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.
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.
WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
This weekend I completed my first joint travel blogger collaboration with #Scotlanders. For our launch campaign we took to the streets of Dundee to discover what this often overlooked Scottish city has to offer. Our aim was to showcase the many interesting faces of the city with each of us focusing on a particular theme.
While my fellow #Scotlanders enjoyed a diverse range of activities from archery to visiting a cruise ship, I was tasked with uncovering Dundee's developing culinary layers, which is very topical as this is the Year of Food and Drink in Scotland.
Best known for it's foodie contributions of cake and cow pie, the city has an ever expanding range of restaurants and cuisine to match the expanding building plans and predicted tourism growth. The new kids on the block sit happily beside the traditional offerings and this sums up Dundee itself, a city with grand modern design plans that will complement the industrial history and heritage.
If it's food heritage you're looking for then Dundee Cake and Mackays Marmalade are thriving examples of traditional fare with provenance.
I don't know of any other city in Scotland that has a cake named after it so I was feeling quite smug when I found out that I would not only get to sample one of these famous plump, fruity creations but I would also be involved in the baking process. I was also delighted that my lesson would take place at Clark's 24 hour Bakery, a legendary food takeaway in Dundee which I missed on my last visit.
Clark's Bakery has it's own historical roots in the city and is currently being run by the third generation of the same family. My Dundee cake baking session was with Alan Clark, whose father established the bakery in 1950.
For those that haven't tried it, Dundee cake is a rich, fruity cake containing sultanas, candied peel and topped with almonds. It's origins in the city are said to date back hundreds of years to the kitchens of marmalade inventor Janet Keiller and although still a local specialty of Dundee bakers it is now mass produced and sold widely by supermarkets who don't necessarily follow the accepted recipe.
There is currently a bid to give this local creation Protected Geographical Indicator Status (PGI). This means that only Dundee Cakes made in Dundee and following a traditional recipe can legally be called Dundee Cake and ensures that you are buying and eating an authentic product and local producers are being supported.
MACKAYS DUNDEE MARMALADE
Mackays are the only remaining producers of Dundee Orange Marmalade in the Dundee area, which also happens to be referred to as the home of marmalade. Mackays are proud of the heritage of their product and continue to make the marmalade in the traditional way in copper pans and sourcing the world’s best bitter oranges from Seville in Spain. Sticking to historic production methods seems to have paid off as Mackays are the largest producer of traditionally manufactured marmalades and preserves in the world!
The branding of their product with the city name and the logo 'Made The Authentic Way' have ensured this classic orange preserve remains a favourite on breakfast tables across the country and helps to promote the city and it's heritage far and wide.
A more recent edition to the Dundee food and drink scene is MòR Brewery, established in 2012 and based in the village of Kellas on the outskirts of the city, this microbrewery has brought it's unique Scottish ale with humour to the ever growing market of craft beers.
MòR means 'big' or 'great' in Gaelic and the big plans for this small brewery were brought to life by former Broughty Ferry lifeboat coxswain Jim Hughan and business partner Ross Niven. The word MòR (pronounced more) has enabled then to come up with a witty range of names for their ales such as 'MòR-ish' and 'MòR Tea, Vicar?' which are not only sold in an increasing number of pubs but also sold by the bottle in stores such as Aldi and Spar. It's good to see that Dundee businesses are not only great at preserving heritage but also competing in emerging food and drink markets and from my own personal point of view I'm glad that I have a something local to wash down my cake with! I'm sure I'm not the first person to say "Can I have some MòR Please?"
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.
I spent the first weekend in March staying in the beautiful and characterful town of St Andrews on the east coast. I was there to blog about StAnza, Scotland's International Poetry Festival, which takes place each year in this historic Royal Burgh and makes an ideal relaxing weekend break with a difference.
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.
It is a small town and it is easy to visit all the main attractions including world class beaches, castle, cathedral, university, golf courses, boutique shops, historic streets and picturesque harbour over a couple of days.
In between poetry shows I still had plenty of time to explore the sites and take plenty of photographs and decided to share some of my favourites with you, enjoy!
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.
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.
Follow my Scotland travel adventures on social media
If you have found my blog useful and would like to support me in creating future Scottish travel content, you can by me a coffee on my Ko-fi page. All 'coffee' donations are hugely appreciated