Dumfries House, Ayrshire
In the world of tourist attractions, effusive phrases roll easily off the keyboard. 'Hidden gem', 'something for all the family', 'not to be missed', 'beautiful setting', 'national treasure', etc. However, I am going to claim all of these for Dumfries House, the beautiful stately home and grounds two miles from Cumnock in East Ayrshire, famously rescued by Prince Charles at the last minute from dereliction and dispersion of its contents to the auction room.
Tour the house, teeming with valuable antique furniture and rugs, paintings, and gorgeous chandeliers. Ogle at the cabinet (early Chippendale, commissioned specially for the house – the place is swarming with Chippendales) valued at an eye-watering £20 million. I say 'ogle' not because it looks anything spectacular to the untrained eye but because, I mean, £20 million for a bookcase! If you are in the area around Christmas, you can do the tour by candlelight which makes the whole place even more lovely and you will undoubtedly disturb a Santa snoozing at his desk as part of the fun, and then enjoy a mince pie in the library.
The grounds – formal gardens and informal landscape – are immaculately kept, the trees ancient, the adventure playground original and fun, the maze designed by Prince Charles and complete with unusual features inspired by the elaborate maze in Sandringham, the calendar of events tempting. You can fuel up in the cafe or enjoy a more sophisticated meal in the Woodlands restaurant. You can even stay the night and be well looked after in the five-star guest rooms in Dumfries House Lodge.
Dumfries House is a wonderful amenity for the local community. The grounds are open to the public free of charge throughout the year and the trust which runs it is now a significant employer in the area. But there is something more and it is hard to put your finger on it. It is something to do with attention to detail: it is everywhere. What's more, the staff are utterly professional and confident but with a warm friendly vibe. The whole place exudes style but wears it with an easy air. It is such an unusual combination that I can only think it is something to do with the close personal interest the Duke [of Rothesay], as the staff refer to HRH, takes in the place – in fact he is often around. It has a royal touch, if you like. Go and see for yourself.
Pittenweem Arts Festival
The Pittenweem Arts Festival is a typically Scottish, earthy arts festival where artists and art lovers congregate in this tiny, beautiful fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife. Every space is occupied, from formal galleries to church halls, to little sheds in back gardens. There is a real buzz as people shuffle to the multitude of venues. And when you need to recuperate there is always the chilli hot chocolate at the Cocoa Tree Cafe.
Pittenweem Arts Festival
If you haven't been to Pittenweem in early August, you have missed a rare treat. Pittenweem is a coastal village in the glorious East Neuk of Fife (yes, this is an advert, I live up the road). It is the most active fishing village in the East Neuk, but it is also home to a thriving community of artists – some 30 are permanent residents. Then, between 3-11 August, it will be swelled, as it has been for the past 36 years, by more than 100 artists (painters, ceramicists, jewellers, craft workers) from around Scotland, the UK, the world, who will be displaying their work in houses, garages, barns, sheds – anywhere with a space.
The festival was started back in 1982 and has thrived. There are something like 25,000 visitors (usual population is fewer than 2,000) over the nine days and the place absolutely buzzes. Parking is a nightmare, but there is a festival bus – and Shank's pony – to get around. This year, for the first time, there is also a spin-off exhibition in the lighthouse on the puffin-rich Isle of May (for that you do
need to take the boat). And you don't need to buy a thing, just admire the rich talent and the beautiful surroundings in which it is displayed.
Stand outside the bear gates of Traquair House and look down the long grassy avenue leading to the house's white cliff-edge façade. Those gates, constructed in 1738, have not been opened since Bonnie Prince Charlie rode through them in 1745 – the 5th Earl vowed to keep them shut until a Stuart was restored to the British throne. It never happened. The family, with its Jacobite sympathies and Catholic faith has known triumph and exile, the building, long periods of neglect.
Traquair House is one of my favourite Scottish historical haunts. I take all my friends there. Situated just outside the town of Innerleithen by the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders, it has the reputation of being the oldest continuously inhabited house in the UK. It has been associated with Scottish monarchs since Alexander 1 signed a Royal Charter in 1107, but most closely with Mary Queen of Scots, who visited in 1566 with the infant James VI and I. The 4th Earl of Traquair was captain of her bodyguard. Her bed and the prince's wooden cradle remain on display among other relics of her reign.
In the 20th century, the Maxwell-Stuarts revived its fortunes with imagination and flair. They restored an old domestic brewery and continue to produce fine ales. The family friendly grounds are spacious and well maintained. There's a garden café, craft shops, a maze and, among the historic interest inside, a priest's secret escape route during the years of Catholic persecution. Throughout the spring and summer months it has a lively programme of events: a Medieval Fayre in May, Shakespeare plays, conferences and concerts. You may even catch a peacock roaming.
It has none of the opulent grandeur of some English stately homes. Midway between a castle and a fortified house, it's more rough hewn and homely. Go visit. It won't disappoint.
Islay Book Festival
The Islay Book Festival is from 29 August to 1 September. Featuring Ian Rankin and a host of others. With Islay seeing the opening of its ninth distillery this year and awaiting two more, you can drink and read, and read and drink. And in August (2-24), the inimitable, spectacular, always different, Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place. Ask yourself: 'When did you last go?'
North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival
Think of an island shore, with the waves breaking on the rocks, the sound of seabirds and the occasional sight of a seal, and sheep on the beach patiently picking at glistening heaps of seaweed. And round about you on the close-cropped turf above are a group of companions, fetching stones from the beach and building up the 13-mile-long stone dyke that circles the island, confining the ancient breed of seaweed-eating sheep to the shore.
This is North Ronaldsay, Orkney's remotest island, with a breed of sheep whose origin goes back to the Iron Age. Over the years the number of people has declined, with winter storms flattening sections of the dyke built in the 1830s. But in recent years an island regeneration is under way, part of which is the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival, bringing visitors and local families together to work on dyke rebuilding.
There's two three-hour building sessions a day, with a two-hour lunch break, and then much else to do in the evenings and weekend. There are tours of the lighthouse – the tallest land-based lighthouse in the UK – and tours of the island wool mill. There are also felting workshops and talks about the migrating birds recorded at the bird observatory, and there are island dances with live music. And what a feeling it is to stand there on the shore and look out to the seas where many ships have sailed past over the centuries – Norse longships, or East Indiamen in full sail – and then to look along the line of the sheep dyke and see a whole new section in place, securing a future for an island community and an ancient breed of sheep.
This year's festival – the fourth one – runs from 29 July to 9 August, and there's information about in at www.nrsheepfestival.com
for museums and exhibitions
for sport and Highland Games
for food, drink and music