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.
Steam trains must be one of the most iconic modes of transport to travel by, but despite watching many a steam train puff by me, I've never actually journeyed on one before. So when I was invited to experience a Sunday outing from Edinburgh along the Borders Railway to Tweedbank on the historic Royal Scot, I couldn't wait to be transported back to an era when train travel was much more of a refined and romantic way to get around than it is today.
I didn't even realise you could go on a steam train from Edinburgh until now but thanks to the recent reopening of the Borders Railway line, steam train trips have become a popular way to get a taste of Southern Scotland.
As Mr Adventures Around Scotland and I made our way to the departing platform at Edinburgh Waverley Station, we were met by excited fellow passengers and train enthusiasts all waiting for their first glimpse of the steam train pulling into the station. Built in 1927 by London Midland & Scottish Railway, the Royal Scot was originally used for their fastest passenger routes from London to Birmingham and Manchester to Glasgow.
She has an interesting history, including being shipped complete with carriages for an appearance at the 'Century for Progress' exhibition in Chicago in 1933 and touring the USA before being returned to Britain and eventually retired from service in 1962. After being a static attraction at both Butlins and a steam museum, she subsequently received a complete overhaul which saw her return to steam on a main line railway in 2015.
On her arrival, we were given time to take photos and admire the shiny green locomotive that was about to take us on our journey south. With all the buzz on the platform, it really felt as if we were about to do something special.
Just to add to the romance and luxury of the trip, we were booked in for the premier dining experience and as we got settled in our comfy seats at our own table, we were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and I kept thinking, this is how all my Sundays should start!
For the first stop on my tour of the South of Scotland with Barbour I wanted to showcase some of the local produce at the Food Town of Castle Douglas, for the second stop I wanted to reveal a very different side to the region. Kirkcudbright has become known as the Artists' Town and you only have to spend 5 minutes walking around the streets to see why. Numerous galleries, workshops and decorated spaces are evidence of the many artists that have been drawn to this pretty harbour town on the Solway Coast. Although it is only 10 miles along the road from our first stop at Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbright has a very different look and feel, thanks to its coastal position complete with working harbour, splashes of bright colour and the imposing ruins of Maclellan's Castle standing guard over the town (complete with Rapunzel letting down her hair during our visit!).
Image Credit - Sean Elliott Photography for Barbour
We arrived 2 days before the opening of The Kirkcudbright Arts and Crafts Trail, an annual event where venues open their doors and public art displays take over the streets and lanes. Although we were early for the festival, we were in time to view the Kelpie Maquettes which had arrived the previous day and were already causing a buzz. If you have read my blog before you will know how much I love these sculptures by Andy Scott and although they are mini versions of the real thing I was still pretty excited to see them.
While we were waiting for the galleries to open, we had time to meander around the streets and admire the pastel coloured houses and smile at the quirky art on display every place we looked. At times Kirkcudbright feels like one big gallery, with many of the locals putting on their own little garden exhibitions and tempting you to discover more artisan treasures and curious window displays down hidden lanes. This is the kind of secret magical world that I love exploring!
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