If you assume that being a 'Black Bitch' is an insult, you may want to take a day trip to Linlithgow this summer. Granted, I'm biased because I lived there for six years, but I still believe on a sunny summer's day it's Scotland at its best. Easily accessible by train and road from all over Scotland, the ruins of Linlithgow Palace, perched above the loch, are never mobbed like Stirling and Edinburgh castles, yet have a fascinating history, including being the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. The guides will also regale you with the story of how those born within the town came to be known as 'Black Bitches'.
The wide expanse of immaculately mown grass called 'The Peel' borders the loch and is home to sunbathers, pick-up football games, and some aggressive swans, but keep walking and there's a beautiful path that winds for nearly two miles around the loch, giving you a spectacular view back towards the Palace and St Michael Kirk, topped with its modernist crown of thorns. Having worked up an appetite, the award-winning Four Mary's pub is a great place for lunch, or if you want to go upmarket, the Champany Inn just outside of town is one of the better steak houses in Central Scotland.
If you're not too full, climb the hill above the station to the Linlithgow Canal Centre, where you can take a calming narrow boat trip along the Union Canal to see the surrounding countryside at a leisurely pace. If you're feeling a bit more active, head up to Beecraigs Country Park above the town with its deer farm, outdoor adventure playground, and beautiful woodland walks. If you are looking for Scotland in microcosm, look no further than Linlithgow.
Armed with our National Trust for Scotland memberships, we set out to discover The Royal Burgh of Culross. Arriving in this 16th century village is to enter a time-warp. There are striking old buildings in vibrant colours, evoking Flemish and Dutch influences in the gables, windows and roof tiles.
Its history is dominated by one man – Sir George Bruce – an engineer and innovator, far ahead of his time. He established a successful coal mine in the 1500s which extended out under the Firth of Forth, using methods considered miraculous for the age. He used the riches extracted from beneath the water to construct a distinctive yellow 'palace'. A tour of the building and its layered, walled gardens are a must, for both history and tranquility. From atop the gardens, the view to the east is rewarded by the magnificent trinity of bridges spanning the Forth, while to the south-west the lattice pipework and flare-stack of the Grangemouth oil refinery burns off today's black gold. I struggle to think of a more resplendent spot where one can reflect on three such iconic sites spanning six centuries of Scottish ingenuity, engineering and commerce.
There is much to tantalise the spiritual mind too. Culross was the birthplace of Mungo, later to become patron saint of my home city of Glasgow, the tiny courtroom witnessed witch trials and at the top of the cobbled streets lie the ruins of a 13th-century abbey. Nestling in a corner of the adjoining church you will find the final resting place of Sir George and his wife. His tomb depicts him lying with his head tilted to the right, as if to keep a wary eye on all who come to see him in his marble repose. He looks fair contented with his life's work.
Kellie Castle, East Neuk of Fife
If you take my advice and go to the Pittenweem Arts Festival, it is then but a short drive (5km) to another East Neuk gem: Kellie Castle. Kellie, now a National Trust for Scotland property, has a quite amazing history. It is first mentioned in 1150 in a charter issued by King David 1. A century later and it was in the hands of an English family who had supported Malcolm Canmore (later King Malcolm III) to overthrow Macbeth. But the family – the Siwards – then supported England in the wars of independence and the lands were forfeited after the victory of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.
The estate passed into the hands of a Siward relative – one Walter Oliphant – until 1613 when it was bought by Sir Thomas Erskine, who had once saved the life of King James VI, who repaid the debt by staying at Kellie in 1617 during his only visit back to Scotland after the union of the crowns. What a rich history – the only things missing are visits from William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I, although it is rumoured that the 5th Earl of Kellie hid in a burnt-out tree stump in the castle grounds for an entire summer after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Scottish history is certainly all here.
Fast forward to the 19th century and Kellie is rented by James Lorimer, regius professor of public law at Edinburgh University, and father of renowned Scottish architect Robert Lorimer. And it is Lorimer's impressive stamp you see on Kellie today – from the magnificent plaster ceilings to the painted panelling and the furniture. He also built a doocot and a garden house. There is a long-concealed mural by Phoebe Anna Traquair. The Lorimers had intended Kellie to be a holiday retreat – it soon became their main residence. The walled garden, with fragrant old roses, fruit trees and stunning herbaceous borders, was set out in the 17th century. And as you approach the castle through an avenue of trees, turn back, and there, spread out before you, is the sparkling Firth of Forth with the Bass Rock firmly anchored within. Views don't come any better than that.
It is, of course, an impertinence for someone who quit Scotland in despair to commend any of it to visitors. All I can claim is the slender mitigation of a recently resumed status as a council tax payer. At the turn of the year we bought a small flat in Stirling, as a sort of Brexit insurance against rumours that those who have been so indifferent to expat rights since 2016 now have plans to plunder them to help pay for the stupidity of leaving the EU. It is Stirling I want to recommend.
To be quite honest, we picked the location for the ease of getting somewhere else. Stirling is a perfect hub for the cities we visit (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth), it's fairly close to our family, and it's great for days out in the Trossachs, the Ochils, Breadalbane and beyond. But we have swiftly come to love the city itself. Someone recently called it 'Edinburgh in miniature', and you can see the point: great castle, sinuous Old Town, heaps of history, vibrant student life, wealthy enclaves set cheek-by-jowl with tracts of deprivation. Yet it commands affection on its own terms too. It's a compact place, bustling with great pubs, cafes and restaurants, set against frequent glimpses of the scenery that surrounds it. Despite the obligatory mall of chainstore usual suspects, and a renovated arcade that verges on the twee, it has somehow preserved the kind of one-off businesses so many Scottish towns have lost.
Stirling makes a great base for exploring much of the finest landscape Scotland has to offer, but it also richly rewards a few days' attention to its own riches. And if anyone's looking for a holiday let…
The glens and hilltops of the Ochils have something for everyone to enjoy. Atop Ben Cleuch, the highest in the group, the views from Stirling down the meandering River Forth are a must see. Alva Glen takes you from the industrial Clackmannanshire village to the wilds of the hills in short order. Or you can head for Glen Sherrup up Glen Devon and climb up to the curiously titled Tarmangie and then onto White Whisp. Right on the Central Belt doorstep, these are our easy reach Highlands.
I've been visiting Killin for as long as I can remember, and I love sharing it with people and watching them fall in love with it too. Translating as Cill Fhinn ('the White Church') in Gaelic, Killin has a timeless spirit and hosts some of the most spectacular scenery I've ever seen. If you get the chance to go, take a moment to stand on Dochart Bridge and listen to the rapids race down the falls, while breathing in the dramatic views of the surrounding mountains. For maximum effect, enjoy this with a cone from the local ice cream shop. You've earned it.
If you're looking for somewhere breathtaking and steeped in history, look no further than this small village in the heart of Perthshire. Once a dominant base for the MacNab clan, their ancient burial ground is visible from the bridge. The site is also home to the healing stones of St Fillan who is thought to have taught and preached here around the end of the 7th century. Between the water sports, salmon fishing and beautiful walking routes, a day trip to Killin should be mandatory this summer.
Well inland, but so prominent it is a navigational mark at sea, lies the much loved and celebrated Aberdeenshire hill of Bennachie. It has a range of tops, rising to above 500 metres, and covers many thousands of acres. The view of well-farmed land from it is impressive and truly inspirational, looking westward as rolling hills merge into distant mountains. This is the home of the Picts, of whom little is known, but whose carved stones suggest a lively sense of humour which endures in a dry north-east wit. The isolated Mither Tap peak gave the whole hill its name, Bennachie in Gaelic meaning 'hill of the breast'. It was necessity rather than humour that made the Picts build a fort on the apex, surrounding it with a stone wall areola.
The whole place is a living archive: the soldier who died there of wounds sustained at Bludie Harlaw, giving his name to a well; Jacobite fugitive Lord Pitsligo hiding in his hilltop cave after drinking all night at nearby Logie; to the colony of the 'squatters' who sought to keep the formerly common land from avaricious lairds.
Mons Graupius, a great battle between the Romans and the Pictish tribes, may well have happened here. An aerial survey identified the remains of a huge Roman camp close by. The hill marks not only a physical boundary between Highland and lowland, but a cultural one too. Immediately to the south lies Inverurie, a thriving market town with a strong industrial heritage, which feels distinctly Midland, whereas Huntly a dozen miles north-west is undoubtedly Highland by inclination.
Bennachie is venerated by many and tramped by quite a few, especially of a sunny weekend. It is big enough to get lost in, or to walk the byways of for a day and rarely meet another soul. The tops are not particularly demanding to access but any who ascend them will likely leave with some sense of fulfilment. It's that kind of place.
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