Brechin Mechanics Institute

Brechin Mechanics institute

Home of learning and entertainment

Brechin (* see below for pronunciation) is a fascinating place.  The size of a large village, it is in fact one of Britain’s smallest cities.  It has a 13th century cathedral that’s now a parish church of the Church of Scotland.  Since it therefore has no Bishop, it isn’t technically a Cathedral any more.  (The Episcopalian Diocese of Brechin uses St Paul’s Church in Dundee as its Cathedral).  Because of this discrepancy, some people would say Brechin can no longer call itself a city.  Locals would not agree!

Brechin also boasts an 11th century Round Tower in the Irish style, one of only two in Scotland to survive.  It nearly didn’t make it through the 1960s, as local councillors considered it irrelevant and planned to demolish it.

The closure of the nearby US Air Force base some 20 years ago hit the city badly, but it’s finally getting back on its feet.  Many buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some have recently been restored to their full glory.  Others are still very run-down and just crying out to be tidied up and put back to use…

Brechin Mechanics Institute

And it has the Brechin Mechanics Institute, a fine building that faces you as you approach the town from the Forfar road.  Historic Environment Scotland describes it as “Tudor gothic”, a designation I hadn’t come across before.   As it dates from 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, I’d have though “Victorian gothic” would be more apt.  But I’m not an architectural historian.

John Henderson of Edinburgh designed the Mechanics Institute building.  He was the son of a gardener at Brechin Castle, just along the road.  The Earl of Dalhousie, owner of the Castle and, presumably, Henderson’s patron, gave it to the city.  Faced in fine ashlar stone, the building soars elegantly heavenwards, suggesting perhaps that the source of learning lies above.

The Mechanics Institutes movement dates from the Age of Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when philosophy, physics, chemistry and natural history, as we now know them, were born.  The first Mechanics Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 1823.  However, the idea goes back to George Birkbeck (for whom Birkbeck College is named) who started a group in Glasgow in the 1790s.  Another Mechanics Institute of the period is now better known as UMIST.

The Brechin Mechanics Institute occupies the site of an earlier school building.  It provided a night-school for “mechanics” (workers), and anyone else who wanted to improve their employability, on the upper floor.  The lower floor housed the High, Parochial and Burgh schools for youngsters.  It must have been a busy place in its heyday.

What happened next

The Institute didn’t just provide education: all sorts of groups met there.  The Guildry of Brechin used the building for meetings and still makes an annual donation towards its upkeep.  A Guildry was a group of Guilds of various trades;  Brechin’s dates from 1629.  Although it’s lost its original purpose, it’s still active in the civic and social life of the city.  Many of those civic and social events take place in the Mechanics Institute.

When the Managers and Patrons of the building felt unable to maintain it by themselves in 1950, ownership of the building was “vested in the City Council for the Common Good of the Burgh”.  It subsequently passed to the District Council who, in the 1970s, had the same difficulties and closed the building as an act of economy.

Events and artworks

Finally, after many years of negotiations, Brechin Mechanics Trust was founded to manage and maintain the building, though Angus Council still own it.  The Trust has refurbished and  updated the facilities.  There’s now provision for disabled access, for example, so the whole community can use the building.  The Institute once again hosts events of all kinds, from formal dinners, art shows and musical events to pop-up oriental rug and knitwear shops.

As a place of education, the Institute displayed paintings such as Phillip’s “Robert the Bruce on the Eve of Bannockburn”, to bring history to life.  There are several portraits of local citizens, to give students models to follow, including a QC, a Doctor of Divinity and the poet Alexander Laing.  There’s also the rather unpleasant-looking local landowner Lord Erskine, ancestor of the writer Violet Jacob.  They both lived at House of Dun, between Brechin and Montrose which is now a National Trust for Scotland property.  You can see the pictures, in the upper hall, whenever the Institute is open.

What else to see

When you’ve finished at the Brechin Mechanics Institute, there’s an excellent Town House Museum on the cobbled, steeply-sloping High Street.  The Cathedral and Round Tower should also definitely be on your itinerary.  Brechin still has lots of interesting shops, too, including one of the very few greengrocers to survive the onslaught of the supermarkets.  While you wander, keep your eyes open for the many architectural joys in this tiny gem of a city.  You never know what you might spot.

Find out more

* In case you’re wondering how to pronounce it, Brechin has a “ch” as in “loch” or the German “ach”, not as in “church”, and the “e” is long: “Breechhin” is the nearest I can get to writing it!

Brechin Mechanics Institute listing at Historic Environment Scotland: http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB22459

Round Tower: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/brechin-cathedral-round-tower/

Brechin Cathedral: https://brechincathedral.org.uk/about/

 

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Montrose sculptures

Montrose sculptures, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

Great men – and others

The town and port of Montrose, on Scotland’s north-east coast, has a fine collection of sculptures waiting to be discovered by the open-eyed visitor.  (The seagulls, inevitably, have already found them). Some are of local figures, others made by locals, and still others haven’t even a tenuous connection to the town.

Two of the Montrose sculptures stand very close together either side of the junction at Peel Place (the southern end of the High Street).  The first is the famous – some would say infamous – local man James Graham, 1st Marquis* of Montrose, who lived from 1612-1650.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

Born in the town in 1612, Montrose went on to become one of the greatest soldiers of the time of King Charles 1st.  Charles 1st wanted to impose the English brand of Protestantism on the Presbyterian Scots.  They weren’t keen on either the Bishops or the rites that Charles proposed.  The Presbyterians signed a Covenant upholding their right to worship in their own way and took arms in defence of their chosen religion.

At first Montrose supported the Covenanters but later he supported the King.  Many people therefore see him as a turncoat who followed whichever course would be most advantageous to him.  Others say that he turned against the 1st Marquis of Argyll, leader of the Covenanters, thinking he was trying to usurp the King’s power in Scotland.

Soldier-poet

No-one, however, disputes Montrose’s skill as a General; this complex man won many battles for whichever side he was supporting.  He was also a fine poet, probably best remembered for the poem he wrote to his wife.  The most famous lines from it are inscribed around the statue’s plinth:

“He either fears his fate too much,

Or his deserts are small,

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.”

Montrose did both win and lose it all.

His loyalty to the monarchy was his downfall.  After Cromwell had King Charles 1st beheaded during the British Civil War, Montrose pledged his support to the exiled Charles 2nd and tried to raise an army to restore the monarchy.

Montrose was defeated in 1650, and executed as a traitor in Edinburgh by being hanged and quartered.  Charles betrayed him, denying all knowledge of the plot.  A tragic end for a gallant man who fought for what he saw as right.

The statue marked the 350th anniversary of Montrose’s execution.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s stuck outside the Job Centre on a bend in a busy road.

Sir Robert Peel

The man on the plinth opposite him was very different, though also a doughty fighter in his way.  Some might see him, too, as a turncoat.  Montrose sculptures, Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel was not local.  He came from Lancashire and had nothing at all to do with the town.  So what did he do to earn this fine statue?

Peel has two main claims to fame – three if you’re a Catholic.  The first is that, as Home Secretary,  he founded the Metropolitan Police force in 1829.   (That’s why policemen are still called “bobbies”, Bob being short for Robert; they were also originally known as “peelers”.)

Police forces weren’t an entirely new idea.  Glasgow had had one since 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary was founded in 1822 (partly also thanks to Peel).  But this time the concept spread right across the country, which hadn’t happened with the earlier forces.

Women and children first

Peel was also responsible for passing the Mines Act, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours they could work.

He also got the Railway Regulation Act through Parliament.  This required railway companies to provide regular affordable trains, every day, with seats and roofed carriages even for third-class passengers.  At 1d a mile they still weren’t cheap but they did help people move around to find work.

Although originally so anti-Catholic that he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”, Peel came to see that the danger posed by riots against Catholics was worse than the danger of religious freedom.   His change of heart helped to win repeal of the Test Act and pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

But that’s not how he earned a statue in a staunchly Presbyterian town!

His greatest legacy was forced on him by the Irish potato famine.  Peel was not in favour of free trade and most of the landowners in his Tory party strongly opposed imports of cheap corn.  But, faced with a spreading famine, Peel did something almost unprecedented in British political history.

He got the Opposition to support him against his own party to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and relieve the hunger of millions of people.  It took five months of bitter struggle to get the repeal through Parliament.  The day it became law in 1846, Peel was defeated on another Bill and resigned.  He died in 1850 after a fall from a horse.

Erected in 1855 to mark Peel’s political achievements, his statue now sports a plaque which, ironically, misrepresents them.  It mentions only the police force, the Corn Laws and the first of his two terms as Prime Minister, ignoring the rest of his surprising career.

Montrose sculptures trail

Two men separated by two centuries and very different ideals stand within yards of each other at a busy road junction, where few passers-by give them a thought.  But they are by no means the only statues Montrose boasts.

A couple of hundred yards further up the High Street, for example, stands a Montrose man who knew Peel in Parliament and fought for many of the same things.  He’s Joseph Hume (apparently one of the worst speakers in Parliamentary history: the sight of him standing to speak could clear the Chamber within minutes).

Beyond these three, there’s a whole trail of Montrose sculptures; there’s a link below to download the guide.

They include a bust in the Library of Dr. Robert Brown, another Montrose native.  He’s the man who discovered Brownian Motion (you know, the thermal movement of molecules in liquid) and plant cell nuclei.

There are also several works by local sculptors David Annand and William Lamb.  You can visit Lamb’s studio in July and August on Tuesday-to-Saturday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement with the Curator of the Montrose Museum.

As well as statues of people, there are sculpted drinking fountains, swans and geese (Montrose’s tidal Basin is famous for its water fowl) and even a famous naval dog.

But I won’t spoil the surprises.  Download the guide, slip on your comfy shoes and go and find them for yourself.  They should keep you entertained for several hours.  You’ll also discover the lovely old town of Montrose, with its hugely wide High Street and tiny hidden wynds.  It’s worth a visit.

When you’re done, please let everyone know what you thought by leaving a comment!

Find out more:

You can download a map of the Montrose sculptures trail at www.montrosesociety.co.uk/Sculpture%20Trail%2005.pdf

For details of William Lamb’s studio: http://www.angus.gov.uk/directory_record/177/william_lamb_studio_montrose

* ‘Marquess’ or ‘Marquis’?  Either form is correct but ‘Marquess’ is the currently accepted spelling.  According to Chambers Dictionary ‘Marquis’ is “a variant spelling used esp. by holders of pre-Union titles”.  As James Graham lived between the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1701), I’ve used the old spelling, as does the statue plinth.

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The Lecht Mine

 

Lecht mine
The Lecht mine

Mining, whisky and religion

The Lecht is a steep road – this is, after all, one of Scotland’s main skiing areas.  The road seems to climb for ever to the summit, over 2,000 feet above sea level.  Imagine what it must have been like for the poor bull who helped drag the rollers for the Lecht Mine over it.

The Lecht mines

The mine was built in 1841 and closed just five years later – hopefully, the bull never knew that.  It separated manganese ore, used in the manufacture of household bleach, from the rock.  A slow process.  The rollers brought by the bull were operated by a water wheel.  They performed the first stage of extraction – crushing the rock – so they were heavy.

The workers barrowed the rock into the mine across a plank bridge high above the burn (stream) that fed the water wheel.  It must have been heavy work and, especially in rainy weather, slippery and dangerous.  Despite the risks, more than 60 people worked here at the height of production.  It will have been a big blow for the area when it closed.

There had been an iron-ore mine here in the 1730s, again for just five years. There was talk of opening the mine in the 1920s, again for iron, but it came to nothing.  It would only have been profitable if the iron could have been transported by rail from Tomintoul and nobody was investing the cash to build railways in the “hungry ’20s”.

So the empty shell of the restored Lecht mine building sits quietly at the head of its short glen, lonely and purposeless.

The Lecht Well

You reach the building from the Lecht Well car park, where I was lucky enough to see my first black grouse up close – well, fairly close, anyway.  We’d heard them calling as we walked and suddenly there he was, apparently unfazed by our proximity.

Black grouse at the Lecht
Black grouse at the Lecht

(I later saw two capercaillie and my travelling companion saw a red kite: a great day for us both!)

It’s roughly half a mile each way to the mine and back along a well-worn track, so it makes a good leg-stretcher on a long journey.  The route follows a burn so there’s plenty of water around if you’re travelling with a thirsty dog or puddle-splashing children.

Whisky smuggling

A sign half-way along the track points uphill to the left along an old whisky road.  Well, the sign calls it a road.  It’s hardly a path.  It doesn’t look as though even the sheep use it much nowadays; I certainly wouldn’t want to be carrying awkward contraband cargo along it.

It was quite busy once, though: this was one of the routes used by distillers of illicit whisky. The spirit was heavily taxed in the late 18th-early 19th centuries and local people brewed their own rather than pay the tax (they were made of sterner stuff than us).  These hills were sufficiently lonely and remote to avoid the eyes of the excise-men most of the time.

The whisky wasn’t just for home consumption – in fact some of today’s famous distilleries started illegally way back then – and the “whisky roads” were how it reached its market, smuggled through the heather at the dead of night.  Actually, night-time travel was probably mostly unnecessary: broad daylight would have been safe unless you were very unlucky.

… and religion

Also hiding in these hills was the Scalan Catholic seminary.  From 1717-1739, trainee priests of the then-illegal religion trained here to spread the word to their flock.  Large parts of the Highlands remained staunchly Catholic – some still are – and priests were needed.

But they could still, at that period, have been killed for their faith, so the seminary skulked in the hills, out of the eye of the Justices.  That’s not to say the Justices didn’t know about the seminary; there’s a good chance quite a few of them were themselves Catholics.  But the fact that it was hidden away allowed them to ignore its existence.

What with whisky smugglers and outlaw priests, these hills must have seen a lot of furtive movement.  The Lecht is not far from Culloden, and Jacobites escaping from the retribution after the battle probably “took to the heather” here too, as they did all over the remoter parts of Scotland.

It’s astonishing what you can find on a half-hour walk, even in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  There’s not a house to be seen, but people have worked here, legally and illegally, for centuries.  They still do, of course: employees at the ski resort, gamekeepers and hill farmers and, no doubt, many others.

The Lecht may look as though nothing ever happens there, but it’s just another case of appearances being deceptive.

Find out more:

The Lecht Well is on the A939, about halfway between Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, on the right and after the ski centre if you’re heading towards Tomintoul.  On the map we were using, the mine is marked as “Lecht Iron” – interesting, considering its history.

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Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness

Hugh Miller's cottage, Cromarty
Hugh Miller’s cottage, Cromarty

Three Firths and a Loch

Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness sound like an old-fashioned firm of lawyers, don’t they?  And the Black Isle adds a touch of intrigue to the proceedings…  The reality is slightly less dramatic.

The Moray, Beauly and Cromarty firths almost completely encircle the Black Isle (we’ll come to Ness later). The delta of the River Conon does its best to finish the circuit to the north east, and the Beauly River does the same to the south west, but the Black Isle isn’t actually an island at all.  It’s what the French call a presqu’isle, a nearly-island: a peninsula.

The Black Isle

It’s an unexpectedly beautiful peninsula.  The “black” name (it’s the same in Gaelic: an t-Eilean Dubh) comes from the fact that, since it’s rather flat land and almost surrounded by water, snow doesn’t lie there in winter.  So it looks dark compared to the white hills ranged behind it.  No skulduggery involved.

In the soft rain of March it looked not black but very green across the Moray Firth.

Heading north from Inverness, it was a case of “Beauly to left of them, Moray to right, over the Kessock Bridge the car thundered” (to misquote Tennyson).  Shortly afterwards we thankfully left the busy A9 and headed east, across the top of Munlochy Bay.

Passing through Fortrose, a handsome, largely Victorian town with a ruined 13th century cathedral, we turned left at Rosemarkie.  Both places looked as though they’d repay a closer look – another trip for another day.

We were headed for Cromarty, the historic town at the north-eastern tip of the Isle.  It’s beautifully preserved, without having been set in aspic.  In fact, it’s very much alive, with all sorts of cultural happenings and events throughout the year.

Cromarty

We had hardly entered the town when the welcome sign “Tea, coffee and books” brought us up all standing.  A good cup of coffee surrounded by second-hand books?  It would have been churlish to drive on.

Later, abandoning our purchases in the car, we pottered down to the shoreline and found a couple of craft shops to spend more money in.  Walking along the green near the water’s edge we came across what must be one of the smallest wooden cabin boats ever built, and the old lighthouse, now a Field Studies Centre for Aberdeen University.

We also passed an intriguing grass-thatched building which bore a tiny plaque explaining that it was a 19th century ice-house – an important installation during the boom years of the “silver darlings”, the herring fisheries that briefly made these shores rich.

Sadly, one of the reasons for visiting Cromarty was closed: Hugh Miller’s cottage.  Miller was an early geologist and fossil-studier and his tiny thatched childhood home sits almost next door to the old Court House (also a museum; also closed).  Ah well, another reason to come back; next time in summer.

Arts, crafts and dolphins

We rather fell for Cromarty – as have all sorts of artists and crafters, drawn to the quality of the light, the (formerly) cheap property prices and the sense of community.  Perhaps also to the opportunities for dolphin watching.  We didn’t see any – just oil and gas rigs – but “you should have been here this morning” when they’d been cavorting in the bay.  Ain’t it always the way?

Following the coast round to the north west, we crossed the Cromarty Firth via the rather odd Cromarty Bridge: it’s about three miles long and flat as a pancake.  Most bridges rise a bit in the middle; crossing this one feels more like driving over a causeway.  Obviously they’re not expecting any ships to pass underneath.

Reaching the other side, we did consider heading north to Wick and Thurso, but we had to be back for dinner…  Instead we turned the car towards Dingwall, Beauly and Loch Ness, hoping to visit Urquhart Castle.

Loch Ness

It was not our day for visitor attractions.  Rush hour in Beauly (five minutes) delayed us enough that we arrived as they were cashing up – though they kindly allowed us downstairs in the visitor centre to use the loos.  So all we saw was the view over the stone wall from the car park.

It’s a good view and you can see why the Urquharts built their castle where they did.  In a fine defensive position on a small promontory, it has commanding views of both the loch and the road along the edge of it.  Probably very windy and damp, mind you; great views have their drawbacks.

Returning towards Inverness, we passed the first section of the Caledonian Canal, one of Thomas Telford’s great engineering feats.  By connecting Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe through the Great Glen, he created a route for ships that avoided the long and dangerous passage through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath.

It took longer than expected to build and cost over twice its original budget (of course) but it’s saved incalculable time, money and lives, especially during the two World Wars.  Not only has it survived to become a scheduled ancient monument but it’s never stopped carrying working boats, unlike most British canals.  One of these days I’ll take a boat along it.

“Another time”, “another reason to come back”, “one of these days” – I definitely haven’t finished with Messrs. Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness.

Find out more at

http://www.black-isle.info/

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/urquhart-castle/

https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/canals/caledonian-canal/

 

 

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Murton Farm, Tearoom and Nature Reserve

 

Murton

Fun with a purpose

Murton signage says “Farm and Tearoom” and that’s accurate as far as it goes: there is indeed an excellent tearoom, it’s on the site of what was a farm and there are still animals to see and, by arrangement, pet.  (There’s also an excellent and growing play-park and a wind turbine.)  For many visitors, these facilities are what the place is all about.

Which is fine; but it ignores the largest part of Murton’s raison d’etre.  It’s a nature reserve, run by the charity Murton Trust for Education and the Environment.  The tearoom and farm, the only areas you have to pay to use, help draw in visitors and funds.

What Murton is really about

Murton was a perfectly ordinary farm once.  Then the diggers arrived.  The soil in this part of Angus contains large quantities of sand and gravel, and open-cast mining for them is a common sight.  For 12 years, Murton’s fields were scoured for aggregates.

The owners had already decided that the land would become a nature reserve when the diggers left.  They were also interested in education.  They combined the two to create a place where nature and people could flourish together.

So groups of 14-19 year-old students who find academic education challenging come here from local schools.  They learn skills they can use later in gardening, forestry, farming, environmental protection work and other employment.  Trust staff make sure what they learn refers to the curriculum whenever possible.

For example, people who struggle with maths learn how to calculate the quantities of fencing wire or timber they’ll need for a job.  When you have a reason to learn something, it often makes more sense.

Nature, with a bit of help

Students and staff have built nesting walls and boxes for the several hundred pairs of sand martins that return here every year to breed.  They (the students and staff, not the martins) manage grassland, and a whole field of orchids blooms on the reserve round about May. Elsewhere in the region, you’re lucky to see one or two specimen orchids.  Other management practices mean that otters now visit Murton from local lochs, one with cubs.

And there are hides and shelters all around the lochs where visitors can sit and watch the birds – all thanks to the students and staff.  You’ll also meet a life-size deer and boar on your travels, but quite safely: they’re made of wood!  You can buy smaller versions in the tearoom.

Murton boar
This little piggy won’t hurt

They’re currently building a new cabin, large enough to accommodate the Outdoor Tots toddler group in wet weather, the Murton Makers kids’ carpentry events, and courses in rural skills such as spoon-carving.  You can find full details of events and courses on their website and social media: see below.

Visiting Murton

The tearoom, farm and car park are open 10-4, every day from April to October and Wednesday to Sunday the rest of the year.  There’s a hide you can access directly from the car park, so if you’re short of time, mobility or energy you can still watch the birds in comfort.

The tea, coffee and cakes in the tearoom are excellent – some people come just for them!  Entry to the farm is £3.50 for adults and £2.00 for children (2017 prices), which is very reasonable considering you can stay all day and find plenty to occupy small people.

The main gate is shut every night and the place looks closed.  But the nature reserve is open 24/7: you can wander round any time the mood takes you.  The pedestrian access gates are down a side road, almost opposite the Foresterseat Caravan Park entrance.  Sadly (or luckily, depending on your viewpoint) not many people know about them and you’re quite likely to have the place to yourself outside normal opening hours.

Murton’s a great place for all ages and many interests.  Whether you’re a life-long birder or just need a good walk, want a place to meet a friend for tea and buns or have two energetic children to occupy, it’s here for you. Definitely worth a visit!

More details

Website: http://www.murtontrust.org.uk/

Twitter

Facebook

Because it’s a nature reserve, dogs are not allowed (they can stay in the car, but there’s no shade).

 

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The bonny, bonny banks: in praise of lochs

Scottish lochs Loch Long
Morning mist rising off Loch Long

In praise of lochs

Millions of people the world over know about Loch Lomond’s bonny (or bonnie) banks.  Quite a few were driving the length of them in front of me this August day.  They drove slowly in the unfamiliarity of hire cars and driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  Slowly too, probably, as they peered through the trees that line those banks for a glimpse of one of Scotland’s two most famous lochs.

It was raining for the first time in several days.  The tea-shops at the southern end of the loch all sported a fringe of damp walkers on their outdoor seats, sheltering under the sun umbrellas that, only yesterday, would have been doing their proper job.

Loch Lomond, when you could see it, was so grey and still it appeared frozen.  Occasional houses dotted the further shore, larger hotels clumped on the near one, largely invisible to the passing drivers.  There was, frankly, little to entice one to stop.

Loch Lomond on a fine day is beautiful, when you can see it, but the road alongside it is one of Scotland’s busier tourist routes.  I wasn’t staying on it.

Loch Long

Reaching Tarbert I turned towards Inveraray, away from the endless stream of traffic.  A couple of miles on I found my destination: Arrochar.  It was very peaceful – the picture that heads this post was taken from the window of my B&B early the following morning, and there wasn’t much more going on that evening.

In fact there was so little going on that I couldn’t get in to my B&B (I was early).  So I carried on driving, down a narrow, winding road bordering Loch Long.  It’s just as calmly beautiful as Loch Lomond, with equally majestic hills and picturesque cottages.  But no-one has ever written a song about it so the tourists have stayed away.

A pleasant pub provided decent beer, a good meal and a window-side seat to while away the time.  The rain cleared, and a small complement of damp walkers sat themsleves at the outdoor tables.

Loch Long kept its secrets, still and grey in the late afternoon.

Other lochs

The following day I drove on to Loch Fyne. It’s a grand drive through Glen Croe, Glen Kinglas and the historic town of Inveraray.  The road finally meets Loch Fyne, the longest sea loch in Scotland, at Furnace*.   I was there to dive and had a great couple of immersions before heading home.

My return route could have taken me along Loch Tay but I chose the slightly shorter route via Loch Earn.  There used to be a water-sports centre here, but it’s been closed for several years following a fire.  Now, although there are plenty of boats moored on the loch, the water seldom seems to be disturbed by anything larger than a swan or a feeding fish.

Lochs, both fresh-water and sea, hold an irresistible fascination for me.  Even in the rain they’re beautiful.  The water is, as it were, cupped in the hands of the mountains.  There’s a feeling of space and yet protection about them, and their changing moods show as clearly on their surface as on a face.

In, on and under the water

Every time I pass a loch, I want to dive in and see what lies under the surface. And there are plenty of places where you can do just that.  (Beware of tides and swell in the sea lochs, though: they’re not as protected as they look.)

Just park up, throw on your wet- or dry-suit and snorkel and off you go.  As long as you do no damage and don’t catch fish without a licence, you’re free to roam.  The visibility may be like gin, strong tea or a kick-up in a dustpan; it’s all part of the fun.

Whether you want to get into them, paint or photograph them or just enjoy the view, Scotland’s lochs are one of the great joys and glories of her countryside.

Visiting

You can find out more about Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (of which Loch Long is a part) at http://www.lochlomond-trossachs.org.

*Furnace gets its name from having been the site of an iron furnace (foundry); the original name of the village was Inverleacainn (mouth of the Leacainn [river]).  This part of Scotland isn’t big on industrial history but Furnace later also had a powder-mill.  Both the foundry and the mill used charcoal from the local woods for power.

 

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5 Best-Kept Secrets of Angus

Glen Clova in Angus
Glen Clova in Angus

Angus: what most visitors miss

The county of Angus lies on Scotland’s east coast between Dundee and Aberdeen.  If people have heard of it, it’s usually because major golf tournaments are contested at Carnoustie, a links course of fearsome reputation.

But there’s so much more to Angus than golf.  It’s home to at least five “best-kept secrets”.

Lunan Bay

One of my favourite walking spots is Lunan Bay, two miles of sandy beach on a gentle curve backed by dunes.  The river Lunan runs into it near the southern end, its rushes hiding swan’s nests.  On the bank above sit the sandstone ruins of Red Castle, weathered over the centuries into fantastical shapes.

In a corner of the bay, the old fishing village of Eassie hugs the ledge of the cliff.  It’s now a gated community, a single-track road its only connection to the outside world.

The bay is one of the best places on the east coast of Scotland for surf and the sky is often colourful with the sails of kite-surfers.  Hundreds of gulls and shags nest on the cliffs, and the rocks are a larder of shellfish waiting to be harvested.

Best of all, even on a sunny weekend when the car park is full it’s big enough to feel as though you have the place to yourself.

Glamis Castle

Hidden away in woodland near Forfar lies Glamis.  The childhood home of the Queen Mum, it is apparently one of the most haunted castles in Scotland.  A confection of pink sandstone and turrets, it nestles low against a dramatic backdrop of high hills.

Now open to the public, Glamis is a magical place, full of history, atmosphere and quirky charm.  I’ve written a longer post on it.

The Angus Glens

… are five valleys running deep into the foothills of the Cairngorms.  According to local legend, the Glens are the imprint of God’s fingers when he finished creating the world.

They vary from gentle, river-created valleys like Glen Esk to the drama of Glen Clova, gouged from the hills by ice-age glaciers. Although popular with walkers, the glens are still quite empty of people, offering great opportunities for wildlife-spotting if you’re quiet enough.

Montrose Airfield

Montrose was the first full-time military airfield in Scotland, way back in 1913. Two hangars from that period are still in use, though not for their original purpose.

Although no planes fly from Montrose now you can still see the runways.  You can still use them too, as many cyclists, walkers and runners prove.  The old Station HQ is now a museum crammed with information, models – and ghosts.  During both World Wars the airfield was a training camp for pilots, many of whom are still “there”: both staff and visitors see and hear them .

You can read more about the airfield here.

Arbroath Abbey

The Abbey of Arbroath has a good claim to be the home of Scottish nationalism, because it was here, in 1320, that the Declaration of Arbroath was signed.

Officially this was a letter to the Pope claiming the right of Scotland as an independent country to take up arms in its own defence.  In fact it was aimed at the English King who wanted to annex Scotland, to warn him “hands off!”.  The Abbey is now a ruin, but the Declaration still has life in Scots’ hearts.

And there’s more…

Angus has plenty more to offer than these five best-kept secrets.  It often feels like the part of Scotland no-one visits.  People rush up the main road between Perth and Aberdeen, missing the real treat in the middle.

There’s farmland, forestry, mountain, ocean; breath-taking views, fine architecture, music, art; Arbroath smokies to eat and locally-produced beer, gin and vodka to drink.  The air is clean; it’s a peaceful county.

If you want something more energetic, Angus offers excellent horse- and mountain bike-riding, scuba diving, hill-walking, canoeing, and (of course) golf.

So next time you’re heading from Perth to Aberdeen, take some time out to explore Angus, Scotland’s hidden-in-plain-sight gem, and discover its secrets for yourself.

Find out more

https://www.visitangus.com/ has listings for things to do , places to go, accommodation and everything else you need for a first visit to the county.

For a list of recommended accommodation providers, see the DAVAA website.

 

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