Though the weather will often be at its worst in the early days of a new year, it’s a joy to spot the snowdrops that begin to appear at this time in gardens across the country. Like tiny pinpoints of light, they are often thought of as the harbingers of spring.
Spotted in the gloom, they may be cause for a little optimistic smile, but for a proper pick-me-up, for confirmation that spring really is on its way it’s worth travelling a few miles west of Glasgow to Finlaystone Country Estate. There the snowdrops, mostly the common Galanthus nivalis, grow in glorious abundance.
Most visitors drive to the estate but others take the train from Glasgow’s Central Station to the village of Langbank. It’s a twenty minutes journey that leaves the city behind and allows passengers to see out over the widening River Clyde as far as the distant peak of Ben Lomond, about twenty miles away and northwest to another mountain range known locally as the Arrochar Alps. These peaks can be snow covered at any time of the year.
The walk through the village of Langbank is pleasant, then a further few minutes of pavement walking alongside the M8 leads to the estate’s entrance gate and approach road.
Pick up a map from the visitor centre and the Snowdrop Stroll can be followed easily on a way marked path.
My first visit of the year coincided with one of those occasional, bright days that come like a glad tiding and seem to announce the approach of spring.
I followed the Burnside Path leading alongside the course of a small river. A bench has been placed in an ideal spot for visitors to sit and enjoy the sight and sounds of a waterfall dropping from a height over a wall of rock. Sunlight filtered by the trees makes the water sparkle. Poking above the ground cover of dark leaf mould, the clusters of snowdrops beneath the still bare trees appear to be glowing.
But as the poet Henry Van Dyke said, ‘the first day of spring according to the calendar is one thing and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month’. This is usually true, but no matter. Even if the weather reverts to wintry we should keep in mind that spring is sure to follow.
Get out for even a short walk and your spirits will be lifted on seeing someone’s flower filled window boxes, or an array of flower pots set on an outside stair. In the West End of Glasgow, containers of vivid red and orange pansies with black centres are popular. Other plant pots are filled with mixtures of pale yellow, bright blue or shocking pink primulas.
As the days lengthen, Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens offer a succession of cheering carpets of gold and purple crocuses, followed by yellow daffodils that come each year in spite of the earlier wintry weather.
While the daffodils and cream coloured narcissi nod in the wind, red rhododendrons and white and red magnolia blossom add their own particular beauty to the displays. Sadly, a sharp shower of hailstones can cause their petals to fall all too soon. Yet after each April blast of wind and cold rain the tulips in the formal beds still stand tall, reaching for the sun.
By this time at Finlaystone Estate, the cherry trees, smothered in pink blossom, look their loveliest against the occasional deep blue of a spring time sky.
There’s still not much in bloom in the walled garden but it’s a pleasure to sit for a few minutes and watch the play of water falling into the pool of the fountain, newly switched on for the season.
In the aptly named Smelly Garden – now there’s an invitation to get close to the plantings - the rockery contains a few aubretia, the low masses of flowers adding daubs of mauve amongst the varied greens of other plants and greys of the rocks.
Further into the main garden, other interesting features include the low-lying bog area and the Celtic knot outlined with brickwork on the ground.
The bright yellow of Forsythia blossom and the brilliant red bract tips above the white flowers of Pieris Japonica look particularly stunning but arguably can’t compete with the walls of striking red rhododendrons which even this early in the season prove attractive to big fat bumble bees and elusive small birds.
From a path in another area of the garden, visitors can look over a grassy area planted with daffodils and through a gap in a wall of the same red rhododendrons. This view appears to continue seamlessly out over the River Clyde to the far shore and hills beyond - a landscape gardener’s technique that makes use of ‘borrowed landscape’.
Further along this path there’s a sunken garden bordered by a hedge trimmed to look like the battlements of a castle. Nearer the main house in a private part of the garden visitors can see the yew tree under which John Knox is said to have celebrated the first reformed communion in the west of Scotland in 1556.
I wonder if Mister Knox would have agreed with the American gardening author Ruth Stout who said, ‘I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden.’
First published in The People’s Friend
Minutes after docking at Stronachlachar Pier for passengers to disembark or come aboard, the steamship Sir Walter Scott, was again sailing serenely down Loch Katrine, completing the 16 miles round trip that starts at Trossachs Pier. Meanwhile, much less serenely, my wife and I were pedalling a mountain bike built for two along the traffic free road that runs along the north side of the loch.
We’d been acquainted with the tandem on Trossachs Pier about an hour earlier at the bicycle hire station. The mechanic had judged our leg lengths, made necessary adjustments to the bike, then watched with practised eye as we took a few tentative turns around the car park. He then allowed us away and we pushed the shiny blue machine up the gangplank of the SS Sir Walter Scott.
We found the boat busy with visitors from various countries. Safety announcements in English, French and German sounded before we set sail. Then, with bagpipe music playing softly in the background, we were on our way. Every few minutes a commentary over the loudspeakers described features of the passing scene. Tales were told of this pure water, source of Glasgow’s supply since 1859.
We heard about cattle rustlers, secretive whisky distillers and smugglers who once plied their trades in the surrounding hills.
As the steamer’s engines rumbled rhythmically, our passage rippled the calm loch. Small waves fleetingly disturbed the perfect reflections then died away. Mirrored images of larch trees and birch trees, gold-coloured in their autumn splendour, reformed in the ship’s wake.
The passengers were captivated. Through binoculars, some of them scanned the mist wreathed mountains. Cameras clicked on all sides.
We were informed that the Sir Walter Scott is driven by the original 3-cylinder triple expansion engine and has two locomotive–type boilers that have been converted to run on biofuel. She is the last of many such steamers that plied their trade on Scotland’s beautiful lochs.
She was built in 1900 at William Denny & Brothers, once a well - known shipbuilding firm on the River Clyde. The sections of the ship were prefabricated and bolted together at Dumbarton then dismantled and transported by barges up Loch Lomond to Inversnaid. From there they were taken overland by horse and cart to Stronachlachar. The ship was then reassembled - this time with rivets in place of bolts.
We left the ship at Stronachlachar Pier.
After a wobbly start, and having to get off the tandem when we met our first hill, we were now travelling in the same direction as the ship. We had never been on a tandem before, but as the cycling became easier, we began to relax, to enjoy that good-to-be-alive-feeling from breathing the fresh mountain air.
Leaves were falling as we passed through the woodland sheltering Glengyle House where Rob Roy MacGregor was born in 1671. It’s a beautiful spot. Loch Katrine shone like polished silver in front of the house.
Rob Roy grew up to become a respected farmer and cattle dealer but was involved in an unwise financial speculation in which he lost his own savings as well as money entrusted to him by the Duke of Montrose.
He was declared bankrupt and a warrant was taken out for his arrest. The cattle dealer became a cattle thief who also ran a protection racket. He was arrested more than once, but always managed to escape. Seen by some as a Robin Hood figure he died in his own home of old age, almost a national hero.
As we pedalled on, the air was full of birdsong. Perhaps the birds were rejoicing over an abundance of brilliant red rowan berries. Ferns were turning from green through yellow to russet near the roadsides. Against these autumnal colours, the small wild flowers still in bloom stood out like blue jewels. Fat, juicy blackberries begged to be picked.
There are easy stretches and some exciting downhill runs on this traffic free road skirting the north side of Loch Katrine. Where the hills are steep, we had no qualms about dismounting, taking time to marvel at the dramatic views.
Information boards along the route are good places to stop for a breather. From one of them, we learnt a little about the local wildlife and then attempted to discern where the roaring of a red deer stag might be coming from, far up the mountainside.
Further on, we stopped above a Clan Gregor’s cemetery on a man-made promontory extending out into the loch. Direct descendants of the MacGregors buried there have right of access to the graveyard to this day. After slogging up a particularly long incline we were glad to reach a popular picnic area. From this high point just off the road, we could see a few small islands poking out of the water, and away to the west, the peaks of distant hills.
Across the loch, surrounded by trees, Queen Victoria’s cottage looked like a doll’s house. With Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Family, Victoria stayed there on 15th October1859.During the day she had turned the silver handle which started a small hydraulic engine that primed the operation allowing the clean water of Loch Katrine to be pumped to the citizens of Glasgow 34 miles away.
Many famous people travelled here specifically to marvel at the beauty of Loch Katrine and the surrounding countryside. But it is Sir Walter Scott who is credited with starting the fashion for such visits, which were the beginnings of the tourism industry in Scotland.
His epic poem, ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was based on an older story and tells the tale of a young knight who, with his hounds, had been hunting a stag on these steep mountainsides. When his horse had an accident and died, the stranded knight was rescued by a young lady, the fair Ellen. In her boat, he rowed out across Loch Katrine to what is now known as Ellen’s Isle.
Today, at another viewpoint opposite Ellen’s Isle, there is a contraption known as a sound-store box. Turn the handle and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely voice singing ‘Ellen’s Third Song’, or ‘Ave Maria’, as it is better known. The music was composed by Franz Schubert, who was inspired by the words of Ellen’s prayer in Sir Walter Scott’s poem.
This is a popular trip with walkers and cyclists of all ages. But beware - if you haven’t been on a bike for twenty years, or in our case, on a tandem before - first consider the easy run from Trossachs Pier westwards. Of course, if you still don’t fancy all that sweaty effort, you could always stay on the boat for the return trip.
First published in The People’s Friend
Further Information: From Glasgow, a 60 minute drive along the A81 passes through pleasant rural countryside into the mountains of the Scottish Highlands. At Trossachs Pier there is an information centre, craft shop, bike or electric buggy hire and the Captain’s Rest restaurant.
Whisky has been made in Scotland for a very long time though the earliest written records date back only to 1494 when it was noted that Friar John Corr was commissioned to buy 8 bolls of malt (a quantity of grain) to make aqua vitae for King James 1V.
In those days, whisky making was very much a cottage industry. In wintertime, when sodden fields kept farmers off the land, they would turn to other work, making use of any excess barley, to produce Uisge Beatha, the so-called ‘water of life’.
When taxation was introduced by the Scottish Government in 1644 the whisky distillers were distraught but did pay up grudgingly. The tax system seems to have been fairly complicated with farmers being taxed at different rates – the size of the farm, or the size of the still on the farm determining how much money had to be paid.
That system lasted until 1707. On the 16th January in that momentous year Scotland signed the Treaty of Union.
By 1713, the power of government had moved from Edinburgh to London and when finance was needed to keep British soldiers fighting wars all over the world, it was decided the best way to do this was to raise the tax on Scotch whisky. However, taxes were raised too high and whisky makers refused to pay them.
As if this hardship was imposed only yesterday, the tour guides at Aberlour Whisky Distillery on Speyside tell groups of visitors, “at that(taxes being raised too high) we were driven into the hills, forcing us to make our whisky illegally!’’
There were many bloody battles in these hills between the gaugers, (customs and excise men) and the illicit distillers. It got so bad that the Red Coats, soldiers of the English Army were ordered to rid the hills of illicit stills, of which there were hundreds.
“But we fought back to save our amber nectar,” the guide relates as if he had been there, personally wielding a sword.
This battle raged on for over 100 years.
In 1822 King George 1V visited Edinburgh. He came dressed in full highland regalia – kilt and sporran with a Tam o’ Shanter bonnet on his head. He demanded Glenlivet whisky knowing full well that the output was illegal. Of course, this caused the Government great embarrassment – even though they knew where to find a supply.
“Everybody,’’ an observer noted, ‘‘including lords and lairds, members of parliament and ministers of the gospel, drink what is in reality, illicit whisky. It is far superior to that made under the eye of the Excise’’.
But now the matter was out in the open and everyone was aware of it. The Government now offered a reward to anyone who would give them information on the whereabouts of illicit stills. The reward offered was £5.00.
With this chance of easy money the illicit distillers would keep working on their product until their whisky stills had burnt out. When that happened, they would report the whereabouts of their burnt out still to the government officers and claim £5.00 reward. A government agent would come and inspect the burnt out evidence before handing over the money that enabled the distillers to buy new equipment and carry on making more whisky.
It wasn’t always so easy. The smugglers’ bothies (secreted dens) were dark, smoky, unhygienic places. Camouflaging a site was crucial as the work places had to be difficult to find. A story is told of how one smuggler was shocked at finding a local gamekeeper reclining on the heather topped roof of his still house! Another smuggler constructed his chimney in such a way so the issuing smoke blended with the spray of a nearby waterfall.
Great ingenuity was shown, not only in carrying out the various distilling processes, but in warning other whisky makers of the approach of the excisemen.
Even as late as 1904 it was written, ‘In Strathspey and neighbouring localities where a mutual bond of protection exists, it is the practice, when the exciseman is seen approaching, to display immediately from the house top, or a conspicuous eminence, a white sheet which, being seen by the people in the next ‘town’ or farm steading, would indicate a similar signal should be hoisted. Thus, the alarm passes rapidly up the glen. Before the officer can reach the transgressor of the law, everything will have been carefully removed and so well concealed that even when positive information has been given, it frequently happens that no trace of the work can be found.’
Because the actual still represented an expensive item of equipment, much trouble was taken to hide it when the distilling operations were completed. Some distillers would tie a cord and a float to their equipment then throw the lot into the waters of a nearby loch. Others would hide their equipment in the pulpit of the Kirk. For his help in this skulduggery the church officer would expect a good dram.
These nefarious activities were commonplace until the Duke of Gordon, owner of the Glenlivet Estate at the time and a powerful man in government circles, decided to do something about this illegal activity. He knew there were hundreds of men and women on his land making whisky illicitly, but he didn’t want to stop this work completely. Otherwise, how would his tenants be able to pay the rent he demanded?
The Duke went to the Government and made a case for his tenants for the reduction of their taxes. He also asked for a reduction in the cost of a licence and in the legal size of a still. At that time, the legal size of a still was 400 gallons.
After much deliberation, the cost of a licence was set at £10.00. The legal size of a still was reduced to 40 gallons and taxes were cut in half. This was a much more viable proposition. The bootleggers could now consider making their product legally. .
The Duke went back to his Glenlivet estate and tried to persuade his tenants that whisky making within the law was best.
The very first tenant the Duke managed to convince was a man called George Smith from Upper Drumin Farm. Mr. Smith was granted a licence to make whisky legally on 1st November 1824. He could now produce and sell his whisky openly. However, at the same time, to those yet to be convinced, he became the most hated man in the glen.
George Smith had a ready made customer base – King James 1V had made sure of that.
“The rest of us,” the guide at Aberlour Distillery will tell you, “kept on making our whisky by dead of night and we felt that George Smith was a threat to our livelihood!”
“So much so, we tried to get rid of him, to burn his premises down with George Smith inside.”
“On a number of occasions, we even tried to stop him as he delivered whisky to his customers.”
But Smith was made of stern stuff. With the help of a pair of pistols he had received from his great friend, the Laird of Aberlour, Smith used the weapons to great effect – not only to save his whisky still, but also his own skin.
As Smith began to prosper, more and more of the illicit distillers came to realise he had made the right decision. Eventually they began to make the trip to Elgin and pay for this new licence which allowed them to produce whisky legally.
By the 1840’s, it was believed there were no illicit stills left in the glens. Whisky was still sold in casks holding eight and a half imperial gallons and as yet there was no bottling. When the bottling process did appear in the 1850’s, George Smith took an interest. His agent, Andrew Usher from Edinburgh, was the first to brand and bottle Old Vatted Glenlivet.
This was the beginnings of the huge Scottish whisky industry that reaches round the world today.
Glenlivet lies between the Ladder and Cromdale Hills in the Cairngorm National Park in North East Scotland. Nowhere in Glenlivet is lower than 600 feet and winter snows can last into the spring. The estate is managed to provide opportunities for sustained employment in agriculture, farming, sporting and tourism.
As part of the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in May, there are a number of guided walks. One of the walks follows tracks taken by the whisky smugglers who made their way with their precious cargo, perhaps being harassed by excise men, to customers as far away as Edinburgh or Aberdeen.
Wildlife watching from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle also gives an insight into the lives of the whisky smugglers. An estate tour guide will drive to the best places where visitors may spot roe deer, red deer, brown hares, red and black grouse as well as smaller birds. These creatures were a necessary food source for the smugglers.
Knowledge of grasses and other plants, such as heather, was also important. As well as camouflage, heather could be made into ropes or a belt to sling a couple of small kegs of whisky over each side of a pack horse.
Close up, smuggling was hardly a romantic lifestyle. It was more of a necessity, as was the ability to make use of whatever materials were available.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
Sestri Levante in Liguria in north-west Italy is a coastal town on the lyrically named Riviera di Levante. An especially lovely part of the town overlooks the curve of the Bay of Silence where moored yachts and work boats of a few fishermen add to the picture postcard seascape.
A relaxing way to reach this corner of Italy is to go by train. Two hours after leaving London St. Pancras you can be stepping down from a Eurostar onto a platform at Gare du Nord, Paris. An overnight stay, or even better, a few days exploring Paris might be a delightful option before continuing your journey.
From Gare du Nord it takes only a few minutes by Metro, the city’s extensive underground train system to reach Gare de Lyon and a train bound for Venice. On any train journey there may be a few anxious moments on boarding and getting settled but on this long distance train the seating is comfortable with plenty of leg room, individual reading lights and a table.
From Gare de Lyon, the train crosses an expanse of rural France where fields of flat farmland appear to stretch for miles before meeting distant uplands. Further south in Switzerland the train passes through tunnels and alongside lakes and grey green rivers. On the terraced slopes of nearby hillsides, precisely spaced rows of vines grow in every available space. In the background, jagged mountain peaks pierce the sky.
Our first stopover was in Geneva, Switzerland. When we arrived in the late afternoon it was already growing dark so we didn’t manage to see a whole lot of the city. But while exploring quiet streets near the Hotel Edelweiss where we stayed overnight, we came across a busy restaurant serving typical Swiss dishes including fondue and local wines. It proved to be a good choice.
From Geneva we travelled to Milan where we changed trains again, this time within the same station before heading to Sestri Levante.
In late autumn, at the end of the main tourist season, Sestri Levante is pleasantly quiet with a restrained air of confidence. The town offers a choice of stylish hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, upmarket shops and hard - to - resist gelaterias selling variously flavoured ice creams.
With one of those ice creams to hand, it’s a delight to join the passaggiata, the early evening procession, as dog walkers, pram pushers, strollers dressed to be seen and those on mobility scooters or in wheelchairs make their way slowly along Via Roma.
In the restaurants, fish and sea food dishes including lightly battered anchovies, sea bass, hake and octopus are some of the specialities on the menus. If pasta appeals there’s plenty of choice especially as Liguria is known for its varieties of pasta and for being the home of pesto sauce made with locally grown basil, believed to be particularly pungent and flavoursome due to the area’s combination of salty air and sunshine.
While some visitors may not stray far from the beach loungers placed a few metres away from the gently breaking waves of the Bay of Silence, thousands of others head further south to the Cinque Terre, to explore the five colourful villages - Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore that sit dramatically on cliffs above the deep blue sea.
Not so long ago, these villages were emptying. Young people were moving out in search of further education and employment opportunities but now year round tourism keeps each village busy. They can be reached by road though a less stressful option might be to arrive aboard one of the ferry boats which leave from Sestri Levante and from other towns further down the coast.
Walking the coastal path between the villages is popular and though guide books suggest the14km will take between 2.5 and 5 hours, it is a strenuous walk in places and for many people of a certain age would not be a mere stroll in the park.
The Cinque Terre was hit by a flash flood on 25th October 2011which caused a lot of damage. In mid-October 2017, the coastal path was closed between, Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia due to landslides. However, should these parts of the path be closed long term, it is well worth taking the train to Riomaggiore, exploring the village and the coastal path as far as the National Park safety barriers allow, then heading north on a train to Manarola to spend some time there.
For our next day of walking the coastal path, we took a train from Sestri Lavante to Corniglia. From the station, it’s a stroll along the pavement before starting up the zigzag staircase of 382 steps, the ladarina, which leads walkers on to the coastal path to Vernazza. Along the way there are other similarly steep sections though thankfully with fewer steps. Other lengths of the path have been paved with flat rocks while on some corners, larger, rougher rock serves as steps between levels.
On one side the terraces are contained behind dry stone walls that were built and repaired over centuries. On the seaward side there are wooden railings in place where the path runs along particularly precipitous parts of the hillside sloping down to the sea.
Over the years as people moved away from the area, these terraces were farmed less and soil erosion and landslides added to the environmental damage. However, in 1997 this area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been given further protection through its National Park status. Behind the miles of dry stone walls there are rows of productive vines and groves of lemon and olive trees. To help the full time workers, a small army of volunteers from many parts of the world are given the opportunity to help in the maintenance of this beautiful land.
From many points on the path the views of the colourful villages, out to sea and along the coast, are stunning and vast. In the villages, the narrow lanes and squares appear timeless though a few premises now house shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. When conditions are fine, sunbathers and swimmers head down to the shore to enjoy the sea and sunshine.
With hindsight, should we visit the Cinque Terre again, we would walk just one section per day, say, between Corniglia and Vernazza and allow ourselves more time to stand, stare, and find the perfect spot where we would sit in the shade with a picnic.
On heading home on the train journey north we stopped off in Turin. As darkness fell, we joined the crowds mingling in the impressive city centre squares lit with coloured light. Large numbers of people, out for the evening, strolled by the attractive shops along the length of the covered passageways. Other groups watched the proficient buskers playing music ranging in style from pop to classical. Having enjoyed our short time in Turin, we would definitely like to visit the city again.
This trip by train was a relaxed affair allowing us to people watch and enjoy the passing scenery and ways of different countries. Definitely recommended.
Further information: Ferries sail between Siestri Levante and the 5 villages between April and mid-October
There is a ticketing system allowing walkers access to the coastal path and other parts of the National Park.
Railbookers.com organised our train travel and hotel bookings.