This post is part of a paid partnership with Be Our Guest Scotland to showcase the diverse range of bed and breakfast and guest house options around Scotland.
Staying at Straigona B&B in Orkney
When your B&B is recommended in a Rick Steves guide, you know you are doing something right and Straigona owners, Julie and Mike, have worked hard on perfecting their offering over the years as I recently found out.
Julie is part Orcadian and spent her life visiting the Orkney Islands before a long term dream of moving to Orkney came to fruition in 2011. After buying an already established B&B with her husband Mike, they both revamped the accommodation, putting their own stamp on it and gathered up lots of little extras to ensure their guests are well catered for.
Over 10 years later Straigona is still going strong, with many returning guests and a steady stream of new visitors choosing it as their home from home during their Orkney vacation. And as I found out, it is very homely and welcoming, you are made to feel like one of the family as soon as you walk through the door which is exactly how a bed and breakfast should be and it is what makes this type of accommodation unique to the other options out there.
Located just a 5 minute drive from Kirkwall, Straigona benefits from a quiet rural setting while still being conveniently close to town. The whole house is a homage to Orkney with mugs and placemats featuring Orkney scenes, and local photographs and artwork adorning the walls.
I stayed in 'Inganess', one of three guest bedrooms. A family sized room, it was very spacious with a double and a single bed, a sitting area by the window and a desk which was perfect for me as I needed to catch up on some work while I was there.
Although there is a TV, I spent most of my time enjoying the view across fields to the sea and the small runway of Kirkwall Airport. After Julie mentioned an owl was using the adjacent field as a hunting ground, I also made use of the room binoculars to regularly scan the landscape but didn't manage to spot it on this occasion.
If there was an award for the best equipped guest rooms in a B&B, I'm pretty confident Straigona would win, it is certainly the best equipped bed and breakfast I've ever stayed at! From suntan lotion to insect repellent and hairspray to hot water bottles, Julie has gone above and beyond in supplying little extras. Of course, the standard inclusions like a hairdryer, kettle and well-stocked hospitality tray are all included too. For those heading out on a ramble there are walking poles, hats, scarves, gloves and binoculars available and even a guest mobile phone you can borrow.
Most importantly, at the end of a long day, I was glad of a super comfy bed as feeling rested in the morning is essential when you have more exploring planned. The spotless modern bathroom with a walk-in shower and supplied toiletries left me feeling revitalised in the morning.
This post is part of a paid partnership with Visit Wester Ross as part of their 'Are you a West Coaster' campaign
Are you a West Coaster?
In my view, west coast sunsets like this should be savoured while strolling along a sandy shore; sitting on a rock; celebrating with a local tipple; or polishing off a plate of boat fresh seafood. It is not an experience to be rushed, but one to revel in as the burning orange embers of the sky gradually fade, a final memory to treasure at the end of a day well spent in a very special part of Scotland.
This is one of many special moments I've enjoyed in Wester Ross, a region of Scotland that includes some of the most scenic parts of the north-west Highlands. In a world where we spend much of our working time and day-to-day life rushing around, taking a vacation in a place like this provides space to breathe, relax and reconnect.
Locals here have embraced 'Highland time' and a new tourism campaign is encouraging visitors to do the same. 'Are you a West Coaster?' - if you share the ethos of west coast dwellers and prefer a more authentic experience when you travel, like me, you are a 'West Coaster' at heart.
Wester Ross forms part of the NC500 and although countless people who have travelled along the route would consider the region 'ticked off', I can guarantee they didn't even scratch the surface. Boasting a breathtaking coastline, an above average number of picturesque villages, lush gardens to visit, spectacular mountains to climb, iconic wildlife to spot, local culture to sample and a bountiful larder to taste, you need to dedicate longer than a night or two on a road trip to really appreciate everything Wester Ross has to offer. I know this because I'm speaking from personal experience - I've still only seeing a fraction of the area despite spending a fortnight there on holiday and visiting on several other shorter trips.
Stay a bit longer and give yourself time to get to know the people, immerse yourself in the landscape and get off the beaten track, because if you do, I can guarantee Wester Ross will get under your skin and leave you lovestruck. I can also promise you will collect some extraordinary memories and feel like the stress of the world has been lifted from your shoulders - I know I did!
5 ways to slow down in Wester Ross
To help with your planning, I've shared my 5 tips for things to do, to help you slow down, switching to 'Highland time' and experiencing some of the best that Wester Ross has to offer.
1. Get a bird's eye view of the landscape
Wester Ross is home to a landscape that has your jaw-dropping at every turn as you weave your way past sea, lochs and mountains. The backdrop is dominated by brooding peaks which include some of the most iconic mountains in Scotland. I don't consider myself a mountaineer by any stretch of the imagination, but even I felt a magnetic pull to conquer one of the craggy mountain summits for myself.
Because I had chosen a longer stay in the area, not only did I have the time to climb up one of the peaks, I could also pick the best day to do it. Early one sunny morning, I started up the well trodden path of Stac Pollaidh on the most perfect day imaginable. When I reached as close to the summit as I could without scrambling, I found a rock with a view, poured myself a coffee and gazed across at some of the most astounding scenery I'd ever set eyes on.
As I was staying nearby, I was in no rush to get down and lay back lazily in the sun, inwardly high-fiving myself at setting a goal and achieving it. Stac Pollaidh may not be the highest of mountains, but at that moment I felt on top of the world! To this day, it is still one of my favourite memories from travelling around Scotland.
Giving yourself enough time to climb a mountain is key, you can't just pull over in the car, run up to the top and take a photo. Another essential is having the skills, knowledge and equipment to climb a mountain safely. If Munro-bagging or even just hiking up a high hill in Scotland is something you dream of but don't have the knowledge or experience to confidently undertake, I recommend hiring a local mountain guide who will keep you right and know all the best places to go so you can achieve your goal.
Although I haven't used a guide myself, here are a few covering in the Wester Ross area -
Climb Ride Explore
Mountain & Sea Guides
2. Take to the water
This post is part of a paid partnership with Destination Orkney as part of VisitScotland's Year of Stories
It is hard to know where to start when it comes to peeling back the layers of stories embedded in the Orkney Islands. You could begin around 6 millennia ago, when Neolithic people first arrived, erecting the unwieldy standing stones and atmospheric tombs that Orkney has become so famous for. Or you could fast forward to the 8th century when the Vikings settled in Orkney, leaving a strong Norse legacy that can still be found in everything from place names to 21st century jewellery designs. Any Orkney story would also have to include the rusting blockships, concrete defences and ornate Italian Chapel that witnessed wartime activity in Scapa Flow, or head back even further to the geological landscape formed hundreds of millions of years ago.
This is just a snapshot of the various people and events that have shaped the story of Orkney but the narrative of these islands doesn't end there. From renewables to artisans, and festivals to fishermen, Orkney's story is constantly evolving. If you are inspired to create your own island story, you will find lots of ideas and tips in this blog post.
The Orkney Islands are located off the north coast of Scotland and along with Shetland, form part of the Northern Isles. Often just shortened to Orkney (not the Orkneys!) ,the archipelago is made up of around 70 islands although most are uninhabited.
The islands are home to over 22,000 people with the majority of the population residing in the island of Mainland (not to be confused with the Scottish mainland), which is home to the main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness. There are a number of other populated islands including Burray, Eday, Egilsay, Flotta, Graemsay, Hoy, North Ronaldsay, Papa Westray, Rousay, Sanday, Shapinsay, South Ronaldsay, Stronsay, Westray and Wyre.
Island hopping is easy thanks to inter-island ferries and planes. You can even take the shortest scheduled flight in the world between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray which takes less than 2 minutes from take off to landing. I've done this myself and it is definitely a unique experience.
How to get to Orkney
There are two main ferry companies that travel to Orkney -
Pentland Ferries travels from Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope
NorthLink Ferries travels from Scrabster to Stromness and from Aberdeen to Kirkwall
In the summer there is also a foot passenger ferry from John O'Groats
Loganair runs regular scheduled flights to Kirkwall Airport from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.
GETTING AROUND ORKNEY
Public transport is quite limited so a car will open up more options. If you prefer not to drive, Stagecoach runs a limited bus service on Mainland and to some attractions.
Both Orkney Ferries and Loganair provide island-hopping options within Orkney by plane and ferry.
Uncover thousands of years of stories - Things to do in Orkney
You could easily spend weeks or even months touring around the Orkney Islands but no matter how long you have to spare, you are probably wondering where to even start when there is so much to see and do. I recently spent three days unravelling some of the stories that have made Orkney one of the most unique and interesting places to visit in Scotland and I've listed everything I got up to below to give you some inspiration.
If you only have a few days to spare then you might want to follow in my footsteps. If you have longer to explore you can use my itinerary as a starting point and add in some of my other suggested things to do.
From local food and drink to Neolithic treasures and outdoor adventures, I've tried to include something for everyone.
Join a walking tour of Kirkwall
Joining a local guide on a walking tour is a great starting point when you want to get to know a place on a deeper level. I opted to do exactly that and met up with Brian Alexander from Kirkwall Walking Tours to learn some of the stories associated with Orkney's main town.
Brian is an Orcadian with a wealth of knowledge, not just about the history of Orkney but also about present day life in the islands. We met up at Kirkwall harbour where he shared some maritime history and the workings of the current fishing fleet before setting off for a meander around the historic town centre.
We stopped at various points of interest where Brian regaled me with tales of pirates, press gangs, saints, merchants, Vikings and even a famous tree. He also gave me a guided tour of the inside of St Magnus Cathedral, explaining its Norse origins and the background to some of the memorials within the building.
This was a really informative start to my 3 day trip and I left with a whole new appreciation of the significant history of Kirkwall and the Orkney Islands.
Sample some drams at Scapa Distillery
After a walk around town in the chilly winter wind, a whisky tasting session at Scapa Distillery seemed like the perfect way to warm up and as it was now officially afternoon, I felt it was a perfectly acceptable time to sample a few drams (or four to be precise!).
All whisky has its own story to tell, from the local ingredients that provide the unique flavour to the local artisans who oversee every part of the process, these Orcadian elements are encapsulated in every bottle of Scapa whisky.
Our host Maria put us to work nosing and tasting four very different bottlings, helping us to work out the tasting notes of each dram. With a bit of practice and guidance from Maria, picking up on the subtle notes became easier and of course the tasting part was pretty enjoyable! Don't worry if you are driving, you can still nose each glass and take the samples away to drink later.
I do enjoy my whisky and the tasting session really made me think more about the complexities of every dram and how to enhance my whisky drinking experience.
If this is an aspect of Orkney you would like to explore further, here is a list of other local distilleries and breweries that currently offer tours -
Discover local history at Orkney Museum
Orkney Museum in Kirkwall is one of those places you could visit multiple times and learn something new each visit as it is packed with artefacts and exhibits. I always recommend popping by the local museum when visiting a place as so many interesting stories are revealed that you would never discover otherwise.
Orkney Museum is a Tardis of floors and rooms filled with objects and relics dating back 5000 years, including finds from many of the famous archaeological sites, to collections from modern social history. One of my personal favourite exhibits is the display of items recovered from a Viking boat burial.
Discovered on the island of Sanday, the site was excavated in 1991 and the Viking burial that was revealed there has left many questions. Three bodies had been laid in a boat along with a number of significant and ornate artefacts which are on display in the museum, including a gilded brooch, a sword, gaming pieces and an eye-catching whalebone plaque that has been beautifully carved with dragon heads.
Be sure to give yourself enough time to explore the numerous floors as the building is bigger than you might think, although it is free to visit so you can easily return again if you missed anything on your first visit.
Go tomb-raiding on Rousay
About Robert Burns
Robert Burns was born on the 25th January 1759 in a small cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire to farmer parents. His father ensured he received a good education despite his social status and being an enthusiastic and well-read student helped to elevate his own creative writing.
However, despite his growing fame as a talented wordsmith, he continued farming for much of his life, leading to him being named the Ploughman Poet. Often described as a complex character, he frequently voiced radical views and was notorious for drinking and womanising.
Despite his flaws, it is hard to deny his talent as a poet and songwriter. Although he was only 37 years old when he died, he produced a huge amount of highly regarded written work during his short lifetime and every year on the date of his birth, his life and legacy are celebrated during Burns Night.
Considered Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns died on 21st July 1796 but he lives on through his words and the many places connected to him.
Places connected to Robert Burns in Dumfries
If you want to find out more about the life of Robert Burns or are a fan of Scotland's national bard, there are two areas of Scotland you will want to visit. The region of Ayrshire where he was born and grew up, and the neighbouring region of Dumfriesshire where he spent the latter part of his life and died at the young age of 37.
This blog post concentrates on the places connected to Burns in and around Dumfries. If you only have one day to spare, you can visit many of the places mentioned that lie within the town of Dumfries, but I recommend setting aside two days or more if you plan to visit all the stops I've listed.
Robert Burns House
When Robert Burns first moved to the town of Dumfries he lived in a small flat in Bank Street, or what was then known as the Wee or Stinking Vennel - sounds delightful! In May 1793, Burns and his family moved up the property ladder to a pretty sandstone house in Mill Street, now renamed Burns Street. Their new home was classed as a good standard for the time, with two bedrooms, a parlour, a kitchen and a small study - they even employed a maid servant.
This is where Burns lived until his death on 21st July 1796 and his wife Jean Armour continued living in the house until her death in 1834. Today it is cared for by the local council and open to the public. The interior has been designed to give an idea of how the Burns family lived and the small study still contains the poet's desk and chair.
There is Burns memorabilia throughout the house and a guide is on hand to answer any questions you might have. There isn't a huge amount to see, however visiting the home where the poet spent the latter years of his life has unsurprisingly become a vital part of the Burns pilgrimage trail. It is free to visit (although donations are appreciated) and still makes for an interesting stop even if you only have a passing interest in Scotland's national bard.
Robert Burns Centre
Another free attraction, this is the best place to find out more about the poet's time in Dumfries. A small exhibition with information boards and artefacts connected to Burns, document his move from Ayrshire to Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire, his subsequent move to the town of Dumfries, his final years, and his funeral.
There is information on his occupation as a local exciseman, his character, and his beliefs, which build a picture of a complex personality and respected local figure. By the end of your visit to the Robert Burns Centre, you will undoubtedly feel like you know Rabbie a bit better than when you arrived.
For me, a highlight was a model of what Dumfries would have looked like during Burns time as I could digitally navigate some of the historic buildings and find out a bit more about their background before looking out for them on my afternoon wanders around the town.
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