Thursday, 21 December 2017

Scotland's distillery boom

Over the last few years the total number of distilleries in Scotland has seen a significant increase, with lots of new whisky and gin distilleries starting up. At the latest count there are now 131 whisky distilleries (up from 90 in 2010) and 50 gin distilleries operating in Scotland, with even more scheduled to open in 2018 and beyond. Britain is experiencing a major resurgence in gin drinking, with sales of gin in Britain forecast to overtake sales of whisky by 2020.

Lindores Abbey distillery
Many of the new whisky distilleries are also producing gin, in order to make them economically viable, as gin can be sold more quickly than whisky once it's made, because it doesn't need to be matured for years in the same way as whisky before it can be sold.

Most of these new distilleries are small scale craft type operations, with quite a few set up by enthusiasts or farmers looking to diversify, although some large scale whisky distilleries have also been set up by the major producers. Some of the new small whisky distilleries have also incorporated a visitor centre right from the start of their operation, so visitors are able to see the production process, although not as yet taste the product.

I intend to visit as many of these new distilleries as I can in 2018, to check them out in order to assess whether they would be of interest to my tour clients. I'm pretty sure that it would be interesting for visitors, especially whisky enthusiasts, to compare an established distillery with one of the newer ones.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Tips for tourists visiting Scotland

Opening dates & times

It sounds obvious, but to avoid disappointment, it’s always worth looking at the websites of the various places you are planning to visit in advance, to check their opening dates and times. Some of them, such as Falkland Palace in Fife, have fairly restricted daily opening times, which don’t necessarily fit in with the rest of your tour itinerary, and others, such as Blair Castle, are occasionally closed, whole or in part, on certain days for private functions. 

Some of the visitor attractions stay open all winter, especially the Historic Environment Scotland properties, but most of the others are only open during the summer season, which typically runs from somewhere around Easter time until the end of October. Some, such as Cawdor Castle, have a more restricted season - it is only open between May and September.

Self guided - or guided?

Glamis Castle
Most of the grand houses in Scotland that you might want to visit let you look around at your own pace, and also have room guides who are usually extremely knowledgeable and can answer your questions and provide useful information. Many also offer self guided audio tours - usually you have to pay extra for these, although the one at Holyrood Palace is included in the price of your ticket. But some of these grand houses, such as Glamis Castle or Dumfries House, only offer guided tours, which doesn't suit everyone. It's also worth checking whether you have to book in advance for the guided tours.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle received more than 1.58 million visitors in 2015, a record. This is great news for Historic Environment Scotland, the people who run the castle, but not so good for the actual visitors, especially during the peak months of July and August, when it gets very crowded. Some days, there could be one or more cruise ships docked in the Forth, so the normal visitor numbers are swelled even further by the coach groups arriving from these cruise ships. 

Edinburgh Castle
The queue for tickets at peak times can be very long, but you can buy your entrance tickets online before you go at the Castle webstore and if you are with one of the official blue badge guides, such as Tours from Edinburgh, you will be able to bypass the queue altogether. 

Lots of visitors to the Castle want to be there to see the one o' clock gun fire, so there is a bulge in visitor numbers from late morning onwards. Usually, the best time of day to visit the castle, if you want to avoid the crush, is mid to late afternoon - the castle doesn't close until 6:00pm in the summer.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Castle or Palace?

One question visitors to Scotland often ask me is "What's the difference between a castle and a palace?". It seems at first like this would be an easy one to answer,with a distinction along the lines of - a castle is a strong, well-fortified, defensible structure that can withstand attack, whereas a palace is a grand luxury residence, designed principally to impress. But thinking about it, I can see where the confusion comes from.

Holyrood Palace
One reason is that it is assumed that a palace must be the residence of a king or queen. And of course it must be very grand. And indeed we do have Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, the Queen's official residence in Scotland, which fits the bill admirably.

Scone Palace
But we also have Scone Palace, the home of the Earl of Mansfield, which is effectively a large mansion house, and is only called a palace because a previous building on this site, demolished long ago, was once the residence of the Abbot of Scone Abbey, which was closed down at the Reformation in the year 1560! It has been suggested that the reason for naming the Abbot's house a Palace may have been because it would have provided temporary accommodation for the early Kings of Scotland during their coronation ceremonies, which were held at Scone Abbey.

Another reason is that around Scotland there are a number of very grand houses which are called castles, but give the appearance of a palace, such as Inveraray Castle or Dunrobin Castle.

In the case of Inveraray Castle, the Duke of Argyll built a palatial new mansion house next to his old castle, and then demolished the old castle but transferred the name to his new house.

Inveraray Castle
Sign marking the location of
the Old Inveraray Castle
Dunrobin Castle
In Dunrobin's case, the original castle structure still exists, but successive extensions and remodelling have entombed the fabric of the original building within the later additions. The same process has happened at Blair Castle, which at least still looks like a castle, thanks to the alterations made by David Bryce back in the 19th century.

Then we have another phenomenon - the castle hotel. A case in point is Inverlochy Castle Hotel, near Fort William, a grand mansion house which happens to be in the vicinity of the ruinous Old Inverlochy Castle. Or the Melville Castle Hotel, just to the south of Edinburgh, which again was built as a grand mansion house on land where a castle once stood.

If visitors really want to stay in a genuine castle, they would be advised to check carefully before booking. Such places do still exist, such as Dalhousie Castle, south of Edinburgh, or Castle Stuart, near Inverness.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Hume Castle

Hume Castle from the nearby road
Back in July I took a group of 4 ladies on a family history trip to Scotland to visit Hume Castle in the Scottish Borders, located not far from the town of Kelso. Although I had seen the castle from a distance on several occasions, I had never been there before. As can be seen from this picture, the castle bears more than a passing resemblance to a toy soldier's fort.

Original 13th century masonry

The walls that are visible today were actually constructed around 1798, for Sir Hugh Hume of Polwarth, the 3rd Earl of Marchmont. There was never any attempt to use the castle for any form of accommodation though, and no buildings were ever built within the walls. So we can only conclude that the purpose was simply to provide a point of view, otherwise known as a "folly". Because of its elevated site, the castle can be seen for miles around, and it did serve a useful purpose as a beacon station during the Napoleonic Wars era, to warn of invasion.

Lookout platform
All that remains of the original 13th century castle are some chunks of masonry within the castle enclosure.

The original castle was actually destroyed in 1651, when Colonel Fenwick attacked the castle on behalf on Oliver Cromwell and reduced the castle to ruin by artillery bombardment.

Although in truth there is not much of major interest to see at the castle, the visitor is certainly rewarded with magnificent views of the surrounding Scottish Borders countryside. At one corner of the castle is a lookout platform, with a plinth bearing a brass plaque showing all the different places and surrounding hills that can be seen.
Plaque showing all the nearby places and surrounding hills 
There is a small visitor car park next to the castle, suitable only for cars, but no other facilities that the frequent castle visitor is accustomed to such as a cafe, toilets, bookshop etc. However the good news is that there is no entrance charge either!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Edzell Castle

Edzell Castle is not a castle I often visit, but I took a group to places around the Angus area recently, as a lady in the group once lived in the area when her husband was stationed at RAF Edzell. We first of all stopped for coffee at the Coffee Shop, no 63 High Street where we enjoyed delicious home-made scones and got some useful information from the owner. Then, after we had visited all the places in Edzell itself that the lady wanted to see, we decided to visit the castle as a continuation of this trip down memory lane, and we had the place to ourselves.

View of the tower of Edzell Castle 
I had forgotten what an interesting castle it is, especially its unique formal walled garden with plaques all around the inner walls depicting classical themes. You can certainly get a sense of the grandeur and elegance once enjoyed by the Lindsay family, who originally built the castle. According to the Historic Scotland Steward on duty, the family's wealth derived from gold mines in the nearby hills. What is interesting is that the original main entrance is at the back of the castle from where you approach it today.

One curious feature of our visit was an encounter with an exceptionally territorial male pheasant, who seemed to object to our presence and proceeded to try and attack anyone who ventured too near!

More info

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Walking the Fife Coastal Path

The scenic Fife Coastal Path runs around the coast of Fife for 117 miles from the Forth estuary in the south to the Tay estuary in the north.

I have walked several sections of the Fife Coastal path in the past just for my own pleasure and enjoyment,  so when I was asked recently to plan a tour for a couple who were interested in doing some walking, I suggested that they walk the most interesting sections of the Path, and I would drop them off and pick them up at intermediate points.

Entrance to the path at North Queensferry
The weather was fine for the day of the walk, which was a big bonus. We started with the Inverkeithing to North Queensferry section. It sounds a bit back to front, but by walking this section in a E-W direction you get fantastic views of the Forth Bridges.

View of the Forth Rail Bridge from the Path

Aberdour Castle
The next section was the path between Aberdour beach, known locally as "Scotland's Riviera", past Aberdour Harbour and round the headland to Silversands Bay. Good views out to Inchcolm Island from here. We then stopped at Aberdour Castle and also went inside nearby St Fillans Church.

Ravenscraig Castle 

Then we drove along the coast through Kirkcaldy and paid a visit to Ravenscraig Castle. The couple then walked through Ravenscraig park down to picturesque Dysart Harbour. We ate lunch at the cafe in the refurbished Harbourmaster's House next to the harbour.

Dysart Harbour

MacDuff Castle
The next section walked was along the seashore from East Wemyss along to MacDuff Castle, past the famous caves in the cliffs, some of which contain Pictish inscriptions and drawings.

Following this section, we drove along to St Monans, and the couple walked to the famous Windmill once used to pump seawater into the salt pans. 

St Monans Windmill
We had hoped to go inside the windmill, but unfortunately the key had already been taken by someone else. My original plan was for them to then continue their walk along to Pittenweem, followed by a walk around Crail, but the wife requested a town visit at this point, so after St Monans, we drove to St Andrews instead.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Visit to Alnwick Castle

A visit to Alnwick Castle is always a treat, I really enjoy taking people there because there is so much of interest to see and experience. My favourite part of the Castle is the interior - the sheer opulence of the State Rooms is breathtaking. I would love to spend a whole day just admiring and studying the paintings, the furnishings and the decorations, and talking to the room guides. But frustratingly, I find that my visitors often move through very quickly, hardly stopping to look at anything, and obviously I have to keep up with them!

I think for many families the main reason for visiting Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts, is to show their kids the locations of scenes from the Harry Potter films. The only trouble is the kids think they are going to the "real" Hogwarts and are usually disappointed when they can't see the whole "school" and don't get to meet Harry Potter and friends in person.

For some time there has been a tour available which shows people the various filming locations around the Castle. It was originally called the Harry Spotter tour, which I thought was a great name, but is now called Battleaxe to Broomsticks. 

But now there is an additional attraction for fans of Harry Potter - some of the characters from the films are being brought to life on various dates through the summer. I was there with a family on Thursday April 12th, and actors playing Harry Potter and Hagrid were giving an impromptu performance, interacting with the audience in an entertaining and humorous way. As you can see from the photo to the right, Hagrid cut quite an impressive figure, truly larger than life.

After their performance, I was impressed with the way the actors patiently posed for photos with all the family groups, so the kids could go home happy that they had met the characters from the films and had the proof to show all their friends.