SCOTLAND: A Scottish Highland FlingEast Neuk is on the Firth of Forth, a scenic route passing through clusters of tiny fishing villages surrounded by fields of hay bales rolled like giant roly-poly sponge cakes. Here picturesque biscuit-tin scenes of fishing harbours such as Anstruther and Crail displayed idyllic walled harbours protecting sturdy North Sea fishing boats.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2011
Rain pelted the windscreen as I made my way northwest out of Edinburgh. A storm was hovering over this part of the country and it was a wet start to my tour of the Highlands of Scotland. Everywhere pools of water flooded the side of the road as I headed for the Firth of Forth Bridge and the Kingdom of Fife.
Known as the East Neuk, I was soon on the coastline overlooking the Firth of Forth, a scenic route passing through clusters of tiny fishing villages surrounded by fields of hay bales rolled like giant roly-poly sponge cakes. Here picturesque biscuit-tin scenes of fishing harbours such as Anstruther and Crail displayed idyllic walled harbours protecting sturdy North Sea fishing boats, as old ladies walked diminutive noisy dogs and rain continued to water hanging window boxes full of colourful plants.
By the time I’d reached St. Andrews the rain was what you would call persistent and I needed to find warmth and cover. The Criterion first opened as a tavern in 1878 and was full off Celtic football supporters watching their team defeat Kilmarnock. I ordered a pint of Spitfire ale and hunkered down, squashed between animated local supporters with wild accents shouting at the telly.
It was ‘Fresher Week’ and on this Sunday 700 new students and their parents had arrived in this town of 6000 people for a new term induction. Known as the home of golf, St Andrews is also the third oldest university in the UK after Oxford and Cambridge – in fact it celebrates its 600th anniversary in 2011. This is an expensive university to be educated in. As one lecturer observed the next day, “Most students drive better cars than their tutors!”
Later that evening, after checking into the Mansfield Bed & Breakfast in Cupar, I popped down the road for some dinner in the Golf Tavern - the only pub in town with real ale! It was my chance to chat to some locals and order haddock and chips with mushy peas and a pint of the oddly named ale called Thrappledouser.
An early morning visit to the town of Falkland was another eye-opener. It was a popular retreat for all the Stuart kings and in 1458 became a royal burgh. Set in the foothills of the Lomonds, Falkland is best known as the site of Falkland Palace, built in 1500 by James IV to accommodate the Royal Court. The palace was their principal hunting lodge and a favourite of Mary, Queen of Scots who frequently visited. Today it is considered to be one of the best examples of French-influenced Renaissance architecture in England. Don’t miss the chance to view the tennis courts built in 1539.
My next stop was further north in Arbroath where they cook the famous ‘Arbroath Smokies.’ It was around the corner from the the harbour that I met Bill Spink, a sprightly 77-year-old fish merchant who has been hot-smoking haddock since 1963. "Worked in here all my life and never missed a day,” he told me in a strong Scottish brogue. “Never once had a holiday either,” he asserted, as smoke engulfed his creased face when he pulled another tail-to-tail batch of fish out of the smoker. “This ‘as been my life’s work,” he added with a proud, broad grin.
Back on the road there was a bit of time to stop at J.M. Barrie’s birthplace in Kirriemuir – a tiny building that Peter Pan would have been proud to live in. Then it was over the pass into the Cairngorms whose high plateau can provide, uniquely in Britain, a true artic climate. Here in the famous town of Braemar the sun blithely attempted to curtsy below rain showers.
Further north and still in Royal Deeside is Ballater, situated on the River Dee in Aberdeenshire and just up the road from Her Majesty’s Scottish home, Balmoral Castle which has been in the royal family since 1848. As I wasn’t invited to dinner at the castle, I chose to dine where I was staying for the night, Darroch Learg Hotel, originally built as a country home in 1888. Dinner started with delicious celeriac soup followed by some mouth-watering ravioli of wild wood pigeon and wild mushrooms, loin of Glen Muick venison and finishing with a lovely slow baked vanilla cheese cake. Even the Queen would have been impressed.
The next morning low cloud descended on the glens as I criss-crossed heather laden moorland. In Dufftown they boasted 11 whiskey distilleries in the region, the best known of which is Glenfiddick. However it was the Speyside Cooperage that held more fascination for me. Robert a former employee and tour guide explained that they employ 16 full time coopers. These skilled workers make and repair around 100,000 casks a year - barrels, hogsheads, butts and puncheons, all relating to different sized casks!
There is an interpretive centre plus a viewing area where you can watch the labour intensive work and each cooper completes about 30 casks a day. As Robert alluded to, “This is piecemeal work where coopers are paid per repaired cask, so they work hard and fast,” he said, adding, “There are 25 million casks in the system in the UK so there will always be work for qualified coopers.”
By 10am the next morning I passed through Inverness, which was mainly obscured by rain clouds. But by the time I reached the settlement of Drumnadrochit, the rain had passed, yet the lead-lined cloud still loitered over Loch Ness and the surrounding mountains. The result left an atmospheric backdrop to Urquhart Castle, picturesque ruins on a promontory above the dark brooding waters of Loch Ness. This was once one of Scotland’s biggest castles and greatest strongholds and the scene of many long and bloody battles dating back to the 12th century.
In the late afternoon I was happily relaxing in the lounge of the Glengarry Castle Hotel in Invergarry looking out across Loch Oich, as mist drifted off the flat calm surface below a band of weather-beaten purple heather on the nearby mountain. The hotel is a former Victorian mansion built between 1866-69 and set in 60 acres - it even has its own medieval ruins, Invergarry Castle. This is a perfect retreat for hiking and fishing enthusiasts.
A trip around the Isle of Skye was next on the itinerary – a distinctive landscape of moorland hills coloured like the plumage of partridge and mythical mountain outcrops that define the word solitude. Both a beautiful and barren landscape dotted with white crofters’ cottages, originally a white lime coating to seal and waterproof the outer dry stone walls. “Yes the folk here still burn peat which has to be dried for a year,” said an older lady, knitting in the Flodigarry Crofters Museum. “It’s free, gives off good heat and smells of heather.”
After another long day driving winding country roads, I caught the car ferry from Armadale to Mallaig and then headed south to the village of Glencoe. The rain had dissipated somewhat and my choice of accommodation was a self-catering cottage in a forest setting, not far from the local pub!
Morning revealed blue skies as this was my last day. It included a beautiful drive from Glencoe with mountain streams in full flood. The high pass eventually led me to the shores of Loch Lomond, (in Scottish Gaelic, Loch Laomainn) a freshwater loch, lying on the Highland Boundary Fault. It is the largest loch/lake in Great Britain. It was Friday and traffic was streaming north out of Glasgow as I returned to the maelstrom of city driving that most commuters seem to accept as part of everyday life. For me though it was the end of my highland fling, lonely country roads, heather covered hills, good real ale, wonderful scenery and a sporran full of great traditions.
Remember to buy the Great British Heritage Pass before you leave home as it is available through www.visitbritainshop.com/newzealand. With the Great British Heritage Pass you can visit them all – just buy an affordable one-off pass for either, 4, 7, 15 or 30 days and you will be granted entry to over 580 UK heritage properties. This is the turn-key to unlocking Britain’s best kept secrets.
The price of a pint of beer varies from £2.30 in the country to £3.80 in the city. Note: drinking alcohol on Sunday is not allowed in Scotland until 12.30pm
VAT rises on Jan 1st 2011 from 17.5% to 20% so take this into account on all prices.
Mansfield Bed & Breakfast, Cupar
52 South Road, Cupar, Fife
T: +44 (0)133 465 5120
Darroch Learg Hotel & Restaurant
Braemar Road, Ballater, Aberdeenshire
T: +44 (0)133 975 5443
Kinross Guest House
Woodside Ave, Gantown on Spey
Glengarry Castle hotel
T: +44 (0)180 950 1254
Signal Rock Cottage
Torren, Glencoe, Argyll
T: +64 (0)185 581 1207
The White House
11-13 Cleveden Crescent, Glasgow
T: +44 (0)141 339 9375
The Golf Tavern
11 South Road, Cupar, Fife
T: +44 (0)133 465 4233
British Golf Museum
The Links, St Andrews
T: +64 (0)133 446 0046
St Andrews Cathedral
North St, St Andrews
T: +64 (0)133 447 2563
M & M Spink
10 Marketgate, Arbroath
T: +64 (0)797 419 5654
Dufftown Road, Craigellachie, Aderlour, Banffshire
T: +64 (0)134 087 1108
Shane Boocock would like to thank Visit Britain for the ground arrangements, go to: www.visitbritain and Etihad Airways for their wonderful Pearl Business Class flat bed service from Sydney to Manchester via Abu Dhabi. Go to: www.etihadairways.com
If you would like to read this article in full or licence it for your own publication, please click here to contact Shane.