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!
Can it really be 20 years since the cry of 'Freedom' echoed in cinemas across the globe? Apparently so (which makes me feel quite old!) and two decades later Braveheart continues to inspire people to uncover the facts from the fiction of the legendary William Wallace and how he rose to become Scotland's National Hero.
Most people interested in this era of Scottish history make their way to Stirling and the area of his most famous victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Shadowing over the battlefield is the volcanic outcrop of Abbey Craig with the National Wallace Monument pointedly rising a further 220ft skywards. Erected in the 1860s to commemorate one of the most recognised figures from Scotland's past, it is currently also commemorating the film that helped create international awareness of his story.
I went along to one of their special free events that are running throughout 2015 with costumed actors and historians taking you back to one of the most dramatic periods in Scottish history as they tell tales from the battlefield and stories about the man himself.
I really enjoyed the 'Scotland's National Hero' talk and it provided an entertaining insight into the life of William Wallace before I embarked on the 246 monument steps to observe the landscape that was so significant not just during the time of Wallace but also for hundreds of years previous.
Constructed with money from a fundraising campaign and designed by the Scottish architect John Thomas Rochead, the monument is based on a combination of a traditional Scottish tower house castle with a stone crown spire on the top.
Today you can follow the spiral stone staircase and the story of the famous Scottish warrior at the various floors with exhibitions as you climb upwards, be sure to stop at the Hall of Heroes where you will see the famous Wallace sword on display, said to have been used by him during battle! It also includes busts of some of Scotland's other notable figures including Sir Walter Scott and King Robert the Bruce.
Just when you think that your staircase workout is never going to end, you step out into the crown and are rewarded with impressive 360 degree sweeping views spreading into the distance. Look out for Stirling Castle, perched on another volcanic outcrop before you, the Ochil hills stretching in the other direction and of course the looping river that played a vital role in the victory for the Scots at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
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.
If like me you are a fan of The Kelpies then you should really visit the numerous other public sculptures designed by Andy Scott that are dotted around Central Scotland.
I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of The Kelpies and it really brought these magnificent creatures to life with fire, light and sound. Ever since I have made it my mission to visit and photograph his other works of art.
In common with The Kelpies they all capture the history and mythology of the area they represent. One of the best ways to view six of his sculptures and some lovely Scottish scenery is by following the The Andy Scott Sculpture Trail through Clackmannanshire.
You will need a car and the Visit Scotland guide provides a logical route which I suggest you follow as it would be difficult to find them all otherwise (although read my note at the end for one correction!)
This is my photoblog of my tour along the trail, for more info on the meaning of the sculptures I have added the appropriate links. Unfortunately I had mixed weather for taking photographs but that's Scotland for you!
First stop is 'This Journey's End' which is situated on Marywood roundabout on the approach to Clackmannan and Alloa. It celebrates the opening of the Clackmannanshire Bridge and represents crossing and meeting.
If there was one Scottish event I wasn't going to miss this year, it was the launch of The Kelpies. These two 30 metre, 300 tonne, stainless steel horse heads have captured my heart from the beginning.
I love that there is something mystical and ethereal about them as they shimmer in the light and give the impression that they could come to life at any moment.
The opening night saw a clear blue sky over Falkirk which slowly coloured to orange as the sun began to set. I stood in a snaking queue with excited anticipation at the much hyped fire, light and sound show which was about to take place.
While everyone stood waiting in the now chilly evening, we were entertained by poets, musicians and street performers, all setting the mood for the event ahead.
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