Scotland Things to Do Tips by iandsmith
Scotland Things to Do: 1,331 reviews and 2,743 photos
I was intrigued. Though it wasn't on my A-list, if time permitted I thought I would really enjoy this. Other VTers had waxed lyrical about it and, it turned out I did have enough time one day, so off we went.
If settings count for anything it's a delightful location. From there it went downhill. Trust me, the fact that it was raining didn't dampen my enthusiasm. No, it was the staff. The we're-here-because-it's-a-way-of-making-some-money-while-we're-backpacking-around-the-world type guides. They were all female and all foreign, especially ours who had a strong German accent and who progressively softened her tone towards the end of each sentence. Now, I have nothing against the former items, my best guide ever (at Hampton Court) was a female. No, it was the accent and the droning off. After something less than five minutes it starts to get to you. Oh for a burst of enthusiastic rhetoric and a waving of arms in the Italian manner. Anything to keep us awake.
The subject matter, whilst at times mildly interesting, needed to be threaded together with a story. What took us over an hour for the explanation of the crannog (ancient home sites with genuine water views) and how some of their primitive tools were used could well have been condensed. Thank goodness for the resident ducks whose attempts to steal the just-ground grains brought some light relief and amused the children mightily.
The crannog is a simulation of the type of homes that used to exist on many of the lochs, ostensibly to keep away animals, bearing in mind bears and such used to live here before man got rid of them. The way they constructed the house, shown in the centre on a video, was certainly a feat, the thatching together of many branches above this large roundhouse is not something you'd want to do on a weekend.
The photogenic Craigevar Castle
I had wondered just what was meant by the Castles of Mar. Turns out it has a lot to do with the George Bel family of Aberdeen, Scotland, master masons, and their amazing legacy of six superb castles. They were constructed in what was part of the Pictish province of Mar known as Midmar
Several of these beautiful castles, or "chateaus" were built during the zenith of Caledonian architecture. When you look at the photos, notice the French details blended with the Scottish vernacular and hints of Romanesque and Gothic styles. The masons use of these elements produced some of the most striking Scottish buildings in existence today. Later, the style was imitated in Victorian houses.
Clan Bell is exceedingly lucky that all of the Castles of Mar still stand. Many clans can only lay claim to severely decayed ancestoral strongholds or the mere rubble of ancient buildings lost to the mists of time. Consider that this small island nation, separate from Europe, and surviving centuries of invasions and neverending attempts at domination flowered so abundantly in works such as these only makes the Castles of Mar an even greater world treasure.
Patriarch Geogeo (George) Bel built Midmar Castle before his death in 1375. Subsequently, his sons Ian (John) and David built five additional castles during the 14th and 15th centuries. These include Craigievar (see pics with this page), Crathes (see other pages), Drum, Fraser, and Fyvie. One way we know this as fact is because masons apply special marks, or "sign manuels" to their works, just as artists apply their signature or mark to their paintings or other craft. The Bel masons marked their works with a heart.
Another fact I learned at Crathes was that the walls were 5ft thick.
Crathes in autumn
One of the most popular castles in the care of the National Trust for Scotland is Crathes in the Grampian Region. It was a foul day when I arrived and, as it was late October, it was one of the few left open.
Started in the second half of the 16th century by the Burnetts of Leys its grounds are equally as famous, being more a series of gardens divided by yew hedges planted about 1702.
The ancient Barony of Leys was granted to Alexander de Burnard by Robert the Bruce in 1323 as a token of appreciation of his support, and with it came the post of King's forester. But the king had committed one of these 'faux pas' which could lead to one party being highly offended, for the post was also given to the Irvines of Drum nearby! The matter was settled amicably enough however, for while the Irvines continued to display the official arms of the King's forester -- a silver shield with three holly leaves, the Burnetts, as they came to be known, incorporated in their Arms a horn. The actual jewelled ivory horn they received from the king is perhaps the most famous of the family heirlooms and has pride of place over the fireplace in the Great Hall.
Their first home was built on an island in the loch of Leys and legend associates the building of Crathes with a tragedy that occurred in their original stronghold. The old laird had died, leaving a wife and an heir, Alexander, who was still a child. The widow Lady Agnes, was a domineering woman who had ambitious plans for her son's marriage with one of the noble families of Scotland.
She wasn't at all pleased when romance blossomed between young Alexander and a relative, a pretty girl called Bertha, who had been left in her care for a few months. Her chance came when Alexander was called away on business that took him some time. As the days and weeks passed the servants noticed his beloved Bertha was pining away. Alexander returned home too late, his sweetheart had died that day.
Directions: West of Aberdeen
Ghosts in the hall?
It shows how in touch I am with my religious side. There we were in the abbey, quietly (the only way in a monastery) viewing old headstones when a presence was indicated by a soft noise flitting by. I gently turned and espied a someone in monk's robes gliding quickly past us. "Awesome", I thought, "How's this for reality."
Uninitiated into the protocols of whether I should have said "G'day" or not I watched fascinated as the light coloured cape departed into the nave. Then it occured to me that a photo would be cool. Well, would have been but he had departed.
With that train of thought in mind it was only about 4 minutes later when another entered and started to climb the stairs at the southern end. Fortunately my camera was tripod mounted and I swung it rapidly and clicked; just before the ghostly presence dissolved through the doorway.
If there's one thing this place delivers, it's a taste of what life would be like having taken the vows. Personally, I find little attraction in it, but have respect for those that can handle any length of time in a monastic order.
I loved the sign (pic two) that's inside the small room that doubles as a tourist shop. I wondered how many places in the world would dare to trust the general populace as they do here. More power to them I say.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the prince of lost causes, sought to reinstate his family on the Scottish throne in 1745-6 but his cause was doomed from the start. Though he may have been a tad unlucky at Culloden, at some stage he was always going to lose, inter-clan rivalries and a small population would always undermine any attempt by Scots to rule their own.
This monument commemorates the raising of the flag on 19th August, 1745 to start the Jacobite uprising. The round-towered monument, with a later addition of the statue, overlooks the attractive Loch Shiel (pic 5) and was erected in 1815. You can pay and go inside the monument and climb (not for the claustrophobic among you) to the top for a better view.
These days the area is as well known for another reason and we can thank a children's author and Hollywood for that. The "Harry Potter Bridge" as it is now known, actually a railway viaduct in picturesque setting (pic 3), sits a short distance behind the relatively new visitors centre.
Directions: Northern end of Loch Shiel
Ring a ding ding
I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Yes, I know it's a boat but, beyond that, did anyone really know much about it before it became a museum piece?
The Britannia is without doubt the best known yacht in private hands ever. The people who have trod upon her decks would make any snob green with envy. Thus you go on board with an expectation. An expectation of things in the grand manner. What you get is something entirely different. You get a working ship, albeit an immaculate one with the cleanest engine on any ship in the world. It's so clean that the brusque General Patton is reputed to have said, upon viewing it, "OK, I've seen the museum piece now show me the real engine." It's that clean.
The furniture, of the queen's choosing, is definitely of a subdued rustic nature with delicate pastel colours and floral motifs. It's all rather ordinary really. What has made it extraordinary is those who have boarded it. There are poignant reminders of times past, such as being told that "...this is the bed where Charles and Di spent their honeymoon..."
Speaking of beds, the queen and her consort used to sleep in separate rooms. It's things like that that make the tour worthwhile, don't come looking for gold and silver, there's little of it present.
The audio guides are comprehensive and worthwhile and the descriptions are clear and detailed. You'll have few questions left after your tour.
Do look at the doocot
This is a dovecote, or a doocot, or several other ways of spelling it. What it pertains to is that man used to live off pigeons, hence the old pigeon pie.
I had come across where they used to use them in Turkey out in Cappadocia but they also used their poo there for their frescoes. In Orvieto in Italy they had all the nesting sites underground so they would still have something to eat when beseiged.
So when I chanced upon this at Findlater Castle it came as little surprise though it would have added much to the experience were one able to look inside. This is where the farmer used to have all the nesting sites from whence you could grab yourself an egg or a fresh bird for the pot. I can just see you wringing its neck as I write. Yuck, I'll stick to lamb from the abbattoir! There are a surprising number of these around and they come in many shapes and sizes but, modern farming methods and the fact that pigeons eat grain and it may not be from your property have led to their demise.
This dovecote is also of note inasmuch as its the oldest restored one of its type anywhere, something over 400 years of age..........wish I could live that long!
Address: Findlater Castle
A sad ruin
Find it sooner, find it later, what do I care? It was a balmy day when we did our tour along the north east coast, a standout after the misery of the previous three weeks. You'll certainly want to keep your eyes peeled when you get to the last turnoff. You're on a marginally-wider-than-one-lane road and the sign is less-than-immediately noticeable. There's no fanfare when you reach the carpark either, just the end of the lane basically.
The dovecote (see earlier tips) is bright in the sunlight on your left but the unseen castle beckons. When you get to see it there's not a lot and, I shall warn those who choose to go, avoid the first track down that you see and head off to the extreme right (pic 2); it's so much easier.
Findlater or Fynletyr is on the coast of Banffshire, some few miles west of Banff itself. King Alexander III, in the early 1260s anticipating an invasion by King Hako of Norway, ordered that the royal castles of Aberdeen, Banff and Cullen and the baronial castles of Dunnottar, Slains, Dundarg, Boyne and Findlater should be inspected and repaired.
There would appear to be no remains of that thirteenth century castle, as the Vikings subsequently occupied the site for some time. Sir John Sinclair of Findlater, who died in 1411 at the battle of Harlaw, which ended the Earl of Ross rebellion, is probably the builder. The castle is clearly modelled on Roslyn, which was the principal stronghold of the Sinclair family. Thus Findlater Castle would date from the end of the fourteenth century, being built after Roslyn.
It's a sad ruin today but I have to say the views from the site are worth the walk alone. The unfolding panorama to the west (pic 3) certainly caught my eye and that, along with the dovecote, left me feeling satisfied.
Still standing after all these years
South of the town of Dumfries and near the coast of the Solway Firth, Sweetheart Abbey was founded in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway, in memory of her late husband, John Balliol. When she died in 1289, her body was laid to rest before the high altar and a casket containing her husband's embalmed heart was placed beside her. The Cistercian monks chose the name "Dulce Cor" or Sweetheart, in her memory. The Abbey was not Devorgilla's only act of charity - she endowed Balliol College in Oxford in 1282. Her son was John Balliol who became king of Scotland at the behest of King Edward I - and had his regalia stripped from him by Edward when he didn't toe the line. Devorgilla herself was descended from the royal house of Dunkeld.
Edward I, the "Hammer of the Scots" stayed at the abbey in 1300 but unlike some of the other abbeys in the Borders, it was relatively unharmed by English invasions. The abbey was later under the patronage of Archibald Douglas who lived at Threave Castle and was known as "Archibald the Grim". The Douglas coat of arms can still be seen on the arched doorway to the west cloister.
The Reformation saw the demise of the building as a place of worship in 1608 and the last of the monks were forced to leave. The building would have been destroyed at that time but the local landowner Lord Maxwell refused to obey the order of the Lords of the Congregation. However, the cloister was later used as a quarry for some time and the church eventually lost its roof. Fortunately, some locals acquired the building in the 19th century and it was not allowed to deteriorate further.
Despite the ravages of time, a substantial part of this impressive abbey is still standing, including the nave, the choir, bell tower and the stonework of the great east window. There is an effigy of Devorgilla, holding the casket with the embalmed heart of her husband which she was reputed to carry around. Sweetheart Abbey has the most complete precinct walls surviving round a Scottish medieval monastery.
Food and art
The massacre, so called, was ineptly carried out. Some 38 MacDonalds were killed by the troops (some were tied up and shot), but the sound of the initial gunfire provided ample warning to most, who escaped into the white shrouded mountains. Some subsequently died from exposure but the public outcry that followed led to Sir John Dalrymple's resignation. The military officers involved were left to continue their careers, though Captain Campbell ended his days in a gutter in Bruges.
Glen Coe's infamy is not really due to the number of deaths involved. What offended Highlanders and others about Glen Coe was the abuse of the hospitality offered by the MacDonalds to the government troops.
Blaming the Campbells misses the point. Only 12 of the 130 soldiers involved in the massacre were Campbells, though one was their Captain. In fact, some of them and the MacDonalds were related and some went on to fight side by side in the Jacobite cause.
Sadly, for mine, Glen Coe had less to do with clan rivalries than it had to do with the age old problem of males seeking power and control. The orders for the massacre were signed by a Major in Inverlochy, but the action was authorised all the way up to the Secretary of State for Scotland and beyond, probably to the King himself.
Thus we should consider the root causes behind conflicts in order to really understand them.
Of course, this was forgotten when the lovely new tourist centre highlighting the massacre was opened and the man they put in charge of it?...............................his name was Campbell!
In this pic, Rosemarie and I have decided enough of conflicts, time for a cuppa in what was a very nice place to stop, well laden with paintings and postcards along with a lovely cuppa.
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