A weekend in Aviemore

I like surprises but I am RUBBISH at keeping quite about it and this one had me fit to burst! As you may know the Dude and I have had a big birthday this year and he surprised me with a trip to Glen Coe back in February (he earned a lot of brownie points for this). And so a couple of weeks ago it was my turn to reciprocate the favour. I chose an area that, so far, had remained unexplored for us, somewhere with a variety of things to do and local pubs so that we could both have a drink to celebrate. I had chosen a weekend in Aviemore.

With just less than a two hour drive ahead of us all I had indicated to the Dude was that we were headed north. He would have easily have guessed this as soon as we got on the A9 anyway. We left on the Friday morning and I had planned one thing for each day – one on the drive up to Aviemore on Friday morning. One on Saturday morning and then one Sunday before heading back home.

Friday

Leaving Perth with a car full of kit – walking boots, hats, waterproofs, maps, walking books, binoculars, cameras, swimming costumes, smart evening clothes and everything else in between. Of course it didn’t take long before the guessing started and it didn’t take long before getting the correct location. But he was unaware that we would be making a stop off at Dalwhinnie distillery, just a few miles off of the A9.

Dalwhinnie sits at 1164 feet above sea level and due to this has an average yearly temperature of just 6°. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

The tours lasts for around 45 minutes and concludes with a tasting of two different whiskies produced on site, one of which is paired with highland chocolate.

Lovely location, informative tour with a small group and good value.

Onward and upward we continued (now with me driving as I hadn’t drank any whisky) up to Aviemore. To be precise we just drove straight through and our second stop was Loch Garten and the RSPB reserve to see the nesting ospreys.

We are members of the RSPB but you can still pay as a one off visitor, a small fee to enter the reserve. With a short walk from the entrance the hide was a hive of activity with people watching the ospreys on the television live camera feeds or through binoculars and scopes. There are plenty of windows, at all heights, many with binos or scopes set up for you to use (great if your don’t have you own with you).

There were a few volunteers available to answer questions about the ospreys, small birds on the feeder and other wildlife that call the reserve home. This is a great idea and its nice to have that interaction and knowledge available.

I’m probably not doing the hide much justice really. It is a large space, with plenty of information to read and boards on the wall with various sightings for the day. A corner with benches where you can sit comfortably to watch the live feeds or listen to the volunteers when there is a talk going on. You are also able to watch the smaller birds, red squirrels and woodpeckers on the feeders too. There is also a small shop where you can buy bird books, greeting cards etc.

We spent about an hour watching and hoping we would see an osprey in flight and sadly this didn’t happen but with the live feed you don’t miss a thing. This year E.J & Odin have a clutch of three eggs & hopefully they will hatch safely.

Then it was time to check in to the Highlands Hotel – MacDonald Aviemore Resort. Its nice and central to everything the town has to offer – cafes, supermarkets, pubs, restaurants, buses and the train station too. Lovely hotel but I plan to talk about it in more detail in a future blog.

Saturday

Up nice and early, but not too early, for another day of surprises. Although, the Dude now admits he suspected the next surprise was on the cards as it has been on my list of things to do since we moved here!

Scotland’s only funicular railway runs up CairnGorm mountain and carries visitors up to (hopefully) enjoy the views from 3500ft above sea level. With trains running up and down the line approximately every twenty minutes and gets you to the top in about eight minutes its easy to see why this is a popular attraction. Making the mountain and its views accessible to everyone.

At the top there is a visitor centre which includes the history of the mountain, a gift shop, coffee shop and restaurant and of course the viewing platform. It also has the highest post box in the British Isles too, how cool is that?

On this occasion, despite it being bitterly cold at the top, with a dusting of snow, our view was clear, we could see for miles. We had taken our own binoculars up with us too. After about ten minutes we were freezing even though we were wrapped up so we went in for coffee and managed to get a window seat to enjoy the view some more. After thawing out we ventured back out to take it all in once more and take a few more photos.

   

We were sad to see people racing up from the funicular, take a few selfies and then be back on the next train down. Not taking time to enjoy the view, just ticking the box to say they had been there.

We must have spent nearly an hour and a half up there and I imagine if you did it every day it would be something you would never tire of. Truly beautiful and we were very thankful for the clear views.

During this weekend we wanted to get a few smaller walks done and we decided a circular route around Loch Morlich. There are plenty of way-marked  paths that vary in length and the one we followed was about 6k and started from the main carpark and went around the loch. A variety of different paths and a short distance on the road too. It wasn’t a particularly long or challenging walk but it was nice to stretch our legs and enjoy the views. We even noticed at one point that CairnGorm mountain summit had been covered in cloud making us feel even luckier to have been up earlier.

  

Great place for cycling, walking, running, and also kayaking etc on the water. Just a couple of days after our visit here there was snow on the sandy beach here too! Insane.

After all this excitement it was back to the hotel to dump the car and go for beers. We found the Winking Owl which is owned by Cairngorm Brewery, a great opportunity to try out some local beer. Of course this meant staying for more than one because we had to try and decide which ones we like the best.

Sunday 

So far my surprises had gone down well and had been easy to keep but this was proving a little bit tricky. “We are going out for lunch and its quite special, but not super dressy” was my hint.

I had booked us in for lunch aboard the Strathspey railway, first class, obviously!

Departing from platform three of the main railway station in Aviemore the Strathspey steam engine is a huge attraction. Suitable for all ages and there are various types of day and evening trips, and dining experiences. All very reasonably priced.

We handed over our tickets at the first class dining carriage and were escorted to our compartment. Just like a scene from Harry Potter but with a table all laid out. Before we had enough left the station our (pre-ordered) drinks were brought to us and also our starter. All food has to be pre-ordered when booking and this allows for a normal service as if in a restaurant on the day.

Once out of Aviemore the scenery opens up to allow views of mountains and fields. There are various places where the engine stops along the line so we could enjoy the views and allowing staff to serve food or clear plates away etc.

This service runs through Boat of Garten up to Broomhill and then returns and takes just under two and a half hours. It really is quite special and very reasonably priced at £102 for the two of us (drinks are paid extra). The cost for a standard return ticket to Boat of Garten is less than £12 for an adult ticket. Well worth doing if you are in the area.

After this highlight it was time to make our way back down the A9 and home. There is still SO much more to explore and a weekend in Aviemore is nowhere near long enough to do it all. A good reason to come back.

Do you have any suggestions for what we can do next time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afternoon Tea on the Union Canal

This year both the Dude and I are having “big birthdays,” and to help celebrate this we have made a Forty things at 40 list. Rather than have a party and celebrate on just one night, we decided to make a whole twelve months of it! Talk about dragging it out, I know, but if something is worth doing, its worth doing right. One thing on the list was to go on the Falkirk Wheel and so by a tenuous link we ended up having afternoon tea on the Union Canal.

I recently discovered Re-Union Canal Boats whilst over at the Falkirk Wheel and decided to look them up when I got home. Realising that this project was much more than just taking people on a jolly along the canals (Union, and Forth & Clyde). As a social enterprise the local communities are involved with clean up projects, maintenance and promotion of the canals with community groups and volunteers.

As well as being able to hire the boats out for the day, Re-Union also do Afternoon Tea on selected dates for a very reasonable price of £22.50. Two hours on board and you travel along the canal at a rather leisurely pace.

Afternoon Tea

We arrived at Edinburgh Quay where the Lochrin Belle was moored – the start (or end) of the Union Canal, just a few miles out of the city centre. Once on board we were seated at tables of six. Initially I felt slightly disappointed at being seated with strangers instead of the romantic table for two I had planned, but it turns out that we actually had a great time chatting to our fellow diners.

Once we had set off our tea and coffee were served along with a selection of canapes, rolls, meringues, scones and sponges. With jam, butter and cream options for the scones too. Enough for the whole table to enjoy.

There was no shortage of fresh coffee in our china cups and once the ice was broken with offering the canapes round the table everyone seemed to be having a great time. Admiring the view from our seats or choosing to make our way to the front of the boat for fresh air and a full view ahead.

Once at the end of our outward journey, we were carefully about turned, and made our way from whence we came.

Canal Paths

One thing you do notice whilst being over taken by walkers on the footpath is that the old tow paths are actually really well used by dog walkers, runners, cyclists, families, couples and everyone else in between. A really pleasant place to be.

Sadly, it still seems to be a place to leave rubbish and the volunteers at Re-Union canal boats do what they can to keep the paths, banks and the waterway as clear as they can.  

Overall 

We thoroughly enjoyed our two hours out on the canal and would highly recommend it. Good value for money and it’s something nice to do with friends or family.

I think, for me, it was slightly overcrowded. There are twenty four places available and four large tables staggered down the boat. Once everyone is seated it is quite difficult to get around (either to the bathroom or to go outside) without disturbing anyone else. If there was just one less table this issue would be solved. It would also mean that on a day not so nice as the one we had people could still stand at the windows and look out. It would also mean that staff could get around when serving hot drinks etc too.

All in all we had a great time having afternoon tea on the Union Canal and would recommend it to anyone who has a special occasion to celebrate or who fancies doing something a bit different without breaking the bank.

And after all that we STILL haven’t made it to the Falkirk Wheel to experience it properly! Do you have any suggestions on what else we could squeeze in to our year of birthday celebrations? Let us know over on Facebook or comment below.

 

 

East Neuk Glass

Back in the days of high school, one of my favourite lessons was art and design. Being given a brief or free reign to draw, paint or make something from scratch allowed our young minds to express ourselves and show our personalities. Oh and an excuse to get dirty! Sadly, as we get older, many of us lose touch with this freedom, myself included but our recent weekend course with Keny Drew at East Neuk Glass was a perfect way to rediscover it.

Introduction

Upon our arrival at the studio we were given a nice warm welcome – a log burner roaring away and a cuppa. Time for quick informal introductions between our fellow students and then straight down to business.

As complete novices, Keny showed us the tools of the trade before letting us loose on cutting our first piece of glass. The idea being we get used to working with the tools and mastering some simple techniques – cutting straight lines! Scoring the glass and then tapping from underneath to open up the crack . Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t! Then we progressed onto wavey lines. I think the trick here is to be more fluid in your movement whilst still applying pressure (but easier said than done).

Fused Glass

Before we knew it we were designing glass coasters, using the skills we had learnt in the passed 30 minutes. Using a host of coloured glass and small beads it was a bit like being in a sweet shop, all the jars laid out in front of you and trying to decide what you want.

With colour schemes and patterns worked out we set about cutting our simple designs. I was brave enough to try and use curves in mine too.

Once finished we each laid our glass creations gently in the kiln and would have to wait until the following day to find out how they would turn out.

Glass Window

It seemed like no time at all and already we were moving on to our second piece of work. Feeling slightly more confident about cutting shapes and then Keny presents us all with a template for our next project. A glass window using different shaped pieces of glass – including a circle!

After carefully rooting around in the boxes for inspiration, I decided rather than use lots of colour in my window I would use textures and subtle patterns (unusual for me as I love a splash of colour). There were pieces of glass in the boxes that had had previous life – doors from pubs, windows from old buildings and even off cuts of some Keny’s own work with photographs on glass. All with some kind of local history/story attached. I love this.

Armed with our chosen pieces of glass jewels we each set about cutting. You could hear a pin drop with the concentration at each work station and then the occasional mutterings of someone who had (or thought they had) made a cock up! Most of the time Keny was able to reassure us that actually it would be okay. Unless of course our pieces of glass were broken – oops!

Lunchtime came at just the right time.

A small feast of local produce, presented to us in glass bowls (obviously) and we ate and drank from local pottery – a REALLY nice touch and a great way to showcase what else East Neuk and Fife as a whole has to offer.

Back to it after eating and chewing the cud and the silence of concentration consumed us once more. It’s not that we were at all anti-social but still new to the trade we wanted to make something that we could show off and admire at home. And also improve, I guess.

Then the bit we had all been dreading – the circle. Keny made it look so simple as he demonstrated a couple of ways to do it freehand and off we went to give it a go. Lets just say, my attempt isn’t quite a circle but it’s not an oval, diamond or square either! Reassured that once in place it would be fine that was good enough for me.

With the introduction of a whole host of new tools and ways to shape the glass the afternoon flew by and it was time to go home.

Day Two

The same warm greeting on day two and with the added excitement of seeing our fused glass coasters. They all turned out well and from the twenty that had been made between us only one had developed a large bubble and wouldn’t be making the cut.

So, back to business and the introduction of lead strips into the process. Measuring and cutting the lead. Pinning in the pieces of glass against the frame and making it all fit properly, with audible sighs of relief as things went as you wanted them to. We had also been shown how to use the small grinding machine should it become necessary for “helping” the glass fit. Working our way methodically through each piece.

Without even realising how quickly time was flying it was lunchtime already! Not wanting to miss out on some beautiful Scottish sunshine the table and chairs had been set up out in the courtyard and we ate outdoors.

Once back to it we could get down to securing it all together. With all of our lead and glass held together by a wooden frame we could now start soldering. It appeared that I was rather heavy handed with the solder  but at least I know it won’t be falling apart. The down side to this is that mine maybe looks a little more rustic! After all the joints were soldered on both sides, we gave the lead frame one of many brushes. The brushing helps darken the solder points and lead.

Then came the linseed putty. I remember this stuff from when I used to be in the shed with my grandad making (a mess) things with him. Ensuring all the gaps between the glass and the lead were filled with putty (on both sides), we proceeded to take off the remainder and then another brush. Oh and then another brush with a softer brush.

And that was us DONE!  

Overall

Both the Dude and I thoroughly enjoyed our weekend course. As I mentioned at the start of this post, I am a creative type and these days that is seen through my photography but it was brilliant to get my hands dirty and remember days of being up to no good with my grandad in his shed. As for the Dude, he is very practical and years of being in the Scouts have taught him many skills. He will admit he isn’t the most artistic of people but he enjoyed the weekend more than he thought he would. Although this was a mostly female course it is definitely something men can get involved with too. I think the fact that you come away with two different products that you have designed and made from scratch is a big bonus.

The East Neuk Glass studio is the perfect place for small groups of people to come together and learn. Because the numbers are kept low it enables Keny to supervise, guide and demonstrate to individuals and the whole group when necessary. Keny’s passion for the art, area and teaching is incredible and although we met for the first time on Saturday morning by the time we left on Sunday I felt like we had known each other much longer.

So, what I’m saying is whether you are local, live elsewhere in Scotland or are on holiday (maybe a golf widow?) this is a perfect place to come and have a go, learn something new and meet new people too. There are weekend and night courses available. You will love it.

**For those of you new to my blog – the Dude is my better half and partner in adventures.

Scottish Golf Show

I don’t need an excuse to visit Glasgow but it’s always nice to have a different reason to go and last week it was for the Scottish Golf Show. Held at the SEC over three days we decided it would be good to visit on the first day and see what all the fuss is about.

We thought about driving into Glasgow and using the Park and Ride but felt on this occasion it would be too much of a faff. What about if we had one too many impulse buys and had to carry them back into town to get the bus back? No. It was definitely a ScotRail kinda trip. Nice and easy from Perth into Glasgow Queen Street and is just over and hour and then a few minutes across to Exhibition (the station for the SEC, Hydro and Clyde Auditorium). It also means we both get to relax and watch the world go by during the journey too. And before you know it you’re in sunny Glasgow.

So what is it all about? Golf obviously! But as I found out there is a lot more to it than first meets the eye.

Exhibitions

As with all the usual shows there are businesses there to inspire you to travel, play and of course buy their products and this was no different. Everything from shoes, clubs, bags and trolleys to specific golf breaks (in Scotland and abroad) and being able to sign up as members to clubs too.

That to me was all standard stuff and it’s easy to at this point to say that was all there was to see. But it wasn’t.

Have a go

As we wandered round we discovered there were plenty of “have a go” type activities too.

Golf darts (who knew this was even a thing?): A huge inflatable dart board at which people used a golf club to strike a tennis ball to try and get a high score. Random but it looked like good fun.

Hole in One: exactly what it says, three chances to get a hole in one.

Bunker challenge: have a go at getting the golf ball out of the sand bunker and up onto the green. And yes, there was sand flying everywhere!

Fifteen minute golf lesson: you had to sign up for these and spaces were filling up fast but a great chance to see if you can improve your game with tips from a pro.

There were also a couple of places to practice your putting too.


Try before you buy

The driving range where different brands of drivers were available to try. This makes sense, as we would take a new car out for a spin before buying it, same thing. This sort of thing probably wouldn’t be available in a shop to try before you buy so the exhibition is a great idea if you are looking for new kit.

Professional fittings

I am guilty of buying online without even knowing if things will fit me properly and be fit for purpose. So coming to a place like this would be really useful if there was that one thing you knew you had to get right.

You could have your new golf shoes properly fitted and even your golf balls can be specific to your game.

Yes you read that last bit correctly. Depending on how you play and your preferences will all depend on which ball would suit your game. We joined the queue for this one to speak to one of the Titleist professionals. As luck would have it we spoke to a lovely young lady and from the information the Dude gave her about his style of game she was able to suggest which type of Titleist balls he should use. He was then given a pair of each (yes I know there are SO many jokes in this, but lets not go there!).

Show Theatre

Throughout the weekend there was a whole host of golf pros, enthusiasts and brands giving talks, and Q&A’s with the public. What a great idea. It’s always nice to hear from people who have the same interests as you. The same ups and downs that the game provides (same applies to photography and any other interest).

Gadgets and gizmos

As with any another hobby or sport there is always a new must have toy or gadget that helps you play better etc. It seems golf is no different to photography.

I learnt that there are GPS watches JUST for golf courses, although as a non-golfer I am not going to pretend I understand why. I do have to say though, the Dude did buy one, so when he gets out on the course with it I shall report back!

As well as the GPS we also found a product that analyses the player’s swing. Giving a report at the end of each course and hopefully this is supposed to make a better golfer.

Of course, there is no miracle cure for a bad day on the course and it takes time, practice and a lot of searching for balls in the rough! So I’m told.

Ladies what play golf

I know that golf is mainly seen as a mans sport but I didn’t realise there would be so few ladies at the show. And even though entry to the show was free for women, once in the show I didn’t see much in the way of female clothing or other merchandise. This really should change.

I had lessons some fifteen years ago and I’ve never actually done anything with it. Never got any further than to driving range. Now we live in Scotland, where courses are ten-a-penny maybe I should re-fresh my skills and learn to play properly?

Do you know of any golf clubs that are welcoming (scared) female (potential) golf players near Perth?

All in all I did enjoy my day out at the Scottish Golf Show and I look forward to returning next year to see if there a more ladies there. Maybe I will be a golfer myself by then?

Many thanks to ScotRail for providing us with tickets in return for this blog and it’s images.

Views on the lack of female golfers and my golf course GPS ignorance are all my own.

Cameron Club Lodges

Before moving to Scotland we used to come up on holiday and drive straight up the A82 and passed Loch Lomond and I can’t tell you what a plonker I feel for doing this having recently stayed at Cameron Club Lodges.  We discovered there is plenty to do on site and the local area for couples and families alike.

Arrival

Check in was mid afternoon and we were greeted at the Club Lodge reception (situated on the right hand side of the road as you come into Cameron House resort) and given all the usual information about restaurant opening times, spa facilities, golf course and the concierge service between the hotel and The Carrick site. Once furnished with all the information we needed and our lodge keys, we were escorted to our accommodation just a couple of miles up the road by one of the concierge gentlemen. He walked us through the property telling how to use the heating and just showing us where things were. Something that apparently is done for all first timers in the lodges.

Of course, the first thing we wanted to do was have a look around and go to the spa.

Cameron Club Lodges at The Carrick

Our accommodation was one of the last on the lane and over looked a pond to the back. I guess this is one of the reasons for having an “upside down” layout, you can make the most of the view and this was definitely a plus point for us.

Downstairs two bedrooms, one double and the other two single beds, both en-suite. Simply decorated, with plenty of storage and space. French doors opening out on to a patio area. The bathrooms are spacious with a huge bath and double shower.

Upstairs is where the magic is at! Open plan kitchen with living and dining space and double doors opening out on to a balcony, over looking the pond. Great for watching the ducks and swans. The large comfy leather sofas also provide a good view out if it’s a bit chilly to have the doors open.

The kitchen provides everything you will need for your self catering break and it made a nice change to have knives that are sharp and fit for purpose too.

As the lodge can sleep up to six people (fold up bed hidden away in the lounge), the dining table is also large enough to seat everyone. There is also another bathroom upstairs, including a shower.

 


 

The Spa

The Spa is available to all guests (as well as the general public), and Cameron Club lodge guests have complimentary access (for guests staying at a Cameron House Lodge this will be an extra charge). All guests have access to the Leisure Club within the hotel.

This facility is available to use for all those who stay on either of the two sites (Cameron House or The Carrick) and also can be booked if you are staying in the local area too.

Full sized swimming pool, sauna, steam rooms, hydro-pool, infa-red and a rooftop infinity pool with great views. As you would expect there are also treatments available: massages, facials, waxing, manicure etc.

We used the spa each day we were there and it’s a great way to unwind and relax after a days walking, playing golf or shopping down at nearby Lomond Shores or Glasgow. Watch the golfers finish their rounds or the swans resting on the pond, all from the warmth of the sauna – it’s glass front allows you to watch the world go by.

Golf Course

The Carrick golf course is rather unique in it’s location, in that it is split over the fault lines of the Scottish lowlands and highlands. There are nine holes in the lowlands and nine, you guessed it, in the highlands. In it’s design it is flatter and open on the first nine holes and the second half is more elevated, giving great views over the loch.

I would normally wander around the course with the Dude when he plays and take photos but I wanted to explore more of the site myself. In typical Scottish style the weather was fine when he set out and he got caught up in a couple of big showers.

He enjoyed the round nonetheless although it was rather sodden in places and when playing a shot, as it landed it just stopped dead rather than roll further. This will be better in the warmer months and he is looking forward to playing again.

Celtic Warrior

The marina at Cameron House is home to Celtic Warrior, a luxury motor cruiser. Available for cruises around the loch and exclusive private hire too.

What better way to start our week – Monday morning on Loch Lomond, the sun was shining and the loch was like a mirror. Perfect.

Our tour was just over an hour long and we sailed up Loch Lomond admiring the scenery and it was great to get a different perspective of Cameron House too. The crew of the Celtic Warrior were very knowledgeable about the area and it’s history.

This is well worth doing as a treat or for a special occasion.




The Boathouse 

There are several styles of dining at the Cameron House resort: steaks, burgers and pizza and Michelin star restaurant. Something for everyone. So whether you are a fussy eater, just want something simple or exquisite, you will be catered for in one of the restaurants here.

We ate in the Boathouse and as its name suggests it is down at the marina. The decor reflects the location with a quirky nautical style and a mixture of sofas and dining tables. We liked the atmosphere in here, quite relaxed and well lit.

We enjoyed a three course meal which included scallops, goats cheese & beetroot starters. Salmon and coconut rice, goulash for mains and cheesecake and sorbet for desserts. All really lovely and beautifully presented.

I imagine in the warmer evenings it would be great to sit outside with a G&T and look out at the marina.

The Enchanted Wood

On my little wander around the Carrick site I discovered the Enchanted Wood. Tucked away between two holes of the golf course I could see signs of its inhabitants, fairies.

To the untrained eye I think it would look just like a few trees with bird feeders on and a path meandering through. But the child within me spied other signs of life: the bug hotel and fairy doors dotted all over. Although I didn’t get to see any real live fairies, I know they were there. Maybe they only make themselves known to children?

This is a great corner of the resort to let imaginations run wild and yet learn about the little creatures that may be resident in the bug hotel or bird boxes nearby. It looks like it is a popular place to stay too as it is currently being expanded.

 

Family facilities

As well as gym facilities for the adults there are plenty of activities to keep the little ones occupied too: splash pool and flume, even freestyle dance classes for 5-12 year olds. There is an on-site creche and also child minding too.

Easter 2017

I have it on good authority that the Easter Bunny will be joining up with the House Keeping team for Easter egg hunts too. When you check in the children will be given their first clue to help find their eggs in your lodge. Quote the promo code: EASTER17 when booking.

All in all we had a great visit and discovered that actually this resort caters for everyone not just adults and golfers. Everyone is really friendly, helpful and the service is amazing. The whole area has so much to offer and driving straight up the A82 without stopping is no longer an option.

The only downside for me and this is of no fault or reflection on Cameron Lodges and the spa but using mobile phones in the spa area I wouldn’t say is very relaxing. Most people go to switch off from the outside world not take it in with them.



 

We would like to thank Cameron Lodges for inviting us to stay, for use of the facilities and activities in return for this blog post and it’s images.

All the images in this post are mine along with my views on fairies and people who hate to be parted from their mobile phones!

 

Morenish Mews, Killin

When we go away we tend to go out of season – late autumn, winter, early spring and most definitely never in school holidays. I can almost hear so many of you recoiling in the thought of the cold and wet days! But don’t be so quick to dismiss it, you’re missing out on SO much (as you will see). When we were invited to stay at Morenish Mews, Killin, we jumped at the chance.

Kenmore Lodge 

Although the lodges are only just over an hour from where we live, once we arrived we couldn’t have felt further away. With a slightly elevated view of loch Tay we could see quite a way in each direction.

Having been given a guided tour by our hosts, Catherine and Ken, we were free to make ourselves at home. We made efficient use of the small space to store our food, clothes, spotting scope and camera kit. Morenish Mews markets themselves as self catering accommodation for couples and with the simple layout of the living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom we found we really didn’t need anything else. For those who visit and still want to be connected to the outside world, wifi is available but we found we could get a 4G signal anyway. There is a TV and a docking station if you wish to listen to your own music too.

The kitchen was well equipped with everything you need to make your own meals during your stay. In the bedroom there is a double bed and plenty of shelves and hangers to store clothes. The bathroom has a good shower – you can tell alot about a place just by the shower! And the living room is probably the largest space and has a place for a table and chairs too. A great spot to watch the birds and ducks feeding. Oh and the red deer stags that came to visit the garden just before sunset each night! Incredible.

  

Killin 

The lodges are just a few short miles out of the sweet village of Killin. From one of the leaflets in our accommodation we discovered there are several short walks around the area that can help you explore. We chose the Heritage Trail, a short and easy three mile route, taking in some of Killin’s sights, including: Falls of Dochart, Fingal’s stone and Finlarig Castle. As with most of the walks we do we ended up making some of it up (when we have an OS map with us) and adding more miles. On this occasion we walked to the head of loch Tay. It was so still and beautiful, we forgot it was March!

You can’t miss the falls of Dochart. A narrow bridge crosses the river and there is no footpath so you have to watch out for cars. Unfortunately it seems the same observant message hasn’t reached some drivers. We watched someone driving over the bridge (which has a bit of a dog leg in it), clearly too busy trying to see the water below and narrowly missed crashing into the wall. I think winter or early spring is the best time to see the falls in their full glory. The sound of the water was so powerful and with the mountains out the back it really is quite a setting.

There are a good selection of cafes and places to eat too, which sometimes out of season we struggle to find, but this is part of the charm and we go prepared.


 

Glen Lyon

As with anywhere in Scotland there are plenty of places for walking and this pretty glen, just a few miles from Morenish Mews, is worth a visit. Once described by Sir Walter Scott as “the longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland.” We drove up and down most of it’s thirty two mile length and didn’t see another soul. Perfect.

There is something for everyone here: the river Lyon runs through the glen, there are munros and corbetts to climb, plenty of wildlife (including red squirrels), loch trout fishing is also available.

Whether you walk, cycle or drive down this glen, you must allow yourself some time to stop, look and listen. I’m not advising you to look out for traffic because there is hardly any, but to enjoy it’s powerful beauty.

  

Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve

Chances are if you are visiting this area you will be doing some walking and that you will be wanting to conquer the 1214m of Ben Lawers, the local celebrity. The whole reserve has lots of routes: big days out and shorter walks through the lower woodland, either way it is a stunning place. Our first drive up and over the mountain road was on a clear, sunny day and the following day was a different story, low cloud and grey but still equally as beautiful. We saw black grouse on the side of the road and a herd of red deer in excess of forty beasts up on the hillside.

Fortingall Yew

We couldn’t be this close to the oldest living thing in Europe and not visit. The Fortingall yew is said to be between 3000 & 9000 years old. I don’t know about you but I can’t quite get my head around this! It’s incredible. At one point in time the circumference of the trunk was a vast 52ft but sadly people in the past have taken pieces as trophies. It is still a magnificent tree and well worth a visit. 

I am looking forward to revisiting this area to do some hill routes and maybe take our bikes too. This post only scratches the surfaces of what there is to see and do in the area and I can’t believe it has taken us so long to discover it. Using Morenish Mews as a base was perfect for exploring too. Check out the Embrace Scotland website for more details.

 

We were invite by Embrace Scotland and Morenish Mews to stay for free, in return for my blog post and images contained in this post. All views are my own including that of people trying to drive over bridges.

Secret birthday trip

It was my birthday just a few weeks ago. A “big” one. One I called my thirty six plus four, not because I don’t want to say I’m forty but because I didn’t particularly want a fuss. It was just another year and I certainly don’t feel my age. However, the Dude had announced he had booked a secret birthday trip. Yes, I know, surely it’s not a secret if he had told me he was planning something but he knows me well and knew that if he didn’t at least tell me the dates he had booked I might have tried to plan something else.

Let me tell you something, I hate not knowing. I hate only knowing half a story and the suspense nearly killed me! So I tried NOT to think about it. The location was narrowed down by the fact I know the Dude currently has an expired passport and it was only for two nights. It was definitely Scotland but I didn’t want to ask anymore questions. Until it came time to pack.

“Will I need my walking boots?”

“Will I need my camera?” Stupid question!

“Will I need my swimming costume?”

With all eventualities (hopefully) catered for we set off on my little mystery tour. Heading west from Perth along the A85 I enjoyed the scenery. Turning right toward Crianlarich, carrying on through Tyndrum and bearing right up the hill onward to Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I love Glen Coe. Obviously the Dude knows this and announced we were nearly at our destination and we had time to kill before booking in.

After admiring the mighty herdsman of Etive (Buachaille Etive Mor) we drove down toward Glen Etive. Nothing at all to do with a certain film, Daniel Craig and the stunning DB5, although it seems many people wanted to recreate the famous scene, even in February.

More interested in the mountains, river and wildlife we drove along the windy road and surprisingly there were less people around. Good job though really because the congestion on the roads was awful! I mean can you imagine anything worse than sitting looking at THIS for ten minutes?

It seemed around every corner there were deer on the side of the road, in the middle of the road and so close we could see every hair on their faces! After a while it became apparent that we were no longer enjoying this winter spectacle on our own. A family got out of their car (youngest child being about 5 years old) to take photos of the many does and young stags grazing on the side of the road. I was absolutely astounded by the father actively encouraging the daughter (aged about 13) to do handstands in the road with the deer as a back drop!

Seriously, I was lost for words. These people totally disrespecting these creatures are wild, unpredictable and potentially dangerous! At this point, sadly watching the deer had lost its charm.

Isles of Glen Coe Hotel

Just down the road, nestled between Glen Coe and Fort William is the Isles of Glen Coe hotel. A sister hotel to our more local Crieff Hydro, I was rather excited as I realised this would be our base for my secret birthday trip. On a much smaller scale than the Hydro, the Isles of Glen Coe is a perfect retreat for those who enjoy picturesque highland scenery, walking, canoeing and anything else you can do in the great Scottish countryside. It overlooks Loch Leven and has some cracking views of the Pap of Glen Coe.

Having checked in and dumped our bags in our room with a view, we immediately went back outside to have a quick explore.

The bar/restaurant area over looks the loch and although the light was gone shortly after 6pm I imagine in the summer months this is spectacular. For now though, a cosy wood burning stove was just perfect. With a nice relaxed atmosphere we toasted to my (extended) birthday celebrations and made plans for the following day over dinner.

Our meals, on both nights, were really tasty, beautifully presented and using local produce. Perfect. When you’re in a place like Scotland with such amazing food there is no reason for our meals to have traveled many miles.

The bed was one of the biggest I have slept in too.

There is a swimming pool with a sauna and jacuzzi, which was nice to come back to after a day walking, and although not very big it was practically empty at the time we went in. In the height of the school holidays I would guess this would be a different story.

Overall a lovely hotel and the staff were all helpful, our room had a great view and the food was fab. We would definitely book to stay again.

Glenfinnan & Loch Shiel  

After a good nights sleep we were ready to go out walking but with a dump of snow over night (on higher ground) and not knowing if we would get a visit from Storm Doris we decided to drive up to Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan.

Once we had got passed Fort William the rain stopped and it had brightened up but unless it was completely howling there isn’t much that stops us from getting out and about.

When we arrived there was not a soul to be seen. So very quiet to the scenes of last summer when I visited for work. Another good reason to explore during the winter.

We had a wander to the 18 metre high monument that stands as a tribute the Jacobite clansmen who died for their cause. Erected in 1815 it certainly is impressive and stands at the head of the loch.

Since the last time we visited the site it seems The National Trust for Scotland has been doing quite a lot of work managing the pathways, viewpoints and boardwalks to enhance, protect and preserve the area.

It really is worth venturing further than the monument if you plan to visit.

Of course the other reason so many people want to visit is to see the Glenfinnan viaduct or the Harry Potter bridge as I’ve also heard it called. At this time of year you won’t get to see a steam engine going over the bridge as they only run for the summer season (normally starting around Easter). If you wanted to travel over the bridge you can catch the train from Fort William across to Mallaig.

Glen Nevis & Steall Falls

After checking out of the Isles of Glen Coe hotel following our two night stay we decided to walk another route familiar to us. This time in Glen Nevis – from lower falls car park, alongside the water of Nevis and to Steall Falls.

It is a well marked trail but certainly not one to be taken for granted. The windy path crosses small waterfalls, has a lot of uneven steps and long drops down to the river. We laughed about the sign in the car park warning of deaths along the route but it really should be taken seriously. It took us about two hours to do this walk but that includes stopping for photos too.

The walk through the gorge is quite magical and opens up into what I can only describe as something similar to an amphitheatre and the roar of the water falling 120 metres. I was all excited about doing one of my 360° videos but the damned thing wouldn’t connect to the app on my phone. Had it have worked I would have captured the golden eagle we saw soaring over us, instead you have only my word for it.

Back Home

So, after all of that crammed in to a two night break why on earth would I have wanted a big party instead? I wouldn’t. It’s not me. I couldn’t have wished for a better start to my fortieth year and as for my secret birthday trip, the Dude did good! The celebrations and trips won’t be stopping here though, we plan to do 40 new things this year, so don’t be surprised when you see we are still doing birthday things in September!

   

Loch Faskally & Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre walk

At the beginning of this week when the sun was shining and it was a balmy 15°, the Dude and I decided we would go out for a walk. Looking through some of our walking books we thought Loch Faskally would be perfect and we could visit the newly opened Pitlochry Dam visitor centre too.

With around only a 45 minutes drive from Perth, Pitlochry is perfect for a day out. There is something here for everyone: woodland walks, Ben Vrackie for those looking to gain a height advantage over the town (841metres to be precise), cafes, a theatre and the salmon ladder amongst other things.

We started at the salmon ladder and on the opposite side to the new and rather impressive cantilever building of the visitor centre. Climbing the steps to the top of the dam and instead of going over the dam we continued up a few more steps and off the right, taking us along the loch side. The views opened up to show Ben Vrackie in all it’s glory, sitting proudly beyond Pitlochry. It’s a rather pretty mountain and one that I am yet to venture up.

As we follow the path (you can’t really go wrong, there are no other places to deviate to), we go down and then up the other side on some wooden steps and these take us much higher over the loch.  The path lead us out on to a road but only for about half a mile and then we dropped off right under the A9 onto a smaller suspension footbridge. This gives a great view of the river Tummel and the hillside.

Carrying on further round we came to a boat shed where there were lots of mallards and a few swans.

From here you can turn left and carry on to Faskally woods for a bigger walk but as we didn’t have water or extra sun cream (yes we still wear it in winter too) we turned right. Just after the hotel there is a right turn into some new build housing and our book said the route continued down here and then the alley way would reunite us with the river views. And so it did.

Keeping to the path closest to the water we walked for about 20 minutes and found ourselves at the Pitlochry dam visitor centre.

We were greeted by a very enthusiastic member of staff who told us that they have already had over 5000 people through the doors since opening at the beginning of February. That is pretty incredible!

By way of engaging it’s visitors, with video, interactive displays and touchscreens ensures both young and old will enjoy a visit here and leave having learnt something new about hydro-electricity, salmon migration or the importance of renewable energy today. The fact it is open all year round, is free to enter and it has a cafe are all an added bonus.

The building itself is beautifully designed and looks as good inside as it does outside.

This walk is just over 5k and really is lovely. Loch Faskally and the Pitlochry dam visitor centre are well worth visiting at any time of year and on a stunning day in February like we had, it really does feel like Spring is on the way.

 

Visiting Shetland

What’s the first thing you think of when I say Shetland? Cute ponies? Jimmy Perez from the TV series filmed on the mainland? Or maybe Up Helly Aa? Well I can confirm in my recent short stay in Lerwick there are more reasons for visiting Shetland than you think. Even in the depths of winter!

Travel

For those of you made of stronger stuff, or through the necessity of needing your car whilst in Shetland, you can catch the Northlink ferry from Aberdeen. It takes twelve plus hours and goes overnight. If you’re lucky you will get a good crossing. If not, well there is nothing you can do about it except make friends with the nearest toilet!

Thankfully, my trip allowed me to fly from Aberdeen airport with Flybe and be there in less than an hour. Result. As my group were booked in with a private tour guide all week we had no need for a car whilst there, including a pick up and drop off to the airport. Perfect.

Where to stay

As you can imagine there are plenty of self catering lodges and hotels across the islands, something for everyone.

Just a 15 minute drive out of Lerwick is the former capital of Shetland, and home to the Scalloway Hotel. We stayed here for three nights and it really was a pleasant stay.

The rooms were clean, simple and with everything you need for a good nights sleep. If I am honest I didn’t spend much time in my room, a jam packed itinerary meant lots of time exploring – sleep, shower and re-charge my camera batteries, what more do you need?

For breakfast there were cereals, porridge, croissant, fruit, yoghurt and lots of hot food including a full Scottish cooked breakfast to keep you going for the rest of the day. Much appreciated for those of us out and about all day.

We ate in the hotel dining room at the end of two of our days and boy were we in for a treat! With things like cullen skink fishcake with black pudding and hens egg, pork belly with balsamic and port glaze, black pudding, pea puree, apple jam and THE most incredible crackling. Serious foodporn! My phone photos do not do it justice but here they are:

The owners, waiting staff and housekeepers we all super helpful, friendly and genuinely interested in what we were doing during our trip.

You don’t have to be a resident at the hotel to dine there or have a drink in the bar, but I would recommend you book in advance.

Places to visit

Lerwick – the UK’s most northerly town and is full of character. Quirky independent shops along the narrow streets, bars and plenty of places to get food. It’s a great place to just wander without purpose. Following the lanes up and around the town, back down to the harbour – home to ferry services and fishing boats.

We also found Mareel was a hive of activity. It plays host to the cinema and is a music and cultural hub for Shetlanders of all ages. Part of the Shetland Arts scheme it promotes, educates and supports artists. You don’t have to be here long to realise that art (in many forms) and music are an important way of life here.

St Ninians Isle, Tombolo – This idyllic beach stretches between the mainland (Shetland) and St Ninians isle. Created naturally by the sea it forms a sandspit (not a typo), linking the two pieces of land together. For anyone who has visited Chesil beach in England, it’s the same thing just on a smaller scale. That’s about as technical as I want to make it but what I can tell you is that it is super pretty and from a photographers point of view it was heavenly.

Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement –  this site is something rather special. Evidence of human settlement for over 4000 years, through the bronze and iron ages with amazing examples of brochs and wheelhouses. Most recent (16th Century) addition is the laird’s house, the remains towering over the rest of the site. You can walk through time as you follow the site around. I have never seen anything like this before and it is said to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Scotland. Well worth visiting.   

Scalloway Museum – a charity since 2001, is run purely by a team of enthusiastic, passionate, knowledgeable volunteers. With so much history in Scalloway itself this museum tells the local stories and shows a way of life with a strong Nordic influence. The story of the Shetland Bus is told here too, clandestine operations during world war II, to and from Norway. Around 20,000 Norwegian military were homed in Shetland amongst families during this time. Tales of these young men are heart breaking to read but a truly incredible story. Well worth visiting.

Frankies Fish & Chips – You might wonder why I have added a fish and chip shop into this list? Well I am told the view is stunning from your table but I had to take the word of our guide on that one because it was raining and misty. Couldn’t see a thing but what I did see inside would have taken my mind off of the view anyhow! Fish that over hangs the side of the plates, huge pieces of scampi and the most beautiful scallops in garlic butter. Oh and fresh homemade tartar sauce. Incredible and easy to see why they have a list of awards longer than a piece of haddock!

View from Jarlshof up to Sumburgh Head

Sumburgh Head – this location plays many roles – lighthouse, visitor centre and a nature reserve. In the summer months the cliffs are teeming with birds – guillemots, razorbills, kittewakes and everyones favourite, puffins. There is parking and a cafe for amazing cakes and an even better view. You won’t find many spots like it.

View from Sumburgh Head down to Jarlshof

With 2017 being VisitScotland’s themed year of History, Heritage & Archaeology I would say I have had the best start to learning more about Scotland. My list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this stunning place or give enough reasons for visiting Shetland. Whether its the birds, history, geology, food, drink, art, music or the people you come for, I can guarantee you will leave with a passion for the whole island. A feeling when you get home, you may well have left a piece of yourself in Shetland. You may never be the same again.

Up Helly Aa

What a week! As I sit here trying, in my head, to put into words my Up Helly Aa experience I am struggling and I’ve no idea how long this post will take to write.

Picture this: a festival that goes against all health and safety in 2017 – thousands of people lining the streets of Lerwick with no barriers to keep them from the vikings and their galley during the processions. Plunging the town into darkness and turning off all the street lamps along the route where crowds of people wait to see the men of the town parade along with burning torches. Aforementioned men, nearly one thousand of them, walking the streets with paraffin fueled torches in high winds and then setting fire to the galley in a play park.

It all sounds crazy and there is no way if you or I wanted to start a festival like this today, would it be allowed. Thankfully this tradition started in the 1800’s and happens each year in Shetland on the last Tuesday in January in Lerwick. There are several events that happen on the smaller islands up until mid March, it’s not just one night. For all it’s craziness it is incredibly well organised and planned to precision.

History

Speaking to different Shetlanders during my visit it seems Up Helly Aa has many meanings to it’s residents. Some say it was to prevent the “younger ones” from getting into mischief and burning tar barrels down the streets of Lerwick. Others say it is a way of waving goodbye to the darkness of winter and embracing the longer days and also as a celebration of their Nordic heritage.

Changing over the years, “guizing” – wearing a disguise, was introduced. It was not until the early 1900’s that a Guizer Jarl became a part of the celebrations, would have his own squad and head the procession. Each year would give one man his turn as Guizer Jarl.

This year’s Jarl Squad is headed by Lyall Gair, a 37 year old self-employed joiner has been waiting patiently for his turn and has been involved in the event since 1990. As a committee member since 2004 he has used this time to design and save money each month for his suit.

Jarl Squad

Each of the 58 members of the Jarl Squad have to fund their own suits, which are absolute works of art and a pure reflection of the time, effort, love, money and craftmanship that goes in to each suit. This year it includes chain mail, sheep skin, leather, metal and wood work. An incredible amount of dedication with most spending at least three nights a week working on suits, songs or galley building.

This years squad was made of members of Lyall’s family and friends including his dad and brother. I would imagine it makes this once in a lifetime event even more special.

It’s a long day for the Jarl Squad, starting early in the morning and then the first procession at 9am. After this they will visit schools, hospitals and care homes for anyone who won’t get down in to the town. I found this to be such a wonderful thought knowing that people won’t be missing out.

Community

One thing you do notice is that everyone gets involved. So from an outward facing perspective it may look like the men just get a day out drinking but it is SO much more than this. As I mentioned above there is a lot of planning involved and spouses and other family members have to be supportive and maybe put on the back burner for the best part of twelve months. They may also have skills which could be put to good use, and so become a part of the festival that no-one gets to see.
Many shops and businesses dress their windows to celebrate Up Helly Aa too.

Children in the community also get to learn the traditions too. They can be a part of the procession or maybe they will be taken down into town during the day to catch the first glimpse of the galley and the Jarl Squad. As they get older the boys have a chance to be in the junior procession.

Up Helly Aa night

One thing I did learn is that it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, Up Helly Aa will still happen. It had been raining pretty much all day but it hadn’t dampened anyones spirits.

I managed to get a spot by the play park wall quite early on and it was cold and wet but yet the crowds still gathered and there was an air of anticipation and excitement. As the flare went off into the night sky to signal the lighting of the torches I could feel my heart start to race slightly.

As the Jarl Squad led the other 900+ men around the streets of Lerwick all of a sudden I had forgotten about the rain and the heat from the torches, just feet away, I was no longer cold either. In the play park the replica Viking long boat is brought to her resting place. Once all the other squads are in the park and they have sang the Up Helly Aa song and Guizer Jarl adddresses those of us who have braved the elements, the torches are thrown into the galley.


I have to admit I had mixed feelings at this point. A spectacular sight and not something you get to see everywhere and yet feelings of sadness because that is twelve months (and longer) of hard graft. As the flames grew higher it was totally mesmerising, with sparks catching the wind and the silhouettes made by the vikings. Something I will NEVER ever forget.

Halls

For the residents of Shetland and very few but lucky visitors the celebrations continue and well in to the following morning. Another great example of everyone pulling together – each hall has hosts and hostesses and they put in an awful lot of time dressing the halls, baking, making soup, sandwiches and of course the inevitable clean up!

You don’t just get to rock up at a halls you have to be invited and have a ticket (not generally on sale, you have to know a host).

It’s a rather surreal experience – the 47 different squads travel around the halls to perform. This could be a song, a sketch, a dance routine and each one will be different. As you can imagine there is alcohol involved so at the beginning of the night the performances are slightly sharper than those that go on at 5am. Yes you read that correctly. It seems Shetlanders are hardcore and will dance and drink the night away better than any Ibiza clubbers I have ever known!

With a mix of young and old in the halls everyone must dance, that included me, and I apologise to everyone who saw my strip the willow effort! Horrendous.

All in all I loved every single second of my first Up Helly Aa experience, it won’t be my last. There will be so much that I missed out on or couldn’t see that I will need to go back. The people of Shetland were so kind and welcomed me with open arms (perhaps they will think twice if word gets out about my ceilidh dancing attempts). Their passion for their heritage and traditions is overwhelming and they want to share it.



I will be posting about my other Shetland adventures soon so please do follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for more pictures and stories.

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