburgh. The weather can be unreliable in the British Isles, as we all know, and this particular evening there was a wintry storm raging across the area. Alexander was determined to return to his new wife just 26 miles away at Kinghorn, regardless of the conditions. He set off with a small escort and ignored the advice of everyone, including the ferryman who thought it unsafe to cross the Forth to Inverkeithing on the opposite shore. They reached the far side safely and picked up two local guides but – and nobody knows the details – somehow in the dark, snowy, stormy night, the king became separated from everybody else in his party. His body was found the following morning on the beach, his neck broken. There’s a monument overlooking the beach which I was determined to see and so you get to see it too.The Alexander III monument at Kinghorn, Fife
The view across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh from the monument
So what happened next? Alexander III, the last in the line of Celtic Kings of Scotland, lay dead. The thoughts and prayers of the nation turned to the baby being carried by his widow Yolande but again tragedy struck when the baby was stillborn. The country was in crisis and the last hope rested with Alexander’s grand-daughter. His daughter Margaret had married the King of Norway and then died giving birth to their child, also called Margaret. She became known as the ‘Maid of Norway’ and from the end of Yolande’s failed pregnancy this little girl was the uncrowned Queen of Scotland.
As you can imagine, the plots and conspiracies surrounding Margaret were endless. Powerful men in Scotland, Norway and England – and no doubt France, Spain and Rome – were whipping themselves into a frenzy at the idea of this young queen ripe for the taking, if you get my drift. The winner was Edward I who had a betrothal arranged between his 6 year old son Edward of Caernarfon (later to be Edward II) and the 7 year old Maid. In September 1290 she was put onto a boat and sent to Scotland from Norway but in a plot twist that you just couldn’t make up, by the time the boat arrived in the Orkney Islands Margaret was dead.A slightly dopey looking Alexander in this wall display at Edinburgh Castle. According to contemporary accounts he was an impressive, charismatic man
I know that the Middle Ages was a dodgy time to be alive and that a person could be carried off by something as simple as a cold, or septicaemia from a splinter in the finger, but it’s soooo tempting to consider the alternative. Did Alexander’s children from his first marriage all die of natural causes? Did he really fall from his horse that night in March, 1286 – why was he separated from two guides and all of his personal staff? And did Margaret, Maid of Norway, succumb to food poisoning on the voyage from Norway as was claimed?
Alexander’s daughter hadn’t survived the childbed but we don’t know the causes of death of his sons – maybe they were…arranged? Could it be that Alexander was, in fact lured off the path and murdered by men he should have been able to trust? And is it possible that the child Margaret was poisoned on that long sea journey across the North Sea? Who would have profited – and who had the power to arrange all of this? I love a good conspiracy…and I know I’m prejudiced, but there’s one man who fits the profile and that is Edward I of England. Maybe he became impatient and decided to snatch the crown of Scotland for himself rather than wait for the marriage of his young son into the Scottish Royal line.
Whatever the truth of it, these events caused political chaos in Scotland and Edward was ready and waiting to swoop in and take advantage. He didn’t get his own way but not for want of trying. The ensuing First Scottish War of Independence lasted until 1329 and cost tens of thousands of lives – if not more..
Once I’d bored the pants off Michael with this tale we turned the car around and got on with the trip. Our next stop was Dunfermline so that we could visit the Abbey – guess who’s buried there?The tomb of Robert the Bruce, Robert I of Scotland
The Abbey consists of the original church, the newer parish church, and the ruins of the abbey itself, destroyed by Edward in 1303. Robert the Bruce’s body is in the parish church but his heart is buried in Melrose Abbey. This seems to have been a curious habit in years gone by, especially for nobility; though to us the idea of extracting internal organs and burying them in a different place to the rest of the body is bizarre.The tomb was opened in 1818 and this cast made
Equally it was not considered to be revolting or disrespectful to open a tomb and examine the remains, take casts or even remove parts of the skeleton for redistribution to other sites. When does this become acceptable? Seven hundred years after the death? One hundred? Fifty? We went to an exhibition of Magna Carta at the British Library last year and part of the exhibition was the macabre display of one of King John’s teeth and a bone from his thumb. Now I’m not squeamish in the least – not after over thirty years of work at the sharp end of the medical stick in an A&E unit and in operating theatres – but I find this a little tacky and unnecessary. So I was a bit ashamed of myself when I stopped and had a good look at the cast of Bruce’s skull. Apparently it’s been used by sculptors who’ve created modern works representing the legendary king.The 16th century ceiling fresco of St Peter and St Paul, Dunfermline Abbey
We said goodbye to the very nice volunteer who showed us around the church then pointed our noses towards the town of Nairn on the coast of the Moray Firth. We struck gold with accommodation at Carnach House, just outside the town.Our bedroom at Carnach House, Nairn
The house was gorgeous, the owner really welcoming and the breakfast to die for. If you want to stay anywhere close to Inverness then you can’t do better than this.The beach at Nairn
From Nairn we travelled to Inverness by way of Culloden. Though how can you go anywhere by way of Culloden? I described that unnerving visit in my last post and I think it’ll stay with me for a long time.Inverness – gateway to the Highlands
Inverness is a really pleasant town. It has everything you need: good shops, very friendly residents and a damn good museum.A Pictish stone etching of a wolf in Inverness Museum
In the afternoon we drove over the bridge to the Black Isle and visited the whisky distillery of Glen Ord. The tour was entertaining and the entire place smelt like my Christmas cake! I noticed from adverts for other distilleries that this was one of the least expensive, which leaves more cash in your pocket to buy a souvenir. We’d have stayed longer but the fumes were threatening to send us over the legal limit for driving…we ignored the bridge off the Black Isle (which actually isn’t and island – nor is it black) and turned south so that we could get a first glimpse of Loch Ness, meeting it at the village of Drumnadrochit. This is apparently the site where most sightings of Nessie have been claimed over the years. Sadly we didn’t find Nessie …but we did find Urquhart Castle.Urquhart Castle, near Drumnadrochit, Loch Ness
One of the benefits of being members of Cadw and the National Trust is that entry to dozens of castles and other sites is free – ok, not really free because you pay for the membership – but that’s a fraction of the cost of buying a ticket every time. So we were able to enjoy a quick tour around this pretty castle in the half hour before it closed.
After another excellent breakfast we were on our way over to the Western Highlands by way of the Great Glen. This is a huge geological gash through Scotland stretching from the Atlantic to the North Sea, hosting a series of lochs. They are connected to each other and to the sea at each end by rivers and canals with several locks. The entire waterway is called the Caledonian Canal system and was constructed by Thomas Telford in the first half of the 19th century. There were obvious benefits to shipping at the time of building as well as military advantages. These days the route is mostly used for leisure boats and there’s also an advantage I’d never thought about – because it’s continuous with the sea the entire system is saltwater and can be fished free of charge, no river licences necessary. I almost wish I cared enough to fish!
The biggest of the lochs in the Great Glen is of course Loch Ness which is 23 miles long and 750 feet deep. I can’t comment on the depth but it sure is long – it took over forty minutes for us to drive from one end to the other. So three quarters of an hour after we caught first sight of Loch Ness at the aptly named Lochend we finally reached the other end at Fort Augustus, where we got out of the car to watch a boat go through the series of locks there.The Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus
Driving to Fort William from Fort Augustus
By late morning we’d taken a detour down to Glencoe and spent a sobering hour looking around the Visitor Centre there before stopping for a snack in Fort William. It’s a small town but has almost everything you’d want for day-to-day living. Not only that but an essential stop for anyone familiar with the books or television series ‘Outlander’. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, fine. You are not one of us, don’t worry about it. Just never, ever trust a man named Jack.
From Fort William we drove to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rally site at Glenfinnan and once again applauded ourselves for being members of the National Trust before learning more than I thought humanly possible about the Jacobites. When our brains could take no more we Googlemapped our way back along the road to our next B&B, Ardarroch Cottage. What can I say? Barry and Ellie are fantastic and the views from their house are to die for.The view from our bedroom window at Ardarroch cottage, Kinlocheil
The view from the other bedroom at Ardarroch Cottage, Kinlocheil
The back garden – and the hens that provided our breakfast
The first night of our say we had a great dinner at Glenfinnan House Hotel, and had to dodge the deer crossing the drive on our way back to the cottage.The dining room at Glenfinnan House Hotel
Deer on the drive at Glenfinann House Hotel
The view from the terrace of the hotel
We spent two nights at Ardarroch Cottage so had a free day to explore the area. We started off by taking a ferry to Skye from the small port of Mallaig. The weather had definitely improved and it was a great day for a sea trip.Leaving Mallaig for Skye
The main road across the Isle of Skye
The landscape on the island is very different from that on the mainland, and just as dramatic in its own way. I have a feeling there are more tourists here than residents, at least in the summer months.Eilean Donan castle
We didn’t stay around on Skye for very long and crossed back to the mainland, this time by way of the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. Another great castle almost persuaded us inside but Eilean Donan wasn’t covered by either of our membership cards. Scrooges that we are, we contented ourselves with pictures from the outside and drove down through Glen Shiel and across to the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre outside Fort William. Let it first be said that we are not mountain climbers or even serious hill walkers. We enjoy a ramble (particularly if the weather is kind) and love a view. Well, you can’t get a much better view than Ben Nevis.Ben Nevis
Me posing with Ben Nevis in the background
It was a shame but the road was calling so we said goodbye to Barry and Ellie and headed south through the Trossachs, taking Ellie’s advice and calling at Callander for a delicious helping of scones, cream and strawberry jam. This counted as lunch and more – in fact we decided to go without dinner that evening and stuck to fruit and a sandwich. But I’m getting ahead of myself because before we got to Stirling, our next destination, we called in at Doune Castle.
The way in to these heritage sites is often through the shop and this was the case here. At first I had no idea why they were selling coconut shells in there and it wasn’t until Michael mentioned the Holy Grail that the penny dropped. This is where the famous Monty Python film was partly made. Capitalizing on this, the first half of the audioguide is narrated by Terry Jones, the second half by someone who sounds exactly like Sam Heughan from the Outlander series – in fact it may well have been the man himself. The Castle was also used as a location for the series and there are a number of props around – anything to entice visitors is worth a try, after all. Doune Castle
A short while later we arrived at our last B&B, Castlecroft. It was great – the owner, Laura, had so much energy she wore me out. The house was ideally situated, just a ten minute walk from Stirling Castle and the Old Town which is completely charming. The next morning, which was Sunday, we put away platefuls of bacon, locally made sausages and haggis, eggs and toast, and drove over to the Bannockburn Visitor Centre south of Stirling. This was nothing like any of the other centres we’d been to; tickets had been pre-booked and at our appointed time we were each handed a pair of 3-D glasses and shown into a large room. In addition to pieces of armour and weaponry on show, there were interactive video characters from both sides of the conflict. The best thing in there was the action that was going on around us on four large screens – two for the Scots and two for the English. It was weird to stand in the centre watching the English archers aim and fire straight at us then turn to see those arrows thud into the Scottish soldiers on the opposite walls. The technology is the same as that used to film Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series and works brilliantly. Some of the characters seem to leap right out into the room and the noise of battle is all around.
From here we went through into a ‘battle room’ where we were divided into Scots and English armies to play through the simulated battle – with the help of a battle-master who quite cheerfully allows you to make idiotic tactical decisions and lose all your men before finally explaining how the real battle unfolded. The children there loved the whole thing, as did the adults. I highly recommend this if ever you’re in the area.
The interesting thing is that although this was a bloody event there is no feeling of tragedy here as there was at Culloden. There, some 1500 Jacobites were killed or wounded and there were probably less than 100 government losses – so less than 2,000 deaths. At Bannockburn, where the English outnumbered the Scots by 3 to 1, the deaths were far higher. Up to 4,000 Scots died and as many as 11,000 English may have lost their lives. That’s a possible mortality of up to 15,000 men; clearly the atmosphere of these sites isn’t dependent on the number of deaths but in the nature of the battle itself. At Culloden the mood, even today is of despair and loss. Here it is of triumph and national pride – though I’m guessing English visitors may feel differently.The statue of Robert I of Scotland, not far from where he raised his standard overlooking the battlefield of Bannockburn on 23rd June 1314
We rounded off our day in Stirling at the castle that dominates the skyline for miles around, its strategic importance obvious to anyone who sees it. We got in for nothing (Cadw membership), joined a free guided tour and spent the pennies we saved on dinner and a bottle of wine.The centre of Old Stirling, just outside the castle entrance…
…and some pics of the castleThe outside of the Great Hall at the castle
Inside the Great Hall at the castle
The view from the castle out towards the Wallace monument – which commemorates William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge, just below the hill that the monument occupies. Wallace won the battle there in 1297.
Our last morning in Scotland looked as though it would be the best weather-wise but within three hours of leaving Stirling we were arriving in Bowness on Lake Windermere for our last overnight stop. The Lake District is a lovely place but much more crowded than anywhere we’d seen in Scotland, and we didn’t do much apart from take a boat ride on the lake, eat ice-cream and chill. Oh, and have a cold beer or two. Here are some pics just to sum all of that up.Near Ullswater
Ambleside, Lake Windermere
So it’s all over. I have no words to describe the sheer beauty of Scotland so I won’t even try – go see it for yourselves. All I can say is that I have never seen anywhere more staggeringly gorgeous and I’m sure I never will. And it is possible to look at the mountains and not think about Mel Gibson’s blue painted face and awful accent…
Our accommodation was booked via the booking.com website and I recommend all of them:
Destiny Scotland Apartments, Edinburgh; Carnach House, Nairn; Culliss House, Inverness; Ardarroch Cottage, Kinlocheil; Castlecroft Bed and Breakfast, Stirling