I always feel a bit conflicted when people tell me their travel plans for Scotland. More often than not they commence in Edinburgh or Glasgow and involve a journey north, following a predictable although rewarding route. While I don't want to deprive anyone from immersing themselves in the Highland scenery they have been dreaming of for months, years or even a lifetime, a big part of me is still desperate to tell people to abandon their plans and explore many of the underrated but equally as amazing areas of Scotland instead.
The Scottish Borders is a prime example of an often overlooked regional gem. This part of the country is so steeped in history, tradition and legend that i really believe a visit here should be squeezed into every Scottish travel itinerary.
With the opening of the new Borders Railway in September, the area will open up to train travellers who will be able to depart from Edinburgh and arrive in the Borders in less than an hour, so there really is no excuse now to miss this area out on your trip to Scotland!
In anticipation of the new line opening, I recently spent a weekend in the historic town of Melrose as part of a Scotlanders and Visit Scotland collaboration. My remit was to experience the wide variety of activities that will be available to a new wave of passengers arriving at the final stop in Tweedbank, the nearest station to Melrose.
I have always associated the Scottish Borders as an area with a rich tapestry of history, however as I found out it is also a draw for outdoor adrenaline adventurers, food lovers and culture vultures looking to escape the city.
My first real holiday to the region was around 20 years ago and I have periodically returned since, always thankful to see little has changed over the past two decades. In some places progress is welcomed and often much needed in order to survive, however the Scottish Borders is not one of those places. The towns have remained charming, the houses still historic, traditional events thrive, independent shops survive and rule, ruins remain standing, the grass is still vividly green and the hills continue to roll. For me, the draw of the Scottish Borders is it's unchanging and timeless quaintness.
However, on this visit I wanted to find out what else the area has to offer other than historic appeal and found myself with a variety filled weekend, proving there really is something for everyone.
My experience of Go Ape, Peebles
It's just after 9am on Saturday morning and while most sane people are still easing their way into the day, I'm teetering precariously on the edge of a small platform deceivingly high up a tree trunk in Glentress Forest. The longer I stand and contemplate the rationale behind what I'm about to do, the more the forest floor seems to recede below me.
After checking and rechecking (and triple checking) that my lifesaving harness is correctly attached to the safety wire I take a leap of faith into fresh air and begin to swing Tarzan like towards a cargo net at considerable speed, remembering at the last minute my instructor's advice to relax my body and resist the temptation to grab on for dear life. A couple of bounces later and my momentum carries me back towards the dangling rope climbing frame that I somehow manage to haul myself up towards the next tiny platform. My ungainly effort may not qualify me as a GI Jane but I survived and at that moment I feel an adrenalin fuelled invincibility and ready to take on the world, well the next challenging obstacle at least!
Each of the 5 course sections grow increasingly difficult and every journey down a zip wire culminates with me being dragged backside first up a pile of wood chippings which seem to accumulate inside my trousers in the most uncomfortable of places. By the final section some sort of delirium has taken over and I begin to laugh uncontrollably to the point I am struggling to see for my watering eyes and stupidly opt to attempt the extreme crossing when given the choice of a less painful route. I decide I must be some sort of sadist because I'm having the time of my life!
A couple of hours of limb twisting challenges later and soggy with sweat and tears (of laughter/joy) I triumphantly reach the final zip wire and with well earned bounding boldness I clip myself to the safety line one last time. As I now fearlessly step off the last platform and soar 325 metres across the expansive valley and reservoir below, I embrace the liberating feeling that comes with flying through the skies without a barrier between me and the rushing air. All too quickly my moment of airborne glory comes to an end and I find myself landing like an upturned turtle in the most ungraceful way possible and collecting a final gathering of wood-chips in my trousers. I can't remember the last time I have laughed as much and although I may have lost all dignity, I have gained a renewed confidence and a generous pile of bark for my garden!
1. Mercat Tours - The Edinburgh Outlander Experience Walking Tour
This seasonal 2 hour walking tour of Edinburgh takes place each Saturday and explores the history of the city during the period Jamie and Claire would have visited and stops at locations which either feature in the books or have inspired Diana Gabaldon in her research.
I was invited to experience the tour for myself and started off my weekend by joining an international group of fans keen to hear tales of life in 18th Century Edinburgh. Our guide Gillian started off with an interesting summary of the unfortunate generations of Stuart Kings and the events that eventually led to the Jacobite risings, an essential aid to understanding the background of the books.
Gillian then led us into atmospheric back closes, up to the Castle and back down the Royal Mile from the Canongate to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, stopping off at strategic points along the way to regale stories of witches, printmakers, pubs, wells, graveyards, herb gardens and the Tolbooth jail where the men of Lallybroch were imprisoned. Diana Gabaldon may have wrote a fictional series, however she has really done her research and much of the background is based on real events and places which would actually have existed in the city at the time and Mercat Tours are experts at not only finding them but also bringing them to life.
Just to make sure we didn't get lost or distracted, Gillian tempted us along like an Outlander Pied Piper by holding up photos of Jamie and occasionally Claire by demand of the men in the group!
I certainly learned lots of new facts about the city and discovered lots of nooks and crannies I hadn't noticed before and probably wouldn't have if it wasn't for the tour. Standing huddled together in quiet old closes hearing tales of the characters that lived there helps you to imagine the Edinburgh that Jamie and Claire would have experienced which certainly felt a world away from the bustling 21st Century crowds on the Royal Mile.
The tour ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, another location which fans will be familiar with and it is possible to visit this magnificent building which is the official residence of the Queen in Scotland, although being an official building it is occasionally closed to the public which was the case on the day I was there so it is advisable to check opening hours in advance.
I also recommend a visit to the National Museum of Scotland if you have time before the tour starts. Here you will find exhibits about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie among their many interesting displays.
The majority of the tour centres around the books and in particular Dragonfly in Amber so be aware there may be some spoilers if you have not read it. Walking for 2 hours on cobbled stones is best done in comfortable shoes and I would also advise you also take a bottle of water along on warm days.
Visit the Mercat Tour website for more information and to book.
This is my second blog covering Scottish regional filming locations used in the the Outlander TV series and this time I will also be including some other Outlander themed activities available in the area.
Last weekend I went on an Edinburgh and Lothians Outlander pilgrimage which included a walking tour in the city and visits to nearby key filming locations from Series 1.
As part of my research I personally visit every location I include in my guides so I can give you the best advice and top tips to make the most of your experience. I recommend a minimum of 2 days if you want to briefly visit the places mentioned in this post although in reality 3-4 days would be ideal if you want to explore them properly. I managed to cover all this ground in a weekend so it is possible if you are short on time!
2. Bo'ness Railway Station
I spent the rest of my weekend visiting nearby Outlander filming locations which are all handily situated a short drive from Edinburgh, making it easy to travel to them all over 2 days.
Approx a 40 min drive brings you to the quaint little steam railway at Bo'ness. Transformed into a 1940s London railway and renamed Milford Station for episode 1 of Outlander, this is where Claire and Frank bid each other farewell.
I was lucky enough to pull into the carpark just as one of the trains was about to depart and quickly dashed up to the overhead bridge to take some photos. I really find steam engines quite romantic and it was a treat to see one pass directly under me with the steam wafting up into my face!
As I was on a mission to get to my next stop I didn't have time to fully appreciate this cute little station or visit the museum, however I hope to return and actually take one of the train journeys for myself as they look great fun,
Passenger trains run for a limited number of dates throughout the year, check out the online timetable and try and coincide your visit with a steam train departure to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of bygone rail travel.
3. Blackness Castle
Just a 15 minute drive from Bo'ness back towards Edinburgh and you will reach the imposing Blackness Castle. Who could forget those scenes of poor Jamie being flogged in the courtyard when the 15th Century castle stood in as Fort William?
This is definitely one of the more interesting Scottish castles that I have visited and there is certainly a gloomy atmosphere that permeates the stone walls which is no surprise given it's dark history. In contrast the views from the curtain walls and towers across the Firth of Forth are impressive and momentarily distract you from the darkness of this formidable structure. I highly recommend exploring the inside and outside of this dramatic castle if you have the time.
Blackness Castle belongs to Historic Scotland and there is an admission charge to visit. If you are going to a few of their sites the costs can add up and I recommend investigating whether a membership works out cheaper.
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