A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the Scottish Lowlands & Midlands, including Borders, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and St Andrews.
A9: Scotland’s High Road
The A9 weaves its way through the heart of Scotland taking you from Highlands to Lowlands. Soon after the drive south from Inverness, it takes in the picturesque valley at the base of the Cairngorms mountain range. For an even more scenic route running alongside the A9, take the B9152 Kencraig turnoff towards Aviemore, then the B970 through picturesque Feshiebridge and Insh. This area is the location used in the opening credits of the hit TV series Outlander, and also the setting for Claire’s Fraser’s journey with the clansmen in the first episode.
At Ruthven, take the opportunity to stop and see the ruins of Ruthven barracks. They were built in the 1720s after ‘The ‘15’ Jacobite rebellion by the Government Commander-in-Chief in Scotland, Field Marshal Wade. He built a chain of military posts straddling the western highlands including the Bernera Barracks in Glenelg, Fort George (named after King George II) and Fort Augustus (named after the King’s second son). He filled them with recruited Highlanders loyal to the Hanoverians. In 1739, they fused to become the first six companies of the Highland regiment of the British army: The Black Watch, named in contrast to their southern counterparts, the Redcoats. The Field Marshal’s exploits earned him immortality in a verse of the national anthem: “Lord grant that Marshal Wade may by thy mighty aid, victory bring. May he sedition hush, and like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush, God save the king.” In 1745, Sgt Molloy’s unit of 12 Redcoats defended the barracks against 200 Jacobites. Six months later Molloy repelled an even larger force before an artillery siege forced him to give up the position. A few weeks later some 3,000 Jacobites rendezvoused at Ruthven on the day after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden. They left it in ruins after the fleeing Bonnie Prince Charlie declared it was every man for himself.
Cross the A9 at Ruthven for the A86 through Kingussie to Newtonmore. Here, the Highland Folk Museum tells the story of the ‘Clearances.’ This was one of the major social outcomes that occurred as a result of the Jacobite Rebellions. After ‘The 45’, the highland clan chiefs were encouraged to become local landlords with government backing. They quickly saw the lucrative opportunity afforded by converting their land to large-scale sheep farming. To do this they needed to expel the crofter communities. Crofters were traditionally small-scale subsistence farmers. They made just enough for themselves and perhaps a small surplus to trade at a local market. The landlords now saw crofters as standing in the way of progress and profit, and they were forcibly removed. Over the following decades the highlands were emptied of local communities giving the region an eerie feel. About 200,000 moved abroad, mainly to Canada and the east coast of America. This was the theme behind the Proclaimers 1987 hit song, Letter from America. However, the communities didn’t completely disappear. In 1886, the last remaining crofters of Skye won a major legal battle and won back their land rights. There are now estimated to be 10,000 working in modern crofter communities.
Rejoin A9 via the A9150. About 30 miles further on, as you approach Blair Atholl, there is an opportunity for a good lunch break and fine shopping experience at the House of Bruar complex. Traditional Scottish clothing is well represented and stocked in the outlets here, especially tartan.
The history of tartan is fascinating. It was originally a type of thick woollen cloth that offered practical protection from the harsh highland environment. It was cut into a wrap which could act as a cloak, blanket, sleeping bag or even camouflage. It kept you warm in winter and cool in summer, and the fibres soaked up the rain. The name tartan probably derives from Tiretaine, a river valley in the Clermont Auvergne region of central France. The weaving of tartan developed into a cottage industry in 17th century Scotland. Originally there were no clan colours as such, just local weaves and twills. The pattern or plaid mattered more than the colour, such as check, diamond or herringbone. Fisherman’s sweaters (Ganseys) were knitted on the same principle.
The wearing of tartan was first seen as a seditious action after the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. Over subsequent decades it became something of a nationalist dress. In 1747, as a result of the Jacobite Rebellions, sumptuary laws from the Dress Act suppressed all forms of civil highland culture, forbidding in particular, the wearing of tartan, the kilt (the skirted remains of the full wrap) and the sporran (the purse accessory). Trousers were forced to be worn instead. Over the following decades some tartan looms and patterns were lost.
However, the Dress Act was repealed in 1782 and a couple of decades later, Scotland was encouraged to reclaim its highland heritage, albeit a more commercially viable one, with the novelist Sir Walter Scott leading the charge. Indeed, Scott personally stage-managed King George IV’s tour of Scotland in 1822, the first official royal visit to the country for nearly 200 years, and had the King resplendently decked out in full tartan regalia, kilt, sporran and all. This event in particular, has been seen as the catalyst that launched an industry of ‘tartan tweeness’.
Ironically, however, it was the attempts of two English brothers to claim royal Scottish ancestry that really created the modern tartan industry. About the same time that George IV was swanning around in his kilt, two chancers, Johnnie and Charlie Allen, decided to adopt the surname Sobieski-Stuart and declare they had a Jacobite lineage. To cement their claims, they produced a book containing tartan clan patterns, purportedly a reproduction of an ancient manuscript, and linked it to their ‘royal’ ancestry. With an impressionable body of supporters only too ready to give the assertions credence, the ‘New Pretenders’ relocated to Inverness and were afforded the royal trappings of the old Stuart dynasty.
Even the Romantic dreamer Sir Walter Scott was sceptical and warned of the brothers’ ‘warm imaginations.’ He also rejected the entire notion of traditional clan tartans, saying that the ‘idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date’.
Indeed, the manuscript was later discredited as an absolute fabrication, a forgery just like their bogus royal claims. Nevertheless, it resulted in a popular publication, the Costume of the Clans (1843). It became the sourcebook of the concept of tartan clan colours and is still widely used by the resultant industry. Today, you can design and register your own tartan. Even if you have no Scottish ancestry whatsoever, you can still participate: non-Scots have been ‘allowed’ to wear the colours of the Black Watch.
Blair Atholl Castle is a classic example of a stronghold in the Scots Baronial style. It was originally built in 1269 by the Lord of Badenoch and became the ancestral home of the Clan Murray, later Dukes of Atholl. In 1689, a Jacobite force led by Viscount John Graham, aka ‘Bonnie Dundee’, seized the castle. It remained a rallying point for their cause until the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In 1844, after a visit by Queen Victoria, the Duke was given permission to establish a garrison for a personal bodyguard, the Atholl Highlanders, which still exists today as the only legal private army in Europe. The castle contains important historic collections of souvenirs, artwork and furniture.
In 1689, Bonnie Dundee’s Jacobite force marched out from Blair Atholl Castle to oppose a Williamite army coming up from Dunkeld, They met near Killiekrankie, a little further down the A9. During the battle, one Williamite soldier trying to escape his pursuers made an incredible leap for safety across the 18-feet-wide River Garry. The place is now known as Soldier’s Leap. The Jacobites were defeated. Bonnie Dundee was killed and buried in St Bride’s Kirk in the grounds of Blair Castle. The 1689 revolt may have ended but it was used as the model for the later ’15’ and ‘45’ rebellions. Sadly, the Killiecrankie Hotel, a paragon of Scottish hospitality, which offered a great lunch, is now closed.
The next major town on the A9 is Pitlochry, which always deserves to be in contention for ‘the best town in Scotland’ awards. There’s much to see and do during a stay, including a festival theatre and cultural centre. The main street is buzzy of an evening without being manic, and there are plenty of great places to eat and drink. It also has a friendly population who engage in conversation with what must be the UK’s most endearing local greeting: ‘What Noo!’ The whole place just oozes charm and warmth. And part of that warmth is generated by Pitlochry’s own hydro-eclectic power station. Thus, the town can add ‘eco-friendly’ to its list of virtues. They even have a fish ladder so that salmon can bypass it on their way to spawning upriver. And if all that wasn’t enough, Pitlochry offers two great options to visit the most convivial of Scottish visitor attractions: the whisky distillery! At the southern end of town, you can tour the excellent Blair Athol, as used in Bells, perhaps the best-known brand of blended whisky in the world. To the east of town is the marvellous Edradour, Scotland’s smallest and last handcrafted independent single malt distillery. The tours here are superb, and the tasting sessions are a wonderful attack on the senses. Essentially the tour is split into five stages: Hear the story; See the process; Feel the passion; Smell the aromas; Taste the result. Of course, at the end of all distillery tours there is always the hard sell in the shop, but even that is done here with a pleasant passion. Hic!
The word whisky (or whiskey in Ireland) derives from the Gaelic uisge beatha meaning ‘water of life’. Of course, it is universally ordered as ‘Scotch’, and often imbibed in vague measurements known as a ‘wee dram’.
Most whiskies are made using the same process as beer. First the barley starch is allowed to germinate into malt and then dried in a kiln. Next, the milling, where the malt is ground into a flour. This is then mixed with water in a tun to make ‘mash’. Next comes the fermentation stage, where yeast is added and the resultant liquid becomes known as ‘wash’. Now, the distillation, where the wash is heated up and the steam evaporates into the ‘liquid alcohol’ or ‘low wines’. Finally, the liquid is distilled again. The front (top) and back (bottom) are discarded and the middle is retained as whisky. The maturation stage depends on a number of factors but since 1915, all Scottish whisky by law must mature for at least three years and a day.
Commercial whisky distilleries were established in Scotland in the 16th century. Illicit smuggling became an industry after taxes were imposed on its sale in the 17th century. In 1784, a government act ordered that Highland distilleries could only use local barley as ingredients, leading to the production of single malts. In the 20th century, stricter controls and tax legislations on whisky were introduced as a result of wars, recession, prohibition and rationing. Movies made the drink popular, especially the Johnny Walker brand. Two companies based in London made their name during prohibition-era America: Cutty Sark (Berry Bros) and J&B (Justerini & Brooks).
There are essentially three types of whisky: single grain, single malt and blended. Single grain whisky does not actually mean a single grain is used, Rather, it refers to a single distillery process using various grains: malt, rye, etc. Invergordon and Old Cameronbridge are examples. Similarly, single malt whisky means one distillery using various malts. There are four main regional malt variations: Islay & Campbeltown (described as heavy), Speyside (medium), Lowland (light) and Highland (distinctive). Single malt maturation is usually much longer than the legal three-year minimum, with most in storage for between 8 to 15 years and often in barrels that have previously contained other spirits to make them smoother and flavoursome.
Blended whisky is a set recipe combination of single grain whisky and various ages of single malt whisky. Blended brands are the best-known globally, such as Bells, Black & White, Chivas Regal, Dewars, Famous Grouse, Haig, Johnnie Walker, Long John, Mackie, Teachers, Vat 69, White Horse and Whyte & Mackay. None of these are independent, all being part of larger conglomerates. Grants are still family run.
Most malt distilleries are owned by blending houses, which allow single malt brands also to be sold, such as Glenfiddich (Grants), Glenlivet (Seagrams) and Glenmorangie (MacDonald & Muir). Edradour in Pitlochry is a rare independent single malt distillery. Island malt whiskies tend to be quite smoky in taste. Many use the abundant spagnum moss to infuse a peaty flavour (a good anti-septic too!). Brands include Abhainn Dearg (Lewis), Laphroaig (Islay) and Talisker (Skye).
The next recommended stop is Dunkeld. In 850, victorious warlord Kenneth MacAlpin made Dunkeld the first capital of his newly unified Scotland. A thousand years later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited as part of a royal tour, and their newly-acquired obsession with all things Scottish. The town’s welcoming display left Victoria very impressed. She gave it a royal seal of approval and a tourist boom followed.
Like its Tayside counterpart of Dundee, the city of Perth is currently undergoing a cultural makeover, after years of neglect since an industrial demise. Scone Palace is a worth a visit, and if you are of a military persuasion, you will find the Black Watch museum particularly interesting. At Perth the M90 will take you to Edinburgh via Forth Road Bridge, but the A9 takes an easterly detour. Follow to Sherriffmuir near its conclusion at Dunblane.
Sherriffmuir had a central role in the Jacobite Rebellion known as ‘The ‘15’. A joint Scottish/English Jacobite force of 2,000 had crossed the border into England and made their way south hoping to attract further recruits. They managed to occupy the town of Preston in Lancashire but surrendered after a two-day government siege.
At the same time an 8,000 strong Jacobite force under the Earl of Mar, who had already captured Perth, marched with the intention of taking Stirling Castle. However, they met with the Duke of Argyll’s government force at Sherriffmuir. Nearby, the Bridge of Allan was being held for the rebels by the infamous outlaw Rob Roy. A fierce battle ended in stalemate, as referred to in a traditional song: “Some say that we won, and some say that they won. And some say that none won at all, man. But one thing I’m sure, was that up at Sherriffmuir, a battle it was that I saw, man.”
The old Pretender James Edward landed just after the battles of Preston and Sherriffmuir, heard the news, and promptly left again. The only real outcome was that more government forces were drafted in to put down the rebellion. The Jacobites soon crumbled, their leaders hunted, arrested and executed. However, one notable exception was the Earl of Nithsdale. Awaiting execution after being imprisoned at the Tower of London, he disguised himself as a woman using his wife’s clothing and escaped. Some claim that this is where we get the term to ‘Get away Scot free.’
Scotland’s A9: If the M9 is a ‘thread through Scottish history’, the A9 is a full weave.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)