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.
Refuelled and ready for an afternoon following in the legendary and mysterious footsteps of the Knights Templar, our first stop was perhaps not surprisingly at the village of Temple. This is somewhere I have been wanting to visit for a long time and it didn't disappoint.
The Knights Templar had their Scottish base in the area between the 12th and 14th Century although at that time the village was named Balantradoch. The land was given to them as a reward for their duties protecting pilgrims in the Holy land.
Firstly we made our way to an unassuming stone arch, nestled down a lane, in a field, next to a children's play-park. I was glad our guide was there to explain the significance of the structure as there were no boards or explanation for its out of place existence. As it transpires the chevron marked arch was the gateway to the 17th Century Temple House which sadly no longer exists.
The village is also home to the Old Temple Kirk which is full of interesting headstones, although the church itself is now just a shell. One memorial to a local farmer named John Craig, who died in 1742, really catches the eye with it's ornate carving of the farmer in his finest clothing with his children by his side.
Our final stop of the day was at the stunning and mysterious Rosslyn Chapel. The multitude of exquisite stone carvings that adorn every facade of this building make it a must visit Scottish attraction, although it is the folklore and symbology surrounding this 15th Century masterpiece that really makes it unique.
If you visit then make sure you take in one of the excellent free talks by the Chapel guides as they unlock some of the secrets of the stories intricately depicted in stone.
It is hard to believe that the building was once in a state of serious disrepair and the evidence of water damage can be clearly seen. Years of restoration has saved this Scottish jewel, with much help from the Da Vinci Code book and subsequent film which has continued to create huge interest and a surge in visitors.
People often comment about the strange atmosphere in Rosslyn and although I've not felt anything in the main body of the Chapel other than awe, the crypt is a whole other matter! Butterflies in my stomach, hairs prickling on my neck, goosebumps and the feeling of a powerful energy flowing through the walls and the floors. My imagination? Maybe, but I'm not alone in believing that Rosslyn holds a powerful secret.
The most mysterious building in Scotland? The home of the Holy Grail? Built to hide a sacred object?
There are no shortage of theories and speculation about what may lie beneath in the vaults or secreted in the pillars, I'm not sure anyone will ever find out and as long as there is a mystery to solve, people will no doubt continue to flock here.
Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside the Chapel although it is fine to take them outside.
Many visitors come to Scotland to seek out the Castles and the Clans but the country has many fascinating layers of history. The era of the Knights Templar is one of the most intriguing, and in my mind Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel are also two of the most interesting historic attractions in Scotland. I was surprised at how much I got out of this day tour, particularly as it felt pretty relaxed and unrushed which is exactly how a day exploring should be!
To find out more or book a tour, visit Invent Scottish Tours website at http://www.inventscottishtours.co.uk/
I was invited to sample this tour, however as always my opinions are very much my own.
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