Montreathmont Moor

Montreathmont moor forest

Historic moor and forest

I went for a bike ride the other day along the tracks through the forest behind my house, returning on the roads that encircle it.  Variously pronounced “Monrummond” (which is what appears on the oldest maps), “Montrimont” and “Montreathmont”, this lovely stretch of mixed woodland lies in the triangle between Brechin, Letham and Friockheim in central Angus.

It’s been woodland for a long time.  It’s mainly Forestry Commission spruce nowadays, what’s known as a PAWS (that’s a Plantation on an Ancient Woodland Site, I think).  But there are large areas of Scots pines, birches, oaks, beeches and other broadleaves to lighten the gloom.  Tracks through the wood are popular with walkers and, apparently, husky trainers – though I’ve never met any, and most of the tracks don’t connect to each other, making round trips tricky.

Two years ago, foresters were thinning the Scots pine along one section of track.  I was talking about it to one of my neighbours, who was at school back in the mid ‘30s in what’s now my house.  It turns out he’d helped plant those trees about 70 years earlier, just after World War II.  It must be very satisfying to watch them grow and see them harvested; not many people live that long.

Wildlife and other residents

All sorts of birds and other wildlife live in Montreathmont forest, from wood wasps to (according to Walk Scotland) red deer and even capercaillie.  Hmm.  It’s not exactly the Highlands…  I’ve seen plenty of roe deer but never their larger cousins, and I seriously doubt caper would survive the numbers of people and dogs that roam the woods.  I have seen red squirrels, though.  There are buzzards a-plenty, some owls and all the other woodland birds you’d expect to find, bats and, apparently, goshawks in one patch.  Even the spruce isn’t quite silent.

Montreathmont forest was a royal hunting ground centuries ago and probably saw hunting parties from the several castles that surround it (Guthrie, Gardyne, Melgund, Kinnaird and the now-demolished Aldbar and Balgavies).  I’m sure the wildlife feels safer now, though in a clearing a while back I did come across a fallen tree with a cleft stick stuck in the ground in front of it, looking very much as though someone had sat there quietly waiting to shoot deer.

Montreathmont History

Montreathmont Moor has remains of what may be Pictish cairn-burials or stone houses (they’re in too poor a state, and surrounded by too many trees, to be certain).  Several kist burials have been discovered in the woods down the years, including one practically outside my back door that contained a jet necklace.  The booty can be seen in the Meffan Museum in Forfar.  It’s thought some of the cairns may commemorate a Pictish battle on the Moor.  In fact, the whole area is riddled with Canmore sites.

More recently, the forest was used to tether and hide airships during the First World War.  During the Second World War and Cold War it concealed a listening station.  The white main building is still visible, though I don’t know what it’s used for now (if anything).  Some of the Nissen huts that housed personnel are still occupied, but are now privately owned; you can see them from the Forfar-Montrose road.

Who knew that a patch of dark, regimented forestry could hide so many secrets?  It’s amazing what you can stumble across on a bike ride …

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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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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.

Visitors

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, www.glamis-castle.co.uk 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.

 

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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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