From its eminent position on a foundation of ancient volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle’s massive, fortified doors open onto a flat parade ground known as the Esplanade. This square is always busy. Many visitors head for the Castle during the day. Others arrive for evening concerts or the displays of precision drills and musical skills at the annual Military Tattoo.
After the Esplanade, the Royal Mile slopes gradually downwards with a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways falling away to either side. These alleyways or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’ running through and between properties have long witnessed the day-to-day lives of people in the densely populated tenements.
On either side of the road, other well- known landmarks including St. Giles Cathedral and John Knox’s House have also known the mundane as well as occasional sensational events down through the years. You can almost sense the history in the old stones.
At the bottom of the hill, the Royal Mile continues into Abbey Strand and stops at the impressive gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse , residence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth when she is on official business in Scotland.
A few yards back from the gate, where the modern tarmac meets the old cobblestones there’s a large brass S fixed into the road. This letter marks the place where there was once a prominent painted line. Creditors were not allowed to cross this line. For those in debt who owed money, getting across that line meant they had reached safety, a place affording sanctuary!
Just as today, there were always lots of people in debt. To provide for their needs, a number of establishments offering accommodation with booths selling food and drink sprang up in the area. The few buildings of Abbey Strand are all that remain from the time.
If the Queen is in residence, the Scottish variant of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom will be fluttering on a flagpole above the Palace rooftop and the place will be closed to the public. However, if a flag bearing the Royal Standard of Scotland is showing, visitors are welcome to visit the Palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the gardens.
Away from the crowds on the Royal Mile the gardens are a haven of peace for much of the time, though down the ages, long before these acres were so lovingly tended, this was a backdrop for many moments of high drama.
Such a moment happened on a day in 1127 when King David 1 of Scotland was out hunting. At that time, a forest covered the land. When his horse was startled by a deer stag, the king was thrown to the ground. According to one variation of the legend, as the stag charged, he saved himself from being gored by grabbing the beast by the horns. Just then, the king saw a holy cross descending from the skies and the stag reared away.
As an act of thanksgiving for his escape, David 1 founded Holyrood Abbey on the site in 1128. ‘Rood’ is an old name for a crucifix or Christian cross. Augustinian monks were gifted the Abbey with rights to work the land, to pasturage and to draw rents from the villages within their bounds. For his endowment, King David expected prayers for the protection of his kingdom, his government and his hoped for heavenly salvation.
During the 15th century the Abbey guest house was developed into a royal residence until James 4th constructed a Royal Palace adjacent to the Abbey cloister a few years later.
There’s very little known about the garden around this time, but it’s been written that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -1587) did enjoy games of real tennis (a bit like the game of squash). She also enjoyed archery for which she wore a velvet glove. She also played croquet, golf and liked hawking.
It was Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who had the garden laid out much as we find it today. He was also responsible for getting rid of most of the untidy buildings that grew up nearby to provide shelter for sanctuary-seeking debtors. On occasions their numbers could reach 6500, including members of the aristocracy, fleeing from creditors.
The wide garden path beginning near the ruins of the Abbey leads alongside deep borders studded with mature trees, backed by hedges and a wall on one side. The first notable piece of sculpture is a stone sundial carved by John Mylne in 1633 to commemorate Charles 1’s Coronation in the Abbey. It carries the insignia of Charles 1 and his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots.
As we follow the path round a corner, the next stone sculpture to come into view is a much weathered, slightly hunched fiddle player. Supposedly, Queen Victoria didn’t like this particular figure and it has been moved within the garden a few times.
It’s not long before we turn the next corner and are facing south. Now the views over the large area of grass are expansive and lead over mature trees to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This is Edinburgh’s very small mountain, the remains of another volcanic plug surrounded by wild land. It’s a popular walk, minutes from the centre of town.
To the east, the lawn appears to stretch for a vast distance over flat parkland to distant houses. This deception has been created by an effect known as a ha-ha. Here the grass reaches up a gradual incline to end on top of the unseen high boundary wall.
We’re now passing the foundations of what were once monastic buildings on one side and the ruined Abbey on the other. The Abbey was a magnificent building, worked on by craftsmen from abroad. Inside it was richly painted and furnished. Now the walls are open to the sky.
Near the ancient sunken foundations of other monastic buildings there is a grass covered mound that was once a source of intrigue. Could it be concealing some dark secret? However, on investigation, the lump proved only to be hiding an old kitchen ‘midden’. Now it serves as a podium for the conductor whenever a band plays here during receptions.
Every year, usually in early July, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh host a garden party on the grassed area. They arrive from a room at the back of the Palace and come down a red carpeted flight of steps in the corner where the ruined Abbey is joined on to the Palace.
Over the course of the afternoon, many of the 8000 guests will take the chance to admire the gardens, brought to their best for this particular occasion by a team of up to 14 gardeners.
Some of the guests will be presented to The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Royal couple proceed down an avenue formed by the Queen’s Royal Company of Archers- the Sovereign’s ‘Body Guard’ in Scotland. When they are not practicing their archery skills in the garden, they add an extra dash of colour to ceremonial occasions.
Over hundreds of years there have been many changes worked in the gardens. The mulberry sapling that was recently planted for Charles, Duke of Rothesay appears to be thriving. When King James 1 of England and 6th of Scotland had 10,000 mulberry trees imported, they didn’t grow so well. They were the wrong variety. His hopes of creating a silk industry came to nothing.
It may be helpful to know that even in a Royal garden things don’t always go as planned.
We may not all be invited to the garden party but a visit is always a delight.
First published in The People’s Friend
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