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.
In June I was lucky enough to be invited to experience the St Magnus International Festival, Orkney's midsummer celebration of the arts which was celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. This was my first time attending the festival and my first visit to Orkney, needless to say I had a very busy but amazing time, managing to fit in four very different performances during my trip. I have written this little guide with some tips for those planning their own first visit to The St Magnus Festival.
Where does the St Magnus Festival take place?
The festival takes place at various venues across Orkney although the majority of the events take place in the town of Kirkwall on Mainland, so this is a good place to base yourself if you plan to take in a few shows. This year performances were held in an eclectic mix of venues from the stunning St Magnus Cathedral to the unusual backdrop of the Mess Hall at Ness Battery.
When does it takes place?
It takes place in midsummer, which is a very magical time to visit Orkney as it never gets truly dark, a period known as simmer dim. It is normally held is normally held over 6 days but his year the festival ran with an extended programme of events from the 16th until 26th of June to celebrate its 40th year.
Who is this festival suitable for?
An eclectic mix of performances ensure most visitors will find something to their taste and will be made to feel very welcome.
Why should I visit?
This is a great chance to mix with the community and experience life as a local for a while as the events are very popular with Orcadians who are known for their love of music and arts.
The festival has grown to become highly regarded as one of the UK's leading arts festivals featuring top class performances which mainly revolve around music although you will also find drama, dance, literature and visual arts. You are just as likely to find talented local acts as you are esteemed international performers and the range of interesting venues used as backdrops means that you get to see a different side to Orkney.
Traditional music is strongly featured and every year a full scale orchestra is also brought to the festival, add to that new talent, specially commissioned pieces and world premieres and you will understand why the festival has grown to be a big feature on the Orkney events calendar.
What type of performances can I see?
Music features strongly on the programme, particularly traditional and classical. Each year Magfest adds a 'Fringe' element to the lie-up with drama, circus and cabaret acts. This year it included a life-sized puppet circus style show!
To give you an idea of the variety on offer, these are the four very different shows I attended this year.
The Biggest Marionette Circus in the World - Certainly a show with a difference complete with a life-sized elephant, giraffe and lion. I think I was a little old to appreciate this show but the children there seemed to enjoy it!
The Orkney Traditional Music Project - The project was founded in 1998 to revive the teaching of traditional music in Orkney and I found it very inspirational to watch the next generation of Orkney fiddlers and accordionists showing off their skills.
Saltfishforty - The highlight show for me was by local act Saltfishforty who were joined by several guest musicians, both established and up and coming. Their performance of traditional and original tunes from Orkney had everyone tapping their toes in the stunning venue of St Magnus Cathedral. The video below will give you a little taster of their fantastic show.
Meditations by Orkney Camerata - My final show of the festival was a night of mystical and spiritual music, again within the beautiful backdrop of St Magnus Cathedral. Orkney is a magical place and this seemed a fitting finale for my final night on the island.
Fort William sits nestled beneath the rugged peaks of the Northwest Highlands, with Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, a constant fixture over the town. Each year it celebrates everything great about the outdoors and wild mountain culture through art, photography, film, workshops and well known names in the world of adventure at The Fort William Mountain Festival.
This year I was invited to experience some of what the festival has to offer and also to explore what else there is to do in Fort William in the winter. As it turns out there is a surprising amount of ways to fill your time (you can read some of my recommendations here) and combining a winter break with some of the festival events meant I enjoyed a diverse range of activities during my three days there.
I got my first feel for the festival at the launch night which officially kicked off with a torch-lit descent of Aonach Mor on ski, board and mountain bike before everyone gathered in the warmth of The Pinemartin Cafe at the Nevis Range. Here we were treated to a series of short films and talks before providing an audience for the BBC's Adventure Show live with presenters Dougie Vipond, Cameron McNeish and Michael Stewart keeping us entertained with their witty banter. I also have to give a special shout out to the Scottish stovies served up during the interval, they were amazing!
This year was my first time visiting StAnza, Scotland's International Poetry Festival, in fact it was my first time visiting a poetry event of any type. I had a fantastic weekend and hopefully I can share some of the tips that I picked up so you can have a fantastic time too. So here is my First Timers Guide to Visiting StAnza...
Where does StAnza take place?
In the historic and picturesque town of St Andrews which is situated in the region of Fife on the east coast of Scotland. St Andrews is 'The Home of Golf' and the third-oldest English-speaking university in the world which was founded in 1413. it is also legend that the bones of St Andrew were brought here, hence the name.
When does it takes place?
The festival takes place in March and has just celebrated it's 18th year.
What does StAnza mean?
Stanza is a poetry term which in this case has been carefully branded with the St and A of St Andrews. If you look at the festival logo then you will see that the A has also been designed to look like the St Andrews Cross (the flag of Scotland).
As a poetry term www.shmoop.com describes a stanza as 'A division within a poem where a group of lines are formed into a unit. The word “stanza” comes from the Italian word for “room.” Just like a room, a poetic stanza is set apart on a page by four “walls” of blank, white space.'
Why should I visit?
This is the perfect chilled out festival and St Andrews is the perfect Scottish short break destination. Combine the two and you will have an amazingly relaxed and unique experience.
Who is this festival suitable for?
Families, couples, friends or solo travellers will feel equally at home and welcome with events for all tastes. Even if you don't have any poetry knowledge you may be surprised at how accessible many of the events are. If you enjoy live performances such as plays or storytelling then you will most likely enjoy live poetry too.
How do I get there?
Bus - There is a bus station in the town centre and you can catch a Stagecoach bus from Edinburgh or Glasgow, see their website for more details https://www.stagecoachbus.com/
Train - St Andrews doesn't have it's own train station, instead you will have to travel to Leuchars station (6 miles away) and complete your journey by bus or taxi. Train information can be found on the ScotRail website at http://www.scotrail.co.uk/
Car - St Andrews is easily accessible by car from all the main cities in Scotland. The St Andrews University website has some suggested driving routes, be warned though if you decide to drive then finding a parking place in the town centre at peak times is not easy (understatement!) and paid parking meters are in operation which have a maximum stay time of 2 hours. The Visit St Andrews website has information on the best places to park for free and current parking restrictions.
Where should I stay?
St Andrews has accommodation to suit all budgets and there are some fabulous high end hotels if you are looking for some luxury. I always use TripAdvisor as a great guide for honest hotel reviews and they have a handy list of the best St Andrews Hotels which is worth looking at before you book.
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.
This year I spent a rather romantic Valentine's night checking out Glasgow's latest winter festival, The Electric Gardens. From 23rd January to the 15th February the Botanic Gardens and the iconic Victorian Kibble Palace were transformed by a display of colourful lights and accompanying soundtrack.
It was a nice way to spend an alternative evening out in the trendy west-end of the city and I also think that the concept of the festival fits in perfectly with the gradual colourful night time transformation of Glasgow city centre over the past few years.
This was the first year of the event and I did think there was scope for improvement, however with the recent announcement that it will return next year I am already looking forward to bigger and better things.
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