Steam trains must be one of the most iconic modes of transport to travel by, but despite watching many a steam train puff by me, I've never actually journeyed on one before. So when I was invited to experience a Sunday outing from Edinburgh along the Borders Railway to Tweedbank on the historic Royal Scot, I couldn't wait to be transported back to an era when train travel was much more of a refined and romantic way to get around than it is today.
I didn't even realise you could go on a steam train from Edinburgh until now but thanks to the recent reopening of the Borders Railway line, steam train trips have become a popular way to get a taste of Southern Scotland.
As Mr Adventures Around Scotland and I made our way to the departing platform at Edinburgh Waverley Station, we were met by excited fellow passengers and train enthusiasts all waiting for their first glimpse of the steam train pulling into the station. Built in 1927 by London Midland & Scottish Railway, the Royal Scot was originally used for their fastest passenger routes from London to Birmingham and Manchester to Glasgow.
She has an interesting history, including being shipped complete with carriages for an appearance at the 'Century for Progress' exhibition in Chicago in 1933 and touring the USA before being returned to Britain and eventually retired from service in 1962. After being a static attraction at both Butlins and a steam museum, she subsequently received a complete overhaul which saw her return to steam on a main line railway in 2015.
On her arrival, we were given time to take photos and admire the shiny green locomotive that was about to take us on our journey south. With all the buzz on the platform, it really felt as if we were about to do something special.
Just to add to the romance and luxury of the trip, we were booked in for the premier dining experience and as we got settled in our comfy seats at our own table, we were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and I kept thinking, this is how all my Sundays should start!
Being a Glaswegian I often get asked about things to do in the city and one question I get a lot is for my recommendation of the best Glasgow tours. Until recently I hadn't been on that many tours in Glasgow so I decided to rectify that and have spent the last few months on a mission to discover the top unique tours in the city. After walking countless streets, climbing umpteen stairs, having a peek behind the scenes of several city landmarks and even exploring a few graveyards (all in the name of research!), I'm finally ready to share my findings.
Recommending the best tours in the city is pretty subjective as it really depends on personal interests, so I have decided to include a range of unique tours that in my opinion are 6 of the best in Glasgow...
Glasgow Central Station Tour
If you think a tour of a railway station might be dull, think again, this is actually my top recommended unique Glasgow tour overall, guaranteed to educate and entertain, just remember your hankies!
Paul Lyons is the mastermind behind the 90 minute tours that take you on a journey below the station platforms through forgotten Victorian tunnels and hidden rooms. It is his vision and passion that has made these tours a success and his plans to restore historic parts of the 135 year old station with money raised from ticket sales are commendable. Paul's ability to bring the human stories of the station to life is powerful, when he tells you at the beginning he will have you "Greetin' before the tour is over", he isn't kidding, although pan faced Glaswegian humour is also something he does very well.
It's no surprise that this is also the number one Glasgow tour on TripAdvisor, a well deserved accolade.
Glasgow City Chambers Tour
I've explored Glasgow City Chambers quite a few times over the years and I'm always surprised how few people realise that free guided tours take place every weekday providing a look behind the scenes of this grand Victorian building filled with mahogany, mosaics and marble.
As the seat of political power in Glasgow, the City Chambers was designed to impress and not surprisingly the interior is just as ornate as the exterior. As it is a working building and the headquarters of Glasgow City Council, access to some areas may be restricted at certain times although tours generally take in the opulent banqueting hall, the grand marble staircase which is reputed to be the largest in the world, the portrait gallery and even the opportunity to sit in the Lord Provost's chair, an ideal photo opportunity! I've yet to find a better free tour in the city.
The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis Walking Tour
As part of my research I did a few history based Glasgow walking tours and the only one I felt really stood out as being unique was the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis Tour around the city's most famous graveyard. This might not be everyone's idea of a fun day out but in my experience graveyard's offer one of the best insights into the history of a place and the volunteer guides really bring this city of the dead to life with their knowledge about monuments of interest and anecdotes about people that are buried here.
The Glasgow Necropolis is a 37 acre cemetery which has seen 50,000 burials and is home to 3,500 tombs, some of which are works of art in themselves designed by major architects and sculptors of the time. It also boasts impressive views over Glasgow from the top of the hill and joining a walking tour will really enhance your visit and knowledge about the city.
You can read about days 1 to 3 of my adventure here.
Sitting on the southern tip of Loch Ness, the small population of Fort Augustus is buoyed during the summer months as a stop off for travellers heading along the busy road between Fort William and Inverness, although I suspect just as many drive by unaware of the charms this little hamlet conceals.
Previously named Cill Chuimein, it is a pretty settlement with shops and pubs lining either side of 5 locks that link Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal. After the Jacobite Uprising in 1715, a fort was built here and the village was renamed Fort Augustus after Prince William Augustus, better known as the Duke (or Butcher) of Cumberland. Later the village was famous for it's Benedictine Abbey which closed in 1993 and although the historic complex is still standing today, it now comprises self catering holiday apartments and cottages.
With day 4 providing rain and a free morning to explore Fort Augustus and the only real civilistaion you pass through on the trip, I opted for some retail therapy and picked up some pretty Scottish made gifts from the lovely Coopers on the canal-side.
In the afternoon the all too familiar 'options' were presented and I chose to cycle the 8 miles to our next stop at Loch Oich. Following the canal towpath for the first 5 miles, the tranquility was immediate with bands of trees muffling any noise from the not too distant road. The low hanging cloud on the hills provided an atmospheric backdrop as the rain once again began to fall steadily, creating expanding ring-shaped patterns across the normally glassy canal surface.
Crossing over the road just by Cullochy Lock, the path then follows the old railway line along the shores of Loch Oich. The new track started off smoothly enough until a navigational error saw me leave the tarmacked path and head off road along a more challenging route. I could have rejoined the surfaced cycle track but to be honest I was having much more fun bumping along over the boulders and tree roots!
Ros Crana was just pulling up to moor in Loch Oich for the night as I arrived at our rendezvous point. Shore pick ups and drop offs by RIB were a common occurrence during the week and usually carried out by Lucy, our bosun. Lucy was our final crew member along with Swampy, Chris and Tree and when not maintaining the boat, throwing ropes or guiding the Skipper, she was always there to offer a confident hand to those without sea-legs as we unsteadily manouvered in and out of various vessels.
The earlier rain had long disappeared as I stepped back on board and took in our new surroundings. For me, Loch Oich was the most stunning overnight location of the trip. Straight off a shortbread tin or tourism campaign, it is the Scottish Highlands at it's most romantic and mysterious.
As several of us sat out on deck the encompassing trees and hillsides reflected perfectly in the water, the rutting bellow of a stag surrounded by his hinds on a nearby ridge echoed eerily through the air and a mysterious layer of wispy mist began to rise from the loch surface like an emerging water spirit.
As day turned to night, the stars appeared from the darkness with the Milky Way streaking overhead and the deep roars from the testosterone filled stags could still be heard in the distance.
I was more than aware that our rewarding experience was only possible thanks to our advantageous ability to moor out in the loch; a captivated audience to the best show that nature could put on.
Day 5 dawned and it was time to take to the water again, this time on a gentle canoe trip to explore rusting, abandoned boats and to land on an old causeway, normally submerged, but thanks to the low water levels once again providing a solid link between the shore and an island formed by old crannogs.
Our canoeing party of 6 had mixed experience levels from complete beginner to competent and with my last kayak lesson taking place 25 years ago, I very much classed myself in the beginner category. My partner in canoe crime was slightly more accomplished, having had his first (albeit only) tuition 3 days previous, I was confident that with some guidance from our instructor Chris, we would make a dream team!
I absolutely loved canoeing and I learned some useful tips which will remain with me for the future
It's an unseasonably warm October's day and I'm standing on the deck of Ros Crana, a colourful Belgian barge which is gliding almost silently down the deep, glassy channel of the Caledonian Canal towards Loch Ness. The surrounding Highland landscape looks twice as imposing with the autumnal colours reflected on the mirror like surface and the crisp air carries a hushed soundtrack of birdsong as we leisurely motor along.
The carbon copy clouds floating lazily on the inky water have a hypnotising effect and only the occasional surface bubble from a hidden fish breaks my trance like state.
I'm on day 2 of a week long cruise through the Great Glen with Caledonian Discovery and I'm already wondering if life can get any better than this; sun, scenery, stillness and Scotland.
There are many ways to explore the Highlands of Scotland and a boat may not be the first mode of transport that springs to mind, mainly because not many people realise that it is a viable option.
A trip along the Caledonian Canal will take you from coast to coast through the Great Glen, a Highland wilderness with satisfyingly spectacular scenery. A long straight valley which slices the Scottish Highlands in two, it is home to imposing mountains, native pine forests, tumbling waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife and steeped in clan and Jacobite history.
Construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath. The famous engineer Thomas Telford subsequently produced the plans for what is recognised as an impressive feat of early 19th Century engineering, now protected as a Scheduled Monument. The 60 mile long route connects four lochs with man-made waterways and during it's construction, provided much needed employment to those struggling after the Highland Clearances.
Nowadays the area is frequented by pleasure craft and outdoor enthusiasts with options to walk, cycle or canoe along the alluring setting of the canal.
After my week travelling it's length from Inverness to Banavie near Fort William I can confidently say that Caledonian Discovery have devised a unique Classic Cruise that provides a rewarding Highland adventure by land and water which really gets you off the beaten track to uncover the hidden gems away from the tourist traps.
'Options' becomes a familiar word during the trip. While you could choose to stay on board and watch the world go by for a week, you really would be missing out on immersing yourself in the variety of landscape that Scotland has to offer. Daily 'options' are weather dependent but include a mix of sailing, canoeing, cycling and walking which are suitable for all levels of fitness and experience (or lack of experience!).
We had barely motored out of Inverness on day 1 when we were confronted with our first 'options' and I chose to leave the city behind on a flat 5 mile cycle along the canal towpath before meeting up with the barge again at the next lock.
Rust tinted trees and frosty cobwebs lined my route, a constant reminder that autumn had arrived. The traffic noise from Inverness gradually began to fade away, replaced by the occasional put-put of a passing boat and a sense of escape from the urban hustle and bustle began to wash over me. Pedaling casually along the canal-side, my anticipation of a new adventure ahead increased with each rotation of the wheel and by the time I had reached our destination for the night at Dochgarroch Lock I was looking forward to settling into my new home for the week.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I often recommend small group tours as an economical way to see some of the best sites in Scotland for those short on time. There are many companies that traverse the highways and byways of the country in their logo emblazoned minibuses on a daily basis.
When I was invited to experience a day tour with Invent Scottish Tours I wanted to know what makes them different?
Starting my day in Edinburgh I immediately spotted the first disparity to previous small group excursions I have sampled; the vehicles used by Scottish Invent Tours only seat a maximum of 8 passengers and provide much more space and comfort than the usual minibuses. This also means that the journey feels much more intimate and personal, in my opinion they seem to fill a gap between a private tour and a larger group tour.
Joined by some lovely lady travelling companions from the USA, our small group was assembled and we were ready to get underway, so far so good!
Having opted for their Holy Grail and Knights Templar tour we began our journey south from Edinburgh and it wasn't long before we reached our first scenic stop of the day at Scott's View which is always a pleasant welcome to the Scottish Borders. As some of you may know I had only been there a couple of weeks previously but like Sir Walter Scott I could happily stop here and admire the sweeping Borders vistas on a frequent basis. This time I was also delighted to see some impressive red kites swooping and gliding overhead.
Something else that made this tour very different to some other companies was the time we had to stop at each location. No quick photo stops on this tour, we were encouraged to take as much or as little time as we wished, ask questions and wander off to explore, it was a pleasant change to not feel in a regimented rush. Add to this the flexibility of our itinerary and I would say that Invent Scottish Tours genuinely brings something fresh to the Scottish small group tour market.
The flexibility in our day became apparent at our second stop at Smailholm Tower. Not in our official schedule, our guide recommended the short detour to this picturesque tower house and the area where Sir Walter Scott spent much time as a young boy at his grandparents' farm.
I have seen Smailholm Tower from a distance several times, however I was glad of the opportunity to finally explore it up close. Although sadly there has not been much effort put into the displays within this Historic Scotland property, the views from the top are impressive. If you are not a Historic Scotland member and have to pay the admission fee you might feel disappointed and to be honest a walk around the outside of the tower and the surrounding landscape is just as rewarding.
One of the tour highlights is a stop at the pretty and historic Borders town of Melrose. We had 90 mins to spend as we wished and for me it was an easy choice of a quick bite of lunch and a visit to Melrose Abbey. I absolutely love the Borders Abbeys and highly recommend visiting all four of them if you ever have the time as they are all very different and all very atmospheric.
Another Historic Scotland property, the admission price is not included in the tour but I feel it is worth it. I often recommend becoming a Historic Scotland and a National Trust of Scotland member if you are interested in visiting several of their properties as the cost quickly adds up.
Founded by King David 1 in 1136, it was substantially rebuilt in the 1380s. It continued as an abbey until 1560 and although it is mostly a ruin today, there are still plenty of impressive carved features. A climb to the top of the tower is a must, not only for the views but also for a close up of the famous bagpipe playing pig! Melrose Abbey is also the burial place of the heart of King Robert the Bruce who died in 1329, although his body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey.
WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
I'm a big fan of walking tours, there is nothing better than a local guide pointing out the hidden gems and nooks and crannies of a place that are all too easy to miss if you don't know where to look. Good walking tours bring local history to life and leave you with some great stories to take home and share.
Having never been to Linlithgow as a 'tourist', I jumped at the opportunity to join a guided historic walking tour of this royal burgh with Mary's Meanders, who not only specialise in telling intriguing local tales about Linlithgow itself but are also experts on Outlander filming locations in the area.
Emma, the owner of Mary's Meanders, had invited a group of tourism specialists and travel bloggers to sample her walking tour and to showcase some of the great things that Linlithgow has to offer. It was fantastic to spend a day out with so many people passionate about Scottish tourism and of course some fab fellow bloggers!
Our knowledgeable guide for the hour was Anne who has lived in the town for 20 years. Her passion and enthusiasm for Linlithgow were obvious and her warm, down to earth personality made her the perfect group host.
As we navigated our way past characterful buildings, weathered plaques and significant statues we learned the stories behind them and some well known facts about the town such as it being the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, however I also learned plenty of new trivia, like why you are called a 'Black Bitch' if you are born in Linlithgow and which well known politician would be proud if you called them one!
Not surprisingly the tour ended up at Linlithgow Palace, which despite being a ruin, still commands impressively over the town. Anne provided an informative narrative history of this former royal retreat and as an Outlander fan I was delighted when she took us into the dark depths of the building to show us where scenes from the TV series were filmed when it was used as the interior of Wentworth Prison.
If you are an Outlander fan then you will be excited to know that Mary's Meanders will also be running Outlander tours and Taste of Outlander dinner shows this year.
One question I am asked over and over again is about the best way to see a lot of Scotland in a short space of time. I always recommend small group tours as they are economical, take you to the most popular tourist sites and the guides keep you informed and entertained as you sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Most people coming to Scotland want to visit the Highlands, even if they are on a city break. If you only have a day to spare then you are pretty restricted in where you can visit as transport in the Highlands is limited and being such a vast area means that unless you have a car seeing much of it in a day is impossible. This is where group tours come into their own as you can explore large parts of the country in hours rather than days.
Rabbie's is one of the most popular small group tour operators in Scotland and I really enjoyed taking a day tour with them last year to visit Stirling, Loch Lomond and Glengoyne whisky distillery. Deciding it was time to check out a different route, I opted for their longest day tour which takes you all the way from Glasgow to Loch Ness and back in 12 hours. This is the ultimate day tour if you want to go Nessie hunting or admire many of the mountain peaks and lochs of Scotland.
An early start in Glasgow and I was joined by a full bus of fellow tourists from countries as diverse as Brazil, China, India and the Netherlands. There were also a few tourists from closer to home including a couple of fellow Glaswegians. As we left the city behind and headed along the open road past Loch Lomond, I enjoyed watching the faces of my fellow passengers light up as they got their first glimpse of the mountain and loch scenery that Scotland is famous for. With the fitting soundtrack of Runrig and Loch Lomond being played as we rolled along, our driver/guide Tony regaled us with tales of Jacobites, Sir Walter Scott and some trivia about the many islands that are dotted around the loch itself.
Several suitably picturesque photo stops later and we were entering into the impressive landscape of Glencoe. This is the reason many people choose to take this particular trip and phones, cameras and tablets were being well utilised to capture the famous panorama. There was also much excitement among the group when we were able to get out of the bus and up close to a herd of red deer thanks to our knowledgeable driver.
With the weather haunting and gloomy we learned the history behind the notorious Glencoe massacre which had taken place that very same day in 1692 making our visit there all the more poignant.
Follow me as I search for the best and most original travel experiences in Scotland.