About the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival
Over recent years I've developed quite a fondness for the charming fishing villages and dramatic cliffs of the Aberdeenshire coast. The scenery is very different to the wilder west of Scotland but I've found the quaint east coast settlements, steeped in history and tradition, are generally less touristy than their west coast counterparts and offer a more authentic local experience.
When I was recently invited to explore more of the area with an opportunity to attend the annual Traditional Scottish Boat Festival in Portsoy, I quickly made some space in my travel diary. The festival was founded after successful celebrations were held to mark the 300th anniversary of Portsoy harbour in 1993. It was decided that an annual festival promoting regional maritime and cultural traditions should take place in the historic fishing port and this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Portsoy Boat Festival. As I was to find out, it is about much more than just boats...
My festival experience
Although the main festival takes place each year on a Saturday and Sunday at the end of June/beginning of July depending on the tides, the party officially starts the night before. On the Friday evening I was pointed in the direction of the main marquee by a gaggle of excited chattering locals as they meandered down the winding streets towards the various festival venues around the village, while I continued to pursue the source of frantic fiddle notes drifting through the warm evening air. After tracking down my destination in Wally Green, I joined the gathered crowd for the next couple of hours while we toe-tapped to some traditional tunes by Ella McTaggart and sang along with folk legend Dougie MacLean, famed for writing 'Caledonia' which has become a bit of a Scottish anthem. As the concert ended, a fiery sunset had taken over the sky and revellers with more stamina than me moved on to continue the shindig at the late night session.
With up to 16,000 people expected over the weekend, I decided to arrive early on the Saturday morning to beat the crowds and the hot afternoon temperatures predicated later in the day.
Before I got there, I naively thought the boat festival would be a small community affair but over the years it has grown in to a major event which spreads along the harbour front and back towards the centre of Portsoy. I was grateful I'd put my comfy shoes on that day!
With four distinct areas to explore, like any sensible person I started at the food fayre. The scent of various local delicacies filled the tent from fudge to gin and coffee to cheese and I was overjoyed to discover The Isle of Skye Baking Company. Being gluten free meant I was a little concerned I wouldn't find anything suitable to eat at the festival food outlets but the bakery stand had me covered with their range of gluten free goodies including fresh bread, quiches and cakes. For a very long minute I seriously contemplated breaking my gluten free diet just so I could feast on all their delicious sounding loaves - malted barley and lavender, Stornoway black pudding, bacon, onion and tomato, and Scottish seaweed with Skye ale - they all had me salivating but I resisted the temptation. Instead I made a mental note to return later when my tummy started its inevitable lunchtime rumble.
With lunch sorted I followed the swirling tunes of the Portsoy Pipe Band as they marched down to the picturesque 17th century harbour and the heart of the festival. Historic and characterful wooden boats with colourful bunting sat anchored by the pier and coracles for hire were a big hit with boatless visitors keen to get out on the water. Personally, I passed up on the possibility of a soaking but those brave enough to venture aboard looked like they were having great fun.
Summer in Scotland means festival season and with so many to choose from up and down the country it can be difficult to know where to start. Gemma Armit, a Fife local and Scotland travel blogger at Two Scots Abroad has put together this great guide to the best summer festivals in Fife. I'm ashamed to say I've not been to any of these, however thanks to Gemma I've been inspired to check some out for myself and hopefully you will be too!
One of the sweetest things about the Kingdom of Fife is the sense of community that
spreads throughout summer in the form of its festivals. Towns and villages of all sizes
club together to entertain visitors and celebrate tradition through music, theatre, food,
sport and traditional highland dance. This guide is an insight into some of the best
Scottish summer (and beyond) festivals in the region over the water from the capital,
Crail Food Fest
Over one weekend in June, this food festival offers food stalls, educational talks, street
music and chef shows in the town of Crail. Venues include Crail Harbour,
BeechwalkPark and Crail Community Centre. Included in the itinerary is ‘Langoustine in
a Box’ which content creators from the Feast of Fife press trip say is making waves so
that is definitely one set to catch over this two-day culinary event.
East Neuk Festival
This 5-day music event is an explosion of culture set against the stunning backdrop of
Fife’s East Neuk. Expect the unexpected as churches are transformed in concert halls in
June! Previous venues include Anstruther Town Hall and Kilconquhar Church.
Byre in the Botanics
No need to worry about the typical July Scottish summer weather at this Fife festival,
artists perform under a roof during this fully seated gig. Expect a show by Midge Ure
and opera from Oliver-award winning, OperaUpClose in 2018.
Aberdour Festival runs for a mammoth 10 days and is jam-packed with art exhibitions,
music, comedy, fossil walks and scarecrow hunting! The event also includes a variety of
sports coaching and challenges such as bowls, cricket, tea dances, raft racing and the
famous Donkey Brae Run.
Are you the star of the show? Check out Aberdour does Strictly this summer! Can
pampered pooch win the pet show? They’ve really thought of everything in Aberdour.
While you are there, swing out Aberdour Castle which features in the popular TV series
Outlander. Fans should check out this guide to Outlander tours and locations for more
The tarmac road and occasional car snaking through the winding glen is the only reminder that I'm still in 21st Century Scotland. For long periods the silence lingers and I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the timeless sprawling mountain landscape before me. Glenshee might mean the 'Glen of the Fairies' but I can't help thinking it could comfortably house a small army of giants without any trouble.
This glen has been used as a route north to the Highlands for thousands of years, and like numerous travellers before me, my journey is destined to end at a 'Gathering'. From cattle drovers to Kings and Queens, I wonder how many of them have also stood here in the same awe.
Before reaching my terminus at Braemar, I have to navigate the highest main road in the UK over the ear popping Cairnwell Pass, a route surprisingly well frequented in the winter thanks to those flocking to the largest ski and snowboard resort in Scotland. A further 9 miles of twists and turns through the wild terrain of the Cairngorms National Park brings me to its heart at the village of Braemar and the end of my journey.
Thanks to its geographical position, Braemar has been the ideal location for various 'gatherings' throughout the centuries. A strategic place in the days of clan warfare, a meeting point of cattle droving roads, the centre of the biggest deer forest in the country and a place frequented by Scottish Kings. The current Braemar Royal Highland Gathering is just the latest in a long list of local meetings.
According to tradition it is said the original Braemar Gathering dates back to the time of King Malcolm Canmore who would call the clans to the Braes of Mar and have members compete against each other to find the strongest and quickest soldiers.
Gatherings at Braemar continued until after Culloden and the failed 1745 Uprising, when they were banned by law for over 30 years and were not up and running again until 1800.
In 1815 the Braemar Wrights Society was formed to organise a welfare and social insurance system. The Wrights Society subsequently became the Braemar Highland Society, with aims to preserve the kilt, language and cultural interests of the Highlands, values which continue to this day. The Society's Annual Procession laid the roots for the current Braemar Gathering which has enjoyed Patronage of successive Monarchs since Queen Victoria.
StAnza must be a contender for Scotland's most chilled out festival. The main hub and gathering place is The Byre Theatre where performers, organisers and audience members can be found mingling casually over coffee or a glass of wine.
As someone attending the festival alone and for the first time I didn't feel in the least bit intimidated, in fact I immediately felt welcome and at home. Between performances and over dinner I got chatting to people from an interesting variety of backgrounds and they all somehow felt like long lost friends. Having returned from the festival a few days ago, the feeling of homeliness and friendliness is still my overriding impression of StAnza and my weekend in St Andrews.
It is easy to have pre-conceived ideas about what a poetry festival might consist of or dismiss it as too arty or boring, certainly when I told people what I was going to be doing over the weekend not one of them said 'Wow, that sounds awesome!' (maybe I need to get more cultured friends). As it turns out a poetry festival is a mixture of music, comedy and storytelling all rolled into one and much more accessible to the masses than you might first think.
My philosophy in life is to approach things with an open mind as the best experiences often come from the most unexpected places and it turns out StAnza is one of those places, as I loved the experience from start to finish and will certainly return for a future visit.
Aside from the genuine friendly, laid-back atmosphere, it was the poets and their performances that really made this event for me. I went to 5 very different shows and enjoyed every one of them for different reasons.
My introduction to the festival saw me casually chilling out with a pie and a pint at one of the excellent Poetry Cafe events, which are ideal for poetry festival newbies like me. Erin Fornoff, a spoken word poet, had me quickly captivated with her emotional performance and stories of her life growing up in the Appalachian Mountains before a transition across the Atlantic to Dublin and an unfortunate casting couch experience.
By coincidence I ended up sharing my dinner table and conversation with Erin later that evening and it was this kind of informal, accessible atmosphere where everyone ate, drank and chatted together that made StAnza so memorable and unique for me.
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