Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer



A Walk in Inverness

2020-10-06 13:41:39

Inverness Castle sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Ness. The castle we see today was built in 1836 but there have been defensive structures on this site, or nearby sites, since the 11th century. Throughout the years, these forts played a prominent part in Scottish history. They were attacked many times, set alight, blown up, captured and retaken.To get a sense of these times, visitors a few years ago, could ‘enlist’ (for a small payment), take the King’s Shilling and learn something of a soldier’s lot in these barracks.

Today the castle is closed and surrounded by fencing, but visitors can at least stroll round the outside of the mellow pink sand stone building. This latest fortification overlooking the town was built after fires and explosions left earlier forts in ruins. Unmarked by signs of attack, it has all the features of a castle in a child’s storybook.On one short approach road there is a statue of Flora MacDonald who helped in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s final escape after the rout of his army at nearby Culloden. Topping a stone column, she appears to be shielding her eyes as she looks to the west down the Great Glen. A plaque on the base of the statue reads,

Flora MacDonald

‘The Preserver of Prince Charles Edward Stuart will be mentioned in history.

And if Courage and Fidelity be Virtues, Mentioned with Honour.’On the approach to the Castle from the High Street side you’ll find the entrance to the museum and art gallery. In the museum, a prominently positioned glass case safeguards an acquisition from H.M. the Queen. Stamped with a wax Great Seal, a scroll reads that Inverness henceforth has the status of a city and all such rank, liberties, privileges and immunities as incident to a city.

In the accompanying congratulatory letter H.M. has written of her enjoyable visit and sends her best wishes to the citizens of Inverness on an important occasion in the history of the city. The new title City of Inverness was officially declared on 19th March 2001.

The museum also contains exhibits of natural history and human endeavour. There are records and highlights from pre-historic times through years when Inverness was the capital of the Pictish kingdom and onwards into its present role as hub of the highlands.

Upstairs, there are fine examples of local arts and crafts from the 17th century to the present day.

From outside, the museum building is box- like, totally unremarkable, in contrast to the Town House dominating this part of the High Street. Completed in 1882, the Victorian stone edifice, all pointed arches and round turrets reaching for the sky has recently been cleaned and refurbished. It’s a prestigious venue catering for civic functions, civil marriages and concerts.Nearby, spanning the river, Ness Bridge replaces earlier structures that collapsed or were destroyed by floods. Walk to the far side and turn left to head upstream. Riverside pavements are tree-lined and street lamps prettified with hanging baskets of flowers in summertime. Formal plantings and large boxes of dahlias add more splashes of colour on Bishop’s Walk by St. Andrews Episcopalian Cathedral. Behind the church a sign advertises the bookshop and teas while ahead a suspension bridge beckons.

From the bridge there are views far up and down river. The crossing leads to Ladies’ Walk. A local source suggested the name came from a time when Inverness streets, unlike now, were less than sanitary, but ladies dressed in the ground swishing fashions of the day could stroll unhindered along the Walk, cleaned specially for their benefit.

In front of the red sandstone war memorial there is a small garden set back from the riverside. Ornamental trees and surrounding flower- beds are proof of applied tender loving care. Inside railings, a polished black stone commemorates Nurse Edith Cavell. A plaque on the railings gives the information that in August 1915, having been charged with assisting 130 persons to escape from Belgium, Edith Cavell was court martialled, condemned to death and shot on 12th October 1915.

Continuing along the walkway leads to a short bridge and the Ness Islands in the middle of the river. Here paths meander past ancient trees including giant Californian redwoods. Well-sited benches tempt strollers to stop to enjoy the antics of ducks or fly casting fishermen who stand thigh deep in the sweep of water.

On the last island, another short bridge leads across to a path on the opposite side of the river and Bught Road. Walking the riverside path will take you to Whin Park which has a boating pond, a variety of children’s play areas and a miniature railway.

A last bridge crosses to Canal Park where steps rise to the path between the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal. Continuing south along the towpath would eventually lead to Loch Dochfour and Loch Ness and a possible sighting of the famed monster.

Turning back to town, the leisure centre, swimming pool, ice rink and Highland Archive and Registration Centre are within easy reach of Café Botanics, an ideal lunch stop, which champions local produce. The café opens onto the Bught Floral Hall, a colourful walled garden with glass houses. In one glass house, a miniature desert has been created with cacti and other plant species from the world’s arid regions.

Bught Road becomes Ness Walk and follows the river by the Eden Court theatre where the art gallery offers an excuse to sample the bar or restaurant.

Continuing along to Ness Bridge completes an extended U-shaped tour back into the city centre.

Opposite the Town House, Church Street has a number of buildings of notable antiquity. The Tolbooth Steeple housed a jail as far back as 1436 and a court house. This was where the infamous Patrick Sellar was charged with culpable homicide, fire raising and cruelty during the Strathnaver clearances. Although he was acquitted by a jury of his peers, the plaque on the wall states that he will always be guilty in the eyes of the Highlanders.

Near the middle, of Church Street is Abertaff House, the oldest secular house in Inverness (there are some older churches) which has survived from 1593 and is now the Highland office of the National Trust for Scotland.

Near the far end of Church Street a gate opens to the grave yard behind St.Stephen’s Church.

Only a few yards further on, housed in the old Gaelic Church (1793), you could spend the best part of a day in Leakey’s Second-hand Bookshop which houses Scotland’s largest collection of rare and second-hand books and maps.

On the opposite corner from Leakey’s, is MacGregor’s Bar which serves food, drink and traditional music.

It’s hardly ancient history but there’s a café on Church Street where The Beatles played – according to a poster in the window.

Inverness city centre is compact with a large choice of shops, pubs and restaurants. Streets are named bilingually in English and Gaelic. Also unusual is the enclosed Victorian market with entrances from four streets. The original gas lit market was built in 1870 but destroyed by fire in 1889 when the only life lost was a faithful dog that refused to leave the premises it guarded. Within two years the market was rebuilt. Under high ceilings there is a mix of retailers where you can trace your ancestry, buy sweets, health products, bagpipes, or jewellery. You can visit a barber should you need to wait for repairs being carried out on your dentures, watch or shoes.

Inverness - it has everything.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

Further Information: For the duration of the Covid 19 pandemic some of the attractions are closed. Check before visiting - make an appointment – book ahead.

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Isle of Arran - Around the Coast

2020-08-01 04:33:14

“Some people come to Arran to climb the mountains,” said a lady of a certain age to everyone within earshot, “I come here for the chocolate.”

From the Chocolate Shop, she had crossed the shore road to sit and savour her sweets at a picnic table set in a well-tended area of grass and flowerbeds overlooking Brodick Bay.

Behind her, passing cars carried bags of golf clubs, mountain bikes, canoes or surfboards. There was activity on the putting green, crazy golf course and bowling green.

On the strip of sandy beach to her left, the bucket and spade brigade were also busy, possibly too busy to notice an artist attempting to capture on canvas the shifts of light and cloud patterns that played on the backdrop of forest and mountains.

Completing this postcard picture, moored yachts bobbed in the gentle swell as the Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world, chuff-chuffed away from the pier.

The Isle of Arran, known as Scotland in miniature, has long been a magnet for a diverse range of visitors. As well as sandcastle builders and adrenaline junkies, it’s also an ideal get-away for those who would pursue ‘soft adventure’ and good food.

Being in the soft adventure age group, my ploy was to drive the coastal road, get sand between my toes on the beaches, and walk some of Arran’s way-marked paths. My efforts would be rewarded with stops along the way, on the Arran Food Trail - a smattering of businesses, cafes, restaurants and hotels that make splendid use of local food supplies.

For my first foray, Brodick Castle was perfect. As well as fabulous formal gardens and a famed display of rhododendrons, a network of paths meander through tree covered slopes and lead back to the castle restaurant where the lunch menu boasts home-made soups, locally produced smoked salmon pate, cheeses, ice cream, breads and oat-cakes amongst many other delights.

From Brodick, Arran’s “capital”, the A841 road twisting southwards, gains enough height to give superb views over Holy Isle, before it slopes down to the coastal resort of Lamlash. Holy Isle’s great bulk shelters Lamlash Bay where conditions are generally favourable for water activities of all kinds. On a day of blustering wind with sunny spells between showers of lashing rain, I watched a group of youngsters gamely attempting to control their kayaks in the added safety of the harbour. A caravan on the pier was advertising sailing trips across to Holy Isle (see Peace Perfect Peace on Holy Isle at www.writearoundscotland.com) where everyone is welcome to stay in the Centre for World Peace and Health that opened in May 2003. The centre aims to become a focal point for interfaith work and retreat and offers a peaceful refuge from this hectic world.

The name Holy Isle has only been in use since 1830. Before then it was named in Gaelic, Eilean Molaise, from eilean, (island) and from Molas, after an Irish monk born in 566 who went there to live in a cave. As was often the case with holy men then, he was imitating Christ’s period in the wilderness.

To get as close as possible to Holy Isle, without taking to sea, (I left that for another time), I drove on to find the turn-off to Kingscross Point. From the road-end, a path bordering a field where horses graze, leads down through trees to an area of short grass ending at a strip of pebble beach. Holy Isle seems to rear up a short distance away. Near the south end, the white lighthouse is striking in the sunshine above the blue of the water and backdrop of green slopes patched with purple.

With such a view, on such a beach, it’s easy to linger, to search for that perfect flat stone to beat a previous, best stone-skimming record, but I wanted to get higher. Trimmed grass paths lead upwards past waist high ferns, tangles of bramble bushes, and rowan trees loaded with orange-red berries to the ruined outline of an Iron Age fort. With extensive views back to Lamlash Bay and Brodick Bay, to Holy Isle and much further out over the Firth of Clyde, it’s easy to appreciate why the ancient builders chose this commanding position.

Further along the coast, Whiting Bay is the next village and the usual start of a sign-posted trail to Glenashdale Falls. It’s a walk of great contrasts. From near the seaside, the way leads past well-tended gardens growing palm trees, eucalyptus, vivid blue hydrangeas, hedges thick with red-pink fuscia blossom and orange monbretia. A board at the end of one garden reads,

“Drive carefully. Beware! Children! Animals and Frogs”!

The going gets slightly rougher on a farm track which narrows to a path leading into the dark, coolness of a spruce forest until an area above the falls is reached. This is an ideal spot to rest and make use of the picnic bench conveniently placed a few steps from the river before it plunges over the rock edge to the valley below. To get the best views of the falls, there is a bridge here that crosses the few yards of river and leads to a path going down the opposite side of the gorge. Further down the path there are fenced areas and a platform that offers a great view of the waterfall.

Driving south again, the road leaves the coast to climb round the side of hills, dipping and bending and offering views of fields of sheep and cattle and, more unusual, Shetland ponies. Even more of a surprise is the sight of a party of peacocks at the end of a driveway.

It's worth leaving the A841 at the road sign for Kildonan and parking at the hotel, or further along the road at a smaller parking area near where the row of houses ends. From there, find the gate for a walk along the beach. Spot cormorants drying their wings and seals hauled out on the rocks. Inland the waterfalls dropping from the height of the raised beach can be impressive. Out to sea, look for the great lump of volcanic rock on the horizon that is Ailsa Craig, sometimes called Paddy's Milestone and the small island of Pladda. Blackwaterfoot is the next sizeable village with shops, a hotel, small harbour and other facilities for visitors. It’s a busy spot. People come to enjoy the fine sandy beach or walk the coastal path to the King’s Cave where Robert the Bruce supposedly watched that spider. The way leads alongside Shiskine golf course, where anyone, from grandparents to grandchildren are encouraged to come and play.

Similarly, further round the coast at Machrie, golfers and non-golfers alike, are welcomed into the clubhouse to enjoy home cooked delights such as chicken broth and plum and date crumble.

“Spike shoes must not be worn in the tea-room” seems a reasonable admonishment on a noticeboard.

Hardly any distance on, at Auchagallon, there’s a stone circle just a short distance from the road. From here, views are vast - out to sea, over farmland and the Machrie golf links. The few remaining upright slabs of the stone circle hint at the outline of a large cairn. It’s now grassed over but some 4000 years ago this would have been an impressive mound of stones for all to see, covering the stone-lined graves of important people.

The road here hugs the shore past the small settlements of Pirnmill and Catacol. Pirnmill takes its name from a type of bobbin used in the cotton industry. When production of cotton continued to increase on the mainland, a mill for the manufacture of bobbins was established here.

The village of Catacol is well known for its twelve, almost identical cottages, known as the twelve apostles. Attractive as they are, the row is evidence of a sad episode in Arran’s history. The cottages were built in 1863 to house islanders cleared from Glen Catacol in favour of deer, which at the time were more profitable than sheep.

The road continues to follow the shoreline until it reaches Lochranza. With its castle, distillery, ferry connection to the mainland and safe mooring for yachts, Lochranza is a popular spot. Though getting there is still a little bit of a delightful adventure, a trip here, to the north end of Arran, wasn’t always so easy. Before cars were commonplace, a bus company in Lamlash ran mystery tours costing 3 shillings - the price included tea and entertainment. These outings were much in demand even though it was known that they always ended in Lochranza. Seemingly the best part was the community singing, with the bus owner conducting with a stick of rhubarb. Ah, innocent days.

After Lochranza, the road bends inland to pass through Glen Chalmadale, an area almost Highland in character where jagged peaks reach for the clouds. A steep run down then leads back to the sea and our starting point.

Further Information: Sit quietly in the hide in the grounds of Brodick Castle and you may get a close-up view of red squirrels and small birds feeding close at hand.The Arran Arts Heritage Trail has been recently established around the island. Twenty hand carved, red Arran sandstone blocks mark the physical trail. They denote places where artists including Joan Eardley, Jessie M. King and Alasdair Gray were inspired to create work while on Arran. Some of the stones are fairly easy to find. Other stones are not so easy to find. Information booklets can be obtained from the Visitor Centre near the bus stances in Brodick.For a rainy day, (though it's worthwhile visiting any day while on Arran) the COAST (Community of Arran Seabed Trust) centre in Lamlash offers information, including a video, concerning the Marine Protected Area surrounding the south coast of Arran. At the north end, in Lochranza you'll find the Arran Geopark centre which gives information on where and how Arran was first formed and has since been shaped over millions of years. The centre is not far from the whisky distillery which has a cafe, restaurant and whisky shop.Study the timetables at the bus stops and buses on Arran will take you most places.

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Portnahaven - Isle of Islay

2020-06-15 07:23:57

For the short time the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry is tied up at Port Askaig pier near the north-west corner of Islay (pronounced eye-la), this small port is very busy. Though most passengers drive off the ferry, for foot passengers a local bus awaits.

We’re heading almost diagonally across the island to the farthest south-west corner. At the bend at Bridgend, one arm of the the road carries on to Islay’s other ferry terminal at Port Ellen, but we’ll make a right turn here and head along the side of lovely Loch Indaal where small groupings of geese are searching for food. Many more will be pecking at farmers’ fields inland.

As we pass through Bruichladdich there’s no mistaking there’s a distillery here. The village name is picked out in large capital letters in front of a whisky still.

Port Charlotte is the next village we pass through and some would argue it is Islay’s prettiest. The white painted buildings with window and door surrounds picked out in blues, blacks and reds, gleam after each shower of rain. The road becomes a single lane but we can see far ahead and know to stop at the nearest passing place should we meet an occasional oncoming vehicle. In one field by the roadside there’s a small flock of alpacas. These beasts, like shorn sheep with very long necks, are more usually at home in Peru, but they appear content here. A few hairy Highland cattle with wide pointed horns search for sustenance on the poorest grass. These hardy beasts can get by in even the worst weather.

The road sign tells us we have reached Portnahaven. But first, let’s walk towards the sea down a side road that will take us through Port Wemyss. This township is an extended T- junction of neat, white, well-kept houses plus a bus shelter, telephone box and post box.

Across the narrow road fronting the strip of houses, gardens slope downwards towards the coastal path. Across the channel of fast - flowing sea the island of Orsay lies straight ahead. It’s this great lump that saves Port Wemyss from an Atlantic battering.

Orsay Lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1826 and was once manned by three light house keepers. Now it is fully automated.

Another notable feature on the island is the gable end remains of an ancient chapel dedicated to St, Columba. Orsay may well have been one of Columba’s stopping off points on his way from Ireland to Iona.

From the coastal path it’s only a short walk to arrive at the end of the Portnahaven roadway that runs down this side of the long U – shaped bay. Potnahaven came into being when, to make more money from sheep than from people, the landlord moved his tenants from their crofts and persuaded them to become fishermen. As they became more efficient, bigger boats allowed the fishermen to sail as far as Ireland to fish and sell their catches. There’s no commercial fishing from here nowadays but a few small boats lay creels to catch lobsters and crabs.

Overlooking the village and looking straight out to sea is Portnahaven church. Designed by Thomas Telford, it is unusual in that it has two entrances. It is said that Port Wemyss people would go in through one door while Portnahaven folk would enter by the other.

As we leave Portnahaven and head north we pass what’s known locally as OK corner. These big letters have been kept on the wall over the years. One explanation I was offered was that they may have been painted here first by American servicemen who used the expression.

We’re now travelling up the west side of Islay. The single track road dips and bends giving views of the rock-strewn shoreline which takes the full force of Atlantic gales. Many ships have been wrecked along this coast and now the sunken remains are an attraction for visiting divers.

At a grass car park, a track leads down to Claddich sands, a small crescent of clean beach. From there it’s no distance to the world’s first experimental wave station. Islay Wave Power Station was developed by Queen’s University Belfast and linked to the National Grid in 1991. Apart from a low, flat - topped grey building there’s not much to see, but it’s heartening to know that the energy from the waves hitting this coast is being utilised.

We’ve nearly completed this tour. We’ll go as far as the Port Charlotte Hotel where we’ll get a lovely meal and perhaps a wee dram of one of Islay’s famous whiskies. There may be fiddle and accordion music from local musicians and a blazing peat fire. It will be the perfect end to a grand day out.

First published in The People's Friend magazine

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2020-03-30 14:35:55

The musician sits hunched, concentrating, fine tuning his guitar. With a final flourish of fingers, an arpeggio of thrumming sound signals his readiness.

Rhythmically clicking thumb and finger, a diva dressed in black, scarf of scarlet silk, leads into the first song. Now she claps her hands above her head. Her tapping feet add a back beat that builds into fierce drumming. At intervals she hollers, or praises particularly pleasing guitar accompaniment.

From a dark doorway, a dancer, varnished black hair, pink dress with flounces, steps dramatically into the circle of light illuminating the small performance area. High-heeled boots become percussive instruments as she batters the boards in an ecstatic, passionate dance. This is Flamenco-the sensual dance form that originated here in Spain’s south west corner, in the gypsy communities of Andalucia.

The mesmerising performance took place in an inner courtyard of Seville’s Cultural Centre. Overhead, a ceiling of wispy clouds drifted below stars that glistened in an inky black sky.

Similar open roofed patios usually serve as family living rooms in the heat of Seville’s sultry summers and can be glimpsed through wrought iron doors. The walls are often richly coloured ‘azulejos,’ Moorish inspired, patterned ceramic tiles. Floors are of pale marble. Huge potted palms add greenery and shade.

The flamenco performance ended around 11.00 o’clock and the audience wandered away, some in search of sustenance. Eating out at this time of night is usual in Seville and there is a good choice of restaurants - particularly in the maze of narrow streets of the old town, the Barrio Santa Cruz, and the adjoining, medieval Jewish quarter.

Tapas bars offering selections of small separate dishes, including fish, quiche, bull tail, potatoes with various spicy sauces and mixed salads are also popular. It’s an added bonus finding a pavement table where you can eat, drink and watch people stroll by the floodlit Cathedral of Seville.

This immense confection in stone was first build as a mosque in the late 12th century by conquering Moors and later demolished before being rebuild as a Christian cathedral, ‘on so big a scale that posterity will think we were mad,’ mused the architects. An in-depth tour, as you might imagine, takes some time. Should numerous side altars, rooms full of religious treasures, the largest and richest altar piece in the world and the sepulchre of Christopher Columbus leave you less than three steps to heaven, consider a walk to the top of the ornate bell tower.

The Giralda(bell tower) was twelve years in the making (1184-96). Once it was a minaret from where the faithful were called to prayer. Inside, instead of the expected flights of stairs, a series of 35 gently inclined ramps built wide enough for two guards on horseback to pass each other lead to the top. As you walk further up the ramp, open windows give close-ups of cathedral buttresses and statuary. At the top, beneath enormous bells, far-reaching views across city roofs justify the effort.

Nearby, the Reales Alcazares, encapsulates the complex history of Seville. The fortified palace gives an insight into the lifestyle and opulence demanded by succeeding rulers including the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians - though once it was even more fantastic. Supposedly, one sultan suitably extended the accommodation for a harem of 800 women. What remains of the exquisitely decorated Moorish architecture, luxuriant gardens and sumptuously tiled rooms with intricate wood panelled ceilings, gives some idea of past amassed wealth.

In contrast, the Museo de Bella Artes, a jewel amongst art galleries, was converted from a convent that lay empty for years. Many of the paintings are on religious themes by Spanish artists including Alonso Vasquez, Murillo, Ribera and Goya. While galleries elsewhere are often so large that even great masterpieces eventually cause your eyes to glaze over, here roomfuls of artworks are impressive without being overwhelming. A painted baroque ceiling crowns a room that was once the main chapel. Doors open on to restful courtyard gardens of sculpted myrtle bushes.

In the more lush gardens of Casa de Pilatos, an early 16th century mansion inspired by Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, you can wander past cascades of purple bougainvillea and trickling fountains that vie for attention with Moorish arches, Roman statuary, and rooms decorated with brilliant coloured tiles.

Showiness of a different kind is found near the River Guadalquivir at the opera house and the bullring, Plaza de Toros. Should the attraction in bulls being goaded and killed be beyond understanding, missing the small museum of bull fighting within the building won’t be a hardship.

Directly across the road is a statue of Carmen, cigar factory worker, feisty femme fatale and inspiration for the opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. In the novel penned in 1845 by French author Prosper Merrimee this was where Carmen died, stabbed, in a crime of passion.

Lower down, a landscaped walkway follows the riverside to Torre del Oro, a twelve-sided, 13th century fort from where a great chain once stretched across the river in defence of the city. The stronghold was also a store for gold brought back from the Americas. It now houses a small museum of naval curiosities.

From nearby, you can take a guided tour of the city in an open-topped bus or take to the water. Cruise boats head down river a short way, before turning to sail upstream past yellow, blue and white painted house fronts of Triana, a down-to-earth district off the tourist trail.

The trip goes as far as Puente de la Barqueta, one of the futuristic bridges built for the World Fair, Expo ’92. A reproduction of Victoria, the ship that first circumnavigated the world, is passed almost unnoticed, dwarfed by the exhibition features in the background.

Seville is very Spanish with a hint of North Africa, modern yet faintly decadent, where the present and historical merge. The real factory where the imaginary Carmen rolled cigars is now part of Seville’s University. Broad avenues lined with orange trees buzz with traffic yet there’s a place for horse-drawn carriages that clip-clop visitors round the sights or through the cool greenery of a city centre park.

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