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!
For the first stop on my tour of the South of Scotland with Barbour I wanted to showcase some of the local produce at the Food Town of Castle Douglas, for the second stop I wanted to reveal a very different side to the region. Kirkcudbright has become known as the Artists' Town and you only have to spend 5 minutes walking around the streets to see why. Numerous galleries, workshops and decorated spaces are evidence of the many artists that have been drawn to this pretty harbour town on the Solway Coast. Although it is only 10 miles along the road from our first stop at Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbright has a very different look and feel, thanks to its coastal position complete with working harbour, splashes of bright colour and the imposing ruins of Maclellan's Castle standing guard over the town (complete with Rapunzel letting down her hair during our visit!).
Image Credit - Sean Elliott Photography for Barbour
We arrived 2 days before the opening of The Kirkcudbright Arts and Crafts Trail, an annual event where venues open their doors and public art displays take over the streets and lanes. Although we were early for the festival, we were in time to view the Kelpie Maquettes which had arrived the previous day and were already causing a buzz. If you have read my blog before you will know how much I love these sculptures by Andy Scott and although they are mini versions of the real thing I was still pretty excited to see them.
While we were waiting for the galleries to open, we had time to meander around the streets and admire the pastel coloured houses and smile at the quirky art on display every place we looked. At times Kirkcudbright feels like one big gallery, with many of the locals putting on their own little garden exhibitions and tempting you to discover more artisan treasures and curious window displays down hidden lanes. This is the kind of secret magical world that I love exploring!
Sitting on the edge of the Dornoch Firth and positioned off the busy main A9 road and popular North Coast 500 route, means that Dornoch is the kind of town that might easily get overlooked in your travel plans. I know I was guilty of bypassing at speed on my journeys through this part of the country in my haste to get north. Recently I was persuaded by Visit Dornoch to take the 5 minute detour from the bustling A9 (yes, it really is only 5 minutes!) and discover just what this small historic town has to offer. It turns out that despite its small size there was more than enough to keep me occupied for my 3 day visit and there was still quite a few things I didn't manage to see by the time I was due to leave. If you are planning a trip along the North East of Scotland and especially if you are undertaking a road-trip on the North Coast 500, here are 10 reasons why the 5 minute detour to Dornoch is a worthwhile one.
1. Follow in the footsteps of pop royalty at Dornoch Cathedral
If it was good enough for Madonna to have baby Rocco baptised in, then it was surely worth me taking a 5 minute detour from the A9 to find out just what makes the 13th Century Dornoch Cathedral deemed worthy of a pop superstar.
Open daily to visitors, you will find a bright, peaceful space decorated with 27 beautiful stained glass windows, that gives little clue to the Cathedral's turbulent past. Founded in 1224, a clan feud in 1570 between the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Caithness resulted in the Cathedral being set on fire and partially ruined, with repairs not carried out until 50 years later. This was far from the end of the Cathedral's troubles, with another fire set during the Civil War in 1655 and further damage caused during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46.
Repair and restoration was finally undertaken by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1833 who wanted to make a suitable resting place for her husband, the first Duke of Sutherland.
Dominating the town centre, the Cathedral is hard to miss and an interesting and tranquil place to visit.
2. Experience woodland trails with a difference
How do you make an already great walk in the woods even more fun for all the family? By adding a sculpture trail or a natural playground of course! Dornoch has not just one but two interesting woodland walks with a difference.
Skelbo Woods - A circular 1.5 mile trail around Skelbo Woods will take you through a scenic forest plantation, a pretty pond, over Skelbo Burn and back again, with a view towards the coast thrown in for good measure. If that isn't enough of a reason to visit, then hunting for the hidden sculptures along the way is guaranteed to keep you entertained, I particularly loved finding Action Man parachuting from a tree!
Camore Woods - Pine trees and purple heather are the first thing that welcome you to Camore Woods. Hidden further in the forest are the remains of more than 25 hut circles and chambered cairns, evidence that this was a popular place to live 2-3000 years ago. Add to that some imaginative play areas with tunnels, a fort and even quoits and all ages are guaranteed to find a walk here fun and engaging.
3. Tee off at one of the world's best golf courses
St Andrews may be the birthplace of golf in Scotland but Dornoch can make a claim as the birthplace of Donald Ross. A name that might mean little to non-golfers should be a familiar one to golf fans around the world, particularly those in the USA. The first golf Professional at Dornoch, in 1899 he emigrated to America and went on to become one of the finest golf architects, designing over 500 courses in America, Scotland, Canada and Cuba.
If a golf break in Scotland features in your holiday itinerary then you have a very good reason to detour to Dornoch as Royal Dornoch's Championship Course is currently ranked 5th in the world and number 1 in Scotland by Golf Digest. With several neighbouring golf courses in the area, you have plenty of choice if you need an excuse to air your clubs.
I'm not a golfer but I did enjoy the novel golf bag planters that added a splash of fun and colour around the town.
When Barbour first approached me about taking them on a tour of Southern Scotland, I was a little curious as to why they had chosen to explore this often overlooked part of the country. After a bit of research it turns out that Barbour has quite a few connections to the area that I hadn't realised before, including the fact that the company founder, John Barbour, was actually raised on a farm in Galloway before moving across the Border and opening his first Barbour store in South Shields.
The clothing range is known for its use of tartan which was first incorporated as a lining in their original oilskin coats to celebrate John Barbour's Scottish roots. The Barbour name originates from Ayrshire in the South West of Scotland and the first exclusive Barbour tartan was inspired by incorporating the Ayrshire District tartan 'sett' in the design. They now have seven exclusive tartans that feature heavily in their products.
These connections also explain why Sam Heughan of Outlander fame makes an ideal choice as Barbour's first Global Brand Ambassador as he was born in New Galloway, not far from the farm where John Barbour lived.
Still run as a family business which is proud of it's heritage, I can understand why the south of Scotland is important to Barbour and I was delighted to have another excuse to promote some of the hidden gems that make this part of Scotland worth adding to your travel itinerary. With four days to explore, I decided that our first stop would be Castle Douglas, an 18th Century market town that is also designated as Dumfries and Galloway's Food Town, the perfect place to showcase some local Scottish produce.
Irvings Homestyle Bakery
There is nothing like the smell of baking to start off a foodie themed day and a trip to Irvings Homestyle Bakery didn't disappoint with hunger inducing aromas wafting through the air! Situated in a little retail estate, the small shop at the front is just a taster of what goes on behind the scenes and we were lucky enough to be shown around by Keith Irving, the second generation of the family business.
Large rotating ovens were hard at work, along with the many employees that the business has been able to take on thanks to their success. It is hard to believe that this thriving operation started with Keith's mum, Mrs Irving, baking biscuits in her kitchen to sell in the farmhouse shop.
Mrs Irving is still on hand to make sure the baked goods retain the look and texture you would expect to find in a farmhouse kitchen and it was lovely to meet the enterprising woman who started everything off, using recipes handed down through generations of her family. It was very inspiring to see mother and son beaming with pride for their business which has expanded from humble beginnings to supplying retailers, hotels and restaurants.
It would have been rude not to leave without a pack of Scottish shortbread which went down a treat with a cup of tea back home on Bute.
In House Chocolates
There's nothing like a mid-morning coffee and chocolate fix to keep your energy up during travel adventures and In House Chocolates in Castle Douglas town centre sent me into chocolate heaven! The owner Gillian Warden has developed and produced several Gold Winning chocolates and the shop is filled with tempting creations such as Violet Creams, Drambuie Truffles and Belted Galloway shaped chocolates that were just too cute!
If choosing your chocolates isn't hard enough, then the 25 types of coffee ground to order or 14 teas available will only add to your dilemma.
If like me, you prefer to travel with your furry companion rather than leave them at home, you are probably always Googling for dog friendly accommodation and activities. I know I spend about half my time researching for dog friendly places in Scotland where Willow can enjoy a holiday too.
Dornoch on the north east coast of Scotland promotes itself as a dog friendly destination so when the lovely people at Visit Dornoch invited Willow to put that claim to the test she happily accepted and obviously I persuaded her to take me along!
Our dog friendly visit got off to a promising start when staff at the new visitor centre were happy for Willow to join me as I gathered up all the local leaflets and info for our stay. We had 3 days in Dornoch to check out the best human and dog friendly things on offer and here's what we managed to get up to...
AWARD WINNING DOG FRIENDLY BEACHES
Not only are all these beaches dog friendly, they have all been awarded a Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award which recognises excellence in beach management, access and facilities, cleanliness and safety.
Dornoch Beach was our first stop, simply because Willow LOVES the beach and I must admit to being partial to a walk along the sands myself. Thankfully it ticked all the boxes and more. I was wowed by the beautiful expanse of clean golden sand that fringes the Dornoch FIrth and Willow was delighted to find plenty of doggy chums to run about with and space to chase her ball.
Dornoch Beach is definitely a place that can be enjoyed equally by humans and their canine companions.
Unfortunately this is the last of my #ScotCoast summary blog posts as I'm sure by now most of you will know that I decided to bring my journey to a premature end due to a rather amazing opportunity popping up in my e-mail inbox. In fact day 14 was the day that signalled the beginning of the end of my adventure around the coast of Scotland as this was in fact the day that very e-mail came through and my plans all went up in the air!
As I left the quirky Coastal Carriage near Fraserburgh, my plan for the day (at that point) was to continue along the coast to Inverness where I would be reunited with Willow (I must admit I was missing her furry cuddles!) and my mum, who had planned to join me for a week as I think I was inspiring her to add some adventure to her summer too.
I had never travelled along this part of the coast of Scotland before and I instantly fell in love with it. Dramatic cliffs, green rolling hills and little toy villages nestled on tiny strips of land at the bottom of craggy rock faces. I love adventuring somewhere new and I was excited for the day ahead,
My first stop was at Pennan, a pretty village that is famous for featuring in the 1980s film, Local Hero. After a very steep and winding drive, I enjoyed a stroll along the beach, photographing the characterful cottages and picturesque harbour.
If you've been reading this blog for a while you probably know by now that I can't resist little honesty boxes selling local goods and crafts so I was delighted to pick up a little card as a souvenir of my visit.
Another steep uphill drive and I continued along to Crovie. Again this village sits tucked in to the bottom of the cliffs and as there is no public parking you have a choice of either stopping at the viewpoint car park and walking down (and up!) the road if you want to visit or simply enjoy the scene from above. Guess which option I went for!
I LOVE finding quirky accommodation in Scotland and it doesn't get much quirkier than the Coastal Carriage, an upcycled vintage rail carriage set in a quiet field on a family run farm just along the coast from Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire.
When the owner Carole invited me to experience this unique retreat for myself, I was determined to find an excuse to visit and luckily for me I was able to include an overnight stay during my recent #ScotCoast adventures. The first thing that struck me was the privacy and tranquility of the setting before I was wowed with the views of the Moray Firth and Banffshire Coast stretching across the horizon. It really felt like I had stumbled upon a little pocket of paradise.
I love watching George Clarke's Amazing Spaces and often wish I had the skill and imagination to redesign a small and quirky space into something not only charming but also functional and that is exactly what Carole and Mathew have achieved with the coastal carriage.
On the rails from 1937 until the 1960s, the carriage was later used as storage by a crofter and gradually began to fall in to a bad state of decay before Carole and Mathew rescued it. The video below shows the journey of the carriage through its restoration. The before and after shots would make George Clarke proud!
Inside is beautifully rustic with a wood burning stove to keep you toasty on colder days and you can also boil the kettle or cook your dinner on the hotplate at the same time. Wood is provided.
The cupboards and shelves are packed with all the crockery and utensils you should need.
Although my cold wasn't completely gone, I decided it was time to get back on the road and head north again through Fife. I have already explored a good bit of the Fife coast so I only really planned to spend a day in the region with plenty of photo stops of course as it is a rather photogenic part of the country.
I had also left Willow behind for a few days which meant I was free to do some activities that weren't so dog friendly.
My first stop was Culross, one of my favourite places in the country and even in the morning it was already busy with tourists, partly due to the Outlander effect as this is the filming location used for the fictional village of Cranesmuir. You can read more about Culross and other Outlander filming locations in Fife in this blog post.
The East Neuk of Fife is brimming with colourful and characterful towns and villages including my next stop at St Monans.
At my next stop in the equally pretty Pittenweem I had arranged to catch up with fellow travel blogger, Nicola from Funky Ellas Travel. I got to know Nicola through my year in Scotlanders and although I've since left, we still keep in touch. It was great to catch up with her for lunch and a chat, do pop over and check out her blog for lots more Scottish travel tips.
It wouldn't be right if I met up with a fellow Scottish travel blogger and we didn't do some exploring together so we ventured to St Fillan's cave, once used by smugglers and later became a focal point for pilgrimages. The little smiling rock outside made my day, I'm easily amused!
Not having Willow meant I could pop in to the Scottish Fisheries Museum at my next stop in Anstruther and find out more about the history of fishing in Scotland. A series of galleries and interesting displays really helped me understand more about how the industry has shaped Scotland's coastal way of life and was a really relevant education for my trip.
Berthed in the harbour outside the Fisheries Museum you will find the Reaper, a historic ship which featured in the first episode of Outlander Season 2 when Jamie and Claire arrive in France.
The scene was actually filmed not far away in Dysart, this is a photo I took of the ship on the film set of Outlander last year.
As I was passing through Crail I just had to stop at this giant sand sculpture which had been created to commemorate those left behind after the Battle of the Somme with all donations going to Erskine Hospital which has been caring for veterans since 1916.
My journey continued through the centre of St Andrews and although I didn't stop this time, you can find photos from one of my previous visits here.
Crossing from Fife and in to Angus, I could feel my energy quickly fading and decided it was time to rest for the evening. On a whim I followed a camping sign for Tayview caravan park in Monifeith, another place I had never been until this trip. The weather was typically undecided, pouring one minute then sunny the next and I suddenly felt overwhelmed with tiredness thanks to my lingering cold so when I discovered I could have a glamping lodge complete with TV for only £13 more than a tent pitch, I was sold! For £40 I could stick the kettle on, watch TV, open the patio doors and enjoy my dinner alfresco with a view of the Firth of Tay. After I was fuelled I enjoyed a walk along the beach before falling in to bed, bargain!
The next morning I stopped for a closer look at some modern standing stones near the beach with an inscribed verse from the poem 'The Wild Geese' by Violet Jacob, all about longing for home.
'And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o’ beatin’ wings, wi’ their heids towards the sea,
And aye their cryin’ voices trailed ahint them on the air –'
Another sculpture that caught my attention before leaving Monifeith was 'The Welder' outside Tescos. It was looking a bit rusty and past its best, however it interested me as it celebrated a little piece of local history. On the site of the sculpture had stood the Monifeith Foundry in 1811 which had employed around 300 people from the local area by 1880 and although there is no trace of it today, it is nice that an important industry from the town's past hasn't been completely forgotten.
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