When the lovely people at Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust got in touch to ask if I would like to experience Perthshire's 'Big Tree Country' during the autumn, I had my bags packed quicker than you could say 'Giant Douglas Fir'. With over 200,000 acres of woodland, including more champion trees than anywhere else in the UK, autumn in Perthshire is pretty spectacular. The landscape bursts into a fiery tapestry of colour and thousands of towering trunks are testament to why this region has become known as 'Big Tree Country'.
Often seen as a convenient stopping point on the road between the Lowlands and Highlands, it seems a real shame that more people don't take time to really appreciate how special the Perthshire scenery is.
This blog post only scratches the surface of outdoor places to explore in this vast region but I have tried to include a mixture of walks, viewpoints and places of interest which I think give a good introduction to the diversity of the area. Hopefully these ideas inspire you to explore more of 'Big Tree Country' and discover some gems of your own.
There is no better way (in my opinion) to explore Perthshire than on foot. Thanks to the hard work of Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust and their partners, an ever growing network of paths criss-cross the region. With walks for every ability there is a dizzying choice of trails and you could easily spend weeks following them and still only have covered a fraction! I've chosen 4 walks that I think are rewarding in their own right, from an accessible trail in Faskally Wood to a more challenging walk around the Annat Loop. For me, these trails show off some of the best assortment of scenery in the region with a few unexpected surprises along the way!
If you have read my recent blog with some of the highlights from my week in Ullapool, you will know that I was waiting to reveal my stand out experience from the trip as I felt it deserved a blog post all to itself. Well, I am finally ready to share not only the top highlight from my week in Ullapool, but a corner of Scotland that has firmly entered my list of top places to visit in the country.
I wanted to take you on a photo journey of my road-trip which started at Ullapool and ventured towards Achiltibuie and around the Coigach peninsula, a region that I fell more than a little bit in love with. It really was one of those road-trips when I kept thinking that the views couldn't get any better until I turned the next corner!
The only way to reach Achiltibuie is by a long and winding single track road which means it remains free from mass tourism and the whole area still has a simple and rustic charm. I could easily spend way more than a thousand words rambling on about how magical this place is, but I thought on this occasion I would let the pictures do the talking instead...
Heading north from Ullapool it wasn't long before I got my first glimpse of the Coigach mountains as I followed the road towards Ardmair.
Abandoned stone buildings topped with red tin are a common sight in this part of the country.
As the sweep of Ardmair Bay came in to view, the white pebble beach was a stark contrast to the dark and brooding mountains in the distance.
Around the bend from Ardmair, the mountain and loch scene was completed by some colourful fishing boats.
Ullapool is somewhere I should have first visited in July had all my #ScotCoast plans gone to, errrr, well, plan! Waiting an extra 3 months to finally get to this part of Scotland was worth the delay, especially as I could spend a whole week based in the picturesque Wester Ross village, much more relaxing than the quick stop I had planned in the summer.
Ullapool and the surrounding area have certainly been put firmly on the tourist map this year thanks to the excellent marketing of the North Coast 500 route which passes through the village. It seemed everywhere I went there was a buzz about the increased visitors and income from what has been dubbed Scotland's answer to Route 66.
As I drove around the region there were still quite a few motor-homes and camper-vans making their way around the remote Highland roads. Although I felt a bit left out that I wasn't among the majority of visitors embarking on this epic road-trip, deep down I felt quite smug that I had almost a week to explore the area when most of them only had a day or two.
Thanks to Embrace Scotland, I had a cosy self-catering apartment to return to each day and use as a base for trips around Wester Ross and Sutherland. As you can imagine, I managed to fit in quite a lot during my week but several places really stood out for me and I thought I would share some of the highlights of my trip with you. I should say that some of these places were recommended to me on social media and I'm grateful to everyone that provided their tips.
There was one absolute highlight of the week for me which deserves a whole blog post to itself so I'll keep you in suspense for a little longer before I tell you what that was, but in the meantime here are a some of the other things and places that I particularly enjoyed during my stay in Ullapool.
Following the eastern shore of Loch Fyne
I love Scotland in autumn. The landscape sheds its summer green and wraps itself in a tartan shawl of russet, burnt orange and chestnut. The golden light accentuates every magical detail and the sky frequently bursts in a blaze of colour from hot pink to cinnabar as the sun rises and sets. It is by far my favourite season to go exploring and luckily I have some stunning locations like Loch Fyne on my doorstep.
Last weekend brought perfect autumn weather, with blue skies and enough warmth to feel like summer had returned and to temporarily forget that winter is waiting in the wings. On days like this it would be criminal not to get outdoors and absorb some extra Vitamin D before the sun disappears on its annual vacation, so I decided it was a great excuse to embark on a spontaneous Scottish road-trip.
Living on the Isle of Bute means that making last minute plans usually limits the possibilities of where I can go in a day and I'm often forced into finding new ways to explore already familiar places. This is the kind of travel challenge I thrive on and from my experience, when the only new option left is to seek out the road less travelled, you often reap the best rewards.
Loch Fyne is a well frequented sea loch on the west coast of Scotland, with many a tourist stopping off for a refreshment at the historic town of Inveraray as they follow the road along its western shore, usually on their way from Glasgow to Oban. While this route can be a bustling one, especially in the summer, the eastern shore of Loch Fyne attracts far fewer visitors. Due to the geography of Bute, this is the side of the loch I find myself travelling along on a regular basis when I'm heading north.
In many ways the peaceful A886 from Colintraive to Cairndow could already be considered the road less travelled, however although it is quiet and pretty enough, it is not particularly memorable in my opinion. If you are travelling between these locations this well maintained road is definitely the quickest and most direct way to get from A to B but I decided this was the perfect time to explore an alternative route, the even less travelled parallel 16 mile single track road (B8000) from Otter Ferry to Strachur. It is definitely not the normal tourist route, yet it skirts along the fringes of Loch Fyne revealing not only superior opportunities to enjoy the scenery but also a few hidden historical gems and a couple of well regarded destination restaurants which makes the longer detour justifiably worthwhile.
My journey to the eastern shore of Loch Fyne started with the steep drive over Glendaruel to Otter Ferry. This is definitely the more challenging route to reach the loch as the single track road twists and turns on itself while heading upwards at a severe incline. Not for the faint-hearted and I couldn't help but admire the cyclist embarking on what must be a hellish leg burning uphill struggle but then again whether you reach the top on four wheels or two, the view over Loch Fyne at the summit is worth it.
I'm the first to admit that Edinburgh's New Town has never featured highly on my previous stays in the city. Like most other tourists that visit Scotland's Capital, I'm guilty of spending too much time wandering the cobbled streets and narrow closes of the Old Town and rarely venturing far beyond the famous Royal Mile. However, the centre of Edinburgh is very much a tale of two distinct architectural halves, separated by the greenery of Princes Street Gardens.
The medieval Old Town was never the most pleasant of places to stay and the smell caused by the insanitary conditions led to it gaining the nickname 'Auld Reekie'. By the mid-1700s, overcrowding and deteriorating living standards prompted the City of Edinburgh to hold a competition in 1766 to design a new residential suburb for the wealthier inhabitants of the Capital. The winning bid came from 21 year old James Craig and his grid-iron design inspired the ordered layout of Edinburgh's New Town that still exists today.
On my most recent visit to the city I decided to give the Old Town a complete miss and uncover some of the hidden gems that lie around the grand Georgian setting of the New Town and here are 9 of the great things I discovered...
1. Get a bird's eye view from The Nelson Monument
Calton Hill sits to the east of Edinburgh's New Town and is a popular spot for those seeking out panoramic views over the city. Littered with historic buildings, including the unmissable Greek style columns of the 'National Monument' which was intended as a replica of the Parthenon in Athens but never completed due to funds running dry, Calton Hill is a must visit in Edinburgh.
For even better views over the city, head to the highest point on the hill at the top of The Nelson Monument. For £5 you can climb the 143 steps to the viewing platform and enjoy possibly the finest 360 degree vista of Edinburgh and its most iconic landmarks.
The Nelson Monument was completed in 1816 to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson and his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Designed to resemble an upturned telescope, in 1852 a time ball was installed to drop at one o'clock each day, providing a visual signal for ships which was critical for navigation at that time. Due to good old Scottish weather, the ball could not always be seen and in 1861 it was decided to also fire a cannon from Edinburgh Castle ramparts at one o'clock to coincide with the ball drop and provide an added audible signal. Both traditions still take place today. There is also a small exhibition on the ground floor explaining more about Nelson, the monument and the Battle of Trafalgar.
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.
For my final day of touring Southern Scotland with Barbour, I suggested we head east from Ayrshire and finish our adventure with a visit to Peebles, a Royal Burgh and historic market town in the Scottish Borders.
Peebles seemed a fitting place to end our journey as it offers a little bit of everything and showcases all that is great about Southern Scotland in one location.
Its position straddling the River Tweed ensures pretty scenery, independent shops and galleries line the main streets, the Old Town provides some history and Glentress Forest is the ideal place to enjoy some outdoor activities. All this and it's only 23 miles south of Edinburgh!
Before reaching Peebles itself, we just had to include a stop at the nearby Neidpath Castle, which is easy to miss if you don't know it's there. If you are lucky enough to get a parking place at the adjacent lay-by, it is well worth pulling over to investigate the idyllic setting of this historic building.
Dating mostly to the 14th Century, it is privately owned by the current Earl of Wemyss. Although it is not open to the public, there are trails along the River Tweed that offer photogenic views of the castle and we decided to follow a path that snaked along the picturesque riverbank towards the eerie Neidpath Tunnel.
A shallow spot in the River Tweed also offered a fun opportunity to try out my new Barbour wellies. I can confirm that they kept my feet nice and dry!
For my third day touring Southern Scotland with Barbour, it was time to leave Dumfries and Galloway and travel further west into Ayrshire. I wanted to showcase Alloway which happens to not only be one of the prettiest villages in Scotland, but also the birthplace of Scotland's National Bard, Robert Burns.
If you ever wanted to find out more about this iconic Scottish poet, there is no better place to visit in Scotland as Alloway celebrates his life and work in a range of attractions, from the cottage he was born in, to the modern Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Even the lamp posts, flower boxes and street names have all had a Burns themed makeover!
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
With plenty of parking, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is a good place to start your quest to learn more about the man himself. It was built specifically to house the world's biggest collection of Burns related artifacts including original manuscripts written in his own hand and some of his personal belongings. The collection was started just after his death in 1796 and now has over 5,500 objects.
The Birthplace Museum actually includes a further five sites within the village of Alloway and after an interesting introduction to the complex life of Robert Burns, it was time for us to follow in his footsteps on the Burns' Trail and find out more about the local places and characters that inspired some of his most important work.
For our next stop we travelled back in time to where the story of Robert Burns began, quite literally, as Burns Cottage is the place he was born on 25th January 1759 and spent the first 7 years of his life. This pretty clay cottage, complete with thatched roof, was actually built by Robert's father, William Burns in 1757 and incorporated 2 rooms, a byre and a barn.
When the family moved out, William sold the cottage and it was leased out by the owners as an alehouse but shortly after the death of Robert Burns, the alehouse had to be extended due to the number of visitors attracted by the spreading fame of the poet. In 1881 the cottage was bought by the trustees of the Burns Monument who spent 26 years restoring it to its original condition. Today visitors can get an insight into what life was like in the early years of Scotland's Bard.
Image Credit - Sean Elliott Photography for Barbour
The Poet's Path
The Poet's Path was designed as a link between Burns Cottage and the other attractions in Alloway. Look out for some quirky sculptures that celebrate some of the work of Robert Burns including a series of 10 weather-vanes with scenes from the famous 'Tam O'Shanter', a very large mouse that could never be described as a 'wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie' and a fox inspired by his poem 'On Glenriddel's Fox Breaking His Chain'.
Alloway Auld Kirk
A short walk from the Poet's Path takes you to Alloway Auld Kirk, which is undeniably atmospheric and dare I say a little bit creepy! This might have something to do with a childhood learning 'Tam O'Shanter' which features this ruined Kirk as the place poor Tam stumbles upon a macabre scene, with warlocks and witches dancing to a tune played on the bagpipes by the Devil. A drunken Tam stupidly disturbs their antics and they pursue him and his grey mare, Meg, towards Brig O' Doon, where they narrowly escape over the bridge with their lives as the witches can't cross the running water, although poor Meg did lose her tail.
Exploring here as an adult, I can still imagine that it is the sort of place that witches might gather. The ornate and eerie headstones, coupled with iron mortsafes designed to stop grave robbers gave us all a chill which couldn't simply be blamed on the damp weather!
As you enter Alloway Auld Kirk, you also can't miss the grave of William Burns, Robert's father, complete with an epitaph on the rear of the headstone composed by the poet.
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