Have you ever been to The Edinburgh Dungeon? If you have then you will know that it is the ultimate experience for scary fun in the capital. If you haven't then I suggest you add it to your must do list for a funnily frightening time in the city.
I bet as you wandered around in the semi-darkness your adrenaline was pumping far too hard to think about the huge amount of work that goes in to running such a spookily busy attraction. To be honest I hadn't either until I received an invite to a fun blogger night to get an exclusive look behind the scenes and it was a real eye opener, well I might have closed my eyes once or twice!
First we were given a make-up demonstration and a lucky volunteer had the opportunity to have a less than glamorous make-under as we learned the tricks of the trade including the use of eyelash glue to create boils, nice!
I was surprised to learn the rigorous auditioning that a potential Dungeon actor has to go through and I didn't realise that they have to play a number of characters which means perfecting several parts and scripts. I have always been impressed at how convincing the actors are and even though we met a few of them out of character at the beginning, their creepy and humorous performances during the show previews had me believing every word.
Stumbling around in darkened rooms definitely helps create a spooky tension and as we found out also handily hides technical spoilers such as speakers and wires. We got the rare opportunity to explore with the lights on and find out more about the work, props and preparation that goes into designing each set.
On my recent trip to the Scottish Borders I was fortunate enough to have one of those spectacular and memorable experiences which occasionally come with being a travel blogger, which I assure you isn't normally as glamorous as you might think. Although staying at the Hope Scott Wing of Abbotsford House is every bit as glamorous as you might think!
An extension to the original private home of Sir Walter Scott and the former living area of his descendants, it has now been refurbished and opened as luxury accommodation. Available on a self catering basis for up to 15 people, it is possible to hire all or part of the wing for yourself. There is also a bed and breakfast option, subject to availability.
I stayed here along with my fellow Scotlanders as part of our Borders Railway campaign and it's fair to say we were all lost for words, which was definitely a first for our normally chatty group. On arrival we were taken on a tour of our accommodation by the fantastic and passionate House Manager, Marianne. We followed her around excitedly on a goggle eyed tour of our private wing, in amazement at the number of lavish rooms we had to ourselves.
Decorated with some of the family's belongings, furniture and artwork, the whole place has an authentic and historical feel which at times makes you wonder if you have actually stepped back in time or onto the set of a period drama.
Sympathetic grand design and modern convenience is how I would best describe the decor and facilities. The seven luxury en-suite bedrooms are individually designed with period style pieces and furniture while the HUGE bathrooms have modern roll-top baths and walk-in showers.
There is Wi-Fi throughout and although some might appreciate a TV within the bedrooms, I would have personally been happy to do away with mine as it felt too out of place in the stately surroundings!
My own bedroom was literally fit for a princess and named after one, the Queen's aunt, Princess Alice to be precise. One of many notable visitors and distinguished guests that also included Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. Incidentally, Queen Victoria was so impressed that she chose to model her own home in Scotland, Balmoral Castle, on Abbotsford’s Scottish Baronial style.
I always feel a bit conflicted when people tell me their travel plans for Scotland. More often than not they commence in Edinburgh or Glasgow and involve a journey north, following a predictable although rewarding route. While I don't want to deprive anyone from immersing themselves in the Highland scenery they have been dreaming of for months, years or even a lifetime, a big part of me is still desperate to tell people to abandon their plans and explore many of the underrated but equally as amazing areas of Scotland instead.
The Scottish Borders is a prime example of an often overlooked regional gem. This part of the country is so steeped in history, tradition and legend that i really believe a visit here should be squeezed into every Scottish travel itinerary.
With the opening of the new Borders Railway in September, the area will open up to train travellers who will be able to depart from Edinburgh and arrive in the Borders in less than an hour, so there really is no excuse now to miss this area out on your trip to Scotland!
In anticipation of the new line opening, I recently spent a weekend in the historic town of Melrose as part of a Scotlanders and Visit Scotland collaboration. My remit was to experience the wide variety of activities that will be available to a new wave of passengers arriving at the final stop in Tweedbank, the nearest station to Melrose.
I have always associated the Scottish Borders as an area with a rich tapestry of history, however as I found out it is also a draw for outdoor adrenaline adventurers, food lovers and culture vultures looking to escape the city.
My first real holiday to the region was around 20 years ago and I have periodically returned since, always thankful to see little has changed over the past two decades. In some places progress is welcomed and often much needed in order to survive, however the Scottish Borders is not one of those places. The towns have remained charming, the houses still historic, traditional events thrive, independent shops survive and rule, ruins remain standing, the grass is still vividly green and the hills continue to roll. For me, the draw of the Scottish Borders is it's unchanging and timeless quaintness.
However, on this visit I wanted to find out what else the area has to offer other than historic appeal and found myself with a variety filled weekend, proving there really is something for everyone.
My experience of Go Ape, Peebles
It's just after 9am on Saturday morning and while most sane people are still easing their way into the day, I'm teetering precariously on the edge of a small platform deceivingly high up a tree trunk in Glentress Forest. The longer I stand and contemplate the rationale behind what I'm about to do, the more the forest floor seems to recede below me.
After checking and rechecking (and triple checking) that my lifesaving harness is correctly attached to the safety wire I take a leap of faith into fresh air and begin to swing Tarzan like towards a cargo net at considerable speed, remembering at the last minute my instructor's advice to relax my body and resist the temptation to grab on for dear life. A couple of bounces later and my momentum carries me back towards the dangling rope climbing frame that I somehow manage to haul myself up towards the next tiny platform. My ungainly effort may not qualify me as a GI Jane but I survived and at that moment I feel an adrenalin fuelled invincibility and ready to take on the world, well the next challenging obstacle at least!
Each of the 5 course sections grow increasingly difficult and every journey down a zip wire culminates with me being dragged backside first up a pile of wood chippings which seem to accumulate inside my trousers in the most uncomfortable of places. By the final section some sort of delirium has taken over and I begin to laugh uncontrollably to the point I am struggling to see for my watering eyes and stupidly opt to attempt the extreme crossing when given the choice of a less painful route. I decide I must be some sort of sadist because I'm having the time of my life!
A couple of hours of limb twisting challenges later and soggy with sweat and tears (of laughter/joy) I triumphantly reach the final zip wire and with well earned bounding boldness I clip myself to the safety line one last time. As I now fearlessly step off the last platform and soar 325 metres across the expansive valley and reservoir below, I embrace the liberating feeling that comes with flying through the skies without a barrier between me and the rushing air. All too quickly my moment of airborne glory comes to an end and I find myself landing like an upturned turtle in the most ungraceful way possible and collecting a final gathering of wood-chips in my trousers. I can't remember the last time I have laughed as much and although I may have lost all dignity, I have gained a renewed confidence and a generous pile of bark for my garden!
1. Mercat Tours - The Edinburgh Outlander Experience Walking Tour
This seasonal 2 hour walking tour of Edinburgh takes place each Saturday and explores the history of the city during the period Jamie and Claire would have visited and stops at locations which either feature in the books or have inspired Diana Gabaldon in her research.
I was invited to experience the tour for myself and started off my weekend by joining an international group of fans keen to hear tales of life in 18th Century Edinburgh. Our guide Gillian started off with an interesting summary of the unfortunate generations of Stuart Kings and the events that eventually led to the Jacobite risings, an essential aid to understanding the background of the books.
Gillian then led us into atmospheric back closes, up to the Castle and back down the Royal Mile from the Canongate to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, stopping off at strategic points along the way to regale stories of witches, printmakers, pubs, wells, graveyards, herb gardens and the Tolbooth jail where the men of Lallybroch were imprisoned. Diana Gabaldon may have wrote a fictional series, however she has really done her research and much of the background is based on real events and places which would actually have existed in the city at the time and Mercat Tours are experts at not only finding them but also bringing them to life.
Just to make sure we didn't get lost or distracted, Gillian tempted us along like an Outlander Pied Piper by holding up photos of Jamie and occasionally Claire by demand of the men in the group!
I certainly learned lots of new facts about the city and discovered lots of nooks and crannies I hadn't noticed before and probably wouldn't have if it wasn't for the tour. Standing huddled together in quiet old closes hearing tales of the characters that lived there helps you to imagine the Edinburgh that Jamie and Claire would have experienced which certainly felt a world away from the bustling 21st Century crowds on the Royal Mile.
The tour ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, another location which fans will be familiar with and it is possible to visit this magnificent building which is the official residence of the Queen in Scotland, although being an official building it is occasionally closed to the public which was the case on the day I was there so it is advisable to check opening hours in advance.
I also recommend a visit to the National Museum of Scotland if you have time before the tour starts. Here you will find exhibits about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie among their many interesting displays.
The majority of the tour centres around the books and in particular Dragonfly in Amber so be aware there may be some spoilers if you have not read it. Walking for 2 hours on cobbled stones is best done in comfortable shoes and I would also advise you also take a bottle of water along on warm days.
Visit the Mercat Tour website for more information and to book.
This is my second blog covering Scottish regional filming locations used in the the Outlander TV series and this time I will also be including some other Outlander themed activities available in the area.
Last weekend I went on an Edinburgh and Lothians Outlander pilgrimage which included a walking tour in the city and visits to nearby key filming locations from Series 1.
As part of my research I personally visit every location I include in my guides so I can give you the best advice and top tips to make the most of your experience. I recommend a minimum of 2 days if you want to briefly visit the places mentioned in this post although in reality 3-4 days would be ideal if you want to explore them properly. I managed to cover all this ground in a weekend so it is possible if you are short on time!
2. Bo'ness Railway Station
I spent the rest of my weekend visiting nearby Outlander filming locations which are all handily situated a short drive from Edinburgh, making it easy to travel to them all over 2 days.
Approx a 40 min drive brings you to the quaint little steam railway at Bo'ness. Transformed into a 1940s London railway and renamed Milford Station for episode 1 of Outlander, this is where Claire and Frank bid each other farewell.
I was lucky enough to pull into the carpark just as one of the trains was about to depart and quickly dashed up to the overhead bridge to take some photos. I really find steam engines quite romantic and it was a treat to see one pass directly under me with the steam wafting up into my face!
As I was on a mission to get to my next stop I didn't have time to fully appreciate this cute little station or visit the museum, however I hope to return and actually take one of the train journeys for myself as they look great fun,
Passenger trains run for a limited number of dates throughout the year, check out the online timetable and try and coincide your visit with a steam train departure to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of bygone rail travel.
3. Blackness Castle
Just a 15 minute drive from Bo'ness back towards Edinburgh and you will reach the imposing Blackness Castle. Who could forget those scenes of poor Jamie being flogged in the courtyard when the 15th Century castle stood in as Fort William?
This is definitely one of the more interesting Scottish castles that I have visited and there is certainly a gloomy atmosphere that permeates the stone walls which is no surprise given it's dark history. In contrast the views from the curtain walls and towers across the Firth of Forth are impressive and momentarily distract you from the darkness of this formidable structure. I highly recommend exploring the inside and outside of this dramatic castle if you have the time.
Blackness Castle belongs to Historic Scotland and there is an admission charge to visit. If you are going to a few of their sites the costs can add up and I recommend investigating whether a membership works out cheaper.
When you are looking for a home from home with the added benefit of some of the amenities provided on a hotel stay, a serviced apartment ticks all the boxes. On my recent visit to Edinburgh I was invited to stay at the Princes Street Suites, award winning serviced apartments in the centre of the city. When I recommend accommodation on my blog it is because I think it offers something special or unique, and for me these apartments provided the best views of the city out of all the places I have stayed at in Edinburgh previously and are reason enough to book.
Although I was lucky enough to stay in the Penthouse which has the most amazing vistas, you don't have to book the top floor to enjoy the 360 degree perfect panoramas of Edinburgh as all guests have access to the roof terrace which provides stunning views from Arthur's Seat to the Castle and Calton Hill in the other direction.
Have you ever wondered how Scotch whisky is actually made? Malt whisky is one of the iconic brands associated with Scotland and provides a great contribution to the economy. If you have ever wondered how it is made, the process is fairly simple although the factors that provide the variation in the taste of the final product are a little more complex.
The history and future of Scotch whisky is a fascinating one, however this guide is only designed to provide a basic understanding of the making of this globally recognised product. There is a wealth of information out there if you want to find out more or visit one of the many distilleries up and down the country that provide tours behind the scenes.
Where the magic happens! There are currently over 100 whisky distilleries in Scotland and the country is divided into 6 whisky regions with each region having general distinctive characteristics in flavour although there are exceptions. The main regions are Campbeltown, Islay, Lowlands, Highlands. Speyside and the Islands.
Believe it or not, there are only ever 3 ingredients that make up single malt Scotch whisky, malted barley, water and yeast. The variations in flavour are down to the production process and the skill of the Master Distiller
The first step of the process is called malting. Barley is soaked in water and then the seeds are allowed to germinate, during germination enzymes turn the starch within the barley into soluble sugars. Germination is stopped by drying the barley in a kiln oven and peat might be burned at this stage to give the distinctive smoky flavour found in some whiskies.
Only a handful of distilleries in Scotland still have malting floors, where the barley grains are spread out and turned by hand as they dry out and germinate, most distilleries now use drying drums.
On my recent Whisky Tour of Islay with Scottish Routes, I was lucky enough to stay at The Bowmore House on Islay, one of their regular accommodation providers for the tour.
I must that initially I had no plans to do a whole review about my stay here as I was going to include a short bit in the review of the tour itself, however I was so impressed I left wanting to share this gem with anyone thinking about a trip to the island. Not planning a proper review meant that I didn't do my usual photography tour of the rooms prior to messing up the beds and dumping my bags. It meant I didn't take images of my food and every little detail that made my stay here so special, a lesson learned on my part. Although I may not have the photos to back up my review on this occasion I hope that you will realise that the very fact I am telling you about this great place despite not setting out to do a review will convince you even more of how much I rate it!
I did fortunately take a few snaps on my phone and although not the best quality they still allow me to share a few images from my stay.
From the first moment our group wearily walked through the door we were warmly welcomed by our hosts, Andrew and Alison who couldn't be more helpful through out our stay. The main house has a relaxed, homely feel with five en-suite bedrooms. I stayed in the refurbished Fisherman's Cottage which is less than a 30 second walk away and is tucked around the corner off the main street.
The cottage has three bedrooms, 2 en-suite and 1 with a private bathroom. The bonus of staying here is the self catering facilities, including a large sitting room and well equipped, spacious kitchen which really felt like a home from home.
The cottage is available for B&B stays or as a self catering option and I highly recommend either. Tastefully decorated with great attention to detail and every convenience you could need, I really wish I had more time to enjoy relaxing here!
Now there are 2 crucial things to rating a bed and breakfast, the bed and the breakfast, obviously! I can confirm the bed was HUGE and super comfy and the breakfast was also HUGE and super tasty. Andrew and Alison are not only excellent hosts but also excellent cooks. Local produce, great variety and a warm welcome would be good enough for me to recommend a place, however Andrew and Alison go above and beyond in every area of their business, from their own branded mugs to a breakfast dram, they really do think of everything.
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