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!
Sitting on the edge of the Dornoch Firth and positioned off the busy main A9 road and popular North Coast 500 route, means that Dornoch is the kind of town that might easily get overlooked in your travel plans. I know I was guilty of bypassing at speed on my journeys through this part of the country in my haste to get north. Recently I was persuaded by Visit Dornoch to take the 5 minute detour from the bustling A9 (yes, it really is only 5 minutes!) and discover just what this small historic town has to offer. It turns out that despite its small size there was more than enough to keep me occupied for my 3 day visit and there was still quite a few things I didn't manage to see by the time I was due to leave. If you are planning a trip along the North East of Scotland and especially if you are undertaking a road-trip on the North Coast 500, here are 10 reasons why the 5 minute detour to Dornoch is a worthwhile one.
1. Follow in the footsteps of pop royalty at Dornoch Cathedral
If it was good enough for Madonna to have baby Rocco baptised in, then it was surely worth me taking a 5 minute detour from the A9 to find out just what makes the 13th Century Dornoch Cathedral deemed worthy of a pop superstar.
Open daily to visitors, you will find a bright, peaceful space decorated with 27 beautiful stained glass windows, that gives little clue to the Cathedral's turbulent past. Founded in 1224, a clan feud in 1570 between the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Caithness resulted in the Cathedral being set on fire and partially ruined, with repairs not carried out until 50 years later. This was far from the end of the Cathedral's troubles, with another fire set during the Civil War in 1655 and further damage caused during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46.
Repair and restoration was finally undertaken by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1833 who wanted to make a suitable resting place for her husband, the first Duke of Sutherland.
Dominating the town centre, the Cathedral is hard to miss and an interesting and tranquil place to visit.
2. Experience woodland trails with a difference
How do you make an already great walk in the woods even more fun for all the family? By adding a sculpture trail or a natural playground of course! Dornoch has not just one but two interesting woodland walks with a difference.
Skelbo Woods - A circular 1.5 mile trail around Skelbo Woods will take you through a scenic forest plantation, a pretty pond, over Skelbo Burn and back again, with a view towards the coast thrown in for good measure. If that isn't enough of a reason to visit, then hunting for the hidden sculptures along the way is guaranteed to keep you entertained, I particularly loved finding Action Man parachuting from a tree!
Camore Woods - Pine trees and purple heather are the first thing that welcome you to Camore Woods. Hidden further in the forest are the remains of more than 25 hut circles and chambered cairns, evidence that this was a popular place to live 2-3000 years ago. Add to that some imaginative play areas with tunnels, a fort and even quoits and all ages are guaranteed to find a walk here fun and engaging.
3. Tee off at one of the world's best golf courses
St Andrews may be the birthplace of golf in Scotland but Dornoch can make a claim as the birthplace of Donald Ross. A name that might mean little to non-golfers should be a familiar one to golf fans around the world, particularly those in the USA. The first golf Professional at Dornoch, in 1899 he emigrated to America and went on to become one of the finest golf architects, designing over 500 courses in America, Scotland, Canada and Cuba.
If a golf break in Scotland features in your holiday itinerary then you have a very good reason to detour to Dornoch as Royal Dornoch's Championship Course is currently ranked 5th in the world and number 1 in Scotland by Golf Digest. With several neighbouring golf courses in the area, you have plenty of choice if you need an excuse to air your clubs.
I'm not a golfer but I did enjoy the novel golf bag planters that added a splash of fun and colour around the town.
When Barbour first approached me about taking them on a tour of Southern Scotland, I was a little curious as to why they had chosen to explore this often overlooked part of the country. After a bit of research it turns out that Barbour has quite a few connections to the area that I hadn't realised before, including the fact that the company founder, John Barbour, was actually raised on a farm in Galloway before moving across the Border and opening his first Barbour store in South Shields.
The clothing range is known for its use of tartan which was first incorporated as a lining in their original oilskin coats to celebrate John Barbour's Scottish roots. The Barbour name originates from Ayrshire in the South West of Scotland and the first exclusive Barbour tartan was inspired by incorporating the Ayrshire District tartan 'sett' in the design. They now have seven exclusive tartans that feature heavily in their products.
These connections also explain why Sam Heughan of Outlander fame makes an ideal choice as Barbour's first Global Brand Ambassador as he was born in New Galloway, not far from the farm where John Barbour lived.
Still run as a family business which is proud of it's heritage, I can understand why the south of Scotland is important to Barbour and I was delighted to have another excuse to promote some of the hidden gems that make this part of Scotland worth adding to your travel itinerary. With four days to explore, I decided that our first stop would be Castle Douglas, an 18th Century market town that is also designated as Dumfries and Galloway's Food Town, the perfect place to showcase some local Scottish produce.
Irvings Homestyle Bakery
There is nothing like the smell of baking to start off a foodie themed day and a trip to Irvings Homestyle Bakery didn't disappoint with hunger inducing aromas wafting through the air! Situated in a little retail estate, the small shop at the front is just a taster of what goes on behind the scenes and we were lucky enough to be shown around by Keith Irving, the second generation of the family business.
Large rotating ovens were hard at work, along with the many employees that the business has been able to take on thanks to their success. It is hard to believe that this thriving operation started with Keith's mum, Mrs Irving, baking biscuits in her kitchen to sell in the farmhouse shop.
Mrs Irving is still on hand to make sure the baked goods retain the look and texture you would expect to find in a farmhouse kitchen and it was lovely to meet the enterprising woman who started everything off, using recipes handed down through generations of her family. It was very inspiring to see mother and son beaming with pride for their business which has expanded from humble beginnings to supplying retailers, hotels and restaurants.
It would have been rude not to leave without a pack of Scottish shortbread which went down a treat with a cup of tea back home on Bute.
In House Chocolates
There's nothing like a mid-morning coffee and chocolate fix to keep your energy up during travel adventures and In House Chocolates in Castle Douglas town centre sent me into chocolate heaven! The owner Gillian Warden has developed and produced several Gold Winning chocolates and the shop is filled with tempting creations such as Violet Creams, Drambuie Truffles and Belted Galloway shaped chocolates that were just too cute!
If choosing your chocolates isn't hard enough, then the 25 types of coffee ground to order or 14 teas available will only add to your dilemma.
If like me, you prefer to travel with your furry companion rather than leave them at home, you are probably always Googling for dog friendly accommodation and activities. I know I spend about half my time researching for dog friendly places in Scotland where Willow can enjoy a holiday too.
Dornoch on the north east coast of Scotland promotes itself as a dog friendly destination so when the lovely people at Visit Dornoch invited Willow to put that claim to the test she happily accepted and obviously I persuaded her to take me along!
Our dog friendly visit got off to a promising start when staff at the new visitor centre were happy for Willow to join me as I gathered up all the local leaflets and info for our stay. We had 3 days in Dornoch to check out the best human and dog friendly things on offer and here's what we managed to get up to...
AWARD WINNING DOG FRIENDLY BEACHES
Not only are all these beaches dog friendly, they have all been awarded a Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award which recognises excellence in beach management, access and facilities, cleanliness and safety.
Dornoch Beach was our first stop, simply because Willow LOVES the beach and I must admit to being partial to a walk along the sands myself. Thankfully it ticked all the boxes and more. I was wowed by the beautiful expanse of clean golden sand that fringes the Dornoch FIrth and Willow was delighted to find plenty of doggy chums to run about with and space to chase her ball.
Dornoch Beach is definitely a place that can be enjoyed equally by humans and their canine companions.
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