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!
I love visiting the autumnal Big Tree Country of Perthshire to witness the vibrant tapestry of foliage as it goes out in a final blaze of yellow, orange and red glory. It really is one of the prettiest places to visit in Scotland at this time of year and on my latest venture to the region I discovered Killiecrankie Hotel is the perfect place to hibernate with a whisky by the fire when the darkness encroaches into the afternoon and wet woodland explorations have to be cut short.
I picked a pretty poor day to travel north as Britain's first named storm is on its way. Storm Abigail is predicted to bring battering wind and torrential rain as it traverses Scotland. As I head past Perth the sky turns an ominous black and the heavens open, roads are quickly flooded and driving conditions become more and more challenging. Relieved to reach my destination, I make a dash from the car to the entrance in an attempt to avoid presenting myself at reception like a drowned rat which I just about manage to achieve.
On arrival I am eagerly welcomed by Beanie, the resident spaniel who expectantly presents me with a squeaky toy before following me to the reception where I'm welcomed again, this time by Henrietta, the hotel's owner and manager.
My bags are transported to my room by an assistant in unique patchwork tartan trews, coffee and cake is arranged and I'm already getting the impression that despite the decor, this is not a conventional country house hotel. Henrietta confirms this when she explains that she doesn't want the place to feel stuffy, instead she treats people as if they are guests in her house and technically they are although her background working in some of the country's most luxurious hotels is reflected in the high standards throughout. The result is a quality hotel with an informal feel and some quirky touches!
My large deluxe bedroom had a Scottish country house feel with just enough tartan to be tasteful without being tacky. The fresh decor made the room feel very homely and any thoughts of the storm outside were long gone as I settled in for the evening.
With all the usual inclusions and extras you would expect from a luxury room, I couldn't think of anything else I would have needed. Real coffee, a cafetiere and current copies of several Scottish magazines were a welcome touch and if I was being picky, then a desk rather than a set of drawers would have been preferred. A stool was provided but it really wasn't a comfortable way to sit and use the dressing mirror or my laptop.
The bathroom was spacious and spotlessly clean, with a separate bath and powerful shower and the quirky duck sponge was a nice bit of fun. Although the toiletries smelled lovely it would have been nice to carry through the Scottish theme with some local products.
After a really comfortable sleep, I woke up to discover that the room also had a pretty view to the garden and the hills beyond, a pleasant surprise.
As a Scottish travel blogger I often get asked for advice when people are making plans to visit Scotland and this usually inspires me to write a blog post on a place or experience that will help to answer some of those queries. However there is one place that I get asked about more than any other and that is Glencoe.
A rugged, dramatic and at times hostile environment, not surprisingly many of you find the thought of exploring it on foot an intimidating one and worry that it is only accessible to accomplished climbers and mountaineers.
One of the most common questions I get asked about is suggestions for easy trails for those with little or no hiking experience, so I wanted to share with you three of my favourite simple but rewarding walks in the area. For me, being among the mountains and forests brings the scenery to life as you start to notice the sounds of rushing water, smell the scent of pine and find yourself encompassed by the brooding atmosphere. It truly is a landscape that makes you feel small and you can't help but feel humbled and in awe at the power of Mother Nature. The best way to appreciate it is on foot, exposing yourself to all it's wonderful, powerful and strangely magical elements.
Can you tell how much I love this place?!
So here are my 3 favourite easy but rewarding Glencoe walks
1, Glencoe Lochan
Glencoe Lochan is an oasis of tranquility hidden away below the mammoth mountains. On the outskirts of Glencoe village this idyllic little spot was planted and modelled to resemble a Canadian landscape by a previous Canadian owner after his wife became homesick.
This is one of my favourite places in the area, the reflections of the mountains and trees in the still water make this a great spot for taking beautiful photographs.
The circular route around the Lochan is flat and easy, with longer woodland trails for those that want to explore further. There is an option to take a higher level route signposted 'mountain path' but to be honest the mature trees now block any view that would have previously made the effort worthwhile and the flat walk around the Lochan is visually the most rewarding.
This peaceful place makes a perfect relaxing escape from the contrast of the wilder landscape that surrounds it. An easy walk for all levels of fitness and mobility through some of the prettiest scenery.
The main reason I started this travel blog was to inspire people to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions and uncover Scotland's hidden gems that without doubt deserve more attention. After a lifetime spent travelling around my home country, I have built up a pretty good knowledge of amazing places that often get missed out in the usual guide books and remain largely undiscovered.
One of those hidden gems is Glenelg, a small village on the west coast, overlooking the Kyle Rhea, a strait which separates the mainland from Skye. Just a 30 minute detour from the hoards of sightseers at Eilean Donan Castle and you will find an area bursting with rich scenery and history, yet largely devoid of tourists.
If you are planning to head along the north west coast towards Skye between Easter and October, I highly recommend avoiding the road bridge and diverting along the more stunning but lesser known route to the island and taking the ferry from the 'Original Gateway to Skye'.
If you need more convincing than just my word to abandon the typical tourist trail, here are 6 reasons that might persuade you...
p.s please excuse any raindrops on the photos as the day I visited it would have been drier standing under a waterfall!
1. The Mam Ratagan Pass
Leave the tourist route behind and follow the Mam Ratagen Pass from Sheil Bridge to Glenelg and you are immediately rewarded with one of the most stunning drives in the country. Climbing to a height of over 1100ft and navigating a few hairpin bends along the way only add to the experience and your prize for taking the road less travelled is superb vistas towards the Five Sisters of Kintail and Loch Duich.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a scenic drive, however you are following an important historic pass which was the original route to Skye, used firstly by drovers heading south with their cattle which they swam across the Kyle Rhea strait, then a military road was built by General Caulfield to reach the barracks at Glenelg before being rebuilt by Thomas Telford in the early 19th Century and upgraded again in the 1980s.
With most people now reaching Skye by the main road bridge, relatively few people travel over the pass and many are unaware or have forgotten it's previous historical importance as the main highway connecting the island and the mainland.
2. The Glenelg Inn
To celebrate your arrival in the village or to grab a refreshment between your explorations, you should head to the cosy Glenelg Inn for some traditional Highland hospitality. I love the quirky decor in the bar area and it has a great reputation for locally sourced food.
if you time it right you can also catch some live music and in the winter you can sit by the roaring fire.
I would personally love to stay the night here at some point and spend more time exploring the area and relaxing with a whisky while admiring the views to Skye.
3. Iron-Age Brochs
Follow the road from the village to the twin Iron-Age broch towers, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. Standing over 10m high and over 2000 years old, they are the best preserved brochs on the mainland.
Many of the original features including internal staircases still exist and it is fascinating to stand inside and imagine the life of the people that occupied them thousands of years before when the area would have been a more hostile place.
Brochs are circular drystone towers, found mainly in the north and western coastal regions of Scotland. They are thought to have been fortified dwellings with some defensive function and built as a display of status and wealth.
Whenever I visit places like this I always wonder how many modern structures will still be standing in hundreds never mind thousands of years time and can't help but be impressed at the skill of the builders who created such simple yet sturdy constructions that have lasted many, many lifetimes.
4, The Bernera Barracks
The Bernera Barracks were the last of four Highland forts built at strategic points by the Hanoverian Government to garrison soldiers after the Jacobite risings of the early 1700s. Able to house up to 200 soldiers it was positioned to control the crossing from Skye at Kyle Rhea.
Construction began in 1719 and It is thought that stone from the nearby brochs was used in the building of the barracks which continued to be utilised as a military base until 1797 by which time it was already falling in to ruin. By 1800 the rooms were available to rent for a pound per year and by 1830 it was used as a poorhouse and subsequently by victims of the Highland Clearances.
Although a substantial part of this atmospheric structure still stands, it is currently fenced off for safety reasons.
You can read about days 1 to 3 of my adventure here.
Sitting on the southern tip of Loch Ness, the small population of Fort Augustus is buoyed during the summer months as a stop off for travellers heading along the busy road between Fort William and Inverness, although I suspect just as many drive by unaware of the charms this little hamlet conceals.
Previously named Cill Chuimein, it is a pretty settlement with shops and pubs lining either side of 5 locks that link Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal. After the Jacobite Uprising in 1715, a fort was built here and the village was renamed Fort Augustus after Prince William Augustus, better known as the Duke (or Butcher) of Cumberland. Later the village was famous for it's Benedictine Abbey which closed in 1993 and although the historic complex is still standing today, it now comprises self catering holiday apartments and cottages.
With day 4 providing rain and a free morning to explore Fort Augustus and the only real civilistaion you pass through on the trip, I opted for some retail therapy and picked up some pretty Scottish made gifts from the lovely Coopers on the canal-side.
In the afternoon the all too familiar 'options' were presented and I chose to cycle the 8 miles to our next stop at Loch Oich. Following the canal towpath for the first 5 miles, the tranquility was immediate with bands of trees muffling any noise from the not too distant road. The low hanging cloud on the hills provided an atmospheric backdrop as the rain once again began to fall steadily, creating expanding ring-shaped patterns across the normally glassy canal surface.
Crossing over the road just by Cullochy Lock, the path then follows the old railway line along the shores of Loch Oich. The new track started off smoothly enough until a navigational error saw me leave the tarmacked path and head off road along a more challenging route. I could have rejoined the surfaced cycle track but to be honest I was having much more fun bumping along over the boulders and tree roots!
Ros Crana was just pulling up to moor in Loch Oich for the night as I arrived at our rendezvous point. Shore pick ups and drop offs by RIB were a common occurrence during the week and usually carried out by Lucy, our bosun. Lucy was our final crew member along with Swampy, Chris and Tree and when not maintaining the boat, throwing ropes or guiding the Skipper, she was always there to offer a confident hand to those without sea-legs as we unsteadily manouvered in and out of various vessels.
The earlier rain had long disappeared as I stepped back on board and took in our new surroundings. For me, Loch Oich was the most stunning overnight location of the trip. Straight off a shortbread tin or tourism campaign, it is the Scottish Highlands at it's most romantic and mysterious.
As several of us sat out on deck the encompassing trees and hillsides reflected perfectly in the water, the rutting bellow of a stag surrounded by his hinds on a nearby ridge echoed eerily through the air and a mysterious layer of wispy mist began to rise from the loch surface like an emerging water spirit.
As day turned to night, the stars appeared from the darkness with the Milky Way streaking overhead and the deep roars from the testosterone filled stags could still be heard in the distance.
I was more than aware that our rewarding experience was only possible thanks to our advantageous ability to moor out in the loch; a captivated audience to the best show that nature could put on.
Day 5 dawned and it was time to take to the water again, this time on a gentle canoe trip to explore rusting, abandoned boats and to land on an old causeway, normally submerged, but thanks to the low water levels once again providing a solid link between the shore and an island formed by old crannogs.
Our canoeing party of 6 had mixed experience levels from complete beginner to competent and with my last kayak lesson taking place 25 years ago, I very much classed myself in the beginner category. My partner in canoe crime was slightly more accomplished, having had his first (albeit only) tuition 3 days previous, I was confident that with some guidance from our instructor Chris, we would make a dream team!
I absolutely loved canoeing and I learned some useful tips which will remain with me for the future
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