Scotland: highlights of a recent visit
- Submitted by: Michael Bates
- Website: None Available
- Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005
My wife and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland in early June 1994. We rented a car in each place and more or less let the itinerary evolve with the weather and our mood. Our main interests were seeing the countryside and learning about national and church history. Rather than give you a blow-by-blow travelogue, I thought it might be more beneficial just to list a few favorite places and information useful to anyone thinking of visiting. This article will cover Scotland; I'll cover Ireland separately.
OUR FAVORITE DAY:
We spent a day in the area of Kingussie, on the A9 between Pitlochry and Aviemore. We spent the morning at Leault Farm, a working sheep farm near Kincraig. Twice a day they do sheepdog (border collie) demonstrations. They have six dogs, who herd some sheep into a pen, guide the sheep around the pasture, and even herd geese to and from the pond. When we were there they had a new litter of puppies. Neil Ross, the shepherd, took care to explain what he was doing at each step -- the different whistles and calls used to direct each dog, how the dogs are trained, etc. An English family with us compared the experience favorably to more high-profile, tourist-oriented sheep farms that they had visited. There is nothing touristy about this place. They only began offering demonstrations to the public last September. Neil also does less elaborate demonstrations at the nearby Highland Folk Museum. Demonstrations are usually twice-daily, at 12 and 4. Admission is #3 for adults. You must book ahead as this is a small operation. Here's the address and phone:
We had lunch in Kingussie, then parked the car in the town car park and walked to Loch Gynack, following a route from a ScotRail brochure, which describes several easy short walks beginning near rail stations. The woman at the TIC [Tourist Information Centre] suggested a continuation of the walk around Creag Bheag, rather than backtracking to town. She even loaned us her "rather tatty" copy of the local Ordnance Survey map, rather than making us buy one for a day's use. The walk took us past a rushing stream, across a golf course, past a ruined cottage, over a couple of stiles, through heather and some really muddy patches. My navigation skills proved themselves as rusty as I had feared, but we made it back to the main road, after a 5.5 mile, 3 hour walk. Except for a few golfers at the beginning and the occasional sheep we rambled alone through some gorgeous countryside.
Other favorite places:
David Livingstone Memorial, Blantyre, east-southeast of Glasgow: Even though we were in a jet-lag haze when we visited, we still found this interesting. The memorial is centered around the mill tenement block where Livingstone was born. The exhibits give you a sense of working-class life in the early 19th century, as well as an extensive account of Livingstone's explorations of the African interior. Throughout the exhibit you see the motivations that took him to Africa and back again after a hero's welcome in Britain. The center is open Mon-Sat 10-6, Sunday 1-6.
Tenement House, Glasgow: This place doesn't require a long visit -- an hour and a half at most -- but it's a great way to get the sense of stepping back in time. You walk up a flight of stairs, ring the bell, and walk into the 1930s. The guides in each of the three rooms were happy to answer questions about different household items, what things cost, how chores were done, etc. The experience is enhanced by the fact that nearly everything in the apartment, down to sheet music and rent receipts, belonged to one woman, Miss Agnes Toward, who lived in the flat for over 50 years. Open 2-5pm during the summer, an easy walk from Cowcaddens Underground station.
St Giles High Kirk, Edinburgh: We asked a guide about group tours and ended up getting an hour-and-a-half personal tour, for free. The guide took us to each stained-glass window and monument and chapel. He did a great job of providing historical context. We wanted a tour and got an "Intro to Scottish History" course.
Edinburgh Castle: I won't belabor this, but it's a must-see. Good tours, great views of the city, plenty of history. Worth the #5 each.
Inveraray: A pretty little town on Loch Fyne in Argyll. We spent a day there -- the morning at Inveraray Jail (the old courthouse, now a museum on crime and punishment from the 17th to the early 20th centuries) and the afternoon at the Castle, the home of the Duke of Argyll, and the seat of Clan Campbell. At the castle, there are a couple of rooms set aside for the Clan Campbell society, with photos of recent worldwide gatherings. The display in the armory hall is truly impressive. We were sorry we didn't have time for the Combined Operations Museum, on the castle grounds, which has to do with the amphibious landing rehearsals done in the area in preparation for D-Day. The castle closes between 1 and 2, but you can get back in on the same ticket, and the tea room has good, reasonably priced food and is open through the break and all day, as is the gift shop. The drive between Glasgow and Inveraray is quite nice, providing you don't get stuck behind a heavy-goods vehicle.
St Andrews: I'm into history, especially religious history, and that's what I enjoyed about St Andrews. I read part of John Knox's "History of the Reformation in Scotland" (purchased at his house on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh) at breakfast, then walked out to see the places where it all happened. Wish we had had time to go through the counter-mine at the Castle (it's a tunnel built during the siege of the castle by French troops in 1557). Golf appears to be a big deal there too, for some reason. :-)
The north coast of Fife: We spent a pleasant afternoon driving backroads from Newburgh to Balmerino. It helped that it was a sunny day and the rapeseed fields were a brilliant yellow and fragrant. The road gives excellent views down to the Tay and across to Dundee. We stopped at the ruined abbey in Balmerino and had the place to ourselves. Our only regret was that we didn't have time to complete the tour and visit the fishing villages in the East Neuk of Fife. (The tour route was in the book _Britain on Backroads_, Hunter Publishing, Edison NJ, 1985 -- originally published in the UK by Bartholomew Press, Edinburgh. Four of the book's 38 tours are in Scotland.)
Accommodations:We used the book-a-bed-ahead service for the entire week, booking at a TIC in the morning for accommodation in the next town that night. We were happy with each place we stayed, but I imagine we could have done better on price had we booked ourselves a few days in advance. For the most part we got en-suite double rooms. The average price was around #40 per night for two. We never had a problem using American Express Travelers Cheques (in Pounds Sterling) to pay for lodging, although we didn't try to use them in Inveraray. Here's where we stayed:
Inveraray: Mrs MacPherson, 10 Argyll Court, Inveraray, Argyll PA32 8UT, (0499)2273. #28 for two twin beds, not en-suite (although the bathroom was right next door), color TV in room. In a post-war row house, looks to have been recently renovated and redecorated. A short walk to the older part of town.
Edinburgh: Ashdene House, 23 Fountainhall Road, Edinburgh, EH9 2LN, (031) 667 6026. #43 for a double en-suite. Our room had two extra twin beds, color TV and a phone. On-street parking. The house is a nicely renovated Victorian house on a quiet residential street a short distance south of the center. Three blocks from Minto Street, which is the continuation of S. Bridge Street (A7); several buses run to the city centre.
Pitlochry: Arisaig House, (Fiona and Angus MacLellan), Strathview Terrace, Pitlochry PH16 5QR, (0796) 473899. #40 for a double en-suite, Color TV. Apparently one of the en-suite doubles (not ours) had a jacuzzi tub. The house was built last fall, very modern and comfortable. The MacLellans were the youngest B&B owners we encountered (early 30s at the oldest). Fiona was very helpful with suggestions for places to shop and eat. We stayed two nights here. I could see using Pitlochry as a base for exploring; a lot of central and eastern Scotland is within easy driving distance. The town has plenty of shops and caters to tourists.
St Andrews: Brownlee House, Murray Place. #40 pounds double en-suite, color TV. The room was barely big enough for the bed, but this place was right in the middle of town, two blocks from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and a short distance to all the historical sites. On-street parking is available nearby.
About the Book-A-Bed-Ahead (BABA) service: Here's how it works. Go to the local TIC in the morning (any town of decent size has one). They'll fill out a form with your requirements for that night's lodging -- which city; town or country; price range; smoking or non-smoking; private or shared bathroom. They usually ask for about 30-40 minutes to set something up -- they call people at the TIC at your destination, who then call around to find a place that meets your specification. When you come back, they give you a reservation form (which you present to your host on arrival) and you pay a #2.75 booking fee and 10% deposit on the room. The deposit is credited toward your night's stay.
It is usually only available for booking rooms for that same day. This is conjecture, but I think that in the morning B&B proprietors call the local TIC and tell them what vacancies they have for that night. The TIC then has a list of available accommodation which is uses to fulfill BABA requests from other TICs. The rooms we got with BABA were nice, but probably more expensive than if we'd booked a day or two in advance -- i.e., all the cheaper rooms were gone already. It was worth it for the flexibility, however.
If you want to book directly, you can pick up, at any TIC, regional magazines with B&B listings (free) or purchase a directory covering all Scotland. There is a TIC booth at Glasgow Airport (bear right as you leave customs). If you do plan to book directly, be sure to get a Phonecard (available from most newsagents) to save hassles with coins at payphones.
Transportation: we rented a Rover Metro (compact, automatic transmission) from Kenning, rented through Town and Country Car Rental, $225.60 including VAT for a week. The agency is off-airport, about 1/2 mile away from the terminal. The short distance became important: We returned the car after hours (4:00 pm Saturday is after-hours?) and had to hoof it back to the terminal (we were foresighted enough to check our bags beforehand). The agent failed to mention that the office would be closed, even though we confirmed our return time when we picked up the car. There wasn't even a phone nearby so that we could call a taxi. Since we spent most of our time in smaller towns and in the country, parking was rarely a problem.
For maps we brought with us the Michelin map for Scotland and Rand McNally's road atlas of Britain (which I believe is the Automobile Association atlas packaged for sale in the U.S.). We bought a Bartholomew's Edinburgh Streetfinder before we went there, which kept us from getting totally lost. The Michelin map does a good job of representing the quality, width, and aligment of a given road, which will give you some idea of the speed possible. Speed limits on motorways and "dual carriageways" (divided four-lane highways) are 70 MPH; other roads are 60 MPH. Drivers tend to break the limit if traffic conditions allow. I can't remember specific driving times, but with few exceptions we didn't encounter traffic backups. The road from Edinburgh to Inverness (the A9) is a well-built 2-lane which bypasses many of the smaller towns and has occasional passing lanes. You can expect to average close to 60 MPH on a road like that. On the other hand, the roads from Glasgow to Inveraray is winding and hilly -- we got stuck behind a truck for lot of the distance. The Rand McNally Atlas has good maps of metropolitan Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well as more detail than the Michelin map. We were glad to have both along.
You'll get as much breakfast in the morning as you like. There's the standard "fry" -- bacon, eggs, sausage, and tomato, served with juice, tea or coffee, and toast. Most places will also serve cereal or porridge in addition to the fry or instead of. A few places also had fruit, usually prunes or grapefruit. It's all included in the cost of the room. For lunch we usually grabbed a sandwich somewhere at a shop for not too much. Cheap Chinese places abound, but often they're only takeaway and may or may not have utensils to give you. In the big cities we occasionally indulged in McDonald's or Burger King; a Whopper, medium fries and medium drink go for #3.00, or about $4.50. There's a McDonald's in Perth that has a drive-thru! In the evening, we'd frequently get fish-and-chips, which you can find anywhere. We really didn't eat anywhere fancy, with one exception. We had dinner at the Pine Trees Hotel in Pitlochry. It was called a "bar meal" but it was a sit-down dinner and service was leisurely. That was our splurge -- about #22, including dessert. Very good food and they treated us nicely even though we were wearing blue jeans (although they did put us far away from the other diners and behind a potted plant).
We used _Scotland: The Rough Guide_ to help plan our trip, and borrowed a friend's copy of _Fodor's_. We also took along _Let's Go: Britain and Ireland_, but found it didn't add much to the content in _The Rough Guide_, which was far superior in detail.
Pitlochry had plenty of places to buy woolen goods, and the prices seemed reasonable.
We came across a couple of good Christian bookstores: Wesley Owen in Glasgow and the Manna House in Perth (which also has a popular tea room and bakery). Both bookstores stocked evangelical periodicals, which were useful in learning about area churches, upcoming events, and the general religious scene.
If you're into china, we found a place in Edinburgh that handles second-hand stuff (for people who are "trading up" or who want to sell inherited china). We missed being there when it was open, but it looked really neat. It was near the University at the corner of Potterrow and Marshall Street, caddycorner from a large carpark.
I'd be happy to provide more detail to anyone interested. We loved Scotland and hope to return in the future.
Mike Bates, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA
[Expanded 3 January 1995 to include descriptions of Book-a-bed-ahead, maps, driving conditions, and food.]
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