It's not every day you get invited on a trip to a mystery destination in Scotland (well I certainly don't!), so needless to say when I received such an invite from VisitScotland, I immediately cleared my diary and packed my bag for all eventualities. Okay they did specify dress cosy and warm but that seemed a bit vague so I stuffed my rucksack with as many clothes as I could fit, although the fact that one of the zips burst was a sign that I might have packed a few things too many, oops! The trip was a media event to coincide with the launch of their new global marketing campaign 'Scotland - A Spirit of its Own'.
In search of some top secret #ScotSpirit I boarded a minivan in Glasgow, accompanied by a group of journalists and bloggers from around the UK and Ireland and we quickly set off towards our still undisclosed destination.
I was delighted when we eventually stopped and I realised we were in the depths of Galloway Forest Park in a stunning spot overlooking Loch Riecawr. It seemed rather fitting that our secret destination turned out to be in Dumfries and Galloway, a region which still remains secret to many tourists despite it being rich with scenery and steeped in history. Our immersive local experience provided an opportunity to discover some of the elements that make up the Dumfries and Galloway #ScotSpirit.
After a quick chance to stretch our legs, a children's playpark provided a viewpoint and variety of unconventional seating for the group to sit quietly, while we were encouraged to reflect and inhale the unique detail of the surrounding landscape, looking for original photography ideas rather than randomly clicking away with our cameras and phones. Thankfully we had some expert advice on hand from one of the park's new Dark Sky Rangers, Morag Paterson, who handily also happens to be a professional photographer and artist.
In 2009 Galloway Forest Park gained status as an International Dark Sky Park, the only one in the UK and only one of four in the Western world. In a bid to increase tourism to the area in the quieter months, four Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers, from a variety of backgrounds, have been trained to use their personal specialisms in a way that will encourage wider use of the park, with photography being just one of the activities on offer.
Getting a literal flavour of an area, is an essential ingredient to any immersive local experience but how do you provide an authentic fine dining setting in the middle of a remote and commercially undeveloped forest? Well naturally you deliver the restaurant to the park! This is much easier when the restaurant happens to be a converted shipping container on wheels pulled by a tractor.
Once you realise it is one of the latest brainwaves from brothers, Tom and Dick Lewis, of the family run Mhor brand, the quirkiness of it all makes perfect sense. Owners of a hill farm in Perthshire, an esteemed hotel, motel, fish restaurant and bakery among other smaller ventures, a transportable eatery seems like a perfect addition to the family.
However, it is also their passion for local produce that made them the perfect hosts for the evening and both brothers were on hand to tell us more about the ingredients behind the delicious dishes which were either sourced from within 30 minutes of our location or raised on their own farm.
Back in 2014 I wrote a blog on 10 quirky places you can stay the night in Scotland and it seems that lots of you love staying in unique accommodation as much as I do as the blog continues to be very popular.
Since then I've stayed in a few more unusual places and even managed to spend the night at one of the recommendations on my list.
I thought it was about time I shared some of the new quirky accommodation choices that I have discovered that I would personally love to try out and have complied an updated list with 10 more quirky places you can spend the night in Scotland.
1. Float you boat on board The Four Sisters Boatel in Edinburgh
Moored on the Union Canal, this static luxury houseboat has been purpose built to offer self catering accommodation with a difference in the heart of Edinburgh. Visit website.
2. Stay in a High Seas Hobbits home in The Shire (Aberdeenshire to be precise!)
These hobbit pods in Rosehearty provide everything you need for a luxury glamping holiday with the bonus of dramatic cliff top scenery on the doorstep. Visit website.
3. Relive your childhood by swinging from a Treehouse in East Lothian
These en-suite Treehouses have been designed to offer the highest degree of space and comfort, with sea views from the deck above and swings at the rear. Visit Website.
4. Follow the whisky trail from Barley Bothy near Huntly
Situated on a farm in a field of barley grown for malting whisky, this upcycled tin shed provides all the comforts you need while allowing you to get back to nature. Visit website.
5. Take command of the Gatehouse at Ayton Castle in Eyemouth
This impressive pink sandstone holiday cottage is actually the gatehouse at the entrance to Ayton Castle. Guests have access to the extensive castle grounds including a river walk along the Eye Water. Visit website.
***UPDATE DECEMBER 2016*** After several failed attempts to redevelop the land, Polphail has now been demolished to make way for housing and a distillery. I'm glad I got to visit when I did before this piece of Scotland's history vanished forever.
Scotland has it's fair share of abandoned buildings in various states of neglect and spanning every era. It isn't short of crumbling townships either, many of which fell victim to the Highland Clearances. Yet even in a country full of deserted stone shells, Polphail Village is unique.
A relatively modern development at a mere 40 years young, it was built to accommodate 500 workers for a nearby oil platform construction yard but the village was never occupied. Despite the oil boom of the 1970s, logistical problems with the location meant no orders were ever placed and the yard never went into production.
Instead it has spent the last four decades at the mercy of nature, providing a home to a colony of bats and a blank canvas for street artists.
Despite it's scenic position on the shores of Loch Fyne, various plans to redevelop the land have all fallen through and it is hard to disagree with those that feel the village is a blight on an otherwise picturesque landscape. The ever expanding modern Portavadie Marina with it's elegant finishes sits on the doorstep of Polphail providing a stark architectural contrast. Yet there is something eerily fascinating about the dilapidated grey buildings with their artistically applied graffiti make-up, which provide an alluring appeal to the creative and curious.
A walk around the site provides a time capsule glimpse of a world that never was, with washing machines never used, beds never slept in and doors never opened. A waste of money, a sad place, hauntingly creepy, a health and safety hazard; Polphail is all of these things and yet it is also a uniquely intriguing place that continues to radiate a mysterious draw.
Scotland lends itself to campervan road-trips, small enough to navigate with ease but big enough to provide a variety of breathtaking landscapes and plenty of adventure. Scotland is a country where you don't have to travel far from civilization to discover areas that are not only free of people but feel like a forgotten wilderness. In my opinion the ideal way to explore these scenic, natural playgrounds is in the relative luxury of a modern campervan. Much more than a bed on wheels, they provide the freedom to roam wherever you fancy, the freedom to park among the mountains while you stick the kettle on for a cup of tea or the freedom to stop and watch the final rays of a sunset before climbing under your cosy duvet for the night.
When Rockin Vans offered me the use of one of their new funky VW campervans to head off on a Scottish road-trip I jumped at the chance. Having hired from them several years ago I already knew they were a great little Scottish company and I was delighted to see how much they had expanded and updated their vans since I first used them, a sign they are obviously doing something right!
With so many destinations to choose from I decided to venture into the unknown and embark on my first visit to the Isle of Mull. 2015 seemed to have a reoccurring theme for me of visiting new Scottish Islands and with two weeks left until the end of the year, adding another Island to my collection seemed a fitting final adventure. Another reason that attracted me to Mull was the recent introduction of the reduced RET ferry fares by CalMac which makes visiting many of the Scottish islands very affordable even with a campervan.
After picking up a dog friendly funky bright orange VW from the Rockin Vans headquarters, I headed back to my home on Bute to pack a few essentials and when I wasn't looking Mr Adventures Around Scotland had managed to sneak onboard while Willow, my lurcher, was giving me an expectant look, I guess they were looking forward to the road-trip too!
DAY 1 - ISLE OF BUTE TO ARDFERN
We set off as the sun began to rise with streaks of gold criss-crossing the horizon as we left Rhubodach and took the short ferry crossing over the Kyles of Bute. Although Mull was our ultimate destination, having a campervan makes it just as much about the journey and we decided to take the road less travelled along Argyll's Secret Coast. Taking another ferry from Portavadie across Loch Fyne brought us to the picturesque village of Tarbert where we savoured the therapeutic view of colourful fishing boats bobbing in the harbour as I popped the kettle on for the first cup of tea for the day, this has to be one of my favourite things about travelling in a campervan.
Fully refreshed we carried on north with a quick a stop at Ardrishaig to walk part of the Crinan Canal before continuing to Kilmartin Glen, the perfect place to enjoy a lunch break. This is one of the most historically rich areas of Scotland, with an abundance of standing stones, burial cairns, stone carvings and Dunadd Fort, once the power stronghold of the Kingdom of Dalriada. It is possible to climb to the top of the fort although the route is rocky and steep in places but well worth the effort if you are able. Look out for the notice boards which describe features of note and explain how the fort would have originally looked.
The view from the top down the ancient glen and across to the Isle of Jura is spectacular. As I stood alone, gazing around and imagining the people that once inhabited the land before me, my thoughts were interrupted by an almighty boom of thunder that seemed to go on forever! I couldn't help thinking that the powerful roar across the mysterious glen was some sort of message from the ancient world.
I quickly slipped and slid down the hillside, reaching the sanctuary of the van just as battering hail began to bounce off the ground and with darkness starting to descend, it seemed an appropriate time to find our campsite for the night further along the road in Ardfern.
If you're suffering from January wanderlust and in need of a little travel inspiration then this is the blog post for you. Make 2016 the year you visit Scotland and immerse yourself in mountains, castles, sunsets and deserted beaches which just happen to be rated among the best in the world!
Wildlife, history, architecture, outdoor pursuits, art, culture, music, breathtaking scenery and men in kilts, whatever your interests then Scotland is sure to satisfy your travel cravings. I could go on and on but I would probably never stop so here are 16 pretty pictures to celebrate 2016 that will hopefully tempt you to immediately book a trip to Scotland ;-)
Lochranza Castle, Isle of Arran
Isle of Bute looking towards the mountains of Arran
Kiloran Beach, Isle of Colonsay
Isle of Colonsay
The only thing cuter than a Heilan' Coo is a baby Heilan' Coo
Dunskey Castle, Portpatrick
Regular readers of my blog will know I am partial to searching out and visiting locations which have been used in the filming of the Outlander TV series. There are two reasons for this; firstly I am a bit of an Outlander fan myself so I enjoy trying to recognise places that have featured in the series, Secondly, in my experience, the locations used are actually really interesting to visit in their own right and in many ways Outlander has inspired me to uncover some of Scotland's hidden gems which I was unaware of until the show brought them to my attention.
Having already visited many locations in the Fife and Edinburgh areas, I decided it was time to add some Perthshire settings to my list and explore two very iconic backdrops featured in Series 1.
My first stop was at Tibbermore Church, the setting of the witch trial in 'The Devil's Mark' episode. Although near the city of Perth it is still off the beaten track enough that I would never have discovered or visited this extremely atmospheric little church had Outlander not captivated my curiosity and like many locations I've visited it was well worth seeking out.
Cared for by The Scottish Redundant Churches Trust since 2001, the original building dates back to 1632, although an earlier church had existed there during the late middle ages. The original design has been modified over the years and after prolonged neglect, the SRCT has been raising funds to carry out much needed repairs and the fee from the filming of Outlander has actually helped to fix the roof which is a really positive extra benefit.
The church is normally locked but arranging a visit was really easy, after e-mailing the SCRT they contacted the key-holder who lives next door and she organised to meet me and give me access.
As soon as I stepped through the main door I literally got goosebumps and a really eerie feeling. The gloomy day meant little light was coming through the windows and the dark furniture did nothing to brighten the place up. I can honestly say I've never been in a church quite like it and despite some signs of neglect, the history and character oozed through the dimly lit space.
There are lots of interesting features to look out for including the stained glass windows, a war memorial, the stenciled decoration around the pulpit, the horseshoe seating and large stone tablet inserted in the wall dating back to 1631.
There is also a display board with images from Outlander to show how the church looked during 'The Devil's Mark' and some information notices with more details on the filming.
Do you ever get the urge to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life? To enjoy some respite from rushing around? To feel liberated from crowds of people, technological distractions, traffic jams and the general stresses that come with living in the modern world? Even if just for 24 hours?
As I jumped in the car to catch my first CalMac ferry of the day, I immediately felt the weight of the world rise off my shoulders as rapidly as the blazing sun was emerging on the horizon. This had to be a good omen for the weekend ahead and my own much needed 24 hour escape to the little Hebridean haven of Colonsay.
Heading off alone to a remote island with a population of only approx 135 hardy inhabitants is a very appealing prospect to me at the best of times; when the sun shines and the sky is a perfect blue, it offers the alluring promise of a peaceful paradise.
However, as is often the case in Scotland, it's just as much about the beauty of the journey as that of the destination. With three very different CalMac ferry crossings, through some of the most scenic west coast waters, I spent much of my time on deck breathing in the salty air and surveying the several other islands we passed by as seabirds glided effortlessly along the air currents before diving-bombing into the frothy waves below.
As my final ferry of the day reached Port Askaig for a quick stop-off I was able to enjoy a different view of Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain, two of the distilleries I had visited earlier in the year during a whisky tour of Islay.
Soon after departing Islay my GPS showed that we were fast approaching Colonsay and I excitedly peered ahead to catch my first glimpses of the island, with the distinctive point of the Lord Colonsay Monument visible on a hill top as we neared the ferry terminal at the main settlement of Scalasaig.
Driving off the ferry I was greeted by one of the locals who handed me a pack containing lots of information about the island. This was a first for me and I was highly impressed at both being personally welcomed and the initiative of providing tourists with local information to encourage them to make the most of their time during their stay. This is fantastic proactive approach to tourism from a small community and something which many places in Scotland could learn a thing or two from!
Between my welcome pack and pre-trip research, I had a pretty good idea of the things I wanted to do and see to make the most of my short stay on Colonsay. I may only have had just over 24 hours to enjoy my Hebridean freedom, however time seems to stretch when you embrace the slow pace of island life and I always find a minute standing immersed in rugged remoteness seems much more productive than an hour spent negotiating my usual never-ending to do list.
Luckily Colonsay is a small island and easy to explore by car or bike, with one main road circulating the sites. This was my first visit to this little strip of land, where free roaming sheep far outnumber the people and the next landmass after the craggy rocks and sandy beaches on the west coast is Canada.
This is how I chose to relax on the Isle of Colonsay...
After departing the ferry I made a quick stop at Colonsay Brewery before it closed for the weekend to pick up some gift packs to take home and I may have sneaked in an extra bottle for me to enjoy that evening! Well what better place to enjoy the local brew?
With just one road there wasn't too much risk of getting lost as I made my way to Colonsay House and my accommodation for the night. My short drive and first introduction to the island consisted mainly of a welcoming mass of white, woolly balls on legs. Lining the verges, congregating in fields, strolling towards me on the road and peering over hilltops, I was starting to wonder if sheep were the real rulers of this empire.
By the end of my trip I had developed a real fondness for my new fleecy friends.
Colonsay House and Gardens
Colonsay House dates from 1722 and the south wing has been converted into holiday apartments which is where I was spending the night. With a view overlooking the pretty gardens it would have been a shame not to visit and I had just enough time to quickly explore before they closed.
One thing I particularly wanted to see in the grounds of the house was the mysterious carved stone statue which stands next to a well dedicated to St Oran. It is believed to date from the 7th or 8th century with what is thought to be a head of Christ at the top and a fish tail at the bottom. The gardens are well worth visiting with lots of floral colour, butterflies and quirky objects.
Despite being situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and home to the world's only rotating boat lift, Falkirk remained pretty much under the tourist radar until the arrival of two giant horse-head sculptures in 2014. Since the launch of The Kelpies and the regeneration of the surrounding area, Falkirk has become an essential inclusion in many travel itineraries as visitors now flock to the town to admire it's two unique feats of engineering and design. I'm the first to put a guilty hand up and admit that until recently my own visits to Falkirk haven't extended beyond these two attractions.
But what else, if anything, does this Central Lowland town have to offer a visitor?
That was the challenge on our latest Scotlanders campaign as we spent a weekend discovering the other gems worth searching out in the area and I was tasked with showcasing Falkirk as an outdoors destination.
Thanks to new cycle paths, the opening of the John Muir Way and general redevelopment, the town is gradually transforming itself into a tourist and outdoor activity hot spot.
Nordic walking classes, mountain bike trails, water sports, fishing, golf, Segway tours and skiing are some of the more adventurous activities available, however I opted for two of the most accessible and enjoyable ways to explore the town and it's attractions - by bike and on foot.
The HArTT Cycle Route
On the Saturday I picked up my hire bike and braved the inclement weather to explore part of the new Helix Around Town Tour, a 16 mile circular cycle route which passes the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel, Callendar House and some lesser known places of interest.
You really can do as much or as little of the circuit as you like and as the mainly flat trail follows cycle-ways, towpaths and woodland, it is an ideal biking route for novices or families.
I found that travelling between the attractions on two wheels gave me a whole new perspective on the town as I discovered quiet, scenic pathways hidden away from the busy roads. Wetland, woods, canals and tunnels provided an ever-changing backdrop as I travelled through a variety of urban, industrial and landscaped scenery. I particularly enjoyed the sections running alongside the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals, with colourful boats moored along the way and curious swans swimming alongside in the hope of a feed.
One of the more interesting hidden gems to look out for is the 630m long Falkirk Tunnel on the Union Canal. The cycle route passes by it, however I recommend stopping to explore inside. Although there is some lighting, I found the tunnel pretty dark and just a wee bit creepy so a torch is useful if you do decide to have a look around.
The tunnel was completed in 1822 with hand picks, shovels and gunpowder used to cut through the bare rock. The walls aren't lined and peculiar calcified forms and stalactites have built up over the years which means you also have to watch out for lots of drips. A strange, spooky and worthwhile stop off!
My next destination was at Callendar Estate where I had a welcome lunch date with fellow Scotlander Nicola who was exploring Callendar House as part of her heritage theme. The restored mansion was a very pleasant setting for our afternoon tea and the visitor staff were more than happy to safely store my bike away while I refueled.
Those wanting to add a more challenging cycle can try out the network of mountain bike trails on the estate. Each trail has been graded according to its level of difficulty and challenge from easy to exhilarating!
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