The Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott

Grassic Gibbon Centre
The Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott

Author of Sunset Song

If you’re one of the thousands of people who’ve read A Scots Quair or watched Sunset Song on TV, you’ll enjoy this tiny museum in the old school at Arbuthnott.  The Grassic Gibbon Centre tells the story of James Leslie Mitchell, who wrote both in his own name and under the pseudonym Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

A Scots Quair is by far his best-known work.  It was “drawn from life”: Grassic Gibbon was the son of a crofter, a small-scale farmer.  His family lived in the Howe o’ the Mearns, the rolling agricultural land between Fordoun and Inverbervie.  It’s now in Aberdeenshire but it used to be Kincardineshire, and many people still use the old name.

The dialogue is written in local dialect, the “speak o’ the Mearns”, which Mitchell grew up talking.  Sunset Song was filmed, at least in part, on location in the area and using local actors who spoke the “speak”.

Visiting the Grassic Gibbon Centre

There’s a DVD to watch either before or after you go round the exhibition (you have to decide, so they can set it up for you).  It gives details of Grassic Gibbon’s complicated life and prolific but tragically short career.  The exhibition itself contains a lot of information about Grassic Gibbon and his books, and there’s lots of personal memorabilia on display.

Mitchell/Gibbon’s output was not confined to novels about north-east Scottish farming life.  He began his working life as a journalist, but he also wrote biographies, books about exploration, history, book reviews and short stories.  Something of a workaholic, he published seventeen books in seven years.  And that’s with two small children in the house!

The Centre isn’t just a museum.  It houses a gift shop, a café and the local Post Office in the same building.  The local community owns, runs and uses the Centre and it also hosts functions relating to Grassic Gibbon and local events.  Group visits to the Centre are welcome, by arrangement; they can even lay on supper for you.

A couple of miles down the road, in Inverbervie, you’ll find the memorial to another local boy, Hercules Linton, who designed the famous ship Cutty Sark.  You can read the story here.

More information:

The Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott, Laurencekirk, AB30 1PB



Tel.: 01561 361668










Glamis Castle, Angus

Glamis Castle
Glamis Castle (photo by Helen MacGregor)

What is it about Glamis?

I’ve been trying to analyse why Glamis Castle is my favourite (non-ruined) castle…

Is it the fairy-tale turrets of pink sandstone rising up against a background of hills and the warm ruggedness of the whole as you approach down the long drive?

Or the treasures of furniture, paintings and porcelain it houses, and the extraordinary engineering achievement of its wheel stair (as described by Fred Dibnah in one of his inimitable programmes)?

The stories, history and ghosts?

Or perhaps it’s just that I know it so well.  I worked there for 11 years, as a guide and occasionally in the office.  I made good friends there and loved (mostly!) the groups of tourists we took round and their sometimes astonishing questions.

Family history

But I think it’s the family history that grabs me most.  For example, the shrewd 3rd Earl who designed Glamis Castle as we see it today, having brought the family fortunes back from the brink of bankruptcy.  He kept a Book of Record (diary) in which he recorded his thoughts on life, philosophy, family – and builders.  It seems these last haven’t changed much since the 16th Century!

The 4th Earl, his oldest son, with a strong eye to posterity and proving hs position in the world, had enough portraits and busts of himself made to stock a gallery.

The 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Earls, all brothers, prove the necessity of having a good number of sons to ensure the succession.  The 8th, incidentally, though he lived longest, seems to be the only Earl who never got around to having his portrait painted (though it is possible that one of the miniatures in the family’s possession is of him).

The 9th Earl, a handsome man described as a “good bottle companion” married the fabulously rich, intelligent and highly-educated Mary Eleanor Bowes.  She had a horrible life after the Earl died (young, probably of tuberculosis), and ended up divorcing her second husband – almost unheard of in those days and the object of much discussion in the newspapers.  She won the case, with public opinion on her side, which was equally unusual for a woman in such a case.

Politics, gossip, intrigue – like all noble families, the Bowes Lyons of Glamis have had their share.  And much of it happened at Glamis Castle.

Family home

But above all, Glamis has been a family home.  Dozens of children, including the late Queen Mother, grew up here.  There are graves of family pets in the garden and plenty of trees crying out to be climbed by adventurous young sons.  They had a curling pond and a cricket pitch in the grounds.  The old cricket pavilion has been moved down to the back of the Castle; for several years it was the Castle office and it’s now used for children’s entertainments, but it still looks like a cricket pavilion, with a separate small room for the scorers so they wouldn’t be distracted by chit-chat.

Not everything you see on the castle tour is grand.  A lot of it’s big, but it’s all on a human scale, especially when you consider how large families were.  A dining table that can seat 28 doesn’t seem that huge when you have a family of 10 children, plus the spouses of the older members, to fit in.


Glamis is a house built for entertaining and it’s seen some famous visitors, Mary Queen of Scots, King George VI, Sir Walter Scott and William Ewart Gladstone among them.  It’s still welcoming visitors today – thousands of them every year – and entertaining them, albeit on a less grandiose scale.  (And these days they don’t stay in bedrooms complete with a private ghost but no plumbing!)

You can’t wander around the house on your own: all visits are by guided tour, and I think that’s a good thing (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?).  The guides are an interesting and knowledgeable bunch – and not just about the Castle – and you’ll discover far more about the place than you would on your own.

If you can, take a full day to see the Castle and grounds at your leisure, especially if the weather’s fine.  Don’t make the mistake so many coach tours do and try to cram it into a couple of hours; there’s too much to see.  I used to take groups of Italians round; Glamis was often their third castle of the day and they were “castled out”.

It’s a waste.  Take your time, enjoy your visit and maybe you’ll be able to answer the question “What is it about Glamis?” for yourself.

More information about Glamis Castle

… can be found on their website, or by phone on +44(0)1307 840393.  The Castle is closed through the week November-March (for exact dates see the website).  The Christmas Fair in December is worth an expedition all on its own, as are the various theatrical events throughout the year.




David Douglas Memorial, Scone

David Douglas memorial
David Douglas Memorial in Scone churchyard

Remarkable plant collector

In spring, roadside verges, hedges and gardens are bright with the myriad pinks of flowering currant, a plant so widespread that I’d always thought it was native.  That’s until I took a short detour to the churchyard on the outskirts of Scone, just outside Perth, following a brown sign to the David Douglas Memorial.

It turns out it was Douglas who introduced flowering currant to Britain.  Not just Ribes sanguineus, either.  Douglas fir (yup, he’s that Douglas), Sitka spruce, Monterey pine, California poppy and a couple of hundred other plants are all “his” too.

The plants he discovered became fashionable with wealthy garden owners who wanted exotic novelties to show off, and spread from there.  Nowadays Sitka spruce in particular, and to a lesser extent Douglas fir, are hugely important in the UK timber industry.

David Douglas started his working life aged 11 in the gardens of Scone Palace, just up the road.  He went on his first plant hunting expedition to North America in 1823, still only 24.  A short 10 years later he was dead, gored by a wild bull after falling into a pig-trap in Hawaii.  What a way to go!  How many other plants would he have introduced had he lived longer?

Memorial to David Douglas

The Memorial was built in 1841 by Douglas’s admirers to recognise his great contribution to horticulture and forestry.  It stands at the top of the churchyard, not huge but imposing.

The churchyard gates are wired together, but don’t let that put you off: the wire’s just there to stop the gates being blown around, because the latch doesn’t work.  Go round to the right, past what looks like a lodge [the first time I’ve ever seen one in a churchyard.  Was it the gardener’s cottage?  Sadly, there was no-one to ask so I’m none the wiser] and up the slope.  This is one of the rare times when “you can’t miss it” is true.

The churchyard is open all year, oddly enough!  The carefully-mown grass is slippy if there’s been a lot of rain recently.  There’s a large car park next to the church with plenty of shade from mature trees.

If you want to go for a walk, a footpath along the stream starts at the car park gate and heads into a small patch of woodland; it makes a good 20 minute stroll.

Alternatively, Kinnoull Hill, a mixed woodland with miles of trails on the outskirts of Perth, is also a great place to walk.  Just follow the signs up to the left as you come into Perth from the Scone direction.   You need to be fit enough for a steepish climb.  Right at the top of the hill there’s a cliff-top folly, built by a Victorian with a sense of the picturesque.  It’s a bit nervousness-inducing if you don’t like heights but the view across the Tay is fabulous.  Worth the climb.




Balmerino Abbey, Fife

Balmerino Abbey chestnut tree
Balmerino Abbey chestnut tree

A small patch of Paradise in Fife

Cross the Tay Road Bridge from Dundee to Newport and turn right and you’ll find a small patch of Paradise on the edge of the River Tay: the ruined Balmerino Abbey.

It was founded in 1229 as a daughter-house of Melrose Abbey, a working Cistercian Abbey until the Reformation, and converted to a private house in around 1660.

Today there’s not much left.  One and a bit walls of the church remain and humps mark where pillars used to support the roof.

Parts of the Chapter House and living accommodation can also be seen but this is now all fenced off, as it’s unsafe to enter and is undergoing stabilisation.  You can still see some fine carving around the arches, though, which gives an idea of how lovely the building must once have been.

A separate building, half under-ground, was either the infirmary or the Abbott’s house, according to the NTS sign.  I thought it might have been an ice-house.   The Undiscovered Scotland site reckons it was the cellar of the Abbott’s house; I prefer that idea to the thought of sick monks lying in dripping gloom.

The Abbey was never large – probably no more than 20 monks lived here at any one time.  It was damaged first by the English in 1547 and again by Scottish Protestants in 1559, and went into decline.  By 1606 it was a secular lordship for James Elphinstone, 1st Lord Balmerino.

Visiting Balmerino Abbey

We visited on a hot day but the mown grass was damp and very pleasant on bare feet.  There’s a short nature trail through the trees and one ancient, fabulously contorted Spanish chestnut tree, with huge metal props supporting its sagging limbs.  It’s worth coming just to see the tree, which legend says dates from 1229!

A visit to Balmerino Abbey won’t take long but it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot to while away half an hour or so.  You could have your picnic at one of the tables under the trees before walking along the Tay (see below).  It’s definitely worth the trip if you’re interested in history or just want a quiet spot to relax in.

Balmerino is reached from the Wormit-Newburgh road on the south side of the Tay, then down a narrow lane (sign-posted).  The Abbey’s on the right before you reach the village of Balmerino.  It’s a National Trust for Scotland property, so if you’re not a member please put some money in the honesty box.  The cash will be used to help preserve the ruins.

You can park on the verge outside the gate or, if that’s full, there’s room for 2-3 cars a bit further down the lane.  When you’ve finished enjoying the Abbey, walk down the lane to this second parking area, turn left past a cottage and you come to the shingly beach of the Tay.  It’s another great place for a picnic, especially at low tide.  Keep going along the bank and there are paths up into the woods where you can get a good hour’s walk.

Find out more at



Lower City Mill, Perth

Lower City Mill, Perth
Lower City Mill, Perth (photo RCAHMS)

Milling oats for Perth Prison

Pottering around Perth the other day I stopped to read a tourist information sign on the side of a building.  The water-way (lade) nearby should have given me the clue but it hadn’t occurred to me that a city the size of Perth would have water mills right in the middle of it. Silly me!  This one, Lower City Mill, was working right up until 1953, producing oatmeal for HM Prisons.

Perth has had mills since at least the 12th Century.  Lower City Mill hasn’t been there quite that long but it’s still pretty old, dating from around 1720.  It was originally two separate mills, milling different products.  The buildings were combined in 1793 by building over the lade.

It’s a handsome structure, in a workman-like sort of way: stone-built and sturdy looking.  It’s also Grade A listed but in 2012 it was put on the Buildings at Risk Register (that’s when this photo was taken for RCAHMS).

Visiting Lower City Mill

The mill’s working parts are still there but the buildings haven’t been open to the public since 1999 (despite what you may read online).  You can peer in through a large window over the lade at the front of the building but the interior has that sad, abandoned look.

What is still working, in the other end of the building, is the local Tourist Information office.  It has very helpful staff and an excellent selection of books, guides and goodies.  The Upper Mills, opposite, are now a hotel.

The lade that powered Lower City Mill comes via an aqueduct from the River Almond, four miles away.   I don’t know why they didn’t use the River Tay to power them but in the 13th century the mills were just outside the town boundary, so maybe they weren’t wanted in the residential part of town.

Or perhaps the water in the lade was easier to control – the Tay floods quite regularly.  The water from the lade went on from the mills to fill the moat that surrounded mediaeval Perth’s city wall.  It now runs too low to power a wheel, due to flood-prevention measures.

The Lower Mill is best approached on foot (unless you have a bullock cart handy).  The road’s still cobbled, which gives a nice historical feel.  The information plaque can be seen in the photo above, just above the wall that hides the lade.  The Tourist Information office is round the other side, in the building with the “hat” on.

Find out more about Perth at  It’s a delightful city with a strong artistic culture.



Dundee Museum of Transport


Dundee Museum of Transport
Dundee Museum of Transport

Transports of Delight

Do you love interesting old vehicles?  Then you’ll love Dundee Museum of Transport, crammed into tiny premises off Market Street on the eastern edge of Dundee.

It’s a transport museum with a difference.  For a good start, many of the exhibits belong to individual enthusiasts, not to the museum. And quite a few of them are definitely not in “show condition”; in fact a couple haven’t yet been restored at all.

One of those (at the time of our visit) is a double-decker bus that was used as a house for a while. If it’s anything like the buses of my childhood, that must have been chilly in winter!

The Museum isn’t finished, or at least not in its final home. Currently it’s housed in Market Mews, off Market Street (which is off Dock Street). The premises are crowded and way too small for all the vehicles.  Quite a few are in the yard out the back, which you can only visit with a guide for safety reasons.

The story so far

The final destination of Dundee Museum of Transport is, appropriately, the old Maryfield tram depot at the top of Forfar Road. They acquired the premises in November 2014 but it will take a while to sort them out. They’ll need more funding before they can even start, as it’s on the “Buildings at Risk” register.

That’s one reason they’ve opened in Market Mews: to help raise the cash.  They’re also applying for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and holding their own fund-raising events – and they’re always looking for volunteers to help!

They currently have around 45 volunteers, organised into three teams. The Visitor Services team deals with (you guessed it) visitors to the Museum; the Build team turns its collective hand to maintenance and alterations to the building; while the Restoration team looks after the vehicles.  If you live in the area and you’re interested in getting involved, in whatever capacity, they’d love to hear from you.

Visiting Dundee Museum of Transport

Back to the Museum itself: what’s on show?  The first space holds some very fine commercial vehicles, an ambulance and a rare walking ambulance. That’s a stretcher with a privacy cover, on which patients were pushed to hospital as late as the 1920s. There are bikes, cars, a fishing boat… even a carrot-eating horse.

To get to the next room, follow the dotted white lines and be sure not to stop on the double yellow ones! The second space showcases a steam roller, several buses and a tiny electric car.

There’s also a small room devoted to railway transport in the Dundee area, and a display window with models of the Tay ferry boats.  They ran between Newport and Dundee until the 1960s, when the Tay Road Bridge opened.


The Museum holds themed events from early April to October – you can even drive some of the vehicles at one of them. If you have a party (up to 20 people) you can also book a “Tea on the Bus” event any time.  See the website (below) for full details.

Altogether Dundee Museum ofTransport is well worth the entry fee.  Better still, children under five get in free.  If you enjoy your visit and you live locally it would be worth getting an annual ticket, as it gives you unlimited visits.

The new premises, when they open, will have space to showcase more vehicles. But the present place has lots to offer, including a tearoom, shoe-horned into the tiny space.

More information

If you’d like to help, get in touch via the website (, email ( or phone 01382 455196.

The museum’s open every day, weekdays 10-3 and weekends/public holidays 11-3.30.  It’s very easy to get around: there are ramps everywhere, so buggies and wheelchairs are no problem.

There’s plenty of parking in the Mews or out on Market Street (though you’ll probably haveto go further afield on event days.

P.S. If you’re a diver or other watersports lover, nip in to the Museum’s neighbour at Unit 8, Splashsports, and say Hi to Craig for me!  Don’t expect to find him there before around 11.30 a.m. (he goes to their main shop in Glasgow before opening up in Dundee).



Hercules Linton Memorial

Hercules Linton memorial
Hercules Linton Memorial, Inverbervie

Inverbervie’s famous ship designer

Hercules who?  Well, indeed!  But in his day Hercules Linton was a well-known shipbuilder and famous as the designer of the fastest ship in the world.

Hercules Linton designed and built the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark.  She was named after the garment worn by the young witch Nannie in Robert Burns’ poem “Tam o’ Shanter”.  You may remember how Nannie pulled the tail from Tam’s grey mare Meg as he fled from the witches.

All of which goes to explain the rather unusual statue at the northern edge of the small coastal town of Inverbervie, Kincardineshire*.  Hercules Linton was born and is buried in Inverbervie.  And the statue’s a copy of the original figurehead from the Cutty Sark ship.

There Nannie flies, clutching Meg’s tail, in her skimpy “cutty sark” or short shift. (In the poem the sark was from Paisley so it probably wasn’t plain white, but Paisley-pattern would have been harder to paint on a ship.)

Hercules Linton’s greatest ship

Cutty Sark, now a major attraction at Greenwich on London, was launched in 1869.  Building her bankrupted Hercules Linton’s company, but she made a fortune for her owners.

The clipper sailed the route between England and Shanghai, carrying tea on the return journey.  This was a serious race, with intense rivalry between the clippers.  Whichever ship got the tea home first got the best price for her cargo.

Cutty Sark later carried wool from Australia, and was subsequently sold to a Portuguese trader.  She then returned to Britain and served as a training ship for naval cadets until 1938.  She finally came to rest at Greenwich in 1954, 54 years after the death of her creator.

Other local attractions

A couple of doors away from the memorial is Inverbervie’s other famous landmark, the Bervie Chipper fish-and-chip shop, a great place to sample some of the local produce.  You can park in the square opposite the Chipper and take a walk down to the beach while you eat.

A few miles up the road is Arbuthnott, where you’ll find the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.

*The historic county of Kincardineshire is now technically part of Aberdeenshire.

More information

Some of the above came from the plaque on the wall by the statue. The rest is from the Undiscovered Scotland biography of Linton (

and from the Royal Museums Greenwich site (

And if you can’t remember the poem, you can read it in full here: